Sharon was invited to speak to the Bournemouth and District Fabian Society on her Shadow Ministerial role and current priorities in Parliament.
Thank you very much
It’s been great to spend the day down here campaigning with the fabulous Clare Moody and her team.
It’s not going to be easy – not by any means.
But it’s high time we had a Labour representative for the South West in the European Parliament again, and I’m confident Clare and her team have what it takes to make that a reality.
I’ve also learned today that this constituency includes Gibraltar, which is about 1,000 miles away as the crow flies.
The thought of that makes my weekly zigzagging of my constituency, and even the commute up and down to London, seem like much less of a trek than they do while you’re in the middle of them.
If Clare and the party want to take me canvassing down there for a few days in May, though, I’d certainly be open to making the trip!
I also know a Gibraltarian Minister, Samantha Sacramento, and I’m sure she’d also help.
But for now I’m more than happy to be by the seaside in Bournemouth.
It’s good to see actually that the flooding has more or less cleared up around here.
Although given that the first same sex marriages will be taking place this weekend, I’m sure your friendly local UKIP councillors and MEPs haven’t packed away their brollies and wellies just yet.
And of course it’s great to come and speak to the Fabian Society, as a member and a contributor myself.
Fabianism and the ideas it generates are as relevant to social democratic or centre left politics and the policies of the Labour Party as they ever have been.
You only have to look at the fact that so many Shadow Ministers and key opinion formers within the current party structure so regularly publish their pamphlets through the Fabian Society.
But perhaps more telling is the fact that one of Ed Miliband’s key advisors on public services and public sector reform – Tim Horton – was recruited directly from the Fabians.
I worked closely with Tim on our childcare policies which we announced last year, which I’ll talk about later, and I know he’s been driving the agenda on people-powered public services as well.
I think it’s those ideas that could really set Labour apart from the rest at the election.
The Tories might have talked a lot about localism in 2010, and even since.
But really, all localism meant to them was shifting the blame for cutting services from Whitehall to town halls – and mainly Labour town halls given our areas have faced by far the biggest cuts.
You’re probably quite lucky in this respect having such a staunch Tory council – although I’m sure you pay for it in other ways!
And of course, it was cover for their hiving more and more services off to the private sector, or to so-called trusts and charities that in some cases are actually just a vehicle for funds to be channelled out to private businesses, such as some of the worst academy chains.
A true shift towards devolving more power and funding to local areas, and giving people a greater say and therefore a greater stake in the services delivered – that would be something quite radical, and it’s exciting to see those policies develop.
WOMEN AND EQUALITIES
But you’ve asked me here today to talk about my role as Shadow Women and Equalities Minister.
It’s a varied one, I can tell you that much.
Just in the last few weeks I’ve spoken in the Chamber against a Tory who was trying to ban Muslim headscarves…
…taken part in a debate on the technical instruments to finally fully implement the Same Sex Marriage Act…
…been to the British Board of Film Classification to talk about music videos and the objectification of women…
…and been to the 58th UN Commission on the Status of Women to lobby for a standalone goal on gender equality in the post-MDG development framework.
I’m more than happy to talk about any of the issues I cover in the Q&A afterwards, but I really wanted to use this opportunity to talk about two pieces of policy work I’m leading on at the moment.
The first of those is a review of support for and treatment of new mums, and particularly how this relates to women’s success in the workplace.
The question of what women want is very high on the agenda at the moment, but not necessarily for the right reasons.
David Cameron has rightly been taking a lot of stick because of the woeful lack of women in his government, his party, and at the top of the civil service.
Ed made a great play last month by pointing out the lamentable lack of women on the Government front bench during PMQs, but the old boys network goes much deeper than that.
Just 14% of the seats on Ministerial Committees are held by women – and six of them have no women on them at all.
And women have been significantly under-represented when it comes to public appointments since 2010 too.
Just 17 out of 114 Privy Counsellors.
13 out of 85 policy “Tsars”.
Fewer than one in five ambassadors.
A quarter of permanent secretaries.
And fewer than a third of those appointed to sit on Whitehall departmental boards.
At least Nigel Farage is true to himself when he says he doesn’t think women are as valuable as men in the workplace.
David Cameron on the other hand likes to talk the talk, but looking at his record he might as well be Farage.
