The pandemic has exposed more clearly than ever the deep inequalities in our country and particularly in London. The Prime Minister – a former London Mayor – and his government like to talk about “levelling up” and “narrowing the gap” between the rest of the country and the capital. This is a lazy depiction of a city with some of the most deprived communities in the country. The latest deprivation index shows that half of London boroughs are in the most deprived third of English local authorities, so the picture is not quite as simple as the government paints it.
In November, I raised my concerns about the economic impact of Covid-19 on women in the capital, something that has been given very little attention. The responses I’ve received bear that out. The Greater London Authority has predicted that women will experience an incredible 60% of the job losses seen in London by the end of the pandemic. Recent research by Savanta also shows that the number of women in London reporting a reduction in their disposable income has risen by 5% to nearly 50%, since September last year.
PwC’s latest economic predictions for 2021 state that “gender and ethnicity pay gaps are expected to increase in 2021, potentially reversing a decade of progress on the former”. This is largely due to the sectors that have been most impacted by the pandemic, including hospitality, tourism and arts and culture, being dominated by women, many of them from Black Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds.
These sectors need targeted and continued support, which is why Liberal Democrats are calling for a dedicated minister to be appointed for the hospitality and live events industries. And although the furlough scheme has been a lifeline for so many, it is expected to end on 30 April. It is clear that many businesses will still be closed or operating at reduced capacity for some time. The government must extend furlough now to give businesses certainty and avoid further job losses.
We’ve also seen the support scheme for the self-employed indirectly discriminating against women who are pregnant or have recently become mothers, with many missing out on significant sums they should be entitled to. Thousands of these women are Londoners, with many being pushed to the brink. The Chancellor’s ability to simply ignore these individuals and the other almost three million who have fallen through gaps in financial support system is a national scandal. Next week’s budget must finally address this.
Analysis also suggests that women who could have continued working during the pandemic have been less likely to to do so or had to reduce their time commitments due to childcare and home-schooling responsibilities. Alongside this, the childcare sector is in crisis, with many providers on the brink of folding and an estimated 150,000 childcare places at risk. If the government allows the sector to fail it will be a double whammy for working women, reducing childcare places across the board and causing a further swathe of redundancies in the sector. Urgent support for Early Years provision is integral to a well-balanced recovery. Without it, we will see a devastating long-term impact on women in work.
During the pandemic, I have repeatedly raised my concerns over these issues. In April last year I wrote to London’s strategic coordination group for responding to Covid-19 asking how nurseries in London were being supported and urging them to lobby the government to provide support for the sector, including by ensuring that Early Years workers were supported with furlough where applicable. Lib Dems have also been calling for teachers and Early Years workers to be prioritised for vaccination after the elderly and vulnerable, given their frontline roles.
Even before the pandemic, London had the lowest maternal employment rate of any region in the UK. The availability of affordable, accessible childcare is something that has been a problem in London for years. When I ran for Mayor in 2016 I suggested a “tourist tax” on London’s luxury hotels, common in other major cities, to pay for an increase in affordable childcare places in the capital. We have seen no such radical action by Sadiq Khan. London Liberal Democrats want to see childcare provision as a key part of the reinvention of our high streets, which will become more important than ever as hubs for communities and be essential alongside increasing local co-working spaces – another goal that we support.
It is also hugely concerning that, due to the virus, enforcement action in relation to gender pay gap reporting for the year 2019/2020 was not carried out on businesses. The impact of furlough and continued uncertainty mean there will be issues for this year’s reporting too. And I worry that disruption caused by the pandemic will have resulted in many organisations holding back initiatives they might otherwise have implemented to reduce gender pay inequality in the workplace. This could have a significant impact on previous progress and potentially put pay parity back still further.
We need to be incentivising companies in London to tackle gender inequality in the workplace as we recover from Covid-19. Lib Dem mayoral candidate Luisa Porritt (pictured, left) was a champion for gender pay equality as an MEP and would be champion the cause from City Hall too as the capital’s first female Mayor.
Minister for women and equalities Liz Truss proudly launched the government’s new approach to tackling inequality across the UK, stating in a speech in January that it would address “the real problems people face in their everyday lives using evidence”. The evidence of the impact of the pandemic on women speaks for itself – now it is time for the government to act.
Mayor Khan frequently refers to himself as a “proud feminist” and said in 2018 that we must “ensure we remove those barriers, so that across our great city we are adopting the highest possible standards for fair pay, good working conditions and gender equality.” In light of the pandemic, he must redouble his efforts in this area to ensure the impact of the pandemic on women in the economy is not felt for years to come. The Mayor is good at words, less so at actions. There must be a clear, deliverable recovery plan from City Hall that has equality at its heart.
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