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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Reaching out to Communities

Sunday, March 11, 2007

At the recent Northern Labour Women conference held in Leeds, Meg gave the following address.

 

Good morning. I’m pleased to be here and delighted to see so many northern women gathered together. I particularly want to welcome sisters from the North East and North West into Yorkshire - we might all have slightly different accents, but we are united about what we think about London!

 

So, having got that bit of regionalism of my chest . . .

 

It’s good to be here celebrating International Women’s Day. In the House of Commons, and House of Lords, we held debates to acknowledge the role and worth of women. In both cases it was Labour women that initiated the debates, in both cases it was Labour women who were out in force reflecting and discussing what we have achieved, and consider what more we have to do.

 

My one disappointment was that in the Commons very few of our male colleagues came along, whilst in the Lords a number of Labour men did go and support their women colleagues. Whilst we certainly don’t want the men hogging the action! having visible support from some of them would have been welcome - so when you get back, bend their ears about it.

 

The topic for today is ‘Reaching out to Communities’. This should be an easy topic for us to discuss. After all, women provide the backbone for most communities I’ve come across. In this meeting we must have a good number of women engaged in a bewildering variety of community organisations. I say bewildering, but communities come in all shapes and sizes, all colours and creeds, all income brackets.

 

At first this might make us wonder how can we reach out to them? But when we talk in terms of how much pay you get at your job, at how secure you feel about walking around at night, housing, education - the issues giving us connection with the majority of women are there. The workshops at today’s conference give a spread of areas that touch women’s lives today.

 

I want to mention a couple of areas - the ‘women in public life’ workshop is incredibly important for the future. Having role models for girls and young women is vital if we are to bring on a generation not apprehensive about taking on the challenges the world throws at us.

 

We make up over half the population, but in the Westminster world we make up only a fifth of MPs and a fifth of peers. And in nearly 90 years there have only ever been 291 women MPs whereas there are more than 500 men in parliament now.  In Scotland the situation is better with women making up 39% of Scottish MPs. Whilst in Wales, the shinning star in the UK, women make up 52% of Assembly members. Need I say that in all cases it was down to decisions of our government that we have the proportions we have - neither of the other two parties, despite their public talk, propose to actually change their male bias.

 

Turning to local politics - in England 29% of local councillors are women, however of that only 2.2% are from an ethnic minority community. This situation needs to be tackled, which is why my department is conducting an independent review of the incentives and barriers to serving on local councils. In the wider areas of public life - women currently hold 35.5% of public appointments, an increase from 32% in 1997. 6.5% (489) of public appointments are held by women from black and minority ethnic communities.

 

The good news is that women are well represented at local level, holding 43% of appointments to NHS Trusts, and make up 49.4% of magistrates and 54% of school governors. So there is real progress, but progress in parts.

 

Part of our job in the Labour Party must be to think more about what we can do to get those women into the party where they share our values and how we can get those women who are in the party to take the step from being a school governor to standing for council and from being on an NHS Trust to standing for parliament. On Thursday for International Women’s Day some women MPs invited down “Community Champions” to Westminster to see for themselves what we do. I know that more than one woman was inspired from that visit to think about getting more involved. If you think this might be for you, ask a woman councillor or MP if you can spend a day with them - you’ll probably discover that she too started out being active in her community.

 

The second area is that of work - the report from the Women and Work Commission identified girls’ early experiences as being so important when they decide what subjects to take at school, what careers they might go for. As we know, it’s not just about how good you are, how dedicated, how smart. It’s also about how others see you, and for too long women were seen as ideally suited for certain kinds of jobs - working with children, cooking, cleaning. Guess what - all low paid, low status jobs.

 

It’s the role models again!

 

We pick up what is acceptable, normal, from interaction with others. The evidence that the Commission saw convinced them at it’s at a very early age that we pick up what is acceptable for a girl to do, and what is not. Government want to ensure that children’s early experience is not gender stereotyped, and break the constricting hold over girls’ and boys’ career choices. The ‘One Year On’ Report we are publishing at the end of the month will set out where we are in implementing these measures.

 

The Commission also identified that many women have the skills to do high paid jobs but are denied the opportunity as it isn’t available in a way that fits in with their caring responsibilities. In response we’ve set up the exemplar employers’ initiative and have signed up over 100 companies. At a recent event to discuss best practice it was heartening to see that major companies from banks to retail to engineering companies are taking this seriously. They recognise that failing to consider 50% of the population means that they are missing out on 50% of the talent.

 

I should mention here the Work and Families Act. This significant piece of legislation 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, and
  • 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.

 

Whilst it’s important to talk about what has been achieved, particularly by our government, I want to appeal to you to concentrate on the future. What are the issues we need to concentrate on, what are the areas beginning to create problems, create anxiety for women.  Women have supported us because they believed that we understood them and the problems of their day to day lives. We need to continue to do this if we are to have their support for a fourth term Labour Government.

 

The photo shows Anna Chester, Chair of the opening session, with Meg.

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