Interview with Mumsnet

Labour Party

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

 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?

European Parliament votes for 20 Weeks Maternity Leave at Full Pay

Labour Party

The European Parliament has just voted for 20 weeks maternity leave at full pay.

You will see from my article for the Guardian Comment is Free section yesterday that Labour MEPs did not support this.  We calculated that a woman on the UK national minimum wage of £5.93 would be £650 a year worse off with 20 weeks maternity leave on full pay than under the British system whereby she would receive 6 weeks at 90% of  full pay followed by 33 weeks at £124.88, the statutory rate of pay. 

The proposal adopted by the European Parliament does very little for lower paid women and quite a lot for those who are better off.  This is not how Labour MEPs wish to see EU member states’ scarce resources used.  We want to target the low paid not the better off.

Of course, the Draft Directive on pregnant workers written by Portuguese member of the Socialist and Democrat Group Edite Estrela now has to be agreed by the European Council – the body comprising the national governments from all the EU countries.

There have been strong rumours that the Council will not agree the 20 weeks maternity leave on full pay.

So the European Parliament may just have made an utterly futile gesture. Not at all what we want for our new mothers.

Maternity Pay and Paternity Leave – The Record Europe

Labour Party

I recently appeared on the BBC Record Europe  talking about the proposed changes to maternity leave and pay as well as mandatory paternity leave in the draft Pregnant Workers Directive currently before the European Parliament. 

While I support the idea of 20 weeks maternity leave on full pay and two weeks mandatory paternity leave in principle, I do not believe that now is the right time to legislate on such measures.  During the current economic downturn, our aim must be to get our national economy and, indeed, the European economy as a whole , back on track.  Unfortunately, some of the proposals in the draft Directive will be unhelpful to our recovery and should not therefore be introduced at the present time.     

As many of you will know, I was not able to attend the vote in the Women’s Rights and Gender Equality Committee on 23 February as I had to be at a meeting of the Culture and Education Committee held at the same time.  As you are aware I am the Socialist and Democrat Group Co-ordinator on the Culture Committee, and as the S & D Group lead member, I need to be present at the Committee at all times.

It is, of course, unfortunate that European Parliament Committee meetings clash in this way.  I am hoping that timetables may be set in future to avoid this happening, but for the time being we have to live with it.

Please click here if you would like to watch the Record Europe

I am afraid it is technically too difficult it to put the piece up on this blog and also that those of you outside the UK may not be able to access it.