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The Women and Equalities Committee heard from Government representatives yesterday about a range of issues, from conditionality being reintroduced for Universal Credit to childcare provision.
The Chancellor is not going to take part in a “tick boxing exercise” to provide support to specific sectors such as childcare in the next months, the Women and Equalities Committee heard yesterday.
Kemi Badenoch, Minister for Equalities, was being questioned in a session on the gendered impact of Covid by the Committee about whether the Government would provide more funding for childcare. She said nurseries she had spoken to were “very happy” with the support the Government had provided during the pandemic. There have been many reports in the last months, including from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, warning that significant numbers of childcare providers are facing imminent closure without more investment.
Badenoch said every sector was affected by Covid and the Government had provided broad support to all. She added that the much criticised policy of ‘free’ childcare for three and four year olds [which many providers say does not cover the full cost of places] was “adequate” and that the Government has made a lot of improvements to childcare in recent years.
When questioned by Caroline Nokes, Chair of the Committee, about the support the Government had provided to specific sectors such as green technology, Badenoch said this was about supporting the Covid recovery.
Badenoch was also asked about the potential gendered impact of the Government’s furlough scheme. She said the figures on furlough are mixed. In July they showed more men had been furloughed. In August it was more women and she said more men had been made redundant. She felt it was more important to look at figures by sector than by gender, although she said that equality impact assessments were being done on Covid-related policies. Liz Truss, Minister for women and equalities, has refused to publish the assessments, claiming to do so would have a “chilling effect”.
Badenoch was asked to compare the beauty sector with the construction sector and said the reason the construction sector had opened earlier was due to it being able to do so safely. She added that many women worked in the public sector in frontline roles and had not been furloughed. The discussion came as the Office for National Statistics said that a fall in the gender pay gap – to 15.5%, down from 17.4% in 2019 – and 7.4% for full-time employees down from 9% in 2019] may be due to more men than women having been placed on furlough during April. The Fawcett Society noted that the gender pay gap figure only gave a partial picture due to the impact of the pandemic as a quarter of employers were missing from the data set.
The Committee asked about whether a minimum income floor [MIF] should be brought in to protect those on low wages who were forced to furlough and therefore earned below the National Minimum Wage. A report from the ONS out this week shows 2,043,000 (7.2%) employee jobs paid below the National Minimum Wage and National Living Wage in April due to 80% furlough pay not being topped up by employers. Tom Hemingway, Deputy Director of the Treasury, said neither the furlough scheme nor the Job Support Scheme which will replace it have a MIF. He said people on low incomes may qualify for financial support under Universal Credit if their earnings fall, depending on their circumstances.
Mims Davies, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Work and Pensions, said those in need could also ask for a discretionary payment from their local authority. She added that increasing Statutory Sick Pay – currently standing at £95.85 per week – could put an unfair burden on employers who pay it. She said the Government felt it was better to top up Universal Credit by 20 pounds a week as that provided “a broader safety net” for people with Covid. Badenoch added that SSP covered other illnesses and that the Government was focused on Covid protection, such as the 500 pounds for people on low incomes who have to self isolate for two weeks.
The Committee also questioned ministers about the decision to re-impose conditionality for Universal Credit claimants, meaning they have to agree certain terms in order to get benefits, such as how many job applications to make in a certain time period. Davies said conditionality had been suspended in the early chaotic days of Covid, but that she felt it was right to reintroduce it to help people “move into the phase of recovery” ready to take advantage of the Chancellor’s Plan for Jobs and create a relationship with their work coach who could support them to get back to work.
She said conditionality – through the claimant commitment agreed between coach and claimant – was tailored to individuals and would take into account individual’s circumstances, such as childcare issues. She said work coaches had been trained to be sensitive to individual issues and local labour market conditions. There have been concerns in the past that this has not been the case. Davies said there had been “no disproportionate negative impact of conditionality” and that before conditionality was reintroduced the Government had been checking in on people who were “delighted to hear from the DWP about the next stage”. She added that sanctions – where people on UC lose benefits if they don’t keep to their claimant commitment – were at their lowest level.
Ministers were also asked about why people on legacy benefits who had not transferred to Universal Credit had not been eligible for the 20 pounds a week increase in benefits. Davies said it was easier and quicker to increase the money under Universal Credit, that UC had been the priority given the huge number of people making claims in the early weeks of the pandemic, that people on legacy benefits could access other support, such as local authority hardship money, and that they had the choice to switch to UC. There have been several reports pointing out that moving to UC may mean some claimants are worse off.
There was a discussion around pregnant and maternity leave, including cases where pregnant women had been sent home on SSP. Paul Scully, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, said that the Government had made clear that the rules around pregnancy had not changed, that employers should do a risk assessment for pregnant women and if they could not provide a safe environment for women to work in they should be sent home on full pay. Scully added that the Government planned to extend the protection of women on maternity leave from redundancy to six months after their return to work “as soon as they could find an appropriate legislative vehicle to do so”. This would be backed up by increased capacity for employment tribunals, including the recruitment of 75 new tribunal judges for next year to reduce the growing tribunal backlog.