Monday, 20 January 2014

Women and Independence

A kind reader has sent me a copy of press release and extracts of a speech by Margaret Curran, Labour's shadow Scotland secretary, on the theme of women and independence.

I laughed my head off at the reference to equal pay in Scotland because the truth is that Labour controlled councils (which existed in far greater numbers prior to 2007) have an appalling track record on equal pay.

As do the Labour supporting trade unions, of course, for keeping their low paid women members in the dark for years about the big pay differences between male and female council jobs - and for failing to to challenge the employers.

So I have posted an article I wrote for the Herald newspaper last year - to inject a bit of balance into what Margaret Curran has to say in her speech because if you ask me, the shadow Scotland secretary is talking complete drivel and trying to re-write history. 

Agenda: Political will, not economics, has stalled equal pay

There are still battles being fought on equal pay.

Earlier this week, I called on Eddie McAvoy, leader of South Lanarkshire Council, to resign after the authority lost a three-year legal battle which has cost the public purse more than £168,000 so far.

The Supreme Court in London ruled that the council wrong to withhold information from me. I wanted to check whether women workers at the authority were being discriminated against. 

The way in which Scottish councils chose to deal with equal pay has important implications for areas of social policy.

The business goes back to 1999 when a new national agreement was struck (the 1999 Single Status (Equal Pay) Agreement between Scotland's council employers and the unions. The stated aim was to sweep away years of historical pay discrimination against many female- dominated jobs which were paid much less, typically £3 an hour less, than traditional male jobs.

The way equal pay was to be achieved was by raising the pay of women workers to the same as the men. The costly price tag was around £500m a year: 90,000 women workers at £3 per hour x 30 hours a week (on average) x 52 weeks = £421m. 

You might well ask how Scotland's councils could afford to spend so much on equal pay. The answer is that the annual budgets of Scotland 32 councils and that of the Scottish Parliament doubled in size during the period between 1997 and 2007. So, money was never the problem – the problem was political will.

Because in the year 2000 Scotland's 32 local councils with the enthusiastic support of the Scottish Government, implemented a much more expensive agreement on teachers' pay, the McCrone Agreement, with a far weightier annual price tag of £800m. Now this pay deal gave Scottish teachers an unprecedented 23.5% increase in a single year, whereas other very low- paid council workers were still waiting for the promises of their 1999 Equal Pay Agreement to be honoured.

Nowadays Labour and the unions are demanding a so-called Living Wage, yet I am struck by the thought that a rate of £9 an hour could and should have been achieved years ago. Not only would this have put more money into the pockets and purses of thousands of low-paid women council workers, but equal pay would also have eliminated the need for the crazy and complex system of working tax credits.

Those who failed to keep their promises in 1999 were the Labour councils who dominated the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla) at the time and the Labour trade unions who decided not to cut up rough on behalf of their lowest-paid members. Instead this was done by Action 4 Equality Scotland (A4ES), which arrived on the scene in 2005 and began to explain the big pay differences between male and female council jobs, which led to an explosion of equal pay claims in the Employment Tribunals. 

Aome people criticise A4ES because we charge clients a success fee of 10% (not 25% as some have suggested), but I've always regarded that as great value for money. The same people wrongly claim that the unions represented their members "for nothing", which is nonsense because they were, of course, taking millions of pounds in union contributions from these members –while turning a blind eye what was going on right under their noses.

So the fight for equal pay continues because certain councils decided to preserve the historically higher pay of traditional male workers when introducing job evaluation, which means that women workers have a potential ongoing claim while these pay differences continue. 

Other councils have cynically reduced male workers' pay to avoid the likelihood of claims from women employees, yet this was never the aim of the original Equal Pay Agreement: the problem was never that men were paid too much, but that women were paid too little. 

Mark Irvine was chief union negotiator in the 1999 Scottish agreement which was meant to deliver equal pay for women.

Press Release from Scottish Labour:

Margaret Curran will today (Saturday) say that the referendum debate has to engage women across Scotland who stand to lose the most from Alex Salmond’s plan for independence.

