There's a general consensus that those who can should work. The Protestant work ethic strongly influences our attitudes, and although we make allowances for the elderly, the infirm and those caring for young children, we expect responsible people to work and pay their taxes. Non-workers such as poor single mothers, the young unemployed and asylum-seekers come in for vitriolic criticism and are often characterised as somehow morally lax because of their perceived refusal to join the world of work.
By contrast, there is one group of able-bodied unemployed that have chosen unemployment as a lifestyle option and, far from facing censure, are regarded by some as positively virtuous. They are the non-working wives whose raison d'etre is to make life easier for the breadwinner by organising home, family and social life. Although in our modern society there are an increasing number of dependent husbands, it is in the main wives who opt for, or who are pressured into, the role of dependant.
I am talking about the ladies who lunch, for whom aromatherapy, Nigella Lawson recipes or the Harvey Nick's sale are topics of hot debate, and for whom a little charitable fundraising constitutes work. Many of these WAGs may be intelligent, resourceful and delightful company, but it is their selfish economic status that grates.
I remember being told by one such career wife, who was vaguely considering looking for a job, that she had decided to delay doing so until she had arranged the family holiday. Another full-time 'homemaker' - as she described herself - whose children had long since left school, found herself in a minority of one at a recent all-women gathering. Laughing defensively, she insisted her role also involved 'managing the local black economy' - meaning that she organised an informal network of cleaners, plumbers and builders for her friends and neighbours.
A number of my girlfriends who work hard for a living and juggle the demands of work and home often joke that they wish they had such a wife, for they compete at work with men who do - men whose domestic and social lives are managed for them, leaving them free to devote all their energies to the business of business. No wonder they earn at least 20% more than their female counterparts, climb to the very top of the greasy pole and, when they get there, look askance at such concepts as flexible working or extended maternity leave. It's just not their problem.
In fact, it would be fascinating to find out how many FTSE-100 CEOs have non-working wives - it can seem that British boardrooms are full of men who, deep in the heart of their bottoms, believe that a woman's place is somewhere else. It is sometimes hard not to feel a little irritated by the women who, through their compliance, help to perpetuate stereotypical beliefs - such as those of one of my ex-colleagues who, when I enquired what his wife did, looked at me with sympathy mixed with pride, and said: 'My wife doesn't need to work.'
With the black cloud of compulsory redundancy looming for many, it may not be the best time to focus on this particular class of the unemployed, who are perhaps less deserving of sympathy even than bankers. But there are good reasons to give serious consideration to these economically inactive spouses. We should at least try to assess the cost to society of the voluntary withholding of their labour, and their contribution to a continuing unfairness in the workplace.
First, we could consider the cost of a wasted education and of the investment that has been made in their human capital. Of course, education should have as its main function the development and fulfilment of the individual, but surely there's an obligation on us all to make a contribution to the economic wellbeing of our society and not just the domestic comfort of one man. Does the role of housewife really justify a costly education at the state's expense? Should there not be some mechanism by which we can recoup this loss?
These non-working spouses may not claim state benefits, but they don't pay taxes either, despite enjoying the bene- fits of a safe, secure society - which tax revenues provide. It might be an interesting exercise to assess just how much the Exchequer is losing in this way. Far from reinstating the married man's allowance, as proposed by some on the political right as a means of encouraging marriage, it might be a better idea to increase the tax obligations of those couples where the wife/husband has no acceptable reason, such as the care of children under 11, not to make themselves available for work.
A 2007 US study suggested that it would cost a man $138,000 a year to pay for the work done for free by a non-working wife. Apart from the fact that the expenditure withheld might otherwise provide business for service industries such as laundries, restaurants and cleaners and thus a stimulus to the whole economy, this free ride gives him a tangible advantage in the workplace. And recent decisions of our divorce courts point up the price that some men ultimately have to pay for the trophy wife.
On the other hand, in most cases, divorce does not favour the non-working wife. In the UK, more than a fifth of divorced women will die in poverty if they have never worked. With 50% of marriages ending in divorce, being a non-working wife is a high-risk occupation. But as everyone knows, there is no such thing as a free lunch, for either gender.
Baroness Kingsmill CBE has been a non-executive director of plc, private, charitable, arts and government boards. She is a non-executive director of British Airways.