While there were some measures that could see improved equal opportunities, the Budget contained limited relief for women, BAME people and the disabled
“Backing skills is key to unlocking growth nationally”, said the Chancellor yesterday as he announced his Autumn Budget.
As such, there is to be an increased focus on STEM subjects in schools and more opportunities for people to train and retrain in areas such as construction and digital technology. This includes £8.5m over the next two years to support Unionlearn, an organisation of the Trades Union Congress to boost learning in the workplace.
This was welcome news to many, including Stephanie Baxter, Education Lead at the IET, who said: “As we are facing an engineering shortfall in the next decade, the financial boost for students studying the crucial engineering gateway subject of Maths at A-Level is welcome news. This is a small step in the right direction and there remains huge demand for engineers. We ultimately need to look at the focus on Maths and Physics, as studying engineering is creative and should not be limited to only those who have taken these subjects.”
Equally, Carolyn Fairbairn, CBI Director-General, said: “Building a skills system that supports the 4th industrial revolution is the right ambition, but the approach needs to be joined-up with the National Retraining Partnership and coupled with apprenticeship levy flexibility. To really deliver more growth and higher pay, the levy needs to fund more of the training that businesses need as soon as possible.”
STEM and the gender gap
However, for this focus on skills to make a dent in the gender imbalances currently experienced within STEM jobs, there is a real and urgent need to ensure that girls are able to access these opportunities.
As Sophie Walker from the Women’s Equality Party pointed out: “[The Chancellor] made much of physical infrastructure investment and its attendant construction jobs – which will primarily go to men so long as our education system fails to halt the occupational segregation of children into traditional ideas of men’s jobs and women’s jobs. Hammond missed the opportunity to announce innovative investment in social infrastructure, a move evidence shows would create more jobs for men and women alike.”
Support for low income households
But of course access to opportunity and improved social mobility is about so much more than just skills, and with limited help for the poorest in our society, here is where the budget was felt to let people down.
Take the Universal Credit changes, for example, which included a £1.5bn package to address concerns about its delivery, the scrapping of the seven-day initial waiting period and a commitment to make the first payment within five weeks instead of six.
“The Government’s decision to scrap the seven day wait is a step in the right direction, but in practice this still could mean a five week wait for payments to actually come through. This is far too long to wait for people with mental health problems who have fallen out of work and who may not have savings to fall back upon”, said Paul Farmer, Chief Executive of Mind.
There was a similar response from Disability Rights UK, which described the removal of the waiting period as an “inadequate solution that will still leave people waiting”.
Omar Khan, Director of the Runnymede Trust said: “Previous research from our two organisations has already shown that women and BME groups are the hardest hit from austerity. What this new data shows is that there is an additional penalty caused by Universal Credit, which is taking even more money away from low income groups and hitting women and BME citizens harder, and BME women hardest of all. We call on the Chancellor to ensure his budget is fully equality impact assessed, and that he introduces measures that reduce this unfairness.”
Equality impact assessments
The need for the budget to be equality impact assessed was something that Liberal Democrat spokesperson for equalities, Meral Hussein Ece also highlighted.
She said: “With the economy predicted to be £45 billion smaller in 2021 than was forecast as recently as March, the government’s failure to provide equality impact assessments for sectors such as housing and education is truly shocking. This glaring omission puts the government’s view of equalities issues in stark relief.
She added: “The budget also failed to provide effective shared parental leave. With just 0.6% of parents taking up shared parental leave as it stands, it is beyond time for the government to provide a modern policy that works for families everywhere and encourages more fathers to take up a primary care-giving role.”
For real and proper equality to be achieved, much more needs to be done to balance the economy, said Dr Wanda Wyporska, Executive Director of The Equality Trust.
“What we really need is a fundamentally more equitable distribution of income and wealth in the UK. In the run-up to this budget, The Equality Trust has highlighted the fact that the richest 1,000 people in the UK have as much wealth as the poorest 40% of households. Between 2016 and 2017, they increased their wealth by a staggering £82.5 billion. The money to improve the UK already exists, it’s just overly concentrated in the hands of a very few people. Until this this gross injustice is remedied we will all suffer a far worse quality of life than is necessary.”