In her first speech of 2014, Labour's Shadow Scottish Secretary will say that while there has been significant commentary on how women might vote in September’s referendum debate, there has been little discussion of what is in their best interests.

She will point to the achievements made by Labour Governments over the past 50 years in advancing women’s place in our society and argue that women in Scotland have seen their rights increase because of, and not in spite of, being part of the UK.

Highlighting Alex Salmond’s plans to slash corporation tax, she will declare that his plan for a race to the bottom will hit women hardest and that his party’s record in Government and his plans for Scotland’s future demonstrate the SNP’s lack of ambition for women.

Finally, she will spell out three things a future UK Labour Government would do to improve rights and protections for women in Scotland:

- Legislate to protect new mums by compelling companies to make reasonable adjustments for women returning to work after maternity leave. An estimated 5000 women a year in Scotland have no job to return to after maternity leave.

- Introduce mandatory pay reporting so that companies have to report the gap between men and women's pay, if businesses do not agree to do this voluntarily.

- Introduce "Make Work Pay" contracts to incentivise companies to pay the living wage, increasing the wages of thousands of women across the country.

Summary and Extracts

Margaret Curran will argue that while there has been significant amounts of commentary about how women might vote in the referendum, no one has asked how independence might affect women across Scotland. Drawing on research from the Law Society of Scotland, she will argue that women do not feel engaged in this debate.

“Today I want to talk about just one aspect of the debate, which I believe has been neglected.

The role of women in the independence debate, and how we have to start to answer the genuine questions women across Scotland are asking.

We know that this has been the subject of a lot of commentary over the past year or two:

What influence can we have?

How will our voices be heard?

How will we vote?

In the conversations I've had since the referendum debate started and the reaction from women has been the same.

They’re not impressed with the partisan bickering.

Yes they want passion, principle and commitment.

But they also want a straight and honest debate.

Not false promises and empty chat up lines.

In many respects, just like the rest of the country.

But they also have particular questions they want answers to, and concerns about their children and their community that they want addressed.

In a race where we’re told that politicians are going after women’s votes, it might come as a surprise that women feel even less about the debate than men.

Recently, the Law Society of Scotland asked in a poll how well informed people felt about the issues that were being debated ahead of the referendum.

62% of men said they were very well informed or fairly informed, but only 49% of women.
That should worry all of us.
That means half of all women in Scotland don’t feel that politicians, the media and the other organisations that make up civic Scotland are helping them to understand the issues.

Research for the the Scottish Women’s Convention came to the same conclusion. Significant numbers of women complained about a lack of information.

In their words, they didn’t feel “able to make an informed decision” and, as one woman put it, “at the moment there seems to be a lot of ‘airy fairy’ ideas but nothing concrete.”

I believe this is because there’s been far too much focus on the process of women voting, and not nearly enough on whether they stand to lose or gain.

We’re being viewed as political pawns in the SNP’s game for independence, rather than people who have a decision to make.

We know from the commentators that the race is on for women’s votes, but no one has answered the question “What is in women’s interests?”

She will highlight the achievements of past Labour Government in increasing rights for women across the UK and say that women in Scotland have won these rights because of, not in spite of, being part of the Union.

“The problems that affect women in Scotland aren’t distinctly Scottish – they’re common across our island. That’s why we made links with women across the UK. Why the women’s movement has never been constrained by national boundaries, but saw alliances built through sisterhood as a key to success. We worked with women in trade unions and spoke with a greater voice across the UK and that helped us bring about the change we wanted.

We introduced the minimum wage which benefited 100,000 low paid workers in Scotland – two thirds of whom were women.

We increased paid maternity leave to nine months, extended total maternity leave to a full year, doubled maternity pay and just a year before the last general election we gave millions of parents with children under 16 the right to request flexible working.

We introduced Working Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit in 2003 to help low income working households, which significantly improved the lives of women and their children.

From the Equal Pay Act in 1970 to the Equality Act in 2010, we have been raising the standards and keeping them there for women all across the UK – regardless of what part of the country they live in.

