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Government must assess the equality impact of every policy or risk turning the clock back

There is a strong case for more investment in the care sector, especially childcare, writes Caroline Nokes MP. | PA Images

5 min read

The government’s passive approach to gender equality is not enough. The Equalities Office needs to be more proactive in embedding equalities across government.

The economic impact of coronavirus has affected men and women differently: because of existing gendered economic inequalities, the over-representation of women in certain types of work, and because of actions the government has taken. The Committee launched this inquiry to find out how and why, and to focus on what could be done to sustain and improve equality.

The message from our evidence is overwhelmingly clear: government policies have repeatedly skewed towards men – and it keeps happening.

Of course, the government had to act swiftly when the pandemic struck, and the circumstances were unprecedented. Its actions to protect jobs and adapt welfare benefits have provided a vital safety net for millions of people.

But it overlooked the labour market and caring inequalities faced by women. These are not a mystery. They are specific, they are well understood, and widely discussed. And yet the government has repeatedly failed to consider them. This passive approach to gender equality just doesn’t work. And for many women it has made existing equality problems worse: in the support to self-employed people, to pregnant women and new mothers, to the professional childcare sector, and for women claiming benefits. And now it risks doing the same in its plans for economic recovery.

Our report makes 20 key recommendations for change, in all of these areas. Most importantly, the Government must consistently conduct Equality Impact Assessments.

It should start with assessing schemes to support employees and the self-employed: the furlough scheme and the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme, drawing on existing inequalities. This would better protect those already at a disadvantage in the labour market – not just women – and would inform more effective responses to future crises.

It should look to the future and assess the equality impact of the Industrial Strategy and the New Deal, and analyse who has benefited from the industrial strategy to date. Priorities for recovery are heavily gendered in nature, with investment plans skewing towards male dominated sectors.

The government’s focus is very much on “build, build, build” – shovel-ready projects where women are less likely to be employed. Of course, we need to see women in these sectors and in STEM, but we’re not there yet. In the short term, we need to deal with loss of jobs in retail and hospitality.

As well as tougher legislation, we need a cross-department strategy for dealing with pregnancy and maternity discrimination

There is a strong case for more investment in the care sector, especially childcare. 42% of families have dependent children, and affordable, reliable childcare is essential for caregivers in these families to be able to work effectively.

Lack of childcare is also a major barrier to opportunities for adult learning and retraining.  We heard evidence from the Women’s Budget group that a recovery plan led by greater investment in the care sector would potentially create 2 million jobs – and would create more additional jobs for men than investing in the construction sector. The Treasury should conduct an economic growth assessment of these proposals.

We need to reform welfare benefits. Increases in support must be maintained, including the £20 uplift to Universal Credit and a review of Statutory Sick Pay where currently women are over-represented among those who are not eligible.

We need stronger legislation to protect pregnant women and new mothers from discrimination.

We heard evidence that 15% of mothers either had been, or were expecting to be made redundant during the pandemic; along with 10% of pregnant women and 11% on maternity leave. The EHRC had evidence of pregnant women or those on maternity leave being forced to take unpaid leave, or start maternity leave early, being placed on sick leave rather than furloughed, and working without proper HS assessments.

As well as tougher legislation, we need a cross-department strategy for dealing with pregnancy and maternity discrimination.

The childcare sector relies on a mixture of public and private funding and was already suffering from chronic underinvestment, with the IFS estimating that pre-pandemic, 11% of private nurseries and 34% of childminders were in significant financial deficit. The professional early years childcare workforce is predominantly young, female and low paid. 96% of staff are women, 40% under 30, 13% earned less than £5.00 per hour.

We urgently need a clear early years strategy, to ensure that childcare provision is available not only for working parents but those who are job seeking or retraining. The government should review this, and consider the feasibility of extending free childcare provision for children under 3.

Finally, the government’s passive approach is not enough. The Equalities Office needs to be more proactive in embedding equalities across government. And we need much, much better data, disaggregated by sex and other protected characteristics in a way that facilitates reporting and analysis on how, for example, gender, ethnicity, age, disability and socio-economic status interact to compound disadvantage. Bringing back gender pay gap reporting would be a good start.

We need more than good intentions and hoping for the best. The government must start actively analysing and assessing the equality impact of every policy, or it risks turning the clock back. Taken together, these recommendations will go a long way towards tackling the problems and creating a more equal future that so many women – and men – want to see.

The government should seize this opportunity.


Caroline Nokes is the Conservative MP for Romsey and Southampton North and chair of the women and equalities committee.

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