Ten key risks for equalities?

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The impact of the pandemic has been so widespread, and so “big”, that understanding what has happened, and the challenges Scotland now faces, is not easy.

Nevertheless, earlier this year (January 2021), following a request from the Equalities and Human Rights Committee, the Scottish Government identified ten key existing or emerging risks arising both from COVID-19 and EU exit, for the delivery of Scotland’s National Outcomes, in its National Performance Framework.  These include many equalities issues as set out in detail in this section of the Equality and Fairer Scotland Budget Statement. An “easy read” version of the statement also identifies some of the budget measures to tackle the risks. 

This blog summarises the ten risks identified by the Scottish Government.  It also summarises some of the government’s own analysis relating to each risk, (without any further commentary from SPICe).  These are a combination of issues that already exist, are getting worse, or are at high risk of happening. 

Where relevant, links are provided to analysis of some of the key issues for session 6, identified by SPICe, in its recent briefing for the new parliament.

Key Risk 1 – Heightened risk that existing structural inequalities in the labour market are worsened

Why does the government think this is a risk?

Forecasts indicate a weakened economy, with poorer job prospects, due to the impacts of COVID-19 and Brexit.  Employment rates are already lower for women, disabled people, ethnic minority people and those from certain parts of the country. 

Gender segregation means that some occupations are dominated by men, and others by women.  These distinct patterns of employment mean that there will be distinct outcomes, for men and women, depending on how different sectors fare.

The furlough scheme has, however, temporarily masked many labour market issues, and we don’t have good data on some groups with small populations, or for example on intersectional impacts (people with more than one protected characteristic).

For some further information, please see SPICe’s recent “key issues” briefing on How has Scotland’s labour market fared during the pandemic?

Key Risk 2. Poorer labour market outcomes and impacts on young people due to COVID-19

Why does the government think this is a risk?

As a high proportion of young people work in some of the hardest hit sectors (such as food, retail and accommodation), and in some of the most precarious forms of employment (such as zero-hours contracts, part time and temporary work), their jobs have also been amongst the hardest hit in the pandemic. The specific effects of the pandemic come on top of the disproportionate impacts on young people experienced in previous, more typical, recessions.

Prospects are also reduced for school leavers and other young people newly entering the jobs market, with the potential for long term scarring effects.

For further information see the latest labour market statistics in this short SPICe Labour Market update: May 2021

Key Risk 3.  Women’s unfair responsibility for unpaid care and domestic work might get worse and reduce their ability to find paid work and income

Why does the government think this is a risk?

Even before the pandemic, evidence shows women did a disproportionate amount of unpaid housework and caring in the household.  This can restrict women from entering the labour market, reduce their choice of jobs, and have negative long-term effects on pay and progression.  Some of the sectors most affected by COVID-19 restrictions have high rates of female employment.  With school and nursery closures, housework and childcare has fallen more on women than men, which may make it harder for them to maintain or take on employment.  

Overall, the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic may therefore put pressure on both the gender employment gap and the gender pay gap in coming years.

Key Risk 4. COVID-19 Mortality and health inequalities

Why does the government think this is a risk?

Scotland’s most deprived areas have had the highest number of COVID-19 cases (specifically the two most deprived quintiles have the highest and second-highest total number of COVID-19 positive cases).  Whilst most ‘excess deaths’ have occurred among the older population, even after adjusting for age, people living in the most deprived areas were more than twice as likely to die with COVID-19 than those in the least deprived areas

Similarly, age-standardised death rates for men were significantly higher than for women.  Over 90% of COVID-19 related deaths (March-November 2020) involved people with at least one pre-existing condition.  The most common main pre-existing condition was Dementia and Alzheimer’s.

There was also evidence of increased risk of serious illness due to COVID-19 in those of South Asian origin, a trend seen most markedly within the Pakistani ethnic group. Work is underway to get better data on ethnic groups, and also about those with learning disabilities.

For some further information, please see SPICe’s recent briefing (March 2021) on Health inequalities and COVID-19

Key Risk 5. Drug and alcohol deaths remain unacceptably high with the impact of COVID unclear

Why does the government think this is a risk?

2019 saw the largest number of drug related deaths recorded (at 1,264), a doubling of the number from ten years previously.  Men accounted for the majority of the drug-related deaths, despite a faster increase in female drug-related deaths. The median age of drug-related deaths has increased from 28 to 42 over 20 years.

