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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Moving Equality up the Agenda

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The spring edition of the Fabian Review is a special equality issue and carries the following article from Meg. For details of the Fabian Society visit http://www.fabian-society.org.uk/int.asp



The fact is that Britain continues to be an unequal society and many types of discrimination persist. We often applaud how far we have come, but when measured against yardsticks that matter, the reality is that there is still a long way to go.


The proportions of women, black people and people with disabilities, holding senior positions in business, the civil service and the professions is growing - but remain nowhere near where we could say equality is a fact. The first Race Relations Act was passed 40 years ago but 40% of women of Pakistani and Bangladeshi descent have no qualifications, compared to only 17% of white women. And the gender pay gap - whilst reduced - remains, particularly for part-time workers.


In Westminster and Whitehall, the ‘corridors of power’ have changed, but not enough. Since Nancy Astor took up her seat in 1919 there have been a total of only 291 women MPs (today there are more than 500 male MPs in the Commons). This is despite the law being changed to allow political parties to boost the number of women candidates. Only the Labour Party has been willing to put women forward in large enough numbers to change Parliament. In local government the position is not much better, with overall 26.3% of councillors being women - the Liberal Democrats do best with 34.4%, Labour has 28.9% and the Conservatives 27%.


So what do we want society to look like in 2017, ten years after the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights starts? The beginning of the Equality Act sets out the duty of the CEHR to encourage and support the development of a society that sees people’s ability to achieve their potential not limited by prejudice or discrimination, the protection of human rights, equal opportunity to participate in society and mutual respect between groups. How much progress towards these goals should we expect?


A better work- home-play balance certainly. Fathers increasingly want to have more involvement in the lives of their children. Nine out of 10 fathers take time off from work around the birth of their babies. Although there is still much evidence that women shoulder the main caring, this is slowly changing and it’s important to encourage men to play a greater part. Legislation before Parliament will give families a choice of either the father or mother taking leave to look after a new baby in the second six months of its life. Older people will be able to work for longer, continuing to experience the income, status and social world that being at work brings with it.


In 2017 we will be tackling the ongoing challenges of globalisation, with a much richer mix of races and cultures, a sense of belonging that is not defined by where you were born but by who you are.


The Government’s equality programme over the next 18 months will result in profound change; the following is an outline of it.


The new ‘Gender Duty’

The Equality Act 2006 introduces a new ‘gender duty’; a requirement for the public sector to treat men and women staff equally. There is also a requirement to provide services which recognise the different needs of men and women so that public services are relevant to everyone.


Women, for example, are more likely to be victims of domestic violence, on average 2 women a week are murdered by a partner or former partner.  The Police and court system need to treat these crimes with the seriousness that they deserve. In the health service, of the nine commonest cancers that affect both genders men are more likely to die. Information and detection services need to recognise the different ways that men and women respond to health concerns.


We can learn from the Welsh Assembly about this approach. The law that set it up requires it to ensure that “its functions are exercised with due regard to the principle that there should be equality of opportunity for all people.” Its Committee on Equality of Opportunity tackles issues that affect women, people with disabilities and ethnic minorities, older people and indeed any group who might be discriminated against. The range of its work has included equal pay, flexible working, increasing the numbers of women in public life.


The Government has already given public bodies a duty to promote race equality. Providers of services are beginning to respond to the needs of their black and ethnic minority users. The Disability Discrimination Act is starting to tackle issues of access and make services more responsive to the differing needs of people with disabilities. The Discrimination Law Review may help us to develop one approach, one positive duty to ensure services are relevant to the differing needs of people.


Good Relations

Discrimination and inequality are not conducive to harmony within society, and the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights is charged with promoting good relations between groups. Of the existing commissions only the Commission for Race Equality (CRE) has this responsibility. Learning from this work and that of local race equality councils will be important for the CEHR’s future role.


The Equality Act 2006 recognises that there is a particular need to pursue these issues in relation to race, religion and belief against a background of fears of extremism and increased migration. As the range of people who choose to make Britain their home continues to grow the challenges of race, faith and culture will continue.


The experience of hate crimes and isolation within society is not confined to race, and the new Commission will need to develop its work across all groups. Recent killings of men because they are homosexual, and the persistence and scale of domestic violence, is evidence of deep seated attitudes that must be tackled. Whether people with mental health problems and adults with learning disabilities can live successfully in the community is often dependent on the acceptance of those around them.


Equality at Work

It is inequalities at work that often lead to inequalities in other areas of life. The gender pay gap has narrowed for full time work, but for women in part time work it is still nearly 40%. Only 11% of women work as managers or senior officials compared with 18% of men. These inequalities eventually result in women pensioners being significantly worse off than men. Whilst in the state system the crediting for caring responsibilities through Home Responsibilities Protection will start to erode the differences in state pension, it does nothing to address the big difference in private pension provision.


It’s not just women who experience a pay gap. People with disabilities earn 10% less, on average, than non-disabled people. While disabled 16 year olds are twice as likely to be out of work or education as their non-disabled friends and only 17% of people with learning disabilities are in paid work.


In education boys are now doing worse at schools than girls, but, curiously, girls generally end up in lower paid jobs. The recently published report of the ‘Women and Work Commission’ identified the need to improve aspirations of girls in school. Children often do not understand the financial implications of the job choice they make, choosing traditional jobs when a wider range of choices would make sense for them.


In the labour market there is a clear correlation between sectors experiencing skills shortages and sectors in which women are under-represented.  For example, only 8% of employees in engineering occupations are women.  Yet of the women with qualifications in science, engineering and technology, 70% don’t work in those industries. If more women move into higher skilled, higher-paid occupations the productive potential of the economy could increase by between £2bn and £9bn.


The 2005 report of the Female FTSE 100 Index shows that a record number of FTSE 100 companies - 78 - now have women directors, up 13% on last year.  Six companies have appointed their first ever female director. Yet, there are still only 11 FTSE 100 companies with female executive directors, only one female Chief Executive and one female Chair. Overall, women still only account for 10% of directorships, and just 3.4% of executive director posts.


Nearly a million women are self-employed and this number has increased by around 10% over the last four years. This is progress. However, women make up 52% of the population and 46% of those active in the labour market. The reality is that women are an overlooked area for economic growth that is just beginning to be tapped. If we had the same rate of female owned start-ups as in the USA, we would have over half a million more businesses - with a major impact on our productivity, prosperity and employment.


The Commission for Equality and Human Rights

The Equality Act 2006 establishes a new Commission for Equality and Human Rights (CEHR), starting work in autumn 2007. We will then have one body charged with enforcement of all discrimination legislation, folding in the existing three commissions covering gender, race and disability. In addition the new commission will take in sexual orientation, religion and belief and age, along with a remit to support human rights legislation. The CEHR will be an important instrument for advancing equality within society.


As the work to set up the new commission gets underway, two important reviews will help develop its priorities. The Equalities Review is examining just what are the causes of inequality; for instance, why does the same education system produce very different results for boys of Afro-Caribbean descent compared with boys of Indian descent? Why do women pay such a high price in future wages and job opportunities by taking time out from work to have children? By unpicking what it is that happens to people during different stages in their life, the choices they make, that are made for them, the Equalities Review will help our understanding of the causes of enduring inequality.


At the same time, the Discrimination Law Review is examining the current legislative framework. This entails detailing the different existing ‘equality’ laws, examining how they interact with each other, the gaps and contradictions. The end result should be a much simpler framework for the future.  


Meg Munn

Minister for Women and Equality



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