Emma speaks at Women’s Network AGM about Devolution and Equality

March 23, 2016

Unison Women Network AGM

Emma was delighted to speak at the Unison Annual General Meeting of The Women’s Network in Newcastle on Saturday.

Emma was invited to speak about North East Devolution and Equality in light of growing concerns that the public are not having a fair say on how these deals will impact their communities and services – especially women.

Since 2010, 81% of the savings from the Tories’ tax and benefit changes will have come from women’s pockets and the gender pay gap is well above the EU average. Women continue to be under represented in key positions, not least in the Government department leading Devolution plans, which is made up entirely of men.

Women are already-under-represented in the Combined Authority system and although the new elected Mayor has not yet been selected, there are no women’s names in the hat at present. So under devolution there is a real risk women’s voices will be marginalised and the issues facing women ignored.

You can read Emma’s speech below.

Good morning everyone,

Thank you all for inviting me here to speak at your AGM.

Many of you will have seen the unrest this week amongst MPs in the region around the North East Devolution deal, many of you will have also heard that there are real concerns right across our region that that the whole devolution process has been undemocratic and conducted behind closed doors with little input from even councillors and trade unions let alone members of the public, in short the very people in our communities whom these deals will impact upon, are having very little say on these deals. 

You all know as well as I do that women despite generations of battles and progress have to work twice as hard to have our voices heard and in devolution it looks like we are going to have to fight twice as hard yet again.

We have never been void of inspirational women political or otherwise in the North East:

Emily Wilding Davidson, the suffragette, who fought for women’s rights in the early part of the last century. A woman that was imprisoned on nine occasions who during her incarceration was force fed 49 times. She eventually lost her life fighting for her cause and she is buried just a few miles away from here, in Morpeth.

Ellen Wilkinson, the Labour MP for Jarrow, a fiery socialist who spoke from the heart.  Ellen helped highlight the plight of her town spearheading the Jarrow March of 1936. She then went on to become Minister of Education and Chairman of the Labour Party. I am sure she would be proud that there is a beer named after her called “Red Ellen”

We also have the former MP for Redcar, Mo Mowlam. People in Parliament still talk about Mo with huge fondness she had charm by the bucket load, and a reputation for straight talking which earned her respect and admiration.  It was this straight talking that saw Mo, in her time as Northern Ireland Secretary sign the historic Good Friday Peace agreement in 1998.

For me personally though, one of the most political and inspirational women I look up to is my gran.  My gran like many women I have spoken to in the North East never felt she was political, politics wasn’t for people like her, yet she was a huge political force always fighting for others and digging in when she saw injustices.

She was one of the strongest, most determined and bravest women I’ve ever known. My mam told me when I was a new-born we lived in a house with no heating and a leaking roof that was so bad we used to all sleep in front of the fire with buckets around us catching the water, they were forever complaining to the Council, but it was my Gran who staged a ‘sit in’ at the Town Hall that eventually got us the house my mam and dad still live in now. I often think of her or how she’d feel today under this current political climate and I hope I have done her proud. I’d like to think if she was still here she would be with us today fighting for women’s voices to be heard in the devolution process.

It is no surprise to me that our voices have been drowned out of devolution, The Tory Government’s Department for Communities and Local Government team leading devolution is made up entirely of men, by contrast our team shadowing is a 50-50 gender split.

The Budget this week re-affirmed what we already know that the Tories have contempt not only for the North as a whole but in particular of the North East and women. Since 2010 81% of the savings from the Tories’ tax and benefit changes will have come from women’s pockets.

According to the Fawcett Society women in Britain are now facing the greatest threat to their financial security and livelihoods for a generation and a new report by the UK Women’s Budget Group shows that the policies of the Conservative Government are projected to be more regressive hitting women even harder than the policies of the Coalition government. The gender pay gap is well above the EU average and is closing more slowly than in the last decade under Labour, if it remains at its current rate it will take another 47 years before the gap is closed, and just look at what they have done to women born in the 1950s pensions.

There was nothing in this week’s budget to address the prevalent gender imbalance in the UK, but this is no surprise because if you have men making all of the decisions then issues that affect women won’t be at the forefront and politics both nationally and locally is still very male dominated. In fact the UK is ranked 40th in the world for women’s representation in political life and there are only two countries in the World Rwanda and Boliva that have more women than men MPs.

It is no coincidence that under the last Labour Government, which had a number of women in key positions extended the right to maternity leave under The Work and Families Act, increased nursery places, introduced Sure Start, reduced the gender pay gap and introduced a raft of protections for women under the Equal Pay Act and the Sex Discrimination Act and the Equality Act.

This is because where women lead they lead for all of us.

Under the devolution deal the North East Combined Authority and the Tees Valley Combined Authority will each get greater control over local areas and decision making. The North East Combined Authority’s Leadership Board is made up of six men and one woman.

The Tees Valley Combined Authority is made up of four men and one woman. The whole process of devolution has put our council leaders in a bind, Osborne told them if they discussed the initial deal with anyone then it was off the table, we know the offer is not enough in terms of fiscal devolution he is offering £15 million per year for Tees Valley and £30 for the North East, we know that services he is devolving such as transport will be subject still to government set spending reviews, we know that adult skills funding has been decimated and that like many of the services or areas to be devolved they are services that have been destroyed by this Government and with less money our local authorities are going to be expected to pick up the tab.

But if our Leaders didn’t sign then the Government would be able to say Labour leaders aren’t ambitious enough for their areas but if they do sign then come the next round of local elections and 2020 when the wheels have fallen off they can say don’t vote for Labour look they can’t even manage their local areas- the whole thing is a master stroke by Osborne. Either way we lose.

Council leaders and others from across the country have said to me it is still very macho and male orientated. Many of you will know that I was elected as a local councillor when I was 24 and that was certainly my experience, I remember one of the first meetings I chaired people were looking around and one of the men, in fact all of the room were men said where is this Lewell character, I announced it was me and got barraged with comments like, ‘I thought you were the tea lady’ ‘ are you not the minute taker’ ‘what’s a young little thing like you doing chairing a meeting like this’ and so on. I lost count of the amount of times that I got patted on the head, or had to tell people to look up when they were talking to my chest.

There are still people now in the constituency who don’t feel I should be their MP because of my gender and my age, sometimes men who come to my surgery or into my office to discuss issue will sit and make eye contact and direct all of their comments to male members of my team and whilst I am happy to call them out on this we still have a long way to go.

In this climate it is no surprise to me that so far the only names for Mayor of the North East that I have heard being suggested are men, the imposition of a Mayor is one of the most contentious issues around the two North East deals.

The first ever female elected mayor in the North East was Maud Burnett in 1928, it took another 81 years before we’d see another female elected mayor in our region and she was a Tory. So the odds aren’t that great for us to end up with a female mayor for the North East and the Tees.

Yet political decisions often effect women more than men, women are more likely to be looking after their children or elderly relatives, they are more likely to be in jobs where they are care givers, such as child minders or carers, this results in women being on lower wages, zero hours contracts, unstable part time employment, women are the ones who sadly disproportionately access domestic violence refugees, women are the ones who access public services more than men, yet under devolution there is a real risk women’s voices will be marginalised.

We can’t let this happen and I won’t.

I am intent on listening and acting upon the concerns women and other groups are sharing with me about devolution, but I would also urge you to continue to hold your local councillors and leaders to account as they are the ones who are signing up to these deals and I would be proud to stand with your 85 thousand strong northern region women’s membership to make sure your voices are heard.

Thank you.







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