The UK economy needs radical transformation equal to the post-second world war era, including the creation of a universal care service providing free full-time childcare and elderly care, according to a seminal report published by the Women’s Budget Group.
The service, which would be free at the point of delivery, would create more jobs than equivalent investment in transport and construction and help provide secure work for the thousands of people losing livelihoods in retail and hospitality, according to an 18-monthcommission on a gender equal economy.
“We need a change that is as fundamental to the economy as the creation of the welfare state was in 1945,” said Mary-Ann Stephenson, director of the Women’s Budget Group (WBG), which convened the commission. “We’re at a similar moment and we can’t return to business as usual.”
It comes as government advisers warn that low carer wages are likely to put huge pressure on social care when freedom of movement ends.
The Migration Advisory Committee, which briefs the government on immigration, warned on Tuesday that wages must increase to attract British workers to care roles.
Covid-19 has both exacerbated and exposed inequalities, as well as shone a light on the “shaky foundations” of a care structure under which ill-paid agency care workers moved between care homes, often without adequate PPE, said Stephenson.
She added that the ravages of the pandemic had produced a profound shift in the electorate, forcing people to reassess the value of care and making them more supportive of higher taxation to fund a more comprehensive care system.
Polling by Survation published alongside the report suggests three-quarters of respondents would be willing to pay more tax to support investment in free social care for all over-65s and disabled people, while 79% agreed a better balance is needed between paid work, caring responsibilities and free time.
Conservative MP and chair of the women and equalities committee, Caroline Nokes, called on the government to “carefully consider” the commission’s proposals.
“The Covid-19 crisis has highlighted the inequalities in our society, especially gender inequality. It is now impossible to ignore,” she said. “Long-term failure to adequately gender-check government policies has led to women faring worse than men in multiple ways.”
Diane Elson, chair of the commission, said the report also recognised that the existing economic model had been failing men in terms of “health, quality of life, and time to care for their families”. Polling for the report found three-quarters of men aged 18-34 agreed that men should be encouraged and financially supported by the government to do more care.
With interest rates at historic lows, the report argues that now is the time to shift to a system of care seen in some Scandinavian countries, where it employs as many as 10% of the population in some countries, argues the report. The WBG argues that a similar shift in the UK would produce 2m jobs, increase overall employment by 5% and reduce the gender employment gap by 4%.
Investing in care would create nearly three times as many jobs as the same investment in construction, and have a significantly less negative impact on the environment, said Stephenson. “This is an idea whose time has come,” she said. “We are going to face other pandemics and the climate emergency - we need to organise ourselves in a way that makes us resilient.”