There were 1,020 alcohol-specific deaths registered in Scotland in 2019, the lowest annual total since 2013. Generally, numbers of male deaths have been twice as high as female. Most alcohol-specific deaths are of people in their 50s and 60s. The highest levels of drug and alcohol deaths are in areas with the highest levels of deprivation. There is little robust quantitative evidence of harms on characteristics such as ethnicity and sexual orientation.

Key Risk 6. High and rising mental health problems made worse by COVID-19

Why does the government think this is a risk?

The COVID-19 pandemic is taking its toll on the population’s mental wellbeing, and some groups – particularly women, young adults, those with a pre-existing mental health condition and people in lower socio-economic groups – are faring worse than others.  Key influences include loneliness, financial pressures, changes in social contacts, spending more time at home, changes to work and education, changes to childcare and caring, and uncertainty or lack of control

The government has said that they are as yet uncertain about the severity and longevity of these impacts across different population groups, but a Mental Health Advisory Group, and a SCOVID Mental Health Tracker Study, will help inform policy.

For some further information, please see our recent “key issues” briefing on Mental health and COVID-19

Key Risk 7. Increased digital divide as work, public service and home schooling move online

Why does the government think this is a risk?

The pandemic means greater reliance on digital technologies for work, healthcare and education. But those who do not have the skills and confidence, or the physical equipment and infrastructure may see negative outcomes in health, social isolation, finances, employment and academic performance.

Older adults, those with lower household incomes, adults living in the most deprived areas, those living in social rented housing, and those with a long-standing physical or mental health condition or illness, are all less likely to use the internet in Scotland.

Key Risk 8. Changes to Universal Credit could increase poverty, and particularly child poverty

Why does the government think this is a risk?

Some of the same groups who were more likely to be in poverty before the pandemic (young people, women, disabled people and people of minority ethnicities) are also more likely to have been hit by the economic impact of COVID-19.  Low earners were more likely than high earners to lose their jobs or be furloughed.  The workers likely to be worst affected by the lockdown also had less wealth to fall back on in hard times and are amongst the most financially vulnerable.

The government points out that tackling child poverty is complex, that there are gaps in data, with one uncertainty being the impact of the £20 uplift in Universal Credit being withdrawn.

For some further information, please see our recent “key issues” briefing on Social security: completing the (first) project

Key Risk 9. Worsening gaps in attainment and skills levels due to periods of blended and virtual learning

Why does the government think this is a risk?

Changes to children and young people’s learning experiences have been greater for already disadvantaged groups, with low income families experiencing increased levels of poverty. There are also considerable differences highlighted in access to resources to support home learning – such as electronic devices, internet access, a quiet space to study and parental guidance, with additional barriers for children with various additional needs.   

This means challenges for attainment, career progression, and longer-term participation in education employment or training. Mental health problems have increased, and with job and training opportunities drying up, there is potential for long term scarring effects for young people. 

Key Risk 10. Rising domestic and sexual abuse against women and children, and rising hate crime due to COVID and EU Withdrawal

Why does the government think this is a risk?

There has been an increase in the number of domestic abuse incidents recorded by police across April to November 2020 was higher than the equivalent period in 2019 (up 6 per cent). The vast majority of police-recorded domestic abuse incidents have a female victim and male perpetrator.  Victims have cited the combined impact of isolation, lack of safe childcare options, managing the risk of domestic abuse, and the risk of the virus to have a severe impact on their mental health and resilience.  Children are thought to have been exposed to increased levels of domestic abuse consistent with the period of lockdown.

In the period from April to June 2020, the number of hate crimes reported in Scotland was 5 per cent higher than at the same time the previous year.  Experience of discrimination and hate crimes increased for disabled workers during lockdown, with fears that public understanding has degraded.  However, caution needs to be applied before attributing all the changes seen to the pandemic.

For some further information, please see our recent “key issues” briefing on Violence and harassment experienced by women

Committee and parliamentary scrutiny

The risks identified in this blog bring challenges for Scotland over the short, medium and long term, across a range of policy areas. The new Equalities and Human Rights Committee, and the wider Parliament may wish to consider these risks when developing work programmes and scrutinising the government’s policy and budget choices.

Simon Wakefield, SPICe