But while these are all important symbols of David Cameron’s attitude towards the contribution that women can and should play, and probably a big part of the reason that the Government’s cuts to benefits and services have hit women three times harder than they have men, they’re not the issues that matter most to the women that I represent as a constituency MP, or speak to as a Shadow Minister.
Good quality employment is the number one concern in my constituency.
Under David Cameron, women’s unemployment reached its highest levels for a generation at over 1million.
In particular, the number of older unemployed women has risen by nearly 50% since the election.
And unemployment for non-white women is twice as high as the national average at 10.2% amongst Indian women; 24.3% amongst Pakistani women; and 16.4% amongst women of African or Caribbean backgrounds.
And if they are in work, they’re seeing the gap between their male counterparts widening and their earnings eaten into by the cost of living crisis.
In December, official figures revealed that the gender pay gap increased in 2012/13 for the first time in 5 years, to 10%.
Under Labour the gender pay gap fell by 7.7%, and it’s deeply disappointing to see these gains going into reverse.
And we also worked out earlier this year that women working full-time have seen their real incomes fall by an average of £2,500 a year – more than enough for a weekly shop for a year at Aldi!
And of course, that’s just based on the average rate of inflation, whereas the costs that ordinary working women face are likely to have increased by much more.
Childcare’s a great example of this problem, and was the subject of my last article for the Fabian’s Women’s network.
Parents are being hit by what I’ve called a triple whammy.
Childcare costs are increasing way ahead of wages – up by almost 30% since 2010 for early years, and about 13% for holiday childcare, which many parents will be scrabbling around to try and find for the Easter holidays.
But on top of that, places are being lost – we’ve got 1,500 fewer childminders and 900 fewer nurseries since the election.
And as we know, support for those on low and middle incomes from the Government through tax credits has been cut – almost half a million families have lost an average of more than £500 each.
Many are up to £1,500 worse off because of that measure alone.
It’s no surprise therefore that survey after survey is finding that women are being forced out of the workplace or just not bothering going back because it just doesn’t make financial sense for them to do so until their children are in school.
And as we know, by that point their career will likely have stalled and they’ll never reach the same seniority or the same level of pay as they would have done if they were men, or if they’d simply had the right support to be able to afford to work while their children were young.
Obviously, having pointed all of that out, your question – and indeed anyone’s question – will be: well what are Labour going to do differently?
The first thing I would say to them is look at what we achieved last time.
A combination of the National Minimum Wage and the successive real terms increases combined with Working Tax Credit, Child Tax Credit and Childcare Tax Credits dramatically increased incomes for those in the lowest paid jobs, and particularly enabled mothers to work.
Sure Start – a new public service specifically to support families when they need it most.
Free childcare for three and four year olds, as well as the start of the programme to extend that to disadvantaged two year olds – regardless of what Nick Clegg likes to say, that was our policy, and we need to ensure voters don’t forget it.
And that wasn’t just childcare for the sake of childcare – we decided that it had to be high quality if it was going to give every child the best start in life.
That’s why we brought in the Early Years Foundation Stage and significant supply-side investment to improve the qualifications of the early years workforce and subsidise the salaries of graduate leaders.
And of course we put a lot into improving the provision of out of school and holiday childcare – £2.2bn going into the Extended Schools programme and hundreds of millions more going to local authorities to provide reasonably priced holiday schemes.
We also introduced the right to request flexible working, helping parents juggle the demands of their career and caring responsibilities.
We increased paid maternity leave to nine months and extended total maternity leave to a full year, as well as doubling statutory maternity pay.
We also legislated against maternity and sex discrimination in the workplace and put in place powers to require large firms to be transparent about the gender pay differences amongst their employees – contributing to the gap closing, as I’ve already mentioned, by almost 8 percentage points.
All of this and much more contributed to seeing the number of women in work rise by 1.5million during our time in office – a great achievement.
But we know there was further we could go.
Women still face far too many challenges in far too many workplaces, and mothers particularly face what we call the motherhood penalty.
That’s why I’m looking now at what a future Labour government can do in 2015 to build on all the progress we made.
I know there are lots of really good employers in the UK.
I met a dozen or so earlier in the year who have some great packages of support available for working mums both while they’re on maternity leave and when they come back, and of course the public sector has generally been a leader in this field.
