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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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With USDAW in Scarborough

Sunday, March 26, 2006

On Sunday 26th March Meg gave the following speech to the USDAW’s North East Divisional conference in Scarborough.


It’s good to be here today, though given the time on a Sunday morning even more people than usual will think us slightly mad!


Seriously, I’m pleased to be here discussing important issues for working people. I think this union can take credit for campaigning on issues that do matter to people in this country. Issues such as safety at work, the minimum wage, what we now call the work/life balance. It’s only since becoming a Minister that I have appreciated just how much the approach that USDAW takes has born fruit in legislation that helps make life easier for so many.  


I know that the political topic this weekend is Sunday trading and its possible extension. As a Government Minister, and being based in the Department for Trade & Industry where the review is taking place, you will appreciate I have to be a little cautious about what I can say.


Independent consultants are conducting a full cost benefit analysis of the scope for further liberalisation of Sunday Trading and will report in the spring. The consultation continues until 14 April so I encourage you to respond if you have not already done so. Under the Employment Rights Act 1996 shop workers have the right to refuse to work on Sundays and are protected against dismissal or detriment and there are no current plans to review or change these rights.


Concerning the Early Day Motion about Sunday trading. Early Day Motions are a Parliamentary device for raising an issue and Ministers do not sign them - certainly not those advocating changes to the law - or, not changes to the law! Ministers, as you will know, are bound by collective responsibility.  For my part I can say I have no problem with the EDM on Sunday trading. I understand it now has over 220 MPs signed up to it, and will certainly command attention.


Women and Work Commission

I want to say something about the ‘Women and Work’ Commission which reported at the end of February. This is an important report, it’s important for this union and the majority of its members. Women get a bad deal in the workplace - working for minimum wage stacking shelves, in most professions, and even on the boards of large concerns. 


The report came up with 40 recommendations; recommendations that I think most people will view as serious and practical steps in tackling inequality at work - particularly the gender pay gap. I want to thank John Hannett for his contribution to this report as a member of the Commission. I know those on the Commission worked hard to hear about low pay for women, not just from the ‘experts’ in the universities and think tanks - but the real experts who live on low pay everyday of the week.


It was encouraging that both the Prime Minister and Chancellor were at the launch of the report. And whilst Government is still studying its findings, I think we have seen evidence in the budget that it has struck home. I’m referring to the extra money designed to help women raise their skill levels. There were also the funds set aside to help people who had missed out on education the first time around. Also the importance that was given to the further education sector - the FE colleges located in most towns.


We shouldn’t forget the announcement earlier in the week that the National Minimum Wage will rise in the autumn, significant as it’s estimated that two thirds of the people receiving it are women. It’s introduction, and the rises every year, have had a big effect on the position of the low paid in this country.



The gender pay gap is one of the reasons that women have lower pensions than men. If you earn less throughout your life then your pension entitlement will be affected. Tackling the gender pay gap will help women pensioners in the future. But the pension system is a problem for all of us - though we should be pleased that one of the problems is that we are living longer.


The Pension Commission reported at the end of last year, it said loud and clear that the pension system has to change. Around 1908 there were 10 workers for every pensioner, at present the ratio is 4 workers to each pensioner. By 2050 there will be 2 people in work for every one in retirement. This ‘demographic future’ is coming whether we like it or not - it means we have to know what are the options, the choices that we as individuals have, and the choices that society has.


I understand that USDAW has obtained funding from the Department for Work and Pensions for an educational campaign about pensions. I congratulate you. We all need to know about the issue, about the different sorts of occupational pensions there are, as well as the state system. Whilst I think this Government has done a lot for pensioners, especially the poorest third of pensioners, it’s a struggle living on a fixed income. We have the opportunity to take steps to make things better for future generations.


Gender Equality

The Equality Act 2006 introduces a ‘gender equality duty’ for public authorities in Britain to promote equality of opportunity between men and women. It will be similar to the existing duty to promote race equality and a duty on disability. The gender duty will require public authorities to ensure that their policies and practices as employers and service deliverers address the different needs of women and men.


Some people may well say we have gender equality already. But we know women still come second in the workplace, that men face inequalities in trying to achieve a better balance between work and family responsibilities.


I know for example, men and women use health service services differently.


?           Men are twice as likely as women both to develop, and to die from, the ten most common cancers which affect both sexes


?           Two thirds of men, compared with just over half of women, are overweight or obese. This makes men more likely to suffer from related conditions such as cancer and coronary heart disease


?           Men are much less likely to visit their GP than women. For example men under the age of 45 visit their GP only half as often as women.


Work and Families Bill

The ‘Work and Families’ Bill is currently coming to the end of its passage through Parliament. This Bill takes forward our manifesto commitments to give parents more choice about how they balance work and family life. In the last Parliament we extended paid maternity leave to 6 months, benefiting some 350,000 women each year. This Bill will enable us to help further by extending paid maternity leave to 9 months from April 2007, with the goal of a year’s paid leave by the end of this Parliament.


Increasingly fathers want to take an active part in bringing up their children, so we will introduce a new entitlement to additional paternity leave and pay. We will protect the mothers first 6 months of maternity leave, but after that period the father will be able to take additional leave. We will be consulting further on the detail of this proposal to ensure that when it is implemented it will carry broad agreement. 


Flexible working is good for business - enabling them to draw on a wider pool of skills and talents in the workforce, improve recruitment and retention rates, increase staff morale and productivity. The right to request flexible working is already operating well for parents with young children, 90% of requests being agreed. The Government proposed extending the existing right to request flexible working to include those with adult caring responsibilities.


Consequently, we plan to introduce from April 2007 the right for those who care for elderly or sick relatives to request flexible working. This will help a group who face particular challenges in juggling their caring responsibilities with work.



I want to give you some snapshots from research that my Department has commissioned; the report will be published at the end of this month or beginning of the next. It’s the ‘2005 Maternity and Paternity Rights Survey’ and compares things with the last report done in 2002.


?        ? of mothers took their full entitlement to maternity pay - up from 2/3 in 2002.

?        Mothers are taking more time off - 6 months up from 4 months in 2002.

?        93% of fathers took time off around the time of birth, with 79% taking their new entitlement to paternity pay.


Both mothers and fathers are reporting greater provision and greater take-up of flexible working arrangements.

?        68% of mothers say its available, up from 44% in 2002.

?        54% of fathers say its available, up from 22% in 2002.


The take up of flexible working has increased a lot.

?        47% of mothers work it, up from 17% in 2002.

?        31% of fathers work it, up from 11% in 2002.


In addition, the percentage of mothers changing employer when returning to work after the maternity period has gone down from 41% to 20%. Having the same employer is good for both parties; the employer saves recruitment and training costs. For the employee this is likely to lead to less downward occupational mobility, which in turn may help reduce gender inequality.


Many of the very welcome change shown by the report are because of legislation introduced by this Government, such as the right to request flexible working and changes to maternity arrangements. Millions of workers have benefited from the positive changes Labour has bought in since 1997, and for the most part, employers have taken on board these new regulations. But we know there are some employers that have to be bought kicking and screaming into the 21st century. For those we will continue to focus enforcement against persistently bad offenders.


As I said earlier, USDAW can be proud to have had a hand in a number of these changes in employment and social law. Government know we have to continue to move forward, to continue to make changes to help hard-working families take the opportunities that lead to a better life.


Thank you.

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