More stay-at-home mothers have gone back into employment in the past two years than in the previous 15 combined, an official study suggests, in the wake of controversial Government reforms blamed for undermining traditional families.
Almost 200,000 women in two-parent families with dependent children have re-entered the workplace since 2011 compared with 185,000 who went back to work between 1996 and 2011.
The increase – the sharpest in a generation – comes on the back of changes to child benefit which saw the Government accused of forcing middle-class stay-at-home mothers back into employment and the failure to implement tax breaks for married couples.
Campaign groups who support the right of parents to care for their children at home said the figures effectively destroyed David Cameron’s promise that he would lead Britain’s “most family friendly Government” ever.
They said it bore out fears that the Coalition policy was driven by an “agenda” which sought to “separate mothers from their young children”.
A study published by the Office for National Statistics shows that the number of working mothers has soared to record levels with large majorities even of those with young children now going out to work.
It shows that the total number of women with dependent children in the workplace has leapt by almost a fifth since the mid 1990s, when comparable records were first kept.
Overall the number of working mothers is up by almost 800,000 to 5.3 million since 1996.
The number of married or cohabiting mothers in the workplace, has jumped from 3.8 million to 4.2 million since 1996 – an increase of 384,000, with the majority returning to work under the Coalition.
Laura Perrins, a former barrister who is a leading figure in the campaign group Mothers at Home Matter, said: “I would say the Government have absolutely failed to be in any way family friendly.
“They don’t seem to understand what family friendly means – they think it basically means separating mothers from their young children.
“The Coalition are more interested in ideology and the gender politics of getting more mothers back into work than being family friendly.
“They have dedicated themselves to separating mothers from their young children. The needs of children are completely ignored.
“One of the reasons why things have got to where they are now has got to be the loss of child benefit – for many families that loss has got to be made up somewhere.
“We have always said that there was more at work than getting the deficit under control, this has been very agenda driven, it is about getting mothers back to the workplace, probably to increase GDP.”
Justine Roberts, founder of the website Mumsnet, said: “We do know that people are feeling more and more squeezed so in that sense it could be there is a feeling that either you can’t afford to stay out of the workplace because of the effect on their future prospects or just simply that you need to go out and earn more money.”
But she said that the cost of childcare and the state of the job market in recent years were having the opposite effect on other women – with some who would like to go back to work deciding it is not worth their while to do so.
While there have been big increases in single mothers going out to work, after initiatives by successive governments aimed at tackling child poverty, the number of mothers who are married or in a long-term relationship in the workplace has also jumped by almost 10 per cent in that time.
Overall 72 per cent of married mothers now work, up from 67 per cent in the 1990s.
Crucially, the biggest increase among the group has been in the last two years alone when 199,000 more mothers who are either married or in a stable long-term relationship entered the workplace. In the previous 15 year, the figure rose by only 185,000.
The study, which charts changes in the labour market over the last 40 years, also highlights how women who do re-enter the workplace are having to settle for lower wages and lower status than their male counterparts.
The study charts a dramatic transformation in the make-up of the British workforce since the early 1970s, a period which have seen a raft of legislation ensuring equal pay and equal rights, benefits changes and changing attitudes.
It shows that the proportion of men of working age in employment has fallen from 92 per cent in 1971 to 76 per cent this year.
At the same time the proportion of working-age women with jobs has jumped from 53 per cent to 67 per cent – although the majority of the increase came in the 1970s and 1980s.
Yet while the growth of women in the workplace has slowed in the last two decades the number of working mothers has continued to rise dramatically.
The study showed that two thirds of married British mothers with dependent children under the age of three are now working.
The report follows a bruising period for David Cameron’s family policy which, according to a polling study earlier this month, threatens to cost the Conservatives the next election.
Tory backbenchers have been bitterly disappointed by the failure so far to honour a pre-election promise to recognise marriage in the tax system.
There was also anger when the Coalition scrapped child benefit for many middle class households in which anyone is a higher-rate tax payer, even if they are the only earner.
The change, announced in 2010 and which came into force this year, infuriated many stay-at-home mothers who accused the Government of effectively forcing them back to work and someone else to look after their children.
The recent surge in mothers entering the workplace corresponds with the period since the Chancellor, George Osborne, announced the child benefit changes.
There was also anger this year after the Coalition unveiled plans to exclude parents who do not work from new state-funded childcare support.
When Mr Osborne was then accused of patronising women when he spoke out to defend the policy, describing mothers who stay at home to look after their children as making a “lifestyle choice”.