Emma speaks to South Tyneside Regional Equality Forum

July 8, 2014

140703 Regional Equality ForumLast week Emma spoke to South Tyneside Regional Equality Forum (STREF) about the dangers of rising inequality and her personal commitment to fairness and non-discrimination.

Emma told the group, which met at the Town Hall on Thursday, how it was vital to keep fighting for these principles in hard times, and that it was wrong to say increasing inequality was an ‘inevitable’ result of the economic downturn.  You can read Emma’s full speech below.

STREF is made up of members drawn from local community groups and charities, as well as elected members from across the borough.  The group works to address all kinds of inequalities, from economic inequality to racism and sexism.

Emma’s speech to South Tyneside Regional Equality Forum (STREF)

Thank you for allowing me to come and speak to you today. I want to talk to you about why equality is the foundation of my politics, and why I believe the equality debate is more important now than it has been for a long time.

As a Labour MP and a trade union member I have always measured my success by what I can do for the less well off.  For me, a good society is one where anyone, whatever their background, can do their best for themselves, their community and their country.

The Labour movement was born in circumstances where this was impossible for the vast majority of people – people who had no opportunity to use their talent, strength and love for others to change the world around them for the better, and to make a better life for themselves and their families because their position in life would not allow them

Thanks to the advances made by Labour in this country, and parties like it all over the world, billions of people now have the ability to realise their potential – to fulfil their own needs and to fulfil their duties to others.

It is depressingly common for people to speak about the debate in terms of ‘Freedom vs. Equality’.  There are some who say that making people equal means taking wealth from people who deserve it and giving it to those who do not. 

I disagree, because equality is not opposed to freedom – equality is all about freedom.  Because a life of debt and poverty is a life of few options.  Freedom means little if your only choice is a choice of failing schools, cramped houses or low-paid jobs.  When some on the right talk about freedom, what they mean is freedom for a few – the freedom to deny freedom for others.

Contrastingly, when we talk about equality we mean freedom for everyone: the freedom for a woman to be judged on her skills and talents and not on her gender; the freedom for an Asian man to display his faith; the freedom for same sex couples to show their love for one another.

When these freedoms are denied, it is society’s loss.  How many great inventors or leaders have we missed out on because they were born into poverty, or because they were denied a job on the basis of their race, or because they were failed by a culture which said “women don’t do this, that’s men’s work?”

I am proud that today, these individuals face fewer barriers than they once did, and I am proud of the role Labour has played in that change.  We introduced the Equal Pay Act in 1970, the National Minimum Wage in 1998, the Equality Act in 2010. 

But of course, there is a huge way still to go, and today many of the changes we fought so hard for are threatened:

Unemployment among women and ethnic minorities is on the rise, even as the Government tells us overall unemployment is falling. 

The gender pay gap has begun to increase after narrowing for years, and cuts are hitting women three times as hard as men.

Discrimination against ethnic minorities is on the rise – to the point where the Government felt it was acceptable to have ‘go home’ immigration vans driving around areas with large ethnic minority populations. 

The number of disabled people in poverty in rising year on year as a result of the Government’s welfare reforms.  People with serious conditions are declared fit for work, and hundreds of thousands face an agonising wait of more than six months to be assessed for the new Personal Independence Payment.

And all around us the benefits and public services which help those most in need – from Sure Start centres to legal aid – are being slashed.

The Tory-led Coalition want us to believe that these cuts are regrettable, but inevitable – that we had no choice but to cut support for the poor in order to deal with the economic challenges we face.

But that is not true – cuts on the scale we have seen were not inevitable, they were a choice made by the Government.  They could have maintained the 50p top rate of tax, or taxed bankers’ bonuses – instead they gave tax cuts to the rich and let the burden fall on public services.

I know that our country is going through hard times, but that does not mean we should abandon the principle that everyone should have a fair opportunity to make a better life for themselves, or our goal of eliminating poverty.

Tough times are when we need to fight hardest for our principles and stand by them.  It is easy to preach equality when times are good, but if you drop that principle as soon as it becomes a challenge to defend, then it isn’t really a principle at all.

