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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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UK Family Policy

Thursday, February 8, 2007

At an international conference organised by the German think-tank, the Friedrich Egbert Stiftung, Meg gave the following speech.

 

I’m pleased to be here today to talk about UK family policy, and to listen to the experiences from other countries. It’s by exchanging our different experiences, and through discussion, that our own policies can be strengthened. Today’s conference is an excellent opportunity to do this, and I’d like to thank the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung for making this possible.

 

Women’s Participation and Barriers

Having a diverse society in which men and women have equality of opportunity, and a broad range of options open to them, is an important goal for us. A diverse society is vital for the growth and success of individuals, local communities, our business sector as well as the wider economy.

 

The UK Government believes that families should decide whether both parents should work or not. We have targeted benefits to families with children, including child tax credits, which have increased family income. Some families chose to have one parent stay at home, and have sufficient income to do so.

 

The UK has high rates of women’s participation in the work place - approximately 70% in total, with 41% of them working part time. However, a pay gap exists of 12.6% between men and women in full time work, and for women in part time work the gap is around 40%. Research shows greater equality of treatment of men and women could benefit the UK economy to between £15billion to £23billion - that’s around 1.3 to 2.0% of GDP.

 

We know many women work below their capability and want to help them move into higher skilled, higher paid occupations. This would raise the productive potential of the economy by between £2billion and 9billion, and additional GDP benefit of between £13billion and £14billion would be added if more women enter the labour force or increase their hours.

 

But women face many barriers in the labour market. They still have the main responsibility for childcare, domestic work and other unpaid caring responsibilities. When returning to the labour market after spending time looking after children they often find it difficult to find a job that matches their skills. If they look for part-time work they crowd into a narrow range of lower-paying occupations, and over 50% of them are in jobs below their current skill level.

 

What Government Has Done

Over the last 9 years we have taken action to break down the barriers that women face. We have introduced initiatives to support women who choose to work, and helped employers to recruit and retain talented employees.

 

We have introduced:

?        paid paternity and adoption leave,

?        extended maternity leave and increased maternity pay, and

?        introduced a new right to request flexible working for parent of young and disabled children.

 

As a result of these measures parents are now taking more time off to be with their new-born babies. 3.6million parents with young and disabled children now have the right to request to work flexibly.

 

Three quarters of mums now take their full entitlement to maternity pay, up from two thirds in 2002. The average period of maternity leave is now six months, up from four months in 2002. With the opportunity to request flexible working the proportion of mums who have changed their employer when returning to work has halved from 41% in 2002 to 20%.

 

5.4million employees (2.2 million men, 3.2 million women) now work through some form of flexible working arrangement. This accounts for around 22% of the total workforce. This number increases to 9.5million when part-time employees are included.

 

56% of British employers with more than 10 employees operate flexible working hours. This ranks the UK fourth behind Latvia and Sweden (65%) and Finland (62%).

 

68% of workplaces with five or more employees provided two or more flexible working practices to at least some employees.

 

What’s next?

Shortly coming into force is the Work and Families Act. This is a significant piece of legislation which introduces additional support for working families. The main parts of the Act will come into force on 6 April this year and include:

  • extending paid Maternity leave from 6 to 9 months, with the aim of a year’s paid leave by the end of this parliament
  • a set of measures to help ease the administration of maternity, paternity and adoption pay,
  • extending the right to request flexible working to carers of adults, about 2.65million carers will be entitled to this right. 

Our longer term aim is to extend the period for payment of Statutory Maternity Pay, Maternity Allowance and Statutory Adoption Pay to a full year.

 

We also intend to implement a new right to give fathers an additional period of paternity leave. This will enable father to take up to 26 weeks leave to care for their child before the child’s first birthday, if the mother chooses to return to work. This will be paid leave if the mother has decided to return to work with some of her own entitlements remaining, effectively allowing the choice of carer to be decided by each family. It’s estimated that between 240,000 and 280,000 fathers will be eligible for this provision.

 

Childcare

Good quality, affordable and accessible childcare should be available so parents can work, train or learn and be confident that their child is in a safe and stimulating environment. In December 2004 we published our Ten Year Childcare Strategy. It was designed to build on the growth in early years and childcare provision since 1997, to create a sustainable framework for high quality services for children and families nationwide. We now have free Government funded early education for all 3-4 years old.

 

We have also developed local initiatives, called Sure Start, which focus particularly on extending child care provision and family support in disadvantaged areas and to disadvantaged groups. It actively encourages the delivery of integrated early education, childcare and health education and family services. 1,380 Neighbourhood Nurseries are now open, providing over 49,000 new day care places.

 

We have provided substantial help for childcare costs through tax credits, arranged for an element of employer supported childcare to be free of tax and National Insurance contribution.

 

Future for Childcare

The recent Childcare Act puts the needs of children and their parents - fathers as well as mothers - at its heart. It enshrines in law a parent’s expectation that high quality childcare will be available for all those who want to work.

 

The Act gives local authorities new duties to:

  • improve the outcomes of all children under 5,
  • close the gaps between groups with the poorest outcomes and the rest,
  • ensure early years services are integrated and accessible,
  • secure sufficient childcare to ensure it meets the needs of local communities, in particular those on low incomes and with disabled children, and
  • a duty to ensure people have access to the full range of information they may need as a parent. 

New Deal for Lone Parents

Nine out of ten lone parents want to work. Paid employment helps families and individuals as well as improving life chances for children. We are determined to tackle the problem of child poverty, and break the cycle of intergenerational poverty, by giving all children better opportunities.

 

We introduced New Deal for Lone Parents in 1998. This is a long-term investment to make a difference to the lives of lone parents, to help lift them and their children out of poverty. This was extended in 2001 to all lone parents who are not working, or who are working less than 16 hours a week.

 

Since 1997, the lone parent employment rate has increased by nearly 12% and the success of New Deal for Lone Parents has been a major contributing factor in this. Over 710,000 individuals have participated, 94% of which are lone mothers.

 

Gender Pay Gap and Occupational Segregation

In summer 2004 the Prime Minister set up the Women and Work Commission. It was formed to carry out an independent review to examine the causes of the gender pay gap and occupational segregation.

 

The Commission presented their report which contained a wealth of practical ideas on how to close the gender pay and opportunities gap. The UK Government’s Action Plan followed to implement the Commission’s recommendations.

 

The Women and Work Commission found that many women were working below their capabilities because part-time employment is often available only for lower-level jobs and in lower-paying sectors. To tackle this we have now set aside £500,000 to support projects to increase the number of senior and quality jobs available part-time, not just to women but to men as well.

 

A couple of the projects already underway include:

  • exemplar Employers Initiative involving employers from both the private and public sectors,  over 100 companies so far,
  • employer Innovation Scheme which will support employers in creating and adapting senior roles in areas where there are skill shortages for working on a part-time, flexible and job share basis.    

The conference today illustrates we are still learning about women’s and men’s lives as they change to meet the challenges of the fast moving 21st century. How women and men are trying to find a balance between work and family life. I’m looking forward to hearing from other here about what they have been doing on these issues. Sharing best practice between us, exchanging ideas of what we can try, can help us all develop more productive and positive policies.


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