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Deepening Inequality in the Crisis – How The Tories Have Failed Women, by Kate Osborne MP. #COVID19UK

“Despite the devastating impact, women have been neither seen nor heard by the government during the pandemic.”

Kate Osborne MP.

Kate Osborne MP writes on the Women and Equalities Committee (WEC) Unequal impact? Coronavirus and the gendered economic impact report.

From the start of this pandemic it has been clear to many of us that women, LGBT+, BAME, disabled and the working class are all disproportionality affected by COVID-19.

In Parliament, I sit on the Women and Equalities Committee (WEC) Select Committee, a cross-party committee of MPs appointed to scrutinise the Government on equalities. Last week our recent inquiry titled Unequal impact? Coronavirus and the gendered economic impact found that the government has repeatedly ignored the specific needs of women in its policy responses to the pandemic.

The report highlighted the government’s support schemes such as JRS and SEISS overlooked the existing inequalities women faced in the labour market and that they have taken on the majority of home-schooling and childcare, regardless of whether they are in paid employment or not.

The report also highlighted how the government’s priorities for recovery were “heavily gendered in nature”, with investment schemes to help the economy in the wake of the Covid crisis “skewing” towards industries which are heavily dominated by men. It has long been clear that more must be done to tackle gender inequalities in representation and career progression in male-dominated sectors – it is now more essential than ever that the government act on the findings of this report so that women do not lose out in the recovery.

The WEC made several practical recommendations to enable this such as the creation of Government funded training schemes specifically aimed at women in the Digital, AI, and the Green Economy through its Kickstart, New Training Fund and Restart programmes.

These are all recommendations that the government must take seriously when we know that women are over-represented in industries worst hit by lockdown measures such as retail, hospitality, tourism, the arts and the beauty sector. Many of the women working in these industries have been forgotten and many have or will lose their job in the months to come.

It has been the case that retail, hospitality, beauty salons and hairdressing were the first to close because of the virus and will be the last to open. These seemingly forgotten industries significantly contribute to the economy, especially in the Jarrow constituency that I represent in the North East.

Women are not only over-represented in areas worst hit by the lockdown measures; they are also are more likely to be key workers: research from the Institute of Fiscal studies has shown that around 60% of key workers are women. This makes it even more damming when you consider that during the pandemic many working mothers who are contributing to the fight against covid have had to cut their hours or be forced to leave their jobs, because they were unable to manage. Data from the Office for National Statistics has shown that the average hours worked per work by women in my region, the North East, fell by 2.7 hours this year, the largest reduction in the UK.

The government has both ignored and exacerbated pre-existing inequalities women face – the government must begin to bring women around the table when they are creating policy. Because despite the devastating economic impact, women have been neither seen nor heard by the government during the pandemic. It is a shocking indictment that we have only had a handful of female cabinet members fronting the daily briefings. There is a shocking absence of women at the top.

The WEC report also highlighted the long-standing disproportionate inequalities that women face when navigating the benefit system.

In terms of Universal Credit, the government must announce whether it will extend its £20 per month uplift to Universal Credit  – this affects women massively – how can you budget if you do not know how much money you will have week to week? Women need to know if the £20 is going to continue. It is so unhelpful and irresponsible of the government not to tell people yet. There should also be a £20 uplift on other legacy benefits.

We know that 90% of single parents are women and that there has been a failure amongst policy makers to recognise that benefit conditionality will inevitably impact women more negatively than men. It is essential that appropriate and clear guidance is given to Jobcentre Plus work coaches, given that even pre-pandemic research found that mothers subject to Universal Credit conditionality felt that their caring responsibilities were disregarded.

The WEC report showed evidence of potentially unlawful and discriminatory practices towards pregnant women and those on maternity leave during the pandemic – this comes at a time when the government have just last week passed legislation that gives 114 ministers and shadow ministers guaranteed paid maternity leave. Any such legislation would normally be welcome but this creates a two tiered system that falls short of giving allowances for other parliamentarians and comes at a time when so many women have been finished or put on furlough when becoming pregnant during pandemic. Once again, the government must take note of the WEC report as it urges the Government to introduce legislation in this Parliamentary session to extend redundancy protection to pregnant women and new mothers.

Finally, Covid-19 is prompting a culture shift with more people than ever before working flexibly, and the government must harness that as we recover –  they should take the opportunity to capitalise on some of those cultural changes that have happened to make it easier for people balancing family and career to work from home. We have seen that work can be more flexible and it has challenged the culture of presenteeism, which has been very alive in business and has also been very alive in politics.

Since the report was published, I have heard that Government ministers are ‘looking at it in the rounds’ which suggests to me that they are really not looking at it at all – this sort of lip service to such a report is just not good enough – the government must start actively analysing the equality impact of every policy and bring women in to the top table to shape those polices.

The 20 recommendations laid out in the WEC report are an opportunity for change. Taken seriously and practically applied, they will go a long way towards tackling these long-standing problems and creating the more equal future that we as socialists want to see.

  • Kate Osborne MP is one of a number of monthly columnists for Labour Outlook from the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs.

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