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Opinion

This Budget does nothing to help women at the sharp end of the pandemic

Despite being at the forefront of the fight against the virus, women have been let down once again, writes Thaira Mhearban

A year ago, during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, Rishi Sunak delivered his first Budget. At the time, the Women’s Budget Group warned about a failure to invest in a social security system to lift people out of poverty. 

After a year of successive lockdowns, which has seen unemployment rise and growing inequality, the commitments on social security in this Budget once again fell short of what was needed.

Over the last year, women have been at the sharp end of the social and economic impacts of the pandemic. 

Women are twice as likely to be key workers than men, meaning they have been at the forefront of fighting this virus. 

But our sick pay system has left too many low paid workers facing the impossible choice of risking their health and the health of others by continuing to work when they are ill or being unable to pay their bills.

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Research by the Women’s Budget Group, which monitors the impact of Government policies on men and women, shows women are less likely to be eligible for Statutory Sick Pay (SSP), with 15.5 per cent of women and 10.6 per cent of men not earning enough to qualify. 

The Budget today was a missed opportunity for the Government to ensure that policy reflects the make-up of today’s labour market.

This is not surprising – women are the majority of those in low paid jobs, working as cleaners or carers, and make up the majority working part-time due to caring responsibilities.

Even for those who do qualify, SSP at £96.35 is not enough to live on. The UK has one of the lowest rates of sick pay in Europe, which is bad news for those who need to claim it and bad news for public health if it means people keep working when ill during the pandemic.

The Budget today was a missed opportunity for the Government to ensure that SSP policy reflects the make-up of today’s labour market. 

The Government could have signalled its commitment to creating a more equal society now and post Covid 19 by increasing and extending sick pay to include those in low-income jobs and on precarious contracts.

It would also have meant those working in the gig economy have support when they need it, and that no one is left destitute if they become ill.

The Budget was also a missed opportunity to make the £20 increase to Universal Credit permanent. 

The short term increase brought in last year, and then extended until April this year, shows the Government is all too aware that without the £20 uplift UC is simply not enough to live on. 

Even with the increase now remaining until September, benefits are low by European standards, leaving many families in poverty. Since March 2020, 4.5 million new UC claimants have woken up to this reality. 

Unemployment currently stands at 5.1 per cent and is forecasted to peak when the 6-month extension ends. The Government is planning to cut unemployment support when it is needed the most.

And although today’s announcement of a 6-month extension to the £20 uplift of UC will provide some short-term reassurance, there is no such relief for those on Employment Support Allowance (ESA).  

Our research shows that 37.7 per centof disabled mothers, many of whom rely on ESA, reported that they were struggling to feed their children since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Despite calls from disability and anti-poverty organisations to extend the uplift to include ESA and other benefits that pre-date UC, the Chancellor has again failed to act. 

The Budget has overlooked the needs of migrant women, disabled people, children in low-income households, those who are unemployed and keyworkers.

The situation is even worse for migrant workers who have no recourse to public funds. This means that migrants who work as cleaners, shop workers and carers, who contribute to our society and pay taxes, are not entitled to claim social security at all.

If they become ill there is no financial support available to them, leaving them at the mercy of friends, family and food banks

This can leave many women trapped in violent relationships since they are not entitled to benefits if they leave and can find it impossible to find a place in a refuge. 

The Budget has overlooked the needs of migrant women, disabled people, children in low-income households, the unemployed and key workers. This raises serious questions about how inclusive the Government’s roadmap to recovery will be.

As the vaccination programme continues to be rolled out across the UK, the Government must remember it is not short-term cash injections that is the solution but long-term investment.

This should begin with investment in social infrastructure to create a caring economy and a care-led recovery that focuses on investing in public services such as Childcare and Social Care that have proved vital during this pandemic. Such investment would create much-needed jobs.

For those on the sharp end of the pandemic this year will be extremely tough – and tougher yet if the Government continues to remove support prematurely.

If we have managed to create a vaccine in a year, a process that typically takes 10 to 15 years, then surely the lessons learnt over the last year can be used to create a long-term and sustainable solution to the financial crisis this pandemic has created. 

Thaira Mhearban is communications officer at The Women’s Budget Group

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