Ebyan Abdirahman finds Sunak’s March budget leaves women, Black and ethnic minorities and the poor adrift

Some have dubbed Covid-19 “The Great Equaliser”. However, evidence from one year on shows the impact of the pandemic has been anything but equal. Measures set out by the government to curb the level of damage have not only exacerbated existing inequalities but have seen progress towards women’s equality undermined. There has been a strong focus to ‘build back better’, but what would that really entail for a truly equal recovery?

On 3rd March, Rishi Sunak claimed in his budget speech that ten years of Conservative “fiscal resilience” is why the Government has been able to respond to the pandemic as strongly as it has. Alternatively, it can be argued that ten years of cuts have, in fact, left our healthcare, social care and childcare services weakened. This made us more vulnerable to the impacts of the pandemic, leaving the UK with one of the highest mortality rates from Covid-19 per capita in the world.

From the last decade of austerity measures, research shows that women, people on low incomes, Black and minority ethnic and disabled people are hit hardest from cuts to public services. Even before Covid, 1.5 million people had unmet care needs. During the pandemic the number of unpaid carers has increased from 4.5 million to 13.6 million. The childcare sector faces similar problems, with 58% of local authorities expecting some childcare providers in their area to shut permanently. Women are more likely to need care as adults, more likely to work in the care sector, and more likely to be the ones who have to provide unpaid care if care services are not available.

Noticeably absent from the Chancellor’s budget speech, however, was any mention of health, social care or childcare – all services that were hit the hardest by the pandemic. The budget offered an opportunity for the Chancellor to mitigate these impacts and deliver a structural reform plan that promoted wellbeing, sustainability and gender equality. Instead, what we received were more public spending cuts, most of which were not mentioned in the official speech.

An independent study by the Institute of Fiscal Studies revealed public spending cuts of up to £4 billion per year tucked away in the budget. The Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, and the Department for Work and Pensions are expected to suffer cuts of 3% in 2022-23, and an overall spending cut of £16 billion on public services compared to pre-pandemic plans. Although Boris Johnson has promised not to return to a period of austerity, these cuts mirror the Cameron/Osbourne post-2010 period and undermine Johnson’s levelling-up agenda.

The biggest headline grabbers of the budget were the extension of the furlough and self-employment support schemes, and a six-month extension of the £20 Universal Credit (UC) uplift. Although these are welcome changes, they provide only a short-term fix that risks pushing families into debt and undermining the recovery.

The extension of the furlough scheme until September will protect many jobs in the short term. However, many of those currently furloughed are likely to be worrying if they will have a job once the scheme ends. Estimates at the end of January 2021 put the number of furloughed workers at 2.32 million women and 2.18 million men, putting women at a higher risk of redundancy when the scheme ends.

The extension of the UC uplift confirms what we all know: UC is not enough to live on. By failing to make the uplift permanent, the Government risks dragging a further 760,000 people below the poverty line when the extension ends. It fails to mitigate the harmful impacts of benefit rate freezes in recent years that have seen increasing numbers of women and children fall into poverty.

A care-led recovery with increased spending on care services would create 2.7 times as many jobs as the same spending on construction, and employment would particularly favour women. It would also tackle the crisis in social care and looming crisis in childcare.

The lack of additional funding for these vital public services leaves local authorities and those who depend on their services completely exposed and vulnerable. Women make up 75% of the local government and school workforce, leaving women disproportionately affected by cuts to these services. Local government funding needs to be urgently restored to a level which enables councils to meet their statutory obligations to support the wellbeing of women and children.

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