A Women and Equalities Committee meeting yesterday heard from expert witnesses about the potential and actual impact of Covid for working mums.
The Government should make employers report gender statistics in relation to redundancies and parents should be paid if they cannot work because their children are sent home from school, a Women and Equalities Committee hearing heard yesterday.
Dr Duncan Brown, Principal Associate at the Institute of Employment Studies, said it would be “a huge step forward” if redundancies were reported by gender, given large numbers of women are falling out of the workplace. He also highlighted that much of the attention on this week’s ONS figures on unemployment had focused on the fact 60% of those losing their jobs were young. What was less noticed was that 90% of the nearly half a million people who have lost their jobs since the pandemic worked part time, with more women likely to work part time than men. He added that the Job Support Scheme which replaced the furlough scheme seemed to favour full-time workers too since it is cheaper for them to keep a full-time worker than two part-time workers.
Jill Rubery, Professor of Comparative Employment Systems at the University of Manchester said the 500 pounds recently announced for people who are forced to self isolate should be available to parents whose children are sent home from school and who cannot work as a result.
The experts who gave evidence at the meeting commented on other gendered aspects of the furlough scheme and its replacement.
Monica Costas Dias, Deputy Research Director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, said IFS research showed women had been more likely to request and get furlough for childcare reasons, but Professor Rubery highlighted that people in the UK did not have a right to furlough for childcare reasons whereas in many other European countries this was a right. She added that many EU countries protected the jobs of people who were on furlough. There were big concerns in the UK, she said, that women who were on furlough could be more vulnerable to being laid off when the scheme ends because employers may assume that they would be more affected by temporary school closures in the next phase of the pandemic.
Dr Brown added that, in other countries, such as Germany, more support is provided for parents than single people through their short working scheme in recognition of the need for extra financial aid.
The experts were also asked about benefits payments. Professor Rubery said the new extended furlough scheme only paid 67% of wages which would particularly affect the lowest paid who are generally women. She said other European countries stipulated that any furlough-type scheme payments should not fall below the minimum wage level. Her comments came as Liverpool City Region Mayor Steve Rotheram announced that the area is setting up its own “local furlough” scheme to supplement “inadequate” coronavirus wage subsidies from the Treasury.
Professor Rubery also commented on the reinstatement of conditionality in relation to Universal Credit. She said conditionality – which means people getting unemployment benefits have to be actively looking for a job – was based on the idea that people would get a job, but, she said, “we are not in that context now”. “It is difficult to search for a job that does not exist,” she stated. She called for a change of mindset and a focus on supporting people to retrain. Dr Brown added that parents whose childcare was closed should be exempt from conditionality.
Professor Rubery also called for greater incentives for employers to provide more hours for part-time workers and for changes in the eligibility criteria for sick pay and unemployment benefit. Costas Dias said Covid had highlighted the very low level of benefits provided for working families. In a context of few jobs and potential long-term unemployment there was an urgent need to rethink the support provided to families, she said. Dr Brown agreed that the benefits system was “threadbare” and said a more realistic safety net was needed.
He also said he had searched all of the Chancellor’s statements on the summer and winter support schemes and found no mention of gender. That and the suspension of gender pay gap reporting gave the impression that gender was a secondary issue, he said. “Gender needs to be prioritised across the piece because of the risk of a discriminatory impact on women,” he stated.
Other issues discussed included the importance of access to affordable childcare for women looking to get back to work, the low level of Statutory Sick Pay, the low take-up of the Self Employment Income Support Scheme by women, the need for more protection generally for the self employed in line with the 2017 Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices which has still not been implemented and in particular a rethinking of maternity pay for the rising number of women who are self employed and have faced financial struggles because maternity leave has meant they have not been eligible for SEISS support.