Sharon spoke to Unison's Women's Conference at the Brigton Conference Centre on Friday 14 February 2014.
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It’s a pleasure to be with you here in rainy Brighton today, as it always is a pleasure to be in a room with so many strong and active women.
It’s also always a pleasure, as a former national officer, to speak to Unison women members.
I met many inspiring women during my time with Unison – and I’ve continued to do so at various Unison events I’ve attended since I was elected.
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 week 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 trolley full of food from 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.
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 next week.
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.
Some 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 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: 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.
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.
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 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.
We’re more than a year out from the election, so there are lots of policy reviews ongoing and pledges under development which we will seek to build on and better that success next time around, albeit in a much tighter fiscal climate.
At the moment I’m heading up two of those policy reviews – one on new mums, and one on a new race equality strategy, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on both, either in the Q&A later or you can email me when you’ve had a chance to look at the consultation documents on the Your Britain website.
The new mums work is particularly important.
There are lots of really good employers in this country – 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 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.
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.
Our consultation on a new race equality strategy is another really important piece of work.
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 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 1968 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.
As I alluded to earlier, unemployment levels remain chronically high amongst some minority communities, and both educational attainment and health outcomes are still unacceptably linked to race.
Tackling these issues inevitably means removing barriers and helping more women from BME communities to play a full and active part in both the workplace and public life.
Again, finding out how real people – the people this would affect the most – think we should achieve this is going to be a major part of my job over the coming few months.
I know other teams are looking at many other important issues as well, whether it’s women’s safety or the particular challenges faced by older women like employment and social care, but particularly those who are ‘sandwich’ carers for both their parents and their grandchildren.
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 have been developed specifically with women in mind, and particularly with a view to helping women get on at work.
I was delighted that when I was the Shadow Minister covering childcare – and, in fact, the last time I was at a conference in this building - 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 to improve the situation for women – we’re expecting employers to play their part as well.
One in four women earn less than the living wage at the moment – 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 1/3rd of the cost of raising their staff’s wage to the living wage.
We’ll also strengthen the minimum wage and tackle the abuse of zero-hours contracts and agency workers, jobs where women are concentrated.
To embrace the creative and entrepreneurial flair that women have, we’ll also back more women 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.
Now, as it has always been, the choice for women across the country is clear.
And the choice for you and your sisters in Unison 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 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.
Our Shadow Cabinet is 44% women as well, and 54% of Labour’s target seats have female candidates.
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 Unison when I ran for selection – it’s not an easy road to take as I’m sure you all know. Having an all women shortlist certainly helped – especially in the North-East at the time, but having a supportive employer in Unison was the real difference in my opinion.
I was also supported by Unison and the GMB with lots of the bigger costs, such as postage and leaflets. How women without private means do it without support from a Trade Union – well, I suppose they don’t, do they, and that’s the problem.
The Party and public life would greatly benefit from having more women – and especially women from ordinary, working class backgrounds like me - at all levels.
If we can achieve that, the issues that are particularly important to women are going to transition from being “women’s issues” that are focussed on every now and again, to being mainstream issues, that are seen as being of importance to the whole country.
That’s when we’ll achieve greater equality.
That’s the goal we all share.
And we all need to share in making it a reality.