That is why I believe that now, when the idea that we can have a country that takes care of its most vulnerable citizens and welcomes people from a broad range of backgrounds is under threat, now is the moment when we need to fight hardest to defend those values.  We must work hard to convince people that it is not inevitable that disadvantaged people have to suffer the most in an economic downturn.

What we have seen from David Cameron and the Tories is that when push came to shove, equality just wasn’t high on their list of priorities.  Overnight they went from being the party of “compassionate conservatism” to the same old Tories – tax breaks for the rich and punishment for the poor.

It isn’t just on economic equality.  The Prime Minister’s problem with women is well-known.  He said he wanted a third of his Cabinet to be women, but instead it’s just 11 per cent.  That’s three out of twenty-seven.

He used to try and disassociate himself from the old xenophobia of the Tory party – but then shows that it isn’t so old after all, saying that ‘multiculturalism has failed’ and pandering to the right-wing press by imposing a requirement to teach “British Values” on schools.

And although David Cameron did the right thing and supported the legalisation of same sex marriage, he was only able to do so thanks to Labour support – the majority of his own party voted against.

But for Labour, and for me, equality is not a slogan or a brand that we can wear to woo voters, only to discard it at the next convenient moment.  Equality is central to who we are and our mission as a party, and we will embody that principle in good times and in bad.

After the Second World War, the greatest struggle our nation has ever faced, our country was facing massive financial challenges.  But we didn’t put our principles on hold, we built the National Health Service to give everyone, rich and poor alike, a health care system our country could be proud of. And we passed the National Insurance Act to provide a safety net for those who fell on hard times. 

If Labour wins in 2015 we would do no different.  I know that we still face a difficult economic situation, and the next Labour Government will have to make some difficult decisions, but we will not lose sight of our goal of a fair society where a person’s talent, and not their background, is the key to success.

We will work to increase the Minimum Wage, bringing it closer to the national average so that work is once again a reliable route out of poverty.

We will expand free childcare and introduce wraparound supervision from 8am to 6pm in schools to help working parents, and particularly single mothers.  This will help to reverse the trend which saw women’s unemployment reach its highest level for a generation under David Cameron, while the cost of nursery places rising five times faster than pay.

We will repeal the cruel bedroom tax, which has inflicted misery on hundreds of thousands of disabled people, telling them they are ‘under-occupying’ their home when they have a genuine need for an extra bedroom. 

And we are working with charities and minority communities to hear what changes they would like to see to make our country fairer.  In particular I wanted to raise our ongoing work on race equality.  We want to hear from members of the public – and organisations like yourselves – what we can do to reverse the trend which has seen unemployment in ethnic minority populations rise under the Coalition.

Today nearly 50 per cent of young black men are unemployed, and many of those in work are low-paid.  The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Race and Community found evidence of discrimination “at every stage of the recruitment process” and in workplaces themselves.

The disparities are the same at every level of income. A black male who graduates from university today can expect to earn around 24 per cent less than a white male. Child poverty is highest among ethnic minorities, and among Bangladeshi and Pakistani children it is set to go up 5 per cent by the next election. 

And that is before we start on more direct forms of discrimination. Last year the EDL marched in South Shields, showing that there are still a small but significant minority who are intolerant of other cultures.  I was proud of the way our community united and made it clear that racism is not welcome in our town.

Sadly intolerance, and in extreme cases racially-motivated crime, is not yet a thing of the past, and we have to continue to oppose those who try and create racial divisions in our society or who propose discriminatory policies. 

I hope that as members of the regional equality forum you will be able to contribute to our ongoing work in this area, by visiting yourbritain.org.uk and looking up our consultation, Realising One Nation to help us develop our race equality strategy.

And of course, I hope that you will all raise your concerns about inequality with your individual MPs.  I know that many of you in the room are from my constituency, and I am always happy to raise issues on your behalf in Parliament or with local agencies.  As the MP for South Shields I see it as my job to speak for everyone in my area, not just the majority.  And as a Labour MP, I would not be doing my duty if I didn’t speak up for those who struggle to get their voices heard.

I am proud to be a representative for an inclusive community like South Shields, and I am proud to be a member of a party which has always been a champion for equality, and has been on the side of women, ethnic minorities, disabled people, and the LGBT community throughout its history.  And I am proud of you all too, for making equality part of your own mission.



Latest News