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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Promoting Good Practise

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Meg gave the following speech at the ‘2006 North East Equality Awards’ event held at the Hardwick Hall Hotel. For further details visit: http://www.equality-ne.co.uk/

 

 

I am delighted to be here, to be celebrating the promotion of good practise in equality and diversity. Events such as this raise awareness of the importance of equality in today’s world. They help set a benchmark of behaviour - in our communities, our work, in society. I particularly commend the hard work of Equality North East in this respect.

 

Changing Labour Market  

The labour market is becoming older, and more diverse - more women, more people from the ethnic minority population, including new migrants to this country. In addition society is changing - for instance the growth in importance of how people perceive the balance between work and family responsibilities.  

 

We have to accept the reality of this change, of working patterns that are different from earlier times. Government and business alike have to respond to them, respond positively so we can reap the benefits that become available. By being positive we have the opportunity to help shape an environment where men and women are treated equally, where we all have choices in our lives. 

 

We know that women face many barriers within the labour market - barriers that need to be broken down. Women working full-time receive, on average, just 87% of men’s pay.  For women working part-time the gap is still wider.  This gender pay gap isn't just bad news for women. The skills and abilities that women bring to the world of work are not being fully utilised - businesses suffer, the economy is held back.

 

The Women and Work Commission was set up to examine the persistent problem of the pay and opportunities gap.  Their final report, which was presented earlier this year, contained a number of recommendations about:

  • the barriers to informed choice at school,
  • combining work and family life,
  • lifelong learning and training, and
  • improving workplace practice.

 

We are committed to taking action in these areas, and we launched our Action Plan last week on how we intend to proceed. We have already introduced a number of initiatives, such as providing more access to childcare and introducing flexible working arrangements. Both women and men should have genuine choice about how to balance work and caring responsibilities. 

 

Through the Work and Families Act we have extended the right to request flexible working to careers of adults, and fathers have a new right to an additional period of paternity leave.  With around 93 % of dads taking leave around the birth of a child, this entitlement is expected to benefit between 9,000 and 16,000 fathers. This should help parents balance family responsibilities with work.

 

Training

With a changing and diverse labour market access to skills is important. We recognise that lifelong learning is vitally important to enable people to pursue and progress in their chosen careers. Through the Skills Strategy we introduced in July 2003 we aim to ensure that individuals have the skills to be employable and personally fulfilled.

 

We know many women are in lower skilled, lower paid jobs, or out of the labour market altogether. Around half of women in part-time jobs are working below their skill level. We have to open up the opportunities available, helping them move up the ladder to higher skilled and better paid jobs.

 

The UK is currently facing a skills shortage in various sectors, such as construction, where women comprise of just 1% of employees.  Promoting equality of opportunity for all could plug this shortage. This will also allow employers a wider pool of talent to choose from.

 

In addition we know that occupational segregation is one of the main causes of the gender pay gap. It’s surprising but true that a staggering 70% of women with qualifications in science, engineering and technology do not work in those professions. Professions, can I remind you that regularly come up as having skills shortages. We have to ask why that is.

 

We are working in partnership with employers to help provide their employees with skills through the ‘Train to Gain’ programme. This is being rolled out nationally by the Learning and Skills Council, and I’m pleased that here in the North-East, businesses (Owens Global Logistics, Apex Radio Systems and Petersen Stainless Rigging) have benefited from this programme.

 

Promoting Community Cohesion

The new Department for Communities and Local Government has a remit to promote community cohesion and equality, as well as responsibility for housing, urban regeneration, planning and local government. We know that organisations such as Equality North East play an important role in promoting communities. The new Commission for Equality and Human Rights will be at the forefront nationally of this new equality and diversity agenda.

 

The Commission will begin its life with a very clear mandate. This is summarised in the Equality Act (2006), as follows: “the underlying objective of the new body is to support the development of a society where:

  • there is respect for the dignity and worth of every individual,
  • there is respect for and protection of each individual’s human rights,
  • people’s ability to achieve their potential is not limited by prejudice or discrimination,
  • every individual has an equal opportunity to participate in society, and
  • there is mutual respect between groups based on understanding and valuing diversity and on shared respect for equality and human rights.”

 

Of course words and aspirations are all fine and good, but what can the new Commission do to bring about real change, ensuring we tackle discrimination and embrace diversity in a genuine way? The answer is that it will be a mix; enforcement of the law alongside a duty to promote and encourage new thinking and best practice in relation to diversity, good relations and human rights.

 

We are already working with Equality North East to develop networks supporting each of the six strands covered by the new Commission - due to start in October 2007.

Equality North East will develop a ‘hub’ to coordinate, inform and promote dialogue and networking within and across each of the equality strands, as well as educating, supporting and informing employers and other organisations and individuals.

 

This kind of work is vital to ensure that only high-quality advice will be given on discrimination to whoever needs it. That employers are aware of their responsibilities under the regulations, and regional partnership networks are developed. We also welcome the recent formation of the North East Equality and Diversity Board, which will strengthen strategic policy activity on equalities within the region.

 

Age Discrimination

Government is committed to tackling age discrimination in employment and vocational training. People should be judged on their merits and capabilities, not on stereotyped assumptions based on age. The Age legislation that will come into effect in October 2006 will outlaw unjustified age discrimination in employment and vocational training.

 

It is not acceptable to deny people opportunities because of their age. Therefore the legislation will apply to decisions made on the basis of someone’s age. This will help ensure that older people are judged on their skills and competences not on the way they look. The Regulations will improve the employment rights of almost 6.9 million people currently aged 50-64 who are in work. However, Legislation is only part of the answer - attitudes need to change as well. 

 

I am happy to see so many employers here today, employers who are committed to equality and diversity in the workplace. All of you nominated for awards this evening deserve the warmest congratulations. You are doing the right things for the people who work with you. But, as I’m sure you realise, you are also doing the right thing for your business.

 

I wish you every success.

 


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