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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Welsh Women Achieving

Monday, November 14, 2005

Meg was invited to give the keynote speech at the Welsh Labour Women’s conference in Swansea on ‘The Labour Government achieving for Women.’ The speech is given below.


 


Good afternoon. I’m pleased to be here and delighted to see so many women gathered together, (with the occasional man? - welcome friend).


 


As Minister for Women and Equality it’s not surprising that at this event my subject is ‘The Labour Government achieving for Women’. But it does feel good to be with Labour women discussing the changing role of women, and what the Labour Government has done. It’s only by examining and discussing that we pick up ideas about different way of approaching what we all want to see - women taking their rightful place in society.


 


The Labour Government has made very significant advances helping women in the world of work, and women who have not yet entered the workforce or have since retired from it.  I think we can be proud of what we have done and I’d like to share some of our key achievements with you.


 


Rather than give you a list of achievements, I’m going to introduced you to a family, the Smith Family, or should that be Jones? There are three generations of women in this family - a new baby called Ann, her mother Catherine, and Grandmother Mary. Although this family is a figment of my imagination, there are families like them throughout the country, in every town and village.


 


Let’s start with the baby.


 


Ann Smith, born in 2005, faces a much brighter future than she would have done if she had been born just 20 years earlier. We can see this from the start of her life.


 


Catherine, the baby’s mother, gets 26 weeks paid maternity leave - which is up from 16 weeks. If she wishes she can then also take another 26 weeks maternity leave unpaid - and from 2007 the paid leave will increase to 9 months. Dads are not left out, they now have 2 weeks paid paternity leave - and from 2007 parents will be able to decide after the first 6 months whether it is the father or mother who takes leave to look after their baby until she is one year old. Over the term of this Parliament we will have legislated for paid maternity /paternity leave for the whole of the first year of a child’s life.


 


Once maternity and paternity leave is over, Ann’s mum and dad can request flexible working until the child is aged 6. Financially, parents have more help. Child Benefit has been increased by 50% since the start of the Labour Government in 1997. We have introduced childcare tax credits for 1.3m low income families, and Child and Working Families tax credit provides extra money to 9 out of 10 families.


 


It is easier for families to afford childcare for their children. Our National Childcare Strategy supports choice by expanding good quality and affordable childcare. We’ve more than doubled childcare funding, guaranteeing all three and four year olds a free 20 hours a week nursery place, and we’ve rolled out a major expansion of childcare schemes for low-income families like Sure Start.


 


Once Ann Smith goes to school her prospects will be better than ever. Literacy standards have risen, class sizes have fallen. In secondary school citizenship lessons ensure she will have a better understanding of the society in which she lives.


 


If Ann Smith is ill - perhaps she needs her tonsils out or other common childhood ailment - she will wait for less time for her operation than under the Conservative Government of previous times.


 


Of course in my imagination Ann would live in a happy household, but what if the family were not? Maybe her mum, Catherine, is the victim of domestic violence. We have introduced a huge overhaul in domestic violence legislation. There is better victim protection with a register of civil orders against alleged offenders. Rape victims can no longer be cross-examined by the alleged attacker in court cases.


 


And if Ann’s mum and dad split up? We have introduced measures to ensure this affects the children as little as possible. We have helped 150,000 lone parents find work through the New Deal for Lone Parents; this means that for the first time more than half of lone parents are in paid work. Unless you buy the winning lottery ticket, in a rollover week, getting and keeping good well-paid work is the route out of poverty for women and men.


 


If Ann Smith had been born under a Conservative Government she could have been one of the one in three children living in poverty. The Labour Government has taken a lot of action to tackle this situation - we have pledged to wipe out child poverty within a generation. We are well on the way.


 


When Ann gets to her teenage years and leaves school, she will do so in the knowledge that whichever path she chooses she will have help and support. If she wants to stay on in post 16 education, and her family has a low income, she will receive financial help from the government. She now has the opportunity to benefit from modern apprenticeships and skills training. Or she may be one of the 50% of young people going to university, and then she will receive means tested financial help.


 


Let’s look at Catherine the mother.


She may return to work after her maternity leave.  Thanks to the minimum wage, introduced by us in 1999, one million women now have higher pay. The Labour Government is also working to reduce the gap between men’s and women’s earnings. We’ve established a Women and Work Commission to investigate and make recommendations on tackling the gender pay gap. We’re also ensuring all employees get 4 weeks paid holiday, plus bank holidays - benefiting 3 million, mostly women workers.


