Sharon was asked to address the GMB union's National Equalities Conference at the Marriott Hotel in Leeds.
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It’s a pleasure to be with you here today in Leeds.
It’s also always a particular pleasure, as a former trades union national officer myself, although not for the GMB, to speak to union activists.
You are the people who fight for equality in your workplaces and in wider society on a daily basis.
That’s why anyone who’s ever had any dealings with a union knows they’re not these devious and unaccountable forces that the media paint them to be.
What they are is a progressive force for good for ordinary people against the vested interests of the wealthy elite, working for equality for all.
As Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities there are lots of areas I work across in Parliament, which I’m sure mirror the campaigning that the GMB and other unions undertake.
Just in the last week I’ve spoken in committee in support of the regulations which will enable the first same sex marriages to take place at the end of the month, but I did press the minister on equality of occupational pensions for same sex couples and greater rights to self-determination for transgender people.
And then I was in the Chamber to oppose an attempt by a Tory backbencher to ban Muslim women wearing veils.
And later this week I’m having meetings with our BME MPs about our race equality strategy – which I’ll talk more about later – and then responding to a debate on the contribution of women to the economy which has been called as part of International Women’s Day celebrations.
So it’s a varied brief and 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.
I’ve already mentioned the new race equality strategy consultation that I’m working on, but the first area I’ll talk about is the review of support for and treatment of new mums, which is obviously fundamental 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 under fire for the number of women in his government, his party, and at the top of the civil service.
Ed pointed out last month the lamentable lack of women around the Cabinet table, 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 however 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.
Neither – I imagine – are they the issues that the women you represent or talk to say they care about most.
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 at Aldi! [Add Adlib]
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.
Parents are being hit by what I’ve called a triple whammy.
Childcare costs are increasing way ahead of wages – up by almost 20% 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.
According to survey after survey, 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 idea.
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 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 the other week 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 – if there wasn’t, we might not need as strong a trade union movement as we have.
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.
Perhaps that’s the point of it.
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.
Moving on to the consultation we’re running on a new One Nation Race Equality Strategy, this is something that I’ve already spoken to Kamaljeet about at length, and something that 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, 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, but that’s the low hanging fruit.
Gloria and I, as well as Sadiq Khan, are therefore asking MPs and PPCs to get out into their local communities over the coming months and really engage with BME groups, especially young people, about their experience, 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 is quite a big consultation - at 73 questions – because it necessarily covers so many different issues, 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, really help the academic development of children from the poorest backgrounds as well.
And 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,
In many cases meaning that the Government is subsidising low-paying employers by topping up wages through tax credits.
Labour will 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 Leeds or £8.80 down 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.
Now, as it has always been, the choice for both women and ethnic minorities across the country is clear.
And the choice for you and your brothers and sisters in GMB and right across the trade union movement is clear as well.
If you want to see the cause of equality furthered, 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.
Or, even better, why not put yourselves forward as representatives – whether it’s on your local council or as an MP?
We’ve made great strides over the last few years as a party in supporting and encouraging women and ethnic minorities into elected positions.
When I was elected I was the only female MP in Tyne and Wear – there were 12 men and me! – now we’re in the majority after Emma Lewell-Buck was elected in South Shields, and in Sunderland all 3 MPs are women.
I’m sure there are at least one or two maybe more aspiring MPs here today, and I sincerely hope that you achieve that ambition.
I’m an MP today because of the help and support I got from the GMB and Unison when I ran for selection.
It’s not an easy road to take as I’m sure you all know – there are big financial costs for materials etc, and you really need an understanding employer if you want to put in the time needed to speak to members and build your profile.
Having an all women shortlist certainly helped – especially in the North-East at the time, but having that support, both from Unison as my employer and GMB as a sponsor, was the difference for me, and that’s why I will always defend unions having a role in selections.
None of this is 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 will 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.