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Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme: BAME Communities

Volume 806: debated on Monday 12 October 2020

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the end of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, what assessment they have made of its impact on black, Asian and minority ethnic communities in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, people from a minority ethnic background can be more vulnerable to unemployment than those from a white background, although rates vary considerably by ethnicity. The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and other government support schemes have helped protect against rising unemployment during the pandemic. So far, the scheme has helped 1.2 million employers across the UK furlough 9.6 million jobs, protecting people’s livelihoods.

My Lords, in August, the Government were made acutely aware that a disproportionately high number of black, Asian and minority ethnic workers have been furloughed or made redundant. With the main job retention scheme coming to a close, we can now expect another spike in BAME redundancies. Can the Minister tell me whether the Government undertook a BAME impact assessment before making these changes? Also, despite repeated calls, including a petition signed by 140,000 people, why do we still do not have a Covid-19 race equality strategy?

My Lords, when designing the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and its next steps, the Government undertook an analysis of how the policies were likely to affect individuals sharing protected characteristics, in line with our public sector equality duties. Of course, the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme comes to an end at the end of October. It is being replaced by the Job Support Scheme, which will continue to support jobs during the pandemic.

My Lords, Covid has entrenched existing inequalities. The Government’s review, The Time for Talking Is Over. Now Is the Time to Act: Race in the Workplace, makes a number of specific recommendations: first, that there should be legislation to make large companies publish ethnicity data; and, secondly, that the public sector should use its procurement powers to drive change. That was three years ago. When will the time to act be? Will the Government implement these two recommendations? If they do not, we are wasting millions of pounds on these schemes.

My Lords, the Government have taken a number of measures to support employment for people from minority-ethnic backgrounds, partly as a result of the race disparity audit and the work done by the noble Lord who asked the Private Notice Question. The Government are taking things further, with the Commission for Racial Equality. Employment is one of the aspects being looked at by the commission, and it is due to report by the end of this year.

My Lords, there is overwhelming evidence that black and minority-ethnic communities have borne the brunt of this pandemic, facing a disproportionate fatality rate and now being hit harder by job losses. Do not take my word for it; the analysis is confirmed in research published by the House of Commons Library, which found that in areas of the economy that had been shut down there were an above average number of BAME workers. I press the Minister on the Question put by my noble friend Lord Woolley. A petition signed by 140,000 people is calling for a proper Covid race equality strategy. On the new job support scheme which will replace the support currently in place at the end of October, has there been an impact assessment of whether it will be effective?

My Lords, the Government take the issue extremely seriously. A number of different factors feed into this. On the vulnerability of people from black and minority-ethnic communities to the virus itself, work was done by Public Health England and there is follow-up work being undertaken, including asking every NHS trust to undertake risk assessments and then take action to mitigate those risks. On the equality impact assessment, an assessment was done under the Government’s public sector equality duty of both the CJRS and its successor schemes.

My Lords, we are using lockdown to fight Covid, but lockdown itself costs lives, costs jobs and denies futures. Those damaged most by lockdown are the poor, who include so many among the BAME communities: it is the poor who pay so much of the price. Does my noble friend accept that there is at least a case—one that some of us feel is increasingly persuasive—that we cannot simply carry on with the endless cycle of lockdown after lockdown, which effectively does far too much of the disease’s dirty work for it by putting the poor in BAME and other communities at greatest risk?

My Lords, of course the Government want to move forward from that approach. That is why we have invested so much in the development of vaccines and why we are working on improving test and trace. The reality is that there are health costs to lockdowns as well as economic costs, but at the same time there are economic costs if we do not get the virus under control. People do not have the confidence to go out and participate in our economy. We are seeking to find the right balance between those, at all times, in our response.

My Lords, the ethnic-minority groups fared much worse as a result of the 2008 recession than the white majority, exacerbating pre-existing inequalities, with higher unemployment, lower earnings, lower self-employment rates and higher housing costs. The consequences were far-reaching and long-lasting. Can the Minister inform us about the Public Health England report in June which found that the highest coronavirus diagnosis rates were among people from black and Asian ethnic groups, who are twice as likely to die from Covid-19 than white people? More than a month after PHE’s first report and outcomes, the Government have announced research funding for projects. Can the Minister tell us the progress and findings of these projects to explain the situation? Does she also agree that mass testing would greatly help the situation?

