UK's COVID-19 response makes 'existing gender equality problems worse'

Lucy Harley-McKeown
·3-min read
Conservative MP Caroline Nokes. Photo: Isabel Infantes/AFP via Getty
Conservative MP Caroline Nokes. Photo: Isabel Infantes/AFP via Getty

The coronavirus crisis and the government’s response to it has exacerbated existing problems in gender equality, a new report by the UK Women and Equalities Committee has found.

This is due to existing gendered economic inequalities, the over-representation of women in certain types of work, and because of actions the government has taken, the report said.

The committee, a selection of cross-bench of MPs, launched this inquiry to find out how and why inequalities between genders were widening, and to focus on what could be done to sustain and improve equality.

The document, published on Tuesday, says that the government must assess equality impact of every policy or “risk turning the clock back.”

Committee chair Caroline Nokes said that despite the economic support the government afforded to millions, labour market and caring inequalities faced by women had been overlooked.

“These are not a mystery, they are specific and well understood. And yet the government has repeatedly failed to consider them,” she said, warning against omission in future plans for economic recovery.

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The report sets out a programme of 20 recommendations for change, among other things, calling on the government to conduct an Equality Impact Assessment of schemes to support employees and the self-employed such as the the furlough scheme and the Self Employed Income Support scheme.

This would better protect those already at a disadvantage in the labour market, including women, and could inform more effective responses to future crises, it says.

It also recommends an economic growth assessment of the care-led recovery proposals made by the Women’s Budget Group in the Treasury.

It recommends maintaining the hotly-debated £20 universal credit (UC) uplift — a measure backed by many charities and think tanks, alongside reviewing eligibility for statutory sick pay. Women are over-represented among those who are not eligible, it says.

It backs calls for legislation to extend redundancy protection to pregnant women and new mothers.

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It also calls for the government to provide better data to improve reporting and analysis for on how, for example, gender, ethnicity, disability, age and socio-economic status interact to compound disadvantage.

New measures for reinstating gender pay gap reporting is also among the list of recommendations.

“We need to see more than good intentions and hoping for the best,” said Nokes. “The government must start actively analysing and assessing the equality impact of every policy, or it risks turning the clock back.”

The report follows new research released by The Resolution Foundation at the weekend that suggests inequality is growing in other areas too.

Almost a third of people who began claiming UC following the start of the pandemic in the UK in 2020 have seen existing debt grow or have acquired new ones, it said.

It also found that a third of new UC families had no savings at all before the crisis hit.

WATC: Gender equality in 2020: Milestones from around the world