By Joel Charles, the Director of Policy, Communications and Public Affairs at Seetec
Confronting the economic and social challenges the United Kingdom faces on the road to recovery from COVID-19 will not be straightforward and therefore the traditional approach from Whitehall needs to change to factor in the impact regionally.
The Government can avoid accusations of an overly top-down approach if its strategy meets regional need and empowers communities to rebuild from the pandemic on the ground. It is no exaggeration that the Budget in March will be an opportunity for the Government to set in motion the building blocks for this strategy and shape how the recovery will be forged in the coming years. The path to finding the right strategy should start with an acknowledgment that it will take time and should not be hastily settled upon, because the complexities that lay behind the impact of the pandemic still need to be fully realised.
Phasing action to deliver the recovery will be the Government’s best option. Jobs, reskilling and upskilling, and focusing on our wider economic competitiveness will need to be factored into an enhanced domestic agenda. The narrative of 2019, global Britain and the levelling up agenda, depends on the Government taking the brave step to acknowledge the fundamentals we lived by pre-pandemic are not as relevant today.
Through our national employability, justice and skills services we have seen a worrying picture emerging. Our service users are all telling us that they feel isolated and lost because of the pandemic. They feel unable to be active participants in society. Long-term unemployed participants accessing our services tell us that it is increasingly difficult to find work because more people have entered the labour market. This risks more vulnerable people becoming trapped without the prospect of finding sustainable employment. Their life chances matter too. As an employee-owned business, we are committed to ensuring the voices of our services users are heard as part of the recovery. If the Government wants to level up all parts of the United Kingdom, it must first decide how to build a truly inclusive recovery that delivers for the most vulnerable in our society.
Employee-owned businesses are in a prime position to take a more prominent leadership role to deliver an inclusive recovery. Driven by a deep-rooted commitment to delivering greater social value in the communities that we serve, there is a willingness to work in the national interest to aid the Government’s plans. There is a practical way for the Government and leaders from employee-owned businesses to work together. This is by setting up a taskforce, made up of all the talents from the public, charitable and private sectors, to create specific policies and advise how best to tackle the social challenges that have emerged since the pandemic began.
Ministers should be bold and enhance the Government’s domestic strategy. The Government’s focus on skills and jobs as overarching priorities is a positive step in the right direction, but more needs to be done to shape the implementation around what the regions and their disadvantaged communities need first. Success may lie in boosting social inclusion and identifying what the regions of the United Kingdom need to achieve this goal.
The much-anticipated Devolution and Recovery White Paper could be central to a plan for an inclusive recovery. It is rumoured that the White Paper will not be unveiled until after the local elections, whilst there are political calculations at play for choosing to delay the publication, the recovery must come first. The White Paper should be reinforced by a vision to give communities the power and autonomy to use Whitehall cash to deliver the levelling up agenda in a way that matters to the local electorate in their patch. More flexibility to use funds to support those industries hardest hit by the pandemic, targeted health and wellbeing initiatives and combined employability and skills support to allow younger generations a chance to bounce back from the pandemic in earnest.
This alone will not be enough to deliver an inclusive recovery. Whitehall will need to be restructured to meet this challenge, there have already been suggestions that the employment brief should once again be a Cabinet level role. Calls for this change are likely to grow as COVID-19’s impact on jobs continues to hit home. It would probably be as effective to restructure Government business by establishing an inclusive recovery cabinet committee headed by the Prime Minister with a specific Recovery Minister to implement the vision, but this again will not make a difference if implemented in isolation.
The focus now should be on the development of a new domestic strategy for an inclusive recovery that forms the backbone of the Government’s response to the impact of the pandemic. There are five key ways to move the recovery forward:
- Appoint a Recovery Minister to coordinate cross-government action;
- End the fragmentation of employability and skills provision to tackle the opportunity gap;
- Devolve more powers and finances to the regions to respond to local challenges;
- Empower sector leaders through a taskforce to help the rebuild; and
- Pull together a phased long-term plan to get our economy back on its feet.
Decisive action needs to be taken to avoid a lost generation unable to fulfil their potential. We can ill-afford to squander the opportunity to build an inclusive recovery that will set the right foundations for all parts of the United Kingdom to prosper in a post-COVID world.