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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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The Government’s Agenda for Working People

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Meg was recently invited to give the keynote speech at USDAW’s National Political Conference, it is below.


I’m pleased to be here today discussing important issues for working people. It’s particularly pleasing as I am an USDAW member myself. Since becoming a Minister I have become more aware of how much the approach that this union takes has born fruit as Government implements legislation. In particular I want to mention the ‘Parents and Carers Campaign’. I think USDAW has much to be proud of in helping determine the priorities that are making such a positive difference to people’s lives.


Talking of people’s lives - I don’t know if you saw on TV this week Mrs Thatcher and her 80th birthday party? Let’s just reflect for a moment on what the 1980s and early 1990s were like for working people, how much influence trade unions had on Government policy. Thank goodness those days are well behind us.  


A quick mention of just some of the advances we have made together since 1997:

  • Childcare Strategy - ensuring that all children get the best start in life, responding to changing patterns of employment, giving parents and carers more choice.
  • National Minimum Wage - remember the Tories telling us it would result in a million jobs being lost.
  • Tax Credits - supporting families, reducing child and pensioner poverty.
  • Extending maternity leave, introducing paternity leave for the first time.
  • Parents of children under six having the right to request to work flexibly - nearly one million parents have used this law to take up flexible working in the last year alone.
  • Overhaul of laws against domestic violence, expansion of action against hate crimes.
  • Enhancing rights for people with disabilities, including while at work.


I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say we have come a long way in eight years. Unfortunately, as we saw at Party conference, some trade union leaders are too busy positioning themselves for post-union mergers to spare time on their members interests. Apparently headlines in the Daily Mail are what it’s all about.


But to be positive - in the next few days, along with my DTI colleague Gerry Sutcliffe, I will be introducing the ‘Work and Families’ Bill into Parliament. This Bill follows the wide-ranging consultation, ‘Work and Families: choice and flexibility’, we undertook earlier this year to get people’s views, ideas and possible problem areas. 


The ‘Work and Families’ Bill will take forward our manifesto commitments to give parents more choice about how they balance their work and family life. In the last Parliament we extended paid maternity leave to 6 months, benefiting some 350,000 women each year. This Bill will enable us to help further by extending paid maternity leave to 9 months from April 2007, with the goal of a year’s paid leave by the end of this Parliament.


Increasingly fathers want to take an active part in bringing up their children, so we will introduce a new entitlement to additional paternity leave and pay - to give parents greater choice in how they balance their work and caring responsibilities in the first year of the child’s life. We will protect the mothers first 6 months of maternity leave, but after that period the father will be able to take additional leave. We will be consulting further on the detail of this proposal to ensure that when it is implemented it will carry broad agreement. 


Flexible working is good for business - enabling them to draw on a wider pool of skills and talents in the workforce, improve recruitment and retention rates, increase staff morale and productivity. It’s good for individuals, helping find working hours to match family caring responsibilities. It also enables families to balance the time they want to spend together with the need to earn an income, pursue a career.


The right to request flexible working is already operating well for parents with young children, 90% of requests being agreed. The Government proposed extending the existing right to request flexible working to include those with adult caring responsibilities. The majority of responses to the consultation I referred to earlier gave broad support for the proposal.


Consequently, we plan in the ‘Work and Families’ Bill, to introduce from April 2007 the right for those who care for elderly or sick relatives to request flexible working. This will help a group who face particular challenges in juggling their caring responsibilities with work.


As the Bill progresses through Parliament we will publish draft regulations to show possible options for defining who is eligible to request flexible working. Subsequently we will consult formally with trade unions, carers and employers on the detail of these regulations. We need to have the final agreed version of these regulations clear and easily understandable.


The Equal Pay Act and the Sex Discrimination Act in the 1970s were important milestones in breaking down barriers to women’s participation in the labour market. Women now make up 50% of the workforce, up from 38% in 1971. Between 1971 and 2004, the female employment rate in the UK has risen from 42% to 70%.


The gender pay gap has fallen steadily since 1970, but the rate of change has slowed in recent years. The most recent figures, from the Office of National Statistics, show the gap for full-time workers is 14.4% and the gap between part-time workers is 43.2%.


In January 2006 Government will receive the report from the Women and Work Commission, an independent advisory group set up by the Prime Minister in July 2004 to investigate the pay gap between women and men. The Commission brings together employers, trade unions and experts to examine the evidence and come up with recommendations on how to tackle it. Our very own John Hannett is one of the commissioners, and I know he makes a valued and important contribution to the work of the commission.


We know already that one element in the gender pay gap is occupational segregation. The Trade & Industry Select Committee published its report ‘Jobs for the Girls: the effect of occupational segregation on the gender pay gap’ in April 2005. Occupational segregation narrows the pool of talent that employers can choose from. It is also an artificial impediment to the development of an individual’s abilities.    


The Government is committed to pursuing a programme of action to reduce the gap between men and women’s earnings, and to make sure women’s talents are properly rewarded. From October 2004 the Equal Pay Act was amended to limit the circumstances in which a tribunal could refuse to consider an equal value claim, and introduced new tribunal rules to help prevent very long-running cases. We look forward to the report from the Women and Work Commission, in particular to its recommendations for further action.


The gender pay gap is one of the reasons that women have lower pensions than men. If you earn less throughout your life than your pension entitlement will be affected. Tackling the gender pay gap will help women pensioners in the future. But the prospect of pensions is a problem for all of us - though we should be pleased that one of the problems is that we are living longer. Reports on the future of pensions are due to be published shortly and the Government is keen for an informed national debate about how to tackle the problems.


I pay tribute to the many women in the trade unions and Labour Party who have plugged away through the years that the issue of the poverty faced by so many women in retirement is now firmly on the national political agenda. Every political party has recognised that a system that has led to only 16 % of retired women having a basic state pension cannot be right. We need a new approach that recognises that while there have been significant changes in the Labour market, because women still shoulder the majority of caring responsibilities, many will have time out of the workplace and we need to better recognise the importance of their unpaid work.


The Equality Bill currently going through the House of Lords will introduce a gender equality duty for public authorities in Great Britain to promote equality of opportunity between men and women. It will be similar to the existing duty to promote race equality and a duty on disability. The gender duty will require public authorities to ensure that their policies and practices as employers and service deliverers address the different needs of women and men.


Some people may well say we have gender equality already. As I mentioned earlier, women now comprise 50% of the workforce. But we know women still come second in the workplace, that men face inequalities in trying to achieve a better balance between work and family responsibilities.


I know for example, men and women use health service services differently - there are some disturbing facts and figures.

  • Men are twice as likely as women both to develop, and to die from, the ten most common cancers which affect both sexes
  • Two thirds of men, compared with just over half of women, are overweight or obese. This makes men more likely to suffer from related conditions such as cancer and coronary heart disease
  • Men are much less likely to visit their GP than women. For example men under the age of 45 visit their GP only half as often as women.


The Government has long recognised that men and women have different needs in relation to public services - health, education, transport, crime prevention, criminal justice system. Some public authorities are already working to meet these different needs of men and women, but some are not. The gender equality duty will compel all public authorities to comply.


Labour has introduced a raft of measures since 1997 helping working people - at work, at home, and in the funding and reform of public services. As I said earlier, USDAW can be proud to have had a hand in a number of them. Government know we have to continue to move forward, to continue to introduce positive changes to help hard-working families take the opportunities that lead to a better life.


The photo shows Meg with USDAW General Secretary John Hannett.


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