If The Government Is Serious About 'Building Back Better', Rishi Sunak Must Invest In Care

Investing in care provision is absolutely crucial if the government is truly determined to reduce inequality in our society, Diane Elson writes.

“Build back better,” said Prime Minister Boris Johnson in last Tuesday’s speech, as he made bold claims of a New Deal to “build, build, build” to stimulate the economy and “level up”.

But what did the speech really offer, beyond the alliterative slogans?

Economists and commentators across the board agree the much-vaunted stimulus package is paltry. There’s not much “new money” here: the £5 billion on infrastructure and £12 billion on “affordable homes” had already been budgeted in March and were simply re-announced. At the same time, the speech failed to acknowledge structural barriers that prevent groups disadvantaged by gender, ethnicity, class, disabilities and age from achieving substantive equality.

Crucially, Johnson barely mentioned the simple word which could “turbocharge” (to coin his phrase) his levelling up agenda – and that word is “care”. Investing in care provision is absolutely crucial if the government is truly determined to reduce inequality in our society.

Midsection Of Doctor Consoling Patient In Hospital
Midsection Of Doctor Consoling Patient In Hospital
Sasirin Pamai / EyeEm via Getty Images

And yet, Johnson’s speech postponed yet again a plan for social care. Build, build, build was the clarion call – with investment focused on physical infrastructure and construction. This is in spite of the fact that research for the Women’s Budget Group Commission on a Gender-Equal Economy shows investing net 2.7% GDP in the care sector would generate 2.7 times the number of jobs as the same investment in construction. That economic boost takes into account not only direct employment in the sector, but also indirect employment in the supply chain, as well as induced employment across consumer goods sectors as newly employed care workers spend their wages.

The chancellor could make a start in his summer economic update today by providing substantial new funding to local authorities to invest in care. This should be used to ensure that better wages are paid to care workers. Currently wages in the care sector are so low that, prior to the pandemic, there were 122,000 unfilled vacancies in social care. If care wages were raised to the level of those in construction, then investing 1% of GDP in care would still generate 1.6 more jobs than if it were invested in construction. What’s more, with higher wages, care jobs would be better jobs – ones that are more likely to be of interest to women, and indeed to men, who will lose jobs in retail, hospitality and travel.

Since the government is determined to build, the chancellor must also take steps to encourage women’s participation in construction, an industry in which the vast majority of workers are men. After all, unless there is a determined effort to include more women in programmes of skill development for the building and construction industry, then all this talk of job creation in the sector will do nothing to offset widening gender inequalities in the labour market. We know the chancellor is expected to announce new investment in apprenticeships in his summer economic update. He should target some of this to address the huge gender gaps in apprenticeships, with research for the Commission on a Gender-Equal Economy showing that women are 84% of those on health and social care apprenticeships and 93% of those on childcare apprenticeships, while men are 97% of those on construction apprenticeships.

Investment in creating new construction training opportunities for women can go hand in hand with building a greener future. Let’s get women working in converting homes to become more energy efficient, for example. Is it time to swap World War Two’s iconic feminist symbol Rosie the Riveter with Rosie the Insulator?

Of course, the “Build, Build, Build” slogan did cover commitments to building more affordable housing. But research for the Women’s Budget Group Commission on a Gender-Equal Economy has identified how even this so-called affordable housing is out of reach to most women.

“The most effective way to create more jobs quickly is investment in care: putting a greater value on care work and expanding care provision.”

In fact, this research has shown that no region in England has affordable rents for women on median wages (when affordability is measured on rents taking less than a third of monthly income), whereas for men on median wages every region is affordable except London. Women are similarly disadvantaged in buying property: the median home in England costs over 12 times women’s median salary, compared to eight times for men.

Not only is this unfair on a basic equality level, but the ways in which women are priced out of housing means they are more vulnerable to homelessness, and at risk of being trapped in abusive relationships. Where’s the New Deal for a woman struggling to find a home of her own?

Building back better and levelling up requires an ambitious programme of investment in social housing (i.e. housing with rents at around 50-60% of market rates), not simply affordable homes (80% of market rate), together with proactive initiatives to get more women working in building them.

But the most effective way to create more jobs quickly is investment in care: putting a greater value on care work and expanding care provision. This has far more transformative power than powering up the cement mixer and bulldozer. If the government is truly serious about keeping its electoral promises, they have to start recognising that building back better and levelling up requires an ambitious programme of investment in care.

Professor Diane Elson is Chair of the Commission on a Gender-Equal Economy