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Covid-19: Women

Volume 810: debated on Wednesday 10 March 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that (1) women, and (2) groups which represent women, are included in the development of their policies responding to the Covid-19 pandemic.

My Lords, we continue to listen to the experiences of women as we respond to the Covid-19 crisis. Ministers and their officials carefully consider evidence on how different people have been affected by the pandemic. That includes meeting many women and the groups representing them. I recently met with women from Leicester and Leeds at virtual round tables to discuss home-schooling, childcare, flexible working and parents’ and children’s mental health.

The Commons report, Unequal Impact? Coronavirus and the Gendered Economic Impact, found that

“the Government’s priorities for recovery are heavily gendered in nature.”

A report published just this morning by the ONS on the differential impact of the coronavirus pandemic on men and women said:

“While more men died from Covid-19, women’s well-being was more negatively affected than men’s during the first year of the pandemic.”

Does the Minister agree that the Government must work harder at addressing this imbalance and that women, and the views of women, must be included in current policy development?

My Lords, the effects of the pandemic are indeed differential across a number of factors. We have invested half a billion pounds in mental health services and recognise that women have taken on more responsibility in the home in terms of childcare and home-schooling, but, thankfully, schools are back as of Monday. We are looking closely at the data, to then analyse it. That will inform our policy development, as will, as I have outlined, meeting with women’s groups.

My Lords, in one of the reports to which the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, referred, the Women and Equalities Committee in the other place recommends

“a Gender Beneficiary Assessment of investments from the industrial strategy”,

which are currently going into areas that are well known to be male-dominated, and

“an economic growth assessment of the Women’s Budget Group’s care-led recovery proposals.”

Surely the Government must take these steps to understand the impacts of their policies.

My Lords, the Government are looking at the data and have now got an equality data assessment based in the Cabinet Office. We have brought together the GEO with the disability and race units so that we have all the data to look at. The massive economic package and support that has been in place has benefited millions of women, and women are slightly less likely to be made redundant and slightly more likely to be furloughed.

My Lords, there is a sharp segregation in subjects chosen by both boys and girls at secondary and university level, with girls shunning STEM and technical subjects. What policies might the Government put in place so that we can look forward to an equitable outcome in the workplace?

My Lords, it is a key focus of the recovery from the pandemic that we see high-skilled, high-productivity, high-wage jobs. We recognise that girls are less likely to take STEM subjects, so there has been a focus that has driven up the number of girls taking STEM A-levels in particular. I am happy to say that the specialist sixth form maths schools, as part of that outreach, must reach out to girls to ensure that there are more girls taking maths at A-level, and further maths, leading to higher-paid jobs.

The Unequal Impact? report by the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee, which has already been mentioned, highlights the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women and states that the schemes which have been put in place in response to the pandemic did not take account of the specific needs of women. It recommends an equality impact assessment of schemes and active analysis of equality impact for every future policy. What steps are the Government taking to implement these recommendations and the other 20 recommendations of this report?

My Lords, there was an equality impact assessment of the Coronavirus Act and each government department, in relation to its legislative action, conducts an equality impact assessment of what they propose to enact. The various schemes, such as the Self-employment Income Support Scheme, have benefited millions of women. Although fewer women have benefited from that scheme, it is not out of proportion with the number of women in that sector. We are watching the data carefully.

My Lords, high-quality data is crucial for understanding the impact of the pandemic on women and to develop a robust, evidence-led response. What steps have the Government taken to collect data consistently, disaggregated by sex, race, disability and other characteristics protected under the Equality Act 2010?

My Lords, my noble friend is correct. We look at this data in terms of those protected characteristics, but we are looking beyond those as well, to look at, for instance, geographical disparities of effect. This collection of data, now centrally in the Cabinet Office, has led to certain reports, such as the second update, just over a week ago, on the effect of Covid on the health of black and minority ethnic populations in the UK.

My Lords, the gender-blind Covid policy-making that we have seen from the Government has not considered the needs of women and has resulted in disproportionate numbers losing their jobs—particularly in the retail sector—suffering domestic abuse, and their mental health and well-being suffering. What plans are in place for when furlough ends, when it will more likely be women who lose their jobs? With reports that many nurseries will not reopen, it will be even harder to get those mothers back into the workplace. If this is being addressed, what plans are being put in place to mitigate this?

My Lords, there has been a dynamic response, particularly to the childcare requirements, which is why early years settings were still open during the third national lockdown. We have supported various charities that offer support to women, with investment grants of up to £10 million, and regarding the end of furlough, at the moment men are slightly more likely to be made redundant and women more likely to be furloughed, but we do not know what will happen when that transition ends.

My Lords, what specific meetings has my noble friend the Minister had with women and women representatives to discuss the economic impact of the pandemic? Does she share my concern that the thousands of jobs lost in retail have affected largely women, particularly young women, and the fact that older women are having to work for longer, possibly in part-time positions which does not make them eligible for holiday pay, sick pay or auto-enrolment in a pension, greatly disadvantages them?

My Lords, I outlined in my original Answer two of the round tables that I have held. Additionally, I held a wonderful virtual meeting for National Apprenticeship Week with some women apprentices who were mainly in STEM roles. I have also met with the women’s youth council. We are looking at the impact, and in those sectors that my noble friend outlines, there has been significant economic support.

The received wisdom increasingly is that you must be nearer to the problem to come up with something that makes it work better. With the SAGE committee being only 22% women, while we know that women will be hit harder and harder because of Covid-19, that women were caring for the children during home-schooling, and that it will hit women in the years to come, is it not possible to move forward the whole argument about women being involved in the decision-making and not leave it almost exclusively to a male world?

My Lords, the increasing need for women to be represented at all levels of decision-making is taken as read by the Government. It has been pleasing to see that at the forefront of fighting the pandemic it has often been women, when you look at the NHS workforce and the education workforce. I can only pay tribute to those now household names, Sarah Gilbert and Kate Bingham, who have been at the forefront of developing the vaccine that we are so grateful for.

My Lords, older women are among the groups that have suffered most from this pandemic. Many live alone and have had to endure months of isolation as well as receiving very negative messages from the media. Can my noble friend the Minister tell me whether the Government have communicated and consulted with this group of women, and if so, how have this group of women been helped, especially with mental health issues?

My Lords, I have outlined the increased funding that we have given to the NHS in relation to those budgets. The Government are aware that if those women were shielding then they will have been particularly affected. That is why one of the first things introduced during the first national lockdown, as we will remember, were bubbles, so that people such as the ladies that the noble Baroness has outlined were able to get some support. Then there was the development of the childcare bubbles, because we recognise that that cohort of women provides a lot of informal childcare.