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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Nice job, shame about the pay

Friday, June 10, 2005

By Helen Pidd  (The Guardian 9th June 2005)


When Tony Blair unveiled his new cabinet and roster of junior ministers on May 10, the omission initially slipped through unnoticed. The media were too busy marvelling at David Blunkett's speedy renaissance to pay any heed to the fact that Jacqui Smith, former deputy minister for women and equality, had been appointed schools' minister, leaving her old position vacant.

Several days later, when Meg Munn, the popular 45-year-old MP for Sheffield Heeley, was handed the job, everyone took note. Not because, as chair of the women's committee of the Parliamentary Labour Party, she was the perfect candidate - although that was mentioned in passing - but because it emerged that the prime minister was not offering her the customary £29,000 ministerial pay rise. She was to continue on the £59,000 salary of a normal backbencher, despite the fact that her predecessor took home almost double that. In the words of one Sunday newspaper headline, Munn became "Meg, the (unpaid) minister Blair forgot".

It is a brave move, then, at the start of her first interview as deputy minister, for Munn to declare the Women and Work Commission to be one of her top priorities in the job. This is a piece of legislation due to report in the autumn which, in Munn's own words, looks particularly "at job segregation and pay-gap issues". It is an "enormously important" act, she says, because "although we've had the Equal Pay Act for a long time now, there's still that pay gap."

So how did she feel when she found out that she wasn't going to get paid? A breathy, slightly nervy laugh. "It always happens to somebody," she says, "and you obviously hope it's not going to be you, but it's not unusual. There is a fixed number of ministerial posts that can be paid and there are a number that aren't. The [unpaid] ones I can think of in the last parliament are men, so I don't see it as a gender issue at all."

She says Blair mentioned the lack of pay from the outset and she has no time for the argument that it sets a rather odd precedent. "If it was a gender issue that would be true, but it's clearly not a gender issue, it's a new-to-government issue."

But how can women be sure that she will fight for their rights when she is accepting the decision not to recognise financially her extra responsibilities? "As I say, it's just how government works," she sighs, "and anyway, I still receive a Member of Parliament's salary."

It would be nice to report here a hint of bitterness in her voice, some acknowledgement of maltreatment by Blair, but on this subject Munn is as levelled as she is throughout the rest of the conversation. She flashes toothy smiles from her large, pearly lipsticked mouth. She is impressive to look at, with her candyfloss whoosh of blond fluffy curls, her very blue eyes and her navy pinstriped power suit - and a killer handshake to match.

Munn, a former social worker and an MP since 2001, was particularly active in the last parliament in campaigning for more sensible hours for MPs. She admits to being disappointed that the House decided to go back to later sittings - a decision that partially led her former Labour colleague Helen Jackson to resign from her Sheffield Hillsborough seat. "I think it was a step backwards," says Munn.

And how is Munn's work-life balance? A giddy laugh. "Well, I played tennis this morning, didn't I, Helen?" Helen, Munn's PA, nods enthusiastically. "There's a group of us from the Commons and Lords who play doubles on Tuesday and Thursday mornings."

Munn is coy about the hours she works. "On average," she says, taking a sip of water, "umm ... well ... I ... “Helen chips in to say it varies.”Yes, it varies. On average, as a backbench MP I used to work 60-70 hours a week." And now she is a minister? It is too soon to tell. At least she doesn't have the pressures of children, but manages to spend time with her husband in Sheffield at weekends.

A member of the Labour Party since she was 15, Munn was described in one paper as an "arch Blairite loyalist" - a description confirmed by her voting record - but she is clearly not averse to some cross-party socialising. In addition to the tennis, she dances with the Commons' tap troupe, the Division Belles, and is in Westminster's female footie squad (nicknamed Tessa's Tigers after the team captain). "Good informal networking opportunities," she says, "and fun too."

In Munn's cross-party role, maintaining contact with politicians in different departments is crucial. "One piece of advice I was given was not to cut myself off from other parliamentary colleagues," she says. Not only does she have two bosses based in different departments - Alan Johnson in the Department of Trade and Industry on the equality side and Tessa Jowell at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on women's issues - but her job necessarily involves getting stuck into all ministries, checking that they are taking equality into account at every juncture. Although Jowell has responsibility for women at cabinet level, Munn will look after most of the detail, which is why her position is often simply referred to as "Women's Minister".

Jowell claims to be "delighted" at Munn's appointment. "Meg is very passionate, very determined and an extremely good communicator," she says. "I am confident she will be very good at getting things done - women in coming years will have a lot to be grateful to her for." And the thorny problem of pay? "It's not ideal, but I certainly hope that she will be paid in the near future."

Another of Munn's big tasks is to oversee the ratification of the Equality Bill, which aims to bring all equality bodies under the same umbrella. Also in her intray is the Work and Families Bill, which will be looking to "move towards increased maternity leave, investigating the possibility of transferring that to fathers". Flexible working is also a priority: Labour hopes to extend this to carers of people with disabilities. "The responsibility for caring falls disproportionately on women," says Munn.

But she is keen to stress that she will not be fighting for women and against men. When asked what one thing would improve life for female MPs, she switches the question slightly. "It's not just about women. I did some work talking to people on the parliamentary list who wanted to be MPs and, actually, a lot of men were coming in saying that they would expect to be able to spend time with their young families if they got elected."

So what would make her life better as a woman? "Ummm," she says, "it's no one thing, but perhaps just the feeling you sometimes still get that you are being judged as a woman rather than as a Member of Parliament."

She would like to see "50% men and 50% women" in the House of Commons and supports Labour's policy on all-women shortlists. "I'd like to see a House that looks a lot more like the people we represent."

She rejects the notion that to win a top job in government you have to behave like a man. What she will say, however, is that the real barrier to gaining power "isn't actually in parliament but in the selection process. For me, being selected to stand for my party was much more difficult, broadly speaking, than being a woman in parliament." Once you've got a foothold in Westminster, she says, gender is immaterial. "What you have to do as a parliamentarian is no different whether you're a man or a woman, although you might do it in different ways. Everyone still has to gain the respect of their colleagues, find out how to make a good speech and ask a good question, and learn the best way to represent their constituents."

And who has she learned from? Which politician does she look up to most? Her answer is surprising. She doesn't plump for a female-friendly choice such as Shirley Williams, Mo Mowlam or Glenda Jackson, but an altogether more controversial figure whom Munn has known for years since he was on the local council with her dad and for whom she has "enormous admiration". As a role model for somebody born in Sheffield, she says, "I don't think you can choose anyone better than David Blunkett. And he's straight-talking, and hopefully I am too." 

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