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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Equality in 21st Century Britain

Saturday, March 24, 2007

At a meeting held by Bournemouth Fabian Society Meg gave the following speech.


Thank you for inviting me here to talk about equality in Britain today.


I think we have a diverse society, one in which men and women have equality of opportunity, with a broad range of options open to them. A diverse society is vital for the growth and success of individuals, local communities, business sector as well as the wider economy.


What does this mean in practise? Well today I saw two examples of how British society has changed for the better over the last 10 years or so as a result of what is often called the ‘equality agenda’.


This morning I spoke at an event in the east end of London. It was a day conference, organised by Asian women on the theme, “Asian Women - Future Leaders”. It attracted about 200 women to discuss the possibilities for women from the many, and different, Asian communities who live in the east end.


This afternoon I visited Bournemouth College to see their work on diversity issues. I was impressed by their commitment to equality through a whole range of activities, not just the kind of courses we are all used to, but specific courses put on for local businesses to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse local workforce. There are students from over 38 countries with nearly as many languages spoken.


My point in mentioning these is that 10 years ago a Government Minister would not have been speaking at an economic conference put on by Asian women, because there wouldn’t have been one. I also doubt that an educational establishment would be ‘wasting’ much management time on issues like diversity.


Society has changed due to the demands of people wanting equal treatment. This pressure will increase over the next few years for reasons that have little to do with justice, or political viewpoints - demographics and the needs of the economy will be the main drivers.   


Women’s Participation in the Labour Force

One obvious area where society is changing is in the growth of women’s participation in the work force - with about 70% in work, with 41% being part time. We are encouraging women, who presently work below their capability, to move into higher skilled, higher paid jobs. This would be good for them, more money, better status, probably more interesting work, but would also be good for the economy. It would raise the productive potential of the economy by between £2billion and 9billion.


But this is not about Government forcing mothers, or fathers for that matter, into the labour market when they would rather stay at home with a young child. We have been providing help to parents where we can, and 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.


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%, saving employers a large amount of money as anyone involved in recruitment will appreciate. Moving jobs also produces worry and anxiety for the individual, you should see Government Ministers at re-shuffle time!


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. 56% of British employers with more than 10 employees operate flexible working hours.


New Benefits

Just coming into force is the Work and Families Act. The main parts of the Act will come into force on 6 April 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.


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.



The ability of families to take decisions about work and education relies upon good quality, affordable and accessible childcare being available. In December 2004 we published our Ten Year Childcare Strategy designed to build on the growth in early years and childcare provision since 1997. It created a sustainable framework for high quality services for children and families nationwide and we now have free Government funded early education for all 3-4 years old.


We also have further developed the local Sure Start initiatives focusing 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.


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 introduced New Deal for Lone Parents in 1998; it has made a difference to lone parents, helped lift them and their children out of poverty.


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.


Facing Barriers

However women still face barriers in the labour market. They 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 occupations that do not pay well.


As a society we are still grappling with the gender pay gap, it has been closing, but not fast enough - 12.6% between men and women in full time work, and for women in part time work the gap is around 40%. In summer 2004 the Prime Minister set up the Women and Work Commission to carry out an independent review on the causes of the gender pay gap and occupational segregation.


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, and
  • 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.  


Getting more women, and people from ethnic minorities, onto boards of directors isn’t just about furthering their careers, though there’s nothing wrong with that! A strong relationship is evident between companies having a diverse membership of directors and market capitalisation - 18 of the top 20 companies by market capitalisation have women directors, but only 8 of the bottom 20 firms do so. 


Ethnic minorities

Figures from the Ethnic Minority Task Force show that while the overall employment rate is around 75%, for ethnic minorities it is only 59%. Over the next ten years, ethnic minorities will account for more than half the growth in the working age population. It is vital that we ensure that the skills and talents of all those from an ethnic minority background are used.


As on average people from ethnic minority groups have fewer skills and qualifications than the population as a whole, we need a concerted effort to change this. More than 40 % of those of Asian or Asian British ethnicity hold only low-level qualifications or none at all, compared to around 30 % of the white population.


Some 50% of women from an ethnic minority are in employment compared to around 70% of white women. But these rates can disguise larger differences for individual ethnic minority groups, less than 20% of Bangladeshi women are in employment compared with around 60% of Indian women. Of Black African women, 47% are in employment compared with 64% of women of Black Caribbean descent.


To overcoming the various barriers to employment we will need measures such as providing particular training and support for women from ethnic minority backgrounds. However, as I mentioned earlier about my visit to the conference this morning, encouragement, support, training, networks are increasingly meeting the needs of these women.


People with disabilities

The position for people with disabilities is important, particularly for those who want to work but cannot at present. For most people, including people with disabilities, employment continues to provide the best escape route from poverty and exclusion. It provides not only greater financial security, but also independence, status and social interaction.


At present about 51 % of disabled people are in work, falling to 21 % of people with a mental health condition and 17 % of people with a learning disability. Almost a third of working-age disabled adults live in income poverty. This is higher than a decade ago, double the rate for working age non-disabled adults and higher than the rates for either pensioners or children.


Older people have much to offer

Age is also a significant issue - by the late 2020s around half of the adult population in the UK will be over 50. So, age discrimination will carry a heavy price tag in the future.


It carries a heavy price tag now - the annual cost to the economy is calculated at around £36 billion. That is £31 billion in lost production, and £5 billion through paying benefits to those who might be working, plus the loss in tax revenue, from those who would be working but for age barriers. 


Assumptions are made about older people, such as the time someone will work before they retire. In fact, newly recruited older workers may well stay considerably longer than a younger worker looking to move jobs in developing a career. They often have a range of skills and experiences that can be used if only companies and services identify them.



One of the challenges for Government is to respond more effectively and quickly to the changes that society is undergoing - the increase of women in the workforce, increasing ethnic and religious diversity for instance. One way is by the creation of the Commission for Equality and Human Rights.


This new Commission has a clear mandate. This is summarised in the 2006 Equality Act 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 ensure that discrimination is tackled, that society will 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 Commission for Equality and Human Rights will inherit all the powers of the previous Commissions, Equal Opportunity, Disability Rights and Race Equality. We were particularly concerned that the new Commission would build on the excellent work done by these existing Commissions.


We are entering a new phase of the equalities agenda. Trying to push forward the creative and positive ingredients that can help a more equal, more diverse society also means recognizing the complexities of the modern world. It means having a greater understanding of why some inequalities are more stubborn than others to handle. But it also requires us be more ambitious on what it is we are seeking to change.


The photo shows Meg with local Councillor Beryl Baxter.


Associated Photograph :

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