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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Plymouth Co-operative Rally: ‘The Third Term’

Monday, October 31, 2005

Meg was invited to speak at the Plymouth and South West Co-operative Party Annual Rally recently - her speech is below.


This afternoon I visited the Get Up and Go Community Nursery, and then followed this up with a walk around the ‘Looking, Lighting, Learning’ project at the Royal William Yard. The children at both places were thoroughly enjoying themselves doing what children do - drawing, playing, rushing about. I can tell you it was an exhausting afternoon!


But it was an enjoyable one. I find, when visiting schools and children’s projects in my own constituency, that being with kids when they are in an environment that encourages them to contribute, encourages them to share their thoughts and ideas, is energizing. There’s something about their enthusiasm that’s contagious. Though I also have to admit, and grandparents will appreciate this, there’s something to be said for giving them back afterwards!


It was good to see two examples of successful social enterprises. As co-operators we have long known the benefits of combining an entrepreneurial spirit with the philosophy of communities benefiting from that effort, rather than shareholders.


When I was appointed ‘Minister for Women and Equality’ I thought the title contained much of what a Labour Government should be about. I’m based at the Department for Trade & Industry where what is called the ‘equality’ agenda, and the ‘fairness at work’ agenda, are found. My role entails working across different Government departments, helping to shape the good policies we have into positive and workable law.


Later this year I will be introducing the ‘Equality Bill’ into the Commons. The Bill creates a new ‘Commission for Equality and Human Rights’ - bringing together the existing three commissions of Equal Opportunities, Race Equality and Disability Rights. The new commission will also tackle discrimination relating to age, sexual orientation and religion and belief, and is due to start in 2007. This new commission will take equality issues into a new era, able to deal with cases where discrimination is not based just on one facet of a person but on two or several and also able to tackle issues of wider inequalities. 


Some people may say we have gender equality already. 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


We have to find ways of dealing with inequality in society, ways that bring the majority of the population with us. Whilst much good work can be done by commission’s and projects, by churches and political parties, ultimately it’s what happens in local communities that determine whether the kids of today will grow up in a better, more caring world.


Coming into effect in December is the Civil Partnership Act. This Act provides for same-sex couples to get legal parity of treatment with opposite-sex couples who have entered into civil marriage. Important rights and responsibilities flow from forming a civil partnership, including a duty to provide reasonable maintenance for your partner and any children of the family, employment and pension benefits and protection from domestic violence. 


As part of the preparations for the registration of the first Civil Partnerships I have been visiting various Registry Offices around the country. Apart from talking to the Registrars themselves about the changes, I have been able to meet many of the couples who have booked to legally register their relationship. Same-sex couples who may have been together 30 or 40 years have been open to problems about inheritance, pension benefits, problems with relatives of one partner denying the other access in the case of serious illness. The Civil Partnership Act will address these injustices.


Issues affecting people in the workplace have a high priority in Government. Last week we introduced into the House of Commons the ‘Work and Families’ Bill - taking forward our manifesto commitment 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. 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 workers, business and society. The right to request flexible working is already operating well for parents with young children, 90% of requests being agreed. We propose extending the existing right to request flexible working to include those with adult caring responsibilities. Consequently, from April 2007 those who care for elderly or sick relatives will have the right to request flexible working. We will publish draft regulations to show possible options for defining who is eligible and consulting with trade unions, carers and employers on the detail.


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 an appalling 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 we look forward to their 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. I pay tribute to the women in the trade unions, Labour Party and the Co-operative Party who plugged away through the years so that the issue of the poverty faced by so many women in retirement is now firmly on the national political agenda. A system that has led to only 16 % of retired women having a full basic state pension cannot be right.


We need a new approach that recognises that because women still shoulder the majority of caring responsibilities, many will have time out of the workplace so we must recognise the importance of their unpaid work. 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 this issue.


As part of Britain’s Presidency of the European Union there will be a major event in Birmingham in November focusing particularly on women at work. People from across the EU will be sharing information on how to help women play their full role in the workplace. EU Ministers will also be visiting projects in Birmingham which help women from all ethnic groups take their place in the world of work.


Toward the end of this year my term as Chair of the Parliamentary Group of Co-operative MPs and Peers comes to an end. It’s been a busy year for us Co-operators in Parliament, and following the General Election we lost some valuable colleagues, but also gained some promising new ones. There’s a good group working to take forward co-operative ideas in Westminster, and I have found that if we ‘pitch’ our policy in the right way we get a good hearing from Labour colleagues unfortunate enough not to have a grounding in the co-op world.


This year’s Co-operative Party conference - held in Bradford - discussed a range of issues such as housing, transport, education and the BBC all from the point of view of co-operation and social enterprise. There was a welcome focus on the developing world and international development. Resolutions supported campaigning on Fair Trade including the development of Fair Trade towns and cities and calling on Co-op retailers to promote fair trade goods. As well as discussions on motions from local Co-operative Party branches, Hilary Benn, Secretary of State for International Development, attended a fringe meeting. I understand he visited Plymouth in April, including seeing one of your Co-operative stores.


Our philosophy of co-operation has always extended beyond our shores, and there is no better exponent of this than Linda Gilroy. Linda has been a powerful advocate for Divine chocolate, not least in Parliament. For instance during Fairtrade fortnight she arranged for a stand showcasing the chocolate to be positioned in Portcullis House, where many MPs have their offices. She also arranged for members of the Ghanaian co-operative who make the cocoa to meet Members of Parliament. 


The co-operative/mutual/social enterprise world has many good ideas, many good practical projects we can show to illustrate our politics. One of our great strengths is our connection with local communities, with what’s happening on the ground. At this point I want to mention a long-standing co-operator many of you will know - Alun Michael MP. Alun is Minister of State for Industry and the Regions with responsibility for encouraging enterprise in the economy and for championing social enterprise. I can’t think of any other person better qualified to advance the co-operative and mutual solution in the corridors of power.


Of course there are big issues that Government needs to tackle - the solutions for which may not be easy, nor popular but are essential for the future of our country and our planet. Pensions and global warming are just two such issues. Both involve asking people to make sacrifices in the short term for long term benefit. And coming back to an issue I raised earlier in the speech; that of tackling poverty in the developing world. We know that some of the solutions are about the developed world opening up its markets and promoting fair trade.


Being in Parliament I have come to appreciate more that Government is hard - making choices about which project to fund, which Bill to put through, inevitably

upsets people. But as I go about my constituency, the constituency where I was bought up, I can see the important differences having a Labour Government brings. So in the end, it’s better to be in Government even with the difficulties it brings, than sitting on the opposition benches railing against the world but being absolutely powerless to change a thing.


Thank you for inviting me here today, I look forward to questions.


The photo shows Meg with Linda Gilroy, MP for Plymouth Sutton, and Alison Seabeck, MP for Plymouth Devonport.

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