I agree with the noble Lord, who has raised the question of mass testing a number of times in this Chamber. The Government are working as hard as they can to make progress. As for the report by Public Health England, there was follow-up work to be done—that is still being done, but it did not stop up from taking action immediately. For example, all health trusts were asked to undertake the risk assessments that I referred to earlier, and to put in place steps and processes to mitigate the risk to staff in those trusts, which was identified as one of the factors that could cause higher mortality rates among those communities.

My Lords, throughout the pandemic, black, Asian and minority-ethnic people have died at a higher rate. The Institute for Public Policy Research has suggested that by June, 13% of BAME workers had lost their jobs, compared with 5% of the overall population. What structures, if any, have Ministers put in place to address the specific challenges faced by BAME communities? With the second wave upon us, it is vital that the Government show that they are learning from previous mistakes.

My Lords, there are two things I have referred to that help answer the noble Lord’s question. The first is the assessment of our policy approaches under the public sector equality duty. The second is the commission that will report by the end of this year on a range of issues, including health, but also employment and how to take things forward. The Government’s response to Covid, particularly in terms of peoples livelihoods, is unprecedented. We have committed to keeping support in place for the duration of the pandemic, adapting it to respond to where we are in our medical response.

My Lords, the pandemic has adversely affected the health of the BAME community and caused financial hardship. I have been informed by the Runnymede Trust that only about 44% of the BAME community was aware of the measure to allow those out of work due to the crisis to claim universal credit. Furthermore, only one-third of the BAME community had heard of the arrangements making statutory sick pay available from the first day of self-isolation. Does my noble friend agree that more should be done to publicise these benefits, such as liaison with local authorities and community groups?

My Lords, that is one of the lessons that we have learned in our response to the pandemic so far. As we have had to work with local authorities to impose further local measures, we have seen that local authorities often know their population and community better and have better routes to outreach. We have also given them funding to reach those who have not necessarily heard of the support so far.

My Lords, as we mark Black History Month 2020, can the Minister detail what specific discussions the Government have had with the devolved Administrations to address the economic and financial problems facing BAME communities within those devolved regions, which have impacted on those communities throughout the United Kingdom?

My Lords, as noble Lords have noted, it is often those in BAME communities who are most vulnerable to unemployment, or to seeing a loss or change to their income during the pandemic. That is why the Government have had continued engagement with the devolved Administrations. Last Friday, the Government confirmed that they are uplifting the guaranteed funding to the devolved Administrations by at least £1.3 billion to £14 billion. That includes £2.4 billion for the Northern Ireland Executive on top of the spring 2020 Budget funding.

My Lords, as we have already heard, there is now mounting evidence that some communities within the ethnic-minority population are being hit harder by the economic crisis resulting from the pandemic. Does the Minister agree that the Government need to better assess how different groups are being affected by the pandemic and put mechanisms in place to channel support to those most in need? Can she please tell the House whether they are doing this as a matter of urgency, and whether they are urging employers to do the same?

My Lords, it is because the Government completely understand that some of the most vulnerable in our society might be hit hardest by this pandemic in terms of both their health outcomes and their livelihood that we have put unprecedented support into supporting people’s livelihoods. We are continuing the job support scheme and we said on Friday how that will help to support those in businesses that may need to close down as a consequence of further restrictions imposed to help get the virus under control.

My Lords, in the Minister’s replies I hear no hint of any new action to tackle this great injustice. Do the Government not accept that this is disappointing, given that Covid strikes hardest where inequalities are greatest, that one of the greatest drivers of inequalities is rising unemployment and that the BAME community has suffered most of all from this?

Well, what I am trying to say to noble Lords is that the Government have been aware of this fact since the beginning of the crisis and it has informed our response so far—so, instead of trying to retrofit our response in the light of this information, it has driven our response. The noble Lord said that the Government are not taking any new action in response to this. New action was announced on Friday and I am updating the House on it today. The Equality and Human Rights Commission will report by the end of the year on employment, which is one of the themes it is looking at.