But the best by far was Ford, believe it or not, who give 12 months maternity leave on full pay as well as subsidised on-site childcare, emergency childcare and NCT classes etc.
But still there are bosses out there who are from the Nigel Farage school of equality.
According to Maternity Action’s report on pregnancy discrimination which came out in December, 60,000 women are forced out of their jobs a year just because they had the temerity to become pregnant and have a baby.
And to make it worse, the Government are now forcing those women who have the energy and time whilst pregnant or coping with a new baby to take their employer to a tribunal to pay £1,200 to do so, which is such an obvious barrier to a pregnant women or a new mum who has just lost her job.
Maybe that’s the point – it probably is.
We clearly need to tackle this discrimination, as we do the many other challenges that new mums face during the most crucial time in their and their child’s lives, and I’m looking forward to pulling out some new policies on how we should do that from responses we receive to our consultation.
If you want to feed into that, it’s up now on Labour’s Your Britain website.
The next focus of my attention at the moment is the consultation we’re running on a new One Nation Race Equality Strategy, something which I think we really need and which I’m really excited about.
Once again, Labour has historically led the way on promoting equality in Government.
It was our 1968 Race Relations Act that made it illegal, for the first time, to refuse housing, employment or public services to people on the basis of ethnicity or background and we have seen recently how much this is still needed with regard to housing by the expose by the BBC last year where 10 housing agencies in west London were caught on film saying they would not rent to African-Caribbean people.
The last Labour Government followed in the tradition of the 1968 Act and established the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) in 2007 to act as a strong independent champion to tackle discrimination and promote equality.
We legislated for aggravated sentences for racially motivated crimes.
We introduced the Race Equality Duty, which applied to over 43,000 public bodies and improved the diversity of workforces.
And, of course, just as we have led the way in encouraging more women into Parliament and public life, we are proud to have more MPs from ethnic minority backgrounds than all the other Parties combined.
But we have a responsibility to ensure that progress continues to be made.
People from black and minority ethnic backgrounds are still under-represented in every level of politics, as well as at the top of business, public services and the third sector.
I’ve actually been looking at figures from the civil service over the last week, and the stats really are shocking.
Over the 3 years before the election, Labour increased ethnic minority representation within the civil services by 11%.
But since 2010 this progress has been all but wiped out, and the proportion of ethnic minority staff working at the most senior level – which includes directors and permanent secretaries – has fallen.
Even in London, which has a BME population of some 40%, just 6% of those in the top jobs are from those communities, and you can see the level of representation basically halve at every level once you get past the lower two rungs.
That pattern is replicated in front line services as well.
Just 5 of 195 nursing directors are from BME backgrounds.
There are 85 black lecturers out of a total of 18,510 in our universities.
Less than 7% of police across the country.
Less than 4% of firefighters.
The list goes on and on and on.
Of course, this is a problem in the private sector as well – Trevor Phillips’ recent report pointed out that there are just 10 people from ethnic minority backgrounds among the 289 Chairman, Chief Executives and Chief Finance Officers of FTSE 100 companies.
As I alluded to earlier, it’s therefore no wonder that unemployment levels remain chronically high amongst some minority communities.
There are many other issues as well, of course - both educational attainment and health outcomes are still unacceptably linked to race, and there is still deep mistrust in some communities of all public agencies, but especially the police.
But it’s easy to point out what the many problems are.
The challenge I and the Labour Party has is finding out how real people think we should tackle these problems.
We’ve already talked about increasing BME representation in the police and overhauling stop and search powers.
That’s real progress, but it’s also the low hanging fruit.
Gloria and I, as well as Sadiq Khan, are therefore asking MPs, PPCs, Councillors – whoever, really - to get out into their local communities over the coming months and really engage with BME groups, especially young people, about their experiences, priorities and ideas for what a future Labour government should do in 2015.
Again, we’ve also got a consultation document on the Your Britain website, so if you have your own ideas please do feel free to contribute there.
It’s quite a big consultation - at 73 questions – because it covers so many different issues you really couldn’t leave out, but don’t let that put you off; it’s not an exam, and you can answer as many or as few of them as you want to.
The most important thing is that we hear what people’s priorities and ideas are, so that the policies we work up properly reflect them.
So as I say, there is a lot of policy development ongoing at the moment.
