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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Celebrating our diversity

Monday, October 15, 2007

Meg was invited to speak at the Annual Conference of the National Council of Women, her speech follows.



Thank you for inviting me today.


I’m pleased that you have come to Sheffield for your meeting the city where I was born and brought up, and of course, where the constituency I represent in Parliament is located. I note that the theme of today’s conference is ’celebrating our diversity’ well as someone born of a Yorkshire dad and a mum from Lancashire, I think I fit the bill!


British society is undergoing profound change. The population is becoming more diverse and older - today there are 9.4 million people over 65 - in 2021 there will be 12.4 million. This will inevitably mean substantial alterations throughout our public services, such as the NHS and social services.


We know that the position of women in society has changed, certainly since my Mom was young - in the workforce, the boardroom and the family home. For instance, more and more women work, from 42% in 1971 to around 70% today. Women also bear the brunt of the increasing possibility of becoming a carer in middle age, caring for one or more parent as life expectancy increases.


In the midst of these changes we need to keep hold of what is fundamental. In a good society everyone is important; everyone needs the opportunity to succeed - whether female or male, black or white, believer of faith or none, and of whatever sexual orientation.


One of the strands running through the work of this Government has been encouraging and strengthening what is called the equality and diversity agenda. There have been a series of changes in policy terms and in legislation: 

  • a new Disability Discrimination Act,
  • outlawing race discrimination in all public functions,
  • imposing a new duty on public bodies to promote race equality,
  • the Gender Recognition Act in 2004,
  • outlawing discrimination in the workplace on grounds of religion and belief, and
  • extending this legislation to cover age discrimination in October 2006. 

But we all know that legislation can only take us so far. It’s in our local communities that the real test lies as to whether this country really is positive about diversity. We can, and should, nurture a culture of respect within communities, a culture of respect that adheres to the principles of equality and opportunity for all.


Barriers and challenges in our workforce

For women one of the areas where equality has moved forward, but not enough, is in the world of work. There are still a number of hurdles we have to overcome in the labour market before we can say we have reached where we want to be.


For instance, we still grapple 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%. When returning to work after having children many mothers find it difficult to find a job that matches their skills. If they want part-time work they crowd into a narrow range of occupations that do not pay well.


In the summer of 2004 the Prime Minister set up the ‘Women and Work Commission’ to carry out an independent review of the causes of the gender pay gap and occupational segregation. Their Report offers a wealth of recommendations, practical and acceptable to all the key players. These recommendations tackle:

  • the barriers to informed choice at school,
  • combining work and family life,
  • life-long learning and training, and
  • improving workplace practice.  

The Commission found that many women are working below their capabilities because part-time employment is available only for lower-level jobs and in lower-paying sectors. To tackle this the government 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 underway include:

  • the Exemplar Employers Initiative which  involving employers from both the private and public sectors,  and
  • the 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 that isn’t a bad thing! A strong relationship is evident between having a diverse membership of a board of directors and the company’s 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 specialised training and support for women from ethnic minority backgrounds.


Addressing the Challenges

One of the challenges for Government is to respond more effectively and quickly to the changes that society is undergoing. One response is the creation this month of the Commission for Equality and Human Rights. The Commission inherits all the powers of the previous Commissions, Equal Opportunity, Disability Rights and Race Equality.


The new Commission has a clear mandate 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 good intentions and aspirations are all fine and good, but what can the new Commission do? 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.



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.


If we are to reach a society where young people grow up feeling safe and valued, feeling they have a future, we have to tackle the long-standing problems that divide us. But tackling problems shouldn’t stop us from celebrating the positive aspects of Britain’s diverse society.


Having a diverse society is a fact of life. We can use this to help create cohesive communities, and them keep strong. Overcoming challenges together will make our society stronger, our communities fairer for all our citizens, and our country a better one in which to live.


Thank you for listening.


For details of the National Council of Women visit: www.ncwgb.org


Associated Photograph :

The photo shows Grace Wedekind, Indira Patel, Meg and Monica Hall the President of the NCW.

The photo shows Grace Wedekind, Indira Patel, Meg and Monica Hall the President of the NCW.

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