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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Different Identities at Work

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Meg was invited to give the keynote speech at the annual conference of the Institute of Business Advisors recently.

 

I’m going to talk this morning about equality and diversity. Changing demographics, globalisation and migration make us more aware of different identities, cultures, religions and beliefs. There are the changing relationships between men and women; new family patterns, technological advances and structures or the changing needs of public services and the labour market.

 

We know our labour market is becoming older, and more diverse - more women, greater numbers of older people, and more from the ethnic minority population. Government and business alike need to respond to these changes. There has been strong growth in the level of female participation in the labour market over the last few decades - and this will continue. Female employment rates have increased from 42 % in 1971 to around 70 % in 2004.  By 2010, the workforce is set to grow by 300,000 - 80% of this growth will be women.

 

Various sectors in the UK economy face skills shortage today. There is a clear correlation between sectors experiencing skills shortages and sectors in which women and members of the ethnic minority population are under-represented. Promoting equality of opportunity could plug these shortages.

 

Government and business need to tackle this situation together. 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.  This will provide access to high quality, and fully subsidised, training for all low skilled employees up to a first full Level 2 qualifications with support to Level 3. 

 

We also have new demands from within society - for instance the importance of the balance between work and family responsibilities. Attitudes to work are already changing in the work-force; around 5.4 million employees currently work through some form of flexible working arrangements.

 

This way of working is good for business because it enables them to draw on a wider pool of skills and talents, improve recruitment and retention rates, and increase staff morale and productivity.  According to the Second Work-Life Balance Survey, 94 % of employers agree that people work best when they can strike a better balance between work and the rest of their life. 

 

The workplace today is nothing like the workplace 30 years ago. And the workplace will be different again in the future.

 

It is in response to these fundamental changes in society that we decided to take a new approach with the establishment of the Commission for Equality and Human Rights. This is where the title of your conference is very relevant - this new Commission is very much of and for the future.

 

Creating the New Commission

We are keen that the new Commission will benefit business. It will work in partnership with support networks such as yours that know the business community inside out. We have already spoken to a range of business representatives, about what they would like from the new Commission. In fact, Mike Horner your Chief Executive invited me to this event at one of those discussions!

 

The new Commission for Equality and Human Rights will start next year. It will inherit the roles and responsibilities of the existing Equal Opportunities Commission, Disability Rights Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality. It will also promote equality and tackle discrimination in relation to sexual orientation, age, and religion or belief - areas that are not covered by existing Commissions. 

 

We were particularly concerned that the new Commission should build on the excellent work done by the existing Commissions.  Trevor Phillips has been appointed to head the new body, and the next stage will be appointing the board that will help him in his work. I hope that we will be able to make an announcement about this later this month.

 

The Commission will work in partnership with a range of groups and organisations; employer’s large and small, and public authorities, schools, colleges and universities, voluntary sector, or local and national government. In particular it will need to work closely with local groups that share similar goals, seeking to maximise its impact at the grass-roots level.

 

It 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.

 

The new Commission will have significant powers to take legal action. It will also conduct investigations. These will be where the Commission has formed a reasonable belief that unlawful discrimination or harassment may have occurred. This may be a court or tribunal ruling of discrimination, or complaints combined with research evidence. There will also be enforcement powers for the new regulations outlawing discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, religion or belief and age.

 

Not Just About Enforcement

However, the Commission for Equality and Human Rights is not just about enforcement, it will have a huge role as a champion for equality, diversity and human rights. Some of its functions include:

  • providing information, advice and assistance on equality and diversity, human rights and good relations issues,
  • issuing  guidance and good practice to help employers and service providers embrace equality and human rights,
  • publish a ‘State of the Nation’ report every three years: showing how Britain is doing on equality and human rights; setting out outcomes to work towards and benchmarks for progress,
  • challenge prejudice against and stereotyping of particular groups, and establish a strong evidence base and understanding of discrimination, to inform future policy development and best practice.

The introduction of the age regulations and media coverage will have will have raised awareness of equality issues with employers recently.  I am sure Institute members will have been thinking about the importance of equalities, and have developed tools to help business. Be assured that the new Commission will not duplicate efforts, but will work proactively with business support networks to ensure that key messages get to the notoriously hard to reach small business sector.

 

Small business is a key audience for the equality message. We know that 84% of all businesses employ less than 10 people, and 50% of all employees work for SME’s.

 

The business case for embracing diversity is increasingly recognised. At bottom a company will not do well selling to a market that is fairly quickly disappearing. A forward looking business will know that its potential workforce is changing, and plan on how to generate benefits from that. It presents great opportunities to develop new markets and serve customers better.

 

As business advisers you have a key role to ensure that UK PLC knows that equality and diversity is linked very clearly to competitiveness and commercial success. By tapping the potential of all we have the possibility of ensuring that everyone makes a positive contribution to the economy, and in so doing generate greater economic success.

Government is committed to a comprehensive programme of reform that goes beyond tackling individual instances of discrimination. We need to create a new framework to challenge persistent patterns of discrimination and inequality, and promote and protect diversity, good relations and human rights.

 

Also part of the new framework is the work being undertaken by two reviews:

  • the Equalities Review, examining the root causes of persistent patters of inequality and how they can be tackled, and
  • the Discrimination Law Review, which is evaluating the effectiveness of current legislation, with a view to having a Single Equality Bill introduced in this Parliament.  Importantly it will aim to simplify and stream line existing legislation making it easier for employers to understand their duties and employees their rights.

But real social change comes when we find new ways of working together, new alliances, new understandings. From our consultation with employers we know that businesses face a confusing array of sources of advice on discrimination issues. The new Commission will simplify matters by providing access to expert information and guidance in one place, not only to help business to comply with the law but embrace the best practice.

 

The work of the new Commission is very broad and challenging. And it is a challenge that must be met. If we are to achieve a country where young people can grow up feeling safe, knowing they have the chance of having a good career, that they are valued for who they are, we have to tackle long-standing problems that continue to divide us. By overcoming these problems we cannot only make life fairer for all our citizens, we also make our country a better one in which to live.

 

Thank you.


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