When we introduced the Equal Pay Act, it helped women working in factories in Glasgow as much as it helped them in Gateshead.

Five years later when we protected women at work through the Sex Discrimination Act, it meant an end to the fear of discrimination for women in Aberdeen and Acton.

And from Caithness to Cardiff women didn’t have to make a trade off between their job and their family after we extended maternity leave.

As Gordon Brown has argued recently, the biggest success of the UK is in the achievement of increasing rights for all. I would extend Gordon’s argument and say that this is true for women more than any other group. We have seen our rights extended not inspite of being part of the UK, but because of it.

She will argue that independence could lead to a race to the bottom that could harm women’s interests:
“We already know that they want to cut corporation tax for big business by more than the Tories. Alex Salmond claims that this would make Scotland more competitive and boost employment.

But all this leads to is a race to see who can cut taxes the quickest. And then, as Harriet Harman said yesterday, who can cut pay to compete.

The trade unions have already told us how damaging this can be when they argued against regional pay across the UK. As the TUC and Unison said, instead of a far, transparent national system for setting wages in the public sector we end up with an exercise that pits one part of the country against another.

Independence sends us in a direction where this kind of competition isn’t just possible. It’s inevitable. And when taxes for big business have been slashed, and pay is under threat, what goes next? What happens to equality laws and protections?

The Tories were quick to cave in to demands for less regulation, and under intense pressure, a future independent Scottish Government may find themselves in the same position.”

Responding to the SNP’s White Paper, Ms Curran will say that the SNP have demonstrated a complete lack of ambition and that their approach to providing childcare for families across Scotland demonstrates their attitude towards women:

“Instead of a vision for changing women’s lives, we have a plan to win women's votes.
The SNP made an offer on childcare that they could achieve now with the powers they already have. And when Nicola Sturgeon was asked why she wouldn’t just get on with it, she said it was because some of the gains would go to the UK treasury.

If Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP think that improving the lives of women and children with more childcare is a good thing, they should do it now.
Not doing that is treating women like second class citizens – saying that their needs come after her push for independence.

And that lack of ambition was clear over all 650 pages of the White Paper.

In 650 pages, there is space for sections on an independent Scotland’s time zone, national anthem and our participation in Eurovision, but equal pay is only mentioned once, there is no certainty about our tax credit system and while promises are made about benefits, there’s no detail about how we’re going to pay for them.

If you’re managing a household budget – trying to balance mortgage payments with your energy bills and your weekly shop, you want to know what currency you’ll be using in the next few years and who will be setting your mortgage rates.

When you’re facing retirement you want to be able to have some certainty that your pension is going to be guaranteed and that your years of contributions won’t disappear.

And if your children are growing up, and you’re thinking about the future you want them to have, you don’t want risk and uncertainty for them. You want stability and reassurance.
Nicola Sturgeon said that the White Paper would answer all the questions, but for women across Scotland there aren’t any answers on the important things that matter to them.”

Finally, she will say that Labour offers a more ambitious plan than the SNP and will spell out three areas where Labour is looking to improve rights and protections for women after the next General Election.

“Over the next year we’ll be spelling out our plans for women if we win the 2015 election. But already we can say that we’ll take action in the areas where the Tories have stood against us and the SNP have been silent.

Firstly, on Equal Pay, if the big companies don’t start to publish how much they really pay women and men, we’ll bring back the legislation we passed before the election, but that the Tories ditched.

That would compel companies to report exactly how much they pay men and women and explain their pay gap.

Second, we’ll change the law to require employers to take reasonable steps to accommodate new mums returning to work after maternity leave, in order to end the abuses by employers that leave around 5,000 women a year in Scotland with no job to go back to after their maternity leave.

Finally, we’ll introduce ‘Make Work Pay’ contracts to incentivise firms to pay the living wage. Not just waiting for big companies to take action, but giving them a positive reason to increase pay.

Like the minimum wage in 1997, this will help tens of thousands of women in low paid employment.”