But many of the policies we have come forward with so far will really help both women and ethnic minorities.
I was delighted that when I was the Shadow Minister covering childcare we were able to announce a huge package of support for working parents needing childcare.
Under a future Labour government every working family will receive 25 hours of free, high-quality childcare for their 3 and 4 year olds for 38 weeks a year, an increase of 10 hours a week on the current offer.
That’ll be a service worth some £1,500 a year for each child, paid for by an £800m rise in the bank levy.
This is a real investment in the future - not just in making it easier for women to afford to work, but also in laying the foundations for the next generation.
And because parents still struggle to find convenient childcare when their child reaches school age, we’ll also deliver our Primary Childcare Guarantee.
This guarantee will ensure that parents of primary school pupils are able to access breakfast and after-school clubs through their school between the hours of 8am and 6pm.
This will be a massive help for parents and, if the evaluation of our Extended Schools programme are anything to go by, will really help the academic development of children from the poorest backgrounds as well.
As I mentioned earlier, the pamphlet from Fabian Women’s Network really helped lay the groundwork for these announcements.
It’s actually also a really great read in its own right, with contributions from lots of experts in the field of early years on the importance of getting things right for children at this crucial age – I’d certainly recommend it to any of you who hasn’t already read it.
Now, we’re not just concerned with what the Government can do – we’re expecting employers to play their part as well.
One in four women earn less than the living wage at the moment, as will many people from ethnic minorities given that they’re over-represented in the lowest-paying sectors – retail, hospitality and services etc.
In many cases this means that the Government is subsidising low-paying employers by topping up wages through tax credits.
Labour want to make work pay for women by allowing firms to claim back a third of the cost of raising their staff’s wage to the living wage – currently £7.65 here in Bournemouth or £8.80 in London.
We’ll also strengthen the minimum wage and tackle the abuse of zero-hours contracts and agency workers, which are again a feature of the sectors where women and ethnic minorities are clustered.
And to embrace the creative and entrepreneurial flair that women and people from ethnic minority backgrounds have, we’ll also help more people to start their own businesses by cutting business rates in 2015 and freeze them again in 2016 for small businesses, funded by scrapping the Government’s corporation tax cut for the largest firms.
The Government estimates that failing to help ethnic minorities start up businesses costs the economy £8bn a year, and we also know that less than 1 in 5 SMEs are wholly or majority owned by women at the moment – hinting at a huge untapped pool of talent and creativity.
So as well as the moral imperative to help everyone realise their potential, there’s quite clearly an economic imperative to make progress on this too.
These are just some of the policies we’ll need to pull together to put to the electorate in 12 month’s time.
But now, as it has always been, the choice is already clear.
If you want to see the cause of equality furthered…
…for women, for ethnic minorities, for those from ordinary, working class backgrounds, for young people, for all the groups who are losing out under this Government…
…then you need representatives and a Government for whom equality is the over-riding priority.
And if you want representatives and a Government for whom equality is the over-riding priority, then you need not just to vote Labour in 2015, but to get involved and be part of the campaign to convince your friends, neighbours and colleagues to vote Labour too.
And actually that’s true if you want representatives and a Government that’s more representative in terms of age, gender, ethnicity and background too.
That’s not about tokenism.
It’s about realising that our party and our politics are stronger if they reflect the communities and the country that they serve.
If we can achieve that, the issues that are particularly important to women and ethnic minorities will no longer be seen as periphery issues that are focussed on every now and again.
They’ll be mainstream issues, that are seen as being of importance to the whole country, as indeed they are.
That’s when we’ll achieve greater equality.
That’s the One Nation goal we all share.
And we all need to share in making it a reality.
As I said at the start of my remarks, Fabian ideas and ambitions continue to be central to Labour’s policies and priorities.
And we’re going to need those ideas to keep flowing over the next 13 months.
But most of all we need the leaflets to flow through letterboxes…
…we need the conversations with voters to flow on doorsteps, in town centres and at school gates, and over the phones as well…
…and yes, to be blunt, we need the donations and the subs to flow into our campaign funds to try and match the big corporate money that will undoubtedly flow to the Tories, given how generous the Tories – and of course their Lib Dem enablers – have been to them.
It’s only in government that Labour can make the changes we all want to see, so I thank you all in advance for whatever part you’re able to play in achieving that.