 


If Catherine feels that she would like to get more involved in public life, we encourage her. We promote more women onto the boards of national public bodies. We have given political parties the right to take measures to increase the numbers of women elected at all levels - but for Westminster only Labour has used these new powers. In both the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament the presence of women has been felt, and is effective.


 


Perhaps Catherine would like to retrain. We know that many women coming back into the labour market after looking after children want to develop their skills, so we’ve put in place an entitlement to basic skills training.


 


What about Mary, the grandmother? She is a pensioner, and while her daughter is benefiting from Labour’s workplace legislation, and her granddaughter from childcare and schooling, what about her?


 


With pensioners we have made huge progress. We have concentrated on helping the poorest and most vulnerable pensioners - who are mainly women.  There’s free TV licences for the over 75s, winter fuel payments and the pension credit for those on low incomes. The specific issues affecting women’s retirement income, the economic deficit women experience through not having a consistent paid work history, is being examined, with the findings due to be with us before the end of the year. We are following at all times the mantra ‘dignity in retirement’.


 


And if Grandmother Smith does need additional care there are more resources in care services and the health service, so elderly people can be supported if they want to stay at home. We’re introducing a new right for those at work who also care for an adult to request flexible working. So, if Catherine Smith needs to help her mum she can ask her employer if she can fit her caring responsibilities round her work.


 


As I hope I’ve shown, through the story of the three generations of Smiths, Labour has done much to be proud of for women. But I don’t want to give the impression that everything is lovely - that there are no problems left.


 


I’ve touched on one - the gender pay gap. I’m glad to say that the latest figures show this gap is decreasing, but not at a rapid enough rate. Government want the improvements to go faster and further until we can be sure that all workers are paid at the correct rate for the job, not the rate depending on which sex they are.


 


We know that women dominate the lower skilled, lower paid sectors. Whereas men dominate the higher skilled sectors which give higher financial returns. This results in women not using their potential to the full. In order to tackle this we launched ‘Equal Opportunity and Choice: Tackling Occupational Segregation’ in October last year.  This is a plan highlighting Government action encouraging both men and women into non-traditional areas of work.


 


We provide £6.9 million pounds for the UK Resource Centre for Women (UKRC) in Science, Engineering and Technology (SET).  This centre, based in Bradford, is working with employers and institutes to tackle the barriers that scare off women from working in these sectors.  The Centre provides practical help and support to girls and women, and works hard to raise the profile of women already in these sectors through a range of initiatives.


 


Industry is also taking this issue seriously. Cosmetics firm, L’Oreal and the UK Resource Centre announced in July a programme to address some of the issues faced by female scientists when returning to work after a career break.  Three cash bursaries of £10,000 pounds each, jointly funded by the partners, will be granted to women scientists each year.


 


Skills are fundamental to achieving our ambitions, as individuals, for our families and for our communities. They help businesses create wealth, and they help people realise their potential.   They service the twin goals of social justice and economic success. 


 


We have to ensure that women have access to the same opportunities as men in the labour market, that they are able to secure higher paid employment and secure a decent pension for when they retire. 


 


If there was no segregation between men and women in certain occupations, GDP could increase. Research has also shown that over 50% of women in part time jobs are working below their skill levels and a further 30% believe that they could do more skilled jobs if they had the training. As many as 25 per cent of women who work part-time would be prepared to work full-time if better pay and more flexible working conditions were on offer. 70% of women who have qualifications in science engineering and technology do not work in those sectors despite these being areas of skill shortage. If all these issues were tackled there would be additional GDP benefits which could amount to 3 per cent. of GDP.


 


But we also have to deal with issues that have emerged in recent years, grown in terms of the damage they do - tackling the scourge of human trafficking for instance. This awful crime has grown enormously over the past few years - ruining many lives in many countries. We have to develop ways of working with our friends in Europe to ensure we eradicate it completely. It is a key priority of my colleagues in the Home Office, and an issue I have been working with them on.


 


To finish on a self-interested note. Like I’m sure many here, I can remember the years of opposition, being powerless to affect change. Women’s votes enabled Labour to win the General Elections of 1997 and 2001, in those elections women voted for us in comparable numbers to men. In the 2005 election more women voted Labour than men. The agenda set by Labour struck a cord with women, and they voted for us.


 


Listening to women, listening to each other, responding to the problems and difficulties of women’s every day lives. We can learn what is needed to help women’s lives get better - we can do the right thing - and continue as the party of government. Sounds a winning combination to me!


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