On 26th October 202 the Bishop of London asked a question in the House of Lords that she had tabled, on covid-19 and social and economic inequalities. The exchanges and follow-up questions from other Members are reproduced below:
Lord Bishop of London: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to ensure that (1) social, and (2) economic, inequalities are addressed in their plans for economic recovery from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Baroness Penn (Con): My Lords, the Government have taken unprecedented action to keep people in work and to support businesses since the pandemic began. We are committed to carefully considering the social and economic impact of new policies and to tackling inequalities. Initiatives such as the Kickstart Scheme, the Job Support Scheme and enhanced welfare provision continue to support people, particularly those in groups at risk of higher unemployment due to the pandemic.
The Lord Bishop of London [V]: I thank the noble Baroness for her reply. Given the multiple layers of inequality that the pandemic is revealing, can the Minister tell the House whether Her Majesty’s Government will implement the recommendations made in the recent 10-year Marmot review and set up a taskforce that will focus on understanding the social and economic determinants of health from a holistic, society-wide perspective?
Baroness Penn (Con): My Lords, the update to the Marmot review was an incredibly important piece of work and the Government are committed to tackling health inequalities. Indeed, a piece of work that we have started since the pandemic is looking at the impact of Covid, particularly on people of different ethnicities. That work is ongoing and has revealed that while there are still some unexplained factors, it is the socioeconomic ones that play a major part in providing for different outcomes for people during this pandemic.
Baroness Blackstone (Ind Lab): The Government say they want to level up, yet the gap between the haves and have-nots continues to widen. There are few areas where this is more apparent than education. Unnecessarily lengthy school closures have magnified the differences, as many predicted at the time. Can the Minister tell the House precisely what the Government’s new educational programme to support school-age children from poor families is? How much is being spent on it, over what timescale, and how is it being evaluated?
Baroness Penn (Con): My Lords, one of the best things we can do for school-age children is ensure that they are back at school and able to stay there, and that is our focus. To help those children who missed out because of school closures during the pandemic, we have a £1 billion catch-up plan, which includes £350 million for a national tutoring programme targeted at disadvantaged children. We also put £100 million into remote learning to ensure that children from disadvantaged backgrounds have free laptops and tablets, and access to the internet, to help them learn from home.
Lord Roberts of Llandudno (LD) [V]: My Lords, one matter that can be tackled immediately is that of free school meals for kids in the holiday season. If Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland can manage it, why cannot England? We also had long-term inequalities even before the pandemic. How can one person be worth £7,000 a day, when another just manages to get £7,000 a year? We need somebody like William Beveridge, who led the great revival and change in 1942, which brought in the welfare state and National Health Service. Will the Government consider setting up a new commission that will bring about more equality?
Baroness Penn (Con): My Lords, the Government will always consider new ideas to tackle inequality in this country. The support we have provided to people during this pandemic is unprecedented. Nearly £200 billion of support has gone into people, the economy and livelihoods since the pandemic began, and our support will continue while we need measures in place to stop the spread of the disease.
Baroness Warsi (Con) [V]: My Lords, my noble friend answered part of my question in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone. But what assessment have the Government made of the impact of the pandemic on the learning and attainment of children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds? How do they propose to reverse any negative impact to ensure that these young people do not suffer from a permanent socioeconomic pandemic penalty?
Baroness Penn (Con): My Lords, as I said to the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, the Government have invested a huge amount to ensure that children are able to catch up on the schooling that they lost. We are conscious that those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds have been affected most; that is why our focus is also on ensuring that schools stay open while we deal with the rest of the pandemic, and ensure that children’s learning is not interrupted again.
Baroness Meacher (CB): My Lords, UK inequality has increased greatly over the past decade, in part because of the Cameron Government’s swingeing benefit cuts as universal credit rolled out, as evidenced by the huge increase in the use of food banks. As the Government review this year’s benefit uplift, will the Minister attempt to persuade her colleagues to take account of 10 years of real-terms cuts?
Baroness Penn (Con): My Lords, I cannot anticipate the outcome of future fiscal events in this House, but I assure the noble Baroness that I will take her contribution and views back to the Treasury to ensure they are heard.
Lord Browne of Ladyton (Lab) [V]: My Lords, in January 2019, the Environmental Audit Committee, accusing the Government of turning a blind eye to malnourishment, called for the appointment of a Minister of Hunger. In July this year, the Defra committee urged the Government to appoint a Minister for Food and, last week, before the FSM vote, the chair of the Education Committee called on his party and Government to come up with a long-term strategy to combat child hunger. If building back better does not include one of the above, just what is the plan to address the increasing inequity being forced on the rising number of children facing hunger in this country?
Baroness Penn (Con): My Lords, the Government are conscious that families are facing an incredibly difficult time at the moment, which is why we have increased the generosity of universal credit by £20 a week. I also remind the noble Lord that the Government have expanded eligibility for free school meals: all children in reception, year 1 and year 2 have access to free school meals, as well as eligible students from low-income families in FE colleges and, during the pandemic, children from low-income families who have no recourse to public funds.
Baroness Scott of Needham Market (LD) [V]: My Lords, rebuilding the economy post-Covid will largely depend on schemes that are tailored to local circumstances and use local knowledge. Does the Minister agree with the recent ResPublica report, which argues that devolution must become the default position of government and not be conditional on a centrally determined local government structure?
Baroness Penn (Con): My Lords, I have not seen that particular report, but I will look at it. The Government are absolutely committed to devolution, both of power and funding, so that local areas can look at what they need and allocate resources most effectively to support local jobs and businesses.
Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb (GP) [V]: My Lords, despite the Government’s best efforts, some people have fallen through the gaps. Have the Government considered a trial of universal basic income? This has been and is being trialled in other countries. It really seems to work.
Baroness Penn (Con): The Government have previously had representations in favour of introducing a universal basic income. It is not a policy to which the Government are attracted.
Lord Balfe (Con) [V]: My Lords, we seem to forget that this huge amount of money we are spending will have to be paid back by the same future generations about whom we are talking. Do the Government have any plans to cut back on expenditure and to examine, for example, the triple lock? It seems to exempt people in my age group from making any contribution at all towards building back.
Baroness Penn (Con): The Government are conscious of this. We distinguish between short-term help during the pandemic—where the extra support we are putting into families and livelihoods will prevent the worst outcomes that could occur during this recession—and the medium term, when we will need to get the public finances back on to a sustainable footing.
Lord Bird (CB): My Lords, I declare my interests as in the register. Does the Treasury know about the Ride Out Recession Alliance? This is bringing businesses, communities and individuals together to try to stop the mass arrival of homelessness in this country by creating jobs and training. Is it also aware that the cost of preventing people falling into homelessness is about half that of allowing them to do so?
Baroness Penn (Con): I will certainly ensure that the Treasury finds out about the Ride Out Recession Alliance, if it is not aware of its work already. I agree with the noble Lord about the benefits of preventing homelessness and many other issues. During the pandemic we have increased the value of the local housing allowance to help people stay in their own homes, even if they have suffered adverse economic effects from the pandemic.