A Women and Equalities Committee report criticises the Government’s approach to equalities during the pandemic and calls for the creation of a Secretary of State for Equalities and Levelling Up.
The Government must create a new Cabinet level Secretary of State for Equalities and Levelling Up to ensure hard-won progress on equality issues doesn’t go into decline after the pandemic, according to a report from the House of Commons’ Women and Equalities Committee.
The report, Levelling Up and equality: a new framework for change, is based on an inquiry into the structures and mechanisms that support the Government Equalities Office [GEO] in fulfilling its responsibilities.
It comes after a YouGov poll showing that 93% of respondents could not name Liz Truss as the current Women and Equalities Minister; 59% of respondents had not heard of the GEO; only 2% had both heard of the GEO and knew a lot about its work; 76% had not heard of the Cabinet Office’s Equality Hub; only 1% had both heard of the Equality Hub and knew a lot about its work; and 67% had not heard anything about the Government’s work to address equalities issues during the pandemic.
The report says that hard-won progress on important equality issues could fall by the wayside after Covid as long as the additional role of Women and Equalities Minister is given to Secretaries of State with all-encompassing, non-complementary ‘day jobs’.
It states that a new full-time Cabinet post could drive the Levelling Up agenda and a new pan-equalities strategy, backed up by annual Action Plans with tangible objectives, focusing on issues faced by people with protected characteristics recognised in the Equality Act 2010.
The Committee calls for a refreshed approach to engaging with stakeholders and says the Government should invite the Equality and Human Rights Commission to lead a programme of stakeholder engagement with an aim of better understanding varied perspectives on the most difficult balanced rights debates.
It also expresses the Committee’s “deep disappointment” with the Government’s engagement with its scrutiny, including the failure of Government ministers to attend oral evidence sessions.
Other recommendations include calls for greater transparency on the staffing and funding of the existing ‘Equality Hub’, which consists of the Government Equalities Office, Race Disparity Unit, Disability Unit and, since April 2021, the Social Mobility Commission; for the Equality Hub to publish annual Action Plans which detail which specific and measurable steps it will take to meet strategic targets; and for equality issues to be included in the Covid-19 public inquiry and in planning for future crises.
Caroline Nokes, Chair of the Committee, said: Just this week, the Minister for Women and Equalities was unable to attend Women and Equalities questions in the chamber because of conflicting commitments as the new Foreign Secretary. It is obvious that the current set-up of Cabinet leaves no space or time to really address inequality in the UK. By effectively treating the role of Women and Equalities Minister as a side-hustle, the Government is demonstrating its lack of willingness to invest energy in creating change. It’s 2021, and high time that the role is given the heft and resource needed to address important, long-established equality issues.
“The Government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda must not be at the expense of tackling wider inequality, and the new role should address longstanding issues such as race and sexual orientation with the same importance it affords to geographical inequality. The Government must recognise the inequalities laid bare by the pandemic, and see this as a turning point to demonstrate its willingness to tackle them.”