Departments should be required to conduct equality assessments for all new policies following lessons learned from the coronavirus pandemic, with the Government Equalities Office taking a “more proactive role” in policy development, MPs have said.
A new report from members of parliament’s Women and Equalities Select Committee says key government policy responses to Covid-19 “ignored and sometimes exacerbated” existing gender inequalities in a way that has to be remedied for the future.
MPs acknowledged that the government “acted at considerable speed” in designing the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme – also known as the furlough scheme – and the Self Employment Income Support Scheme. But they said the design of the schemes overlooked “specific and well-understood labour market and caring issues faced by women”, demonstrating the importance of equality analysis.
They called on the Treasury to publish Equality Impact Assessments for both support schemes alongside its response to the report to help those already at a disadvantage in the labour market, and inform more effective responses to future crises.
The committee's report also recommended that all departments be required to collect and publish data disaggregated by sex and protected characteristics in a way that allows for analysis of ways gender, ethnicity, disability, age and socio-economic status interact – and can compound disadvantage.
Additionally, MPs said they were worried to hear the minister for equalities, who is Kemi Badenoch, “repeatedly refer to considering the effects of policies ‘in the round’ in response to questions about the gendered impact of the government’s policies”.
“We are deeply concerned that a GEO minister should appear dismissive of the imperative to consider the effects of policies on those with protected characteristics under the Equality Act,” they said.
They said the GEO had to take a “more proactive role” in mainstreaming gender equality in policy development across all government departments.
“We urge the GEO and the minister for women and equalities to be much more ambitious in co-ordinating equalities strategies and holding departments to account on equalities," MPs said.
“The GEO’s strategy plan for 2020–2021 must reflect these proactive policy development priorities and demonstrate clear key performance indicators for achieving them.”
As well as demanding that the Treasury publishes its impact assessments for the furlough and SEISS packages, MPs expressed concerns that the government’s plans for economic recovery were “heavily gendered in nature”.
They said the Treasury should provide Equality Impact Assessments for the Industrial Strategy and government's pledged 'New Deal for Britain'. MPs said the assessments should include gender beneficiary assessments of investments from the Industrial Strategy to date, including receipts of grants, gender occupational composition of companies operating infrastructure contracts, innovation grants and training participants and outcomes.
Committee chair Caroline Nokes said that while the government had acted quickly to protect jobs and adapt welfare benefits as the first wave of Covid-19 hit the UK, it had “overlooked” the labour market and caring inequalities faced by women.
"These are not a mystery, they are specific and well understood,” she said. “And yet the government has repeatedly failed to consider them.
"This passive approach to gender equality is not enough. 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 it risks doing the same in its plans for economic recovery.”
Nokes said the message from the committee's evidence sessions had been clear: that government policies “have repeatedly skewed towards men” and that it keeps happening.
"We need to see more than good intentions and hoping for the best,” she said. “The government must start actively analysing and assessing the equality impact of every policy, or it risks turning the clock back.”