Government unable to explain Covid's disproportionate impact on ethnic minority employment, MPs say

Parliamentary committee accuses the Department for Work and Pensions of a ‘lack of curiosity’ over the impact of its policies

A group of MPs has criticised the government for its inability to explain the “shocking inequality” in employment that ethnic minority groups have experienced during the pandemic.

In a report on DWP Employment Support, the influential Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said it was concerned that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) “does not know why” unemployment for young black people increased by more than half to 41.6 per cent over the course of 2020, while unemployment among young white people grew just 2 percentage points to 12.4 per cent over the same period.

“The department could not readily explain this shocking inequality,” the report said, going on to say that the DWP had “relatively few” programmes directly aimed at people from minority ethnic communities.

Meg Hillier, Labour and Co-operative MP and chair of the PAC, said that while there had been a “staggering” increase in DWP spending on employment programmes over the last year, there was a “lack of curiosity” about the impact of the policies the department was implementing.

“When we are talking about the long-term prospects of a generation of our young people, and the extraordinary differential in job losses among young black people, this needs serious attention now or a whole generation will be scarred,” she said.

The report cited figures from the Office for National Statistics that showed unemployment among young black people aged 16 to 24 increased from 24.5 per cent in the last three months of 2019 to 41.6 per cent in the last three months of 2020.

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In comparison, unemployment for white people of the same age only increased from 10.1 per cent to 12.4 per cent over the same time.

The DWP also lacked employment data on other disadvantaged groups, including homeless people and people with drug and alcohol issues, the report said.

A DWP spokesperson said the department was constantly reviewing the impact that policies had on equality.

“Before the pandemic we lifted the employment rate to a record high for ethnic minorities and we are now focused on helping people from all backgrounds back into employment through our Plan for Jobs,” the spokesperson said.

Over the course of the pandemic, the DWP increased its spending on employment support programmes more than eightfold from £300m in 2020-21 to £2.5bn in 2021-22.

The department also hired 13,500 new work coaches to support new benefit claimants.

However, the PAC report cautioned that the DWP’s “focus on getting people into any form of employment risks neglecting its wider ambitions around supporting disabled people to work and supporting people on low pay to progress.”

The DWP spokesperson said that as well as the £150m Flexible Support Fund, which provides mentoring for people from ethnic minority backgrounds, among other things, the department was also offering specialist programmes to support disabled people.

“We remain committed to seeing 1 million more disabled people in work by 2027,” they said.