The Women & Equalities Committee held a session on levelling up and equalities this week which touched on childcare, ethnicity pay gap reporting and the Government’s approach to equalities.
To what degree is childcare part of the Government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda? For MP Caroline Dinenage it should be central given that it is not just about children’s start in life, but also about women’s employment.
She told a Women & Equalities Committee session this week on levelling up and equalities that she is worried that the Levelling Up White Paper fails to mention it. Neil Leitch of the Early Years Alliance has decried the white paper saying it ‘fails to make a single mention of any new investment into early education and care, while still suggesting that the government’s plans will achieve substantial improvements in children’s educational attainment’.
Kemi Badenoch, minister for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, said the Government has invested £3.5bn in early years in each of the past three years and is investing £300m in family hubs, which are local support centres for families. Christopher Gray, Deputy Director for Levelling Up Strategy, said early years is crucial to school achievement and is therefore part of the levelling up education agenda.
Badenoch says education and skills are key drivers of levelling up. Dinenage, however, expressed concerns that the targets for school education are too ambitious and that focusing on the most deprived areas might mean those just a little better off like her own constituency of Gosport end up being neglected.
Gray said the targets are “ambitious but credible” and are a first step in a long journey. He said the aim is to push the Government to deliver services in a different way. One suggestion is to offer teacher retention payments in deprived areas, for instance.
The session began with a series of questions from Committee chair Caroline Nokes on what the role of the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Department is.
Badenoch said it is about restoring pride, creating greater community cohesion and empowering local people among other issues.
Nokes asked Badenoch to name a policy that the Levelling up team had devised to drive more cohesive communities. Badenoch mentioned work with refugees, but then said that was overseen by another minister. She said her role was more about local governance and that 80% involved local government finance and reform.
Badenoch said half her time is spent on her work on equalities. She said it is important not to just cover the protected characteristics under the Equality Act, but to address other drivers of inequality such as geography and income. She is interested in how protected characteristics such as disability interact with place and said disability is twice as high in deprived areas. “We need to better understand how protected characteristics interact with geography and socio-economic status,” she said. She added that where a person is born should not determine their life outcomes.
Badenoch was quizzed on other equality issues. On the campaign to introduce mandatory ethnicity pay gap reporting, she said this is more complicated than the gender pay gap which is more binary. Ethnicity can be cut in many different ways, she said, which makes it difficult to get any consistency with regard to the figures. However, she later admitted that having a clear framework from government would help to ensure that consistency.
She was vociferous in decrying recent criticism of the Equality and Human Rights Commission which has come under attack from gender self-identification activists after it called for more detailed consideration before any change is made to the provisions in the Gender Recognition Act. Campaigners want to see the Gender Recognition Act demedicalised and simplified, with people being able to change their gender by an act of self-declaration.
Badenoch called the campaign that followed the EHRC’s announcement “an extraordinary attack” which aimed to undermine its work. The campaign has included calls to downgrade the EHRC and some activists have called on the UN to review it, saying it is not fit for purpose. Badenoch added that the personal attacks on the chair of the EHRC, Baroness Kishwer Falkner, have been “appalling” and sent a sign to women from ethnic minority groups that they are treated differently when running bodies like the EHRC. She said Parliament should come out more strongly in her defence.
Badenoch also said that a wider debate is needed in Parliament about gender self-identification and how to balance trans people’s rights with women’s rights. She added that no-one is worried about trans people self-identifying. What they are worried about is male predators using gender self-identification to access female spaces. Badenoch wants to see “more healthy conversations” about the issues across political parties which are nuanced and not politicised. She said both sides of the debate should be treated equally.