Interview with Mumsnet

During the last Strasbourg session on 16 March I talked to Kate from Mumsnet. Below you will find the edited highlights. For the unexpurgated thread, please go to http://www.mumsnet.com/Talk/site_stuff/1163303-Mumsnet-goes-to-the-European-Parliament-your-thoughts/AllOnOnePage?reverse=1

 KateMumsnet Thu 03-Mar-11 13:25:03

To mark the centenary of International Women’s Day, Mumsnet has been invited to the EU Parliament for a rummage about. So we’re off to Strasbourg, in a (possibly doomed) attempt to figure out what impact, if any, this labyrinthine institution has had on the equality of women here in the UK.

We’ll be sitting in on a special IWD parliamentary session, where MEPs will be discussing what’s been achieved to date to further women’s equality across Europe, and debating what the next steps should be. The gender pay gap, the vexed issue of maternity leave, the lack of female decision-makers in business and politics, and the grim figures for female poverty across the EU are all on the agenda.

We’ll be frantically trying to make sense of it all as the day unfolds; and with a bit of luck and a following wind we’ll collar MEPs and policy bods.

 KateMumsnet Wed 16-Mar-11 12:49:46

 Here’s the summing-up of my chats with Mary Honeyball

Mary made an emphatic point about the redistributive function of the EU: “We do still put in more than we get out, [but] whatever we think about the state of our economy, we are still one of the better-off member states, so it’s always struck me as a sound principle that you redistribute money to areas which aren’t so well-off. That may not be an argument that everyone subscribes to, but one of the things which we don’t talk about is that the EU does equalize wealth across Europe – and I think that’s a good thing.”

Following on …

Mary talked about the difficulty that female high-fliers face once they’ve had children in the UK. She pooh-poohed Britain’s culture of presenteeism, and said that 70-80 hour weeks were simply unnecessary.

European countries don’t do that in the same way. In the EU Parliament for example, although we do late sessions here [Strasbourg], in Brussels you do office hours and people go at 6. We don’t do a lot of evenings, in general people don’t hang around. And the ones that do tend to be [the British]. So it’s not necessary to do 70-hour weeks, whatever you do.

We need to look much more at work life balance – but how you legislate? I’m not sure. We don’t do it in the UK because we have an opt-out [on employment law], but most of the EU countries do now have a 48-hour week. But that wouldn’t really help women in senior positions because you don’t get paid, you just ‘decide to be there’.

Mary was keen on the idea of quotas on private sector boards, citing Labour’s all-women shortlists as an example.

Mary Honeyball: ‘I’m a complete supporter of quotas. I think it’s the only way. It’s no good saying ‘we want more women in the boardroom’. If you want more women, you have to do something about it. In Norway they have 40% women in boardrooms, and it works very well – the economy hasn’t collapsed and Norwegian industry hasn’t disappeared on the face of the earth.’

Mary Honeyball voted against the Pregnant Worker’s Directive (20 weeks maternity leave on full pay), arguing that it was always clear that the Council of Ministers (national govts), who have ‘co-decision’ on all legislation, would never agree to pass it.

On the wider subject of the Gender Pay Gap, Mary called both for more legislation and for keeping the subject firmly on the agenda: “[The Equal Pay Act] was fantastic legislation but I’m not sure it’s still doing its work.

“And it’s not just a question of equal pay for work of equal value, because the sorts of jobs that women do – for example care work – tend to be lower paid. It’s a cultural thing and quite difficult to do, and when times are hard it’s even more difficult. It’s just one of those things that you need to keep talking about so that it gets into the public consciousness.”

Mary Honeyball: “UK governments haven’t particularly wanted to [legislate for equality] – it’s come from Europe. That was particularly true in the Eighties, and I suspect it’s going to be true again now.”

She called for much better childcare provision in the UK: “Women can’t go back to work if there isn’t anything that’s reasonable and affordable for their children. It’s quite straightforward really.

“Scandinavian countries are absolutely brilliant. They have massive social security budgets, but a different attitude: they think it’s important, so they’re prepared to pay for it. What I think we need is to turn it around, and say to government: ‘this is important, and it matters for the economy. If you have people at work, you’re generating wealth through tax revenue – it’s all good’”.
unpaid but it meant that a woman could look after her child till it started school and return to work without being penalised. it was a legitimate career break.

How is it that we can have such inequity between member nations and can we make sure we legislate to bring all nations up to the best practice nations standards rather than down to the mediocre ones?

1 Comment

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One response to “Interview with Mumsnet

  1. Daniel Oxley

    This was a good interview.

    One of the many features which make this blog so interesting is Mary’s tendency, born of integrity, to go gloriously off-message.

    She states quite blatantly that there is and should be a redistribution of money from the wealthier EU countries to the poorer ones. This is refreshingly honest. So often we are told that we are not redistributing wealth but that we are investing in the poorer EU countries and that we will eventually receive a benefit from it.

    The usual EU practice in the wealthy countries is to keep quiet about the redistribution and to say that the funding is only tiny or that it is investment. In the poorer countries the message is different. They are told how great it is being in the EU because of all this money from the wealthier countries. It is usually phrased a little differently so that the poorer EU country does not have to feel grateful or beholden to Germany or the UK, the funds are described as EU Funds; as though the EU had funds of its own quite separately from the national contributions.

    There are the ridiculous tariffs on imports into the EU but apart from that, the money comes from Germany and the UK.

    Few of us would oppose the principle of the rich giving to the poor but the EU is rather muddled about who qualifies as rich and who is poor. For years the UK has been redistributing its wealth to France.

    Last time I was there it did not seem to be substantially poorer than the UK. Wouldn’t our money be better spent in Bangladesh, Uganda or any one of many countries who are much more deserving of our aid than our neighbours in France? They have an excellent health service, high speed trains, generous state funding for the arts, etc.

    It is foolish of us to put money into a begging bowl which appears to be made of gold and studded with diamonds.