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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Sex Equality - 30 Years on

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland held its 6th Annual Conference on the 22nd November in Belfast and invited Meg to speak on gender equality policy in the UK. The theme of the conference was ‘Sex equality 30 years on’, her speech is below.  

 

I would like to thank Bob Collins for inviting me to give this speech today. 

 

Over the past 30 odd years much has changed as regards sex equality. These changes reflect society as it is today - a society that itself has been shaped by the different pieces of equality legislation.

 

For instance, it’s easy to forget that at one time it was accepted that women would not do certain jobs. Or if they did, then it was acceptable to pay them at a lower rate. New laws helped change people’s ideas, and opened up the range of occupations for women.

 

The Equal Pay Act made it unlawful for women and men to be paid different rates when they were doing the same work. This was followed by the Sex Discrimination Act, which made it unlawful to treat women less favourably just because of their sex. These led to the breaking down of many of the barriers to equality in the workplace.

 

In the UK women in employment has increased steadily from 59% in 1976 to its current level of 70%. This is good news for the individual, having her own status, career and money. With the increased income, it’s good news for her family, as well as the economy as a whole.

 

Strange to think

We are a long way from the times of three decades ago, we’ve moved forward in leaps and bounds. It seems strange today to think that before the Sex Discrimination Act a woman could get sacked simply because she got married. Before 1975 there were no maternity rights, and those that were introduced only applied for women who had sufficient length of service with their employer. 

 

Today, unfair treatment on grounds of pregnancy or maternity leave is unlawful. All pregnant employees are entitled to a full year’s maternity leave, with maternity pay extended to 39 weeks. We aim to achieve a full year’s maternity pay by the end of this Parliament.  

 

Fathers have benefited too, they now have a right to two weeks’ paternity leave. We intend to introduce further entitlements which will give parents greater choice in how they share childcare during their child’s first year. 

 

The right to request flexible working for parents has proved a great success with both employers and employees. As part of the package of changes under the Work and Families Act we’re extending this right to carers of adults from April next year. This will help up to 1.5 million carers strike a better balance between their caring and work responsibilities.

 

A further significant achievement was the introduction of the National Minimum Wage, making a real difference to people’s lives. Every year it has benefited around 1 million workers, two thirds women. It guarantees an acceptable wage for all employees regardless of gender.

 

As you will know, Northern Ireland has its own National Minimum Wage helpline based here in Belfast, run by Northern Ireland Citizen’s Advice on behalf of the Government. The Northern Ireland team is one of 16 compliance teams across the UK, who last year alone identified around £3.3 million in wage arrears.

 

Legislation addresses some aspects of inequality, but it alone cannot address all the issues. In 2004 the Prime Minister set up the Women and Work Commission to examine the causes of the gender pay, and the opportunities gap, and to find practical ideas to close these within a generation.

 

The Commission reported earlier this year, with its recommendations accepted by Government, in full or in part. In September we published our Action Plan, a comprehensive package of measures to widen choices, enabling more women to realise their potential and by so doing reduce the gender pay gap. 

 

Other challenges 

It’s important that everyone’s skills and talent are recognised, that they have the opportunity to fully utilise them, and that employers draw from as wide a talent pool as possible. It’s in everybody’s interests that this is so. The Women and Work Commission estimated that removing barriers to women in the labour market could be worth between £15 billion and £23 billion to Gross Domestic Product.

 

Closing the gender pay gap is only one major challenge that we face. For instance, the 2.3 million black and ethnic minority women in the UK have a lower employment rate then the rest of the population. In the next phase of implementing the Women and Work Commission recommendations we will ensure the needs of black and minority ethnic women are addressed.  For example, local job matching, skills and training, developing new recruitment and career pathways, and facilitating quality part-time work.

 

Women are still poorly represented in our public life. As an example, there are 126 women who are MP’s out of a total of 646; roughly translated 1 in 5 MP’s is a woman. Despite some notable exceptions, the representation of black and minority ethnic women in public life is worse. In fact, there are only 15 minority ethnic MPs in total, 2 of whom are women.

At the local level the situation is slightly better. Of the 4,418 local councillors just over a quarter are women, and 8% of them are from minority ethnic backgrounds.

 

With too few role models for the next generation the rate of progress towards women playing an equal part in decision making would be slow. In 2002 we introduced the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act - which extends to the Northern Ireland Assembly - to ensure that there are no barriers for women to participate in the political arena. This legislation is beginning to have an impact and we are starting to see a rise in women in elected politics.  

 

Just staying with the public sector theme, I want to commend Northern Ireland who led the way for ground breaking duties on public authorities. Great Britain has followed your lead by introducing a duty for race, for disability and now for gender. 

 

This gender duty will be introduced in April next year. It’s perhaps one of the most important policies aimed at improving the workplace by removing discrimination, and promoting equality of opportunity between men and women working in the public sector.

 

The new Commission

I want to say a few words about the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights. As you know, the body will cover England, Wales and Scotland. It very much follows your trail-blazing example of bringing responsibility for promotion of different aspects of equality under one roof.

 

We needed to create a framework to challenge persistent patterns of discrimination and inequality, and promote and protect diversity, good relations and human rights. This reform programme includes the setting up of this new Commission for Equality and Human Rights. We recently announced the new Chair of the Commission, and we will be appointing other commissioners within a few weeks.

 

The work of the new Commission is very broad and challenging. We’re keen to learn from your experiences - and I know that officials from my Department have already been in touch on several occasions. 

 

In addition next year my Department will publish a review of the current discrimination law in Great Britain. This Discrimination Law Review complements the Equalities Review which is being led by Trevor Philips. The Equalities Review is examining the social and cultural barriers to greater equality, whereas the Discrimination Law Review is focusing on simplifying and modernising the discrimination law.  

 

Discrimination law has continued to be extended including in the Equality Act 2006. This includes new regulations aimed at tackling discrimination outside the workplace on grounds of both sexual orientation and religion or belief. These measures will be in place in both Northern Ireland and Great Britain by April next year.

 

We will be issuing a Green Paper with our proposals from the Discrimination Law Review. It will also cover changes that Government must make under the Gender Directive; which include more protection for transsexual people, pregnant women and women with young children. These changes must be made by December 2007.

 

The Discrimination Law Review is also looking at public sector equality duties which require authorities to take proactive steps to positively promote equality. We are exploring the possibility of an integrated duty in Great Britain which would operate as a single mechanism; be outcome focussed and make better use of resources. Once again I applaud public authorities operating in Northern Ireland for forging the way ahead in this area.

 

As I said earlier our plan is to consult on the Discrimination Law Review through a green paper around the same time as the Equalities Review is published - early next year. All this hard work will go towards a Single Equality Act during this Parliament.

 

Conclusion

Profound changes in society can be difficult; equality creates opportunities but also challenges. If we are to achieve a country where young people can grow up feeling safe, thinking they have a shot at a good career, that they are valued for who they are, we have to tackle the long-standing problems that continue to divide us.

 

We do have an opportunity to help make life fairer for our citizens. When the differing strands within society feel involved, when people feel engaged with their surroundings, when they feel they have something to contribute and their contribution is welcomed, society functions well. That is what equality is really about.

 

Thank you.


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