I was glad to hear that the government is making £300m available to help parents on low incomes who work for less than 16 hours a week. Not nearly enough of course, and arguably those who work for a few hours are less in need of it than those who work full time. This is what occurred to me when I attended the 20th anniversary celebrations of the Association of Women Barristers, held in the Lords a few days ago, just after the official opening of the legal year. It was hosted by Baroness Hale, the first and so far the only woman judge of the Supreme Court. It was also attended by Baroness (Elizabeth) Butler-Sloss, former President of the Family Division; Baroness (Patricia) Scotland QC, former Attorney-General; Lady Justice Arden of the Court of Appeal and many other women judges. This represents a tremendous advance for women lawyers over 20 years. (There is also an Association of Women Judges.) The Solicitor General and the Chairman of the Bar Council came back from the party conference in Manchester to attend the dinner. There was much reminiscence about how it used to be for women lawyers – their voices were regarded as too soft to enable them to become barristers and therefore they should only practise as solicitors; they should stick to family law; they should not wear boots and trousers, and so on. All very quaint it seems now, especially since more than half the new entrants to the profession are women.
The problem lies in retention. After some years in this demanding career, for some the dilemma of balancing very long working hours and a young family is too great. The need for childcare provision in the Courts and Temple area of London is documented and overwhelming. The Foreign Office has a nursery – why can’t the Inns? 64% of the lawyers in the government legal service are women, perhaps because the hours are more manageable. Time for a tax break on childcare too. When a man takes up a senior job he is provided with a secretary. Childcare is as essential to a working mother as secretarial help to a man. P.S. I am ready for a deluge of comments from full time mothers, to whom I say: 1. Women must use their hard-earned education. 2. Many families cannot afford to have one parent stay at home as a non-earner. 3. Don’t undermine those women who want to or have to work. 4. Divorced women and single parents need help.