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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Summit on Equality and Diversity

Thursday, January 25, 2007

At the West Midlands regional summit on Equality and Diversity, Meg gave the following speech.


Your conference is at an opportune time. It reflects the Government’s commitment to creating a Britain in which every individual can fulfil their potential. We believe promoting equality and diversity is vital to securing individual opportunity and to the prosperity of our society as a whole. 


There have been a series of changes across the equality agenda:

  • a new Disability Discrimination Act,
  • we have outlawed race discrimination in all public functions,
  • imposed a new duty on public bodies to promote race equality,
  • introduced the Gender Recognition Act in 2004,
  • outlawed discrimination in the workplace on grounds of religion and belief,
  • and in October 2006, this legislation was extended to cover age discrimination.   

One of my ministerial responsibilities is to oversee the introduction of the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights. This new Commission is being established to bring an inclusive approach to promoting equality and human rights, and provide more effective support for our discrimination legislation.


This Commission draws together the three current equality Commissions, the Commission for Racial Equality, the Disability Rights Commission and the Equal Opportunities Commission. It also supports the new areas of law about discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation, age, religion and belief. It will also provide support for the Human Rights Act.


I want to thank the West Midlands Regional Assembly for all the work undertaken by its Equality and Diversity Partnership in helping to develop the knowledge, capabilities, networks and relationships that the Commission will need. I understand that this work has been undertaken over the last 12 months, and that many of you have contributed to the development of a model for the regional presence for the Commission in the West Midlands.


Excellent joint-working between regional stakeholders, both local and regional government, as well as the business, voluntary and community sectors has ensured that sterling progress has been made. Today's event is about taking this work forward.  


A New Approach to Equality

This is fundamentally about a new approach to equality and achieving a fairer society. It recognises the importance of both human rights and the need to ensure good relations between communities. Focussing on good relations between communities will build trust and dialogue across all sections of society.


I'd like to highlight just four of the many ways in which this will mean the Commission will be different:

  • being the guardian of equality and human rights for the whole of society and not any sectional group,
  • putting the expertise in one place, providing a single point of access on equality and human rights legislation,
  • a strong advocate for equality and human rights, both with key decision makers and the public at large, and
  • building up a powerful evidence base on the causes of inequality to help identify goals and priorities.  

I understand that rather than lose the expertise and good will built up within the region over a number of years you are keen to build their capacity and increase joint-working. Also I know that you want to work closely with the new Commission, to assist it not only to deliver in the West Midlands, but also to highlight the specific issues that there are still to be addressed here. This approach sits closely with Government's desire to have a Commission which is committed to partnership working.


I know that the West Midlands are affected by the same wide-ranging changes that affect the rest of the country. Demographics, globalisation and migration make us more aware of different identities, cultures, religions and beliefs. There is the changing relationship between men and women, new family patterns, the fast moving requirements of the labour market and the shape of public services in the modern world.


We can take pride in our traditions of tolerance, fairness and the rule of law. Such traditions find expression in many of our public services and the legacy of our anti-discrimination legislation over the last forty years. But the world doesn’t stop turning, the increasing diversity in Britain creates both challenges and opportunities. It gives us the opportunity to seek to embed the positive values which are essential in an equitable and prosperous society.


I know many of you will have questions to ask about the future for the equality agenda. This is particularly relevant to the West Midlands, which is not only one of the largest regions in Europe, but also one of the most diverse. Indeed it is anticipated that Birmingham will be one of the first cities in the United Kingdom with an ethnic majority. This will obviously impact on the dynamics of its workforce, but also on the educational and skills requirements of the region. 


More Diverse Labour Market

Furthermore, we know our labour market is becoming older, and more diverse - more women, greater numbers of older people, and more from the ethnic minority population. Government and business alike need to respond to these changes. There has been strong growth in the level of female participation in the labour market over the last few decades - and this will continue.


In the United Kingdom, female employment rates have increased from 42 % in 1971 to around 70 % in 2004. By 2010, the workforce is set to grow by 300,000 - 80% of this growth will be women. As the labour market continues to move in this direction, and our economy moves up the ‘value added’ chain, we have to ensure that these new workers are equipped with the right skills. In our modern fast-moving economy, skills and life-long learning are vital to enable all to not only pursue, but to make progress, in their chosen career.


However, women still face barriers in employment - our pay is still only 87% of men’s, and mothers are at a disadvantage when returning to work after having children. This situation needs to change. We have to ensure greater equality of opportunity in the workplace in light of changing demographics.


The Women and Work Commission was set up to examine the persistent problem of the pay and opportunities gap. Its report offers a wealth of recommendations, practical and acceptable to all 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 UK economy is facing a skills shortage in various sectors today. There is a clear correlation between sectors experiencing skills shortages, and sectors in which women are under-represented. An example is the plumbing and construction industry sector, where women comprise of just 1 % of employees. Promoting equality of opportunity for all could plug these shortages. Employers would have a wider pool of talent to choose from, and analysis by the Women and Work Commission show that if more women move into these higher-skilled, higher-paid occupations the productive potential of the economy would rise by between £2 billion and £9 billion.


Some of the factors mentioned above are likely to be referred to in the Equalities Review. This is examining the root causes of persistent patterns of inequality and how they can be tackled, and is due to be published shortly. I would like to thank those of you, especially the Equality and Diversity Partnership, for their support and contribution to the final report.


Shortly, we will be focussing on the Discrimination Law Review, which is evaluating the effectiveness of current legislation. We will be consulting on our proposals with the intention of introducing a Single Equality Bill in this Parliament. I would like to take this opportunity to encourage you to contribute to the consultation - it is only by doing so that your voice will be heard.


What is certain is that the challenge facing the new Commission, the challenges facing us all, must be met. If we are to achieve a country where young people can grow up feeling safe, thinking they have a shot at a good career, that they are valued for who they are, we have to tackle long-standing problems that continue to divide us. By overcoming these problems we can not only make life fairer for all our citizens, we also make our country a better one in which to live.  

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