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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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‘Women Networking With Purpose’

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Meg was invited to give the keynote speech at the women’s conference of the National Association of Councillors (NAC) in Glasgow, the speech is below.

 

 

Thank you for inviting me to this conference. As Minister for Women it’s perhaps not surprising that I think that it’s important for women to play a full and active role in public life. Women make up half the population of the United Kingdom, any system declaring itself as democratic needs to strive to better reflect that statistic.

 

It’s not just in public life that we need to increase women’s role, women’s influence, but throughout our public services. Public services should reflect the needs and interests of the community they are responsible to. If our public bodies are to serve the end user in a meaningful way, they must connect with local people and local communities.

 

There is also a strong case for the business world to make full use of the skills and experiences of all parts of our society. The UK economy is facing a skills shortage in various sectors today. There is a clear correlation between sectors experiencing skills shortages, and sectors in which women are under-represented.  An example is the plumbing and construction industry sector, where women comprise of just 1 % of employees. 

 

Proper representation of women in all sectors of society will result in enriching and improving the quality of decisions public bodies make. But as we know, it’s not just women who are currently under-represented. Public bodies need to reflect the multicultural make up of the UK. They need to represent people from every section of our communities.

 

It is crucial that we increase the numbers of women on these bodies - currently only 35% women and just 6.2% people from ethnic minorities hold board public body positions. But there is progress being made - ten years ago, only 23% of these public appointments were filled by women.

 

However, this is better than the FTSE 100 companies, where only 10.5% of top business leaders are women. As a country we have been content for our business leaders to rise like dough. In order to have a chance of responding to the challenges of globalisation, employers will have to invest in their current and future managers. To be successful in the future global economy women’s leadership, talent and skills need to be promoted.

 

Women in National Politics

Turning to National Politics - let’s remind ourselves that before the 1997 General Election women made up only 9% of MPs in the House of Commons. At that time there were more men in the House of Commons called John then there were women.

 

This figure now stands at 20%, and I am pleased to say that 27.4% of Labour MPs are now women, with 35% of the Cabinet female. All mainstream political parties are now taking serious action to increase women’s political representation.

 

The increase in my own party is partly due to action we have taken on all-women short-lists. In 2002 the Government introduced legislation in the form of the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002, this allowed for positive measures towards women’s increased participation. In the Welsh assembly 50% are women and in the Scottish Parliament 39.5% are women too.

 

Within the European Union the UK is ranked 14th for women’s representation, and internationally we are ranked 50th out of 184 countries listed by the Inter-Parliamentary Union in terms of women holding office.

 

Some would say that the numbers of women in Parliament, in Government is not important. I disagree. I am positive that issues like work life balance, childcare, the gender pay gap, women and pensions would not be receiving the focus and attention they currently are if it were not for the numbers of women from all parties in Parliament.

 

Local Politics

We know that women are well represented at local level in their own communities. This is particularly so in the areas that our close to our hearts - education, health and crime. We are active on school governing bodies, as magistrates and on the boards of local NHS Trusts.

 

Overall, women fill nearly 50% of most of these positions. These are important areas, responsible for delivering vital public services and in many cases with vast budgets. But the skills and experiences that women obtain are not being transferred to regional and national positions where they are much needed.

 

And as this you know only too well, the situation is true of local councils - on average in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, just over a fifth of councillors are women. In England, this rises to just under a third. The picture across the UK being:

  • In Scotland only 21.8% are female (2003 figure),
  • England 29.1% (2004 figure),
  • Wales 21.8% (2004 figure), and
  • in Northern Ireland  21.6% (2005 figure) are female.

A particularly shocking statistic is that only 2.2% of women councilors in England are from ethnic minority groups. In Scotland just over 1% of councillors are from black and ethnic minority backgrounds. Scottish local government remains under-representative of the communities that it represents.

 

On a more positive note, however, women constitute nearly 40% of MSPs, compared to 20% of MPs. We know from the research completed by the Electoral Commission that in seats where a woman MP was elected in 2001, women’s turnout was 4% higher than men’s.

 

Action Government is taking

Government is committed to helping more women to become local councillors. As I said at the outset, it is a crucial we ensure our public and also are political bodies represent the views of the consumers and taxpayer.

 

In schools we have introduced the teaching of citizenship in order to develop the pupil’s knowledge and understanding of roles, rights and responsibilities. This is important in teaching youngsters about the democratic process, about why we have elections.

 

It is encouraging that the male:female ratio of members of the Youth Parliament is 49% male and 51% female. I hope this indicates that young women and girls are as equally interested in politics as young men and boys.

 

Gender Duty

I also believe that the Public Duty on Gender - better known as the Gender Duty - will also have a positive impact. Very much in the same vein as the race and disability duties, this will put a statutory duty on all public authorities to promote and ensure equality of opportunity between men and women. This is due to come into force in 2007, and will no doubt improve opportunities for women in the workplace and in the delivery of our public services. This Duty will ensure that consideration of both men and women are taken into account in both the delivery of services and in relation to staffing issues.

 

Conclusion

As I said the Government is committed to increasing women’s public representation on local councils but we recognise there are no easy answers or solutions. As with changing the attitude of the general public in other areas, it’s a steady slog.

 

We need the help, experience and expertise of women already active in public bodies. We all need to identify and encourage the next generation, the talented women of the future to step forward. Many will lack confidence, we need to help them gain it - they will say ‘they haven’t the experience’, well that was true of everyone in this hall once!

 

By working together we can support these women, women from all communities, to step forward.

 

Thank you.

 

The photo shows Meg, Cathy Jamieson MSP, Scottish Minister of Justice, Annabel Goldie MSP, Conservative Leader in Scotland, and Cllr Ruth Simpson, Women’s Officer of the NAC.

 


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