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Tackling discrimination helps all of us

September 23, 2009 9:02 PM

Lynne Featherstone MP, Lib Dem spokesperson on Equality, gave a keynote speech to the main conference hall today at the Liberal Democrat Conference in Bournemouth. She said:

My fellow Liberal Democrats - what a moment in world history for equality.

When we were last here in Bournemouth, the Presidential Campaign in the US was drawing to a close. I don't know about you, but I can still hardly believe it. Who would have thought it possible ... there is now a black man who is president of the United States of America.

The message of hope and optimism, and the potential for change could not be clearer. On that historic day when he made his inauguration speech, the words of our own party constitution kept repeating through my mind: "That no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity."

So conference let's today be ambitious as Liberal Democrats.

Let's agree right here and right now that anything is possible whether by small practical steps or by great leaps of inspired Obama-like faith.

Because if a black kid in America can rise above the noise, the prejudice and the class divides to become the President of the United States - then anything is possible.

But as all Liberal Democrats know, and as President Obama himself said, idle aspiration alone is not enough. On Monday morning I went to Moordown St John's Primary School - here in Bournemouth - with Trevor Phillips from the Equality Commission.

Now the children had been asked to draw pictures of politicians - needless to say - the pictures were almost all male and almost all pale - just like the House of Commons! These children captured Parliament perfectly with the skills of the best sketch writers.

One comment on one drawing said: 'I have drawn a man because I think that men can stand up and talk better to a crowd than a woman can'. Another had written: 'I have chosen a male MP because I have never seen a woman MP'. He has now! And I've had a word with him.

That's the power of the role model, the power to challenge our preconceptions and to bring hope alive.

In my constituency I see kindness and cruelty; fierce intelligence and shocking ignorance; the struggles and successes; the love; the bitterness and the bias that make up the sum of all our experience.

But in small corners of that experience I have seen a shift.

Children for whom the halls of Harvard Law School, or for that matter Oxford or Cambridge, have seemed no closer than the moon can see the possibility.

This new generation pregnant with that possibility should not - cannot be let down.

And for many, far too many, President Obama's triumph remains as irrelevant as the more distant figures in our history books.

That's why we need action - the practical steps - because education and opportunity are the ways to blast away the old order.

The Liberal Democrats offer the bold approach to tackling inequality. Our pupil premium delivers a life-changing opportunity at school by injecting funds where they are most needed. Our name blank job application policy will open doors previously closed for that young boy - or girl - when they come out of education and apply for a job.

Name blank job applications is a simple idea. Just as we give a number for children to write on their exam papers so there can be no bias in the marking - so job applicants can use their National Insurance number. It costs nothing - and by removing the name from job application forms - we remove from that very first sift the unconscious prejudice that sadly can lurk in all of us. And I am proud of our party passing this on Saturday.

Now, you probably already know that 80% of MPs in the House of Commons are male. Lord knows - I've mentioned it often enough!

Even more shockingly, of the FTSE100 companies 88% of the directors are male. That's right - take the 100 biggest listed companies in Britain, and you'll find only one in ten directors, here in 2009 - are female.

Do we really think that if we trawled through to find the best people for the job of running our top companies, we'd find nearly nine in ten are male? Or if we hunted out the very best people to be our MPs, that eight in ten would be male?

Friends, I want to set you a task today.

I want you all to conduct some detailed research. Extensive research. Perhaps at the Highcliff Hotel. Perhaps this lunchtime - perhaps in the bar - perhaps at a fringe.

I suggest that you look at all the representatives there and you ask yourselves this simple question: if you hunt out the best people to be MPs - will 4 out of every 5 of them end up being men?

I think not.

Now don't get me wrong. I love men. I've consulted with them - consorted with them - and even - on occasion - cavorted with them. But they are not the only answer - nor necessarily the right answer - and they are certainly not the right answer 88 times out of every 100.

I sometimes wonder if we really understand the scale of the inequality that women suffer financially?

The Equal Pay Act was sparked by the gender pay gap. For every pound that men were paid at the Ford Dagenham car plant the women earned only 85 pence. So on June 7th 1968 the women went on strike - and when they were joined by the women and men of the Ford car plant in Liverpool the company caved in and the Equal Pay act was spawned.

But the law has not been effective. And at the high end of the pay spectrum - it's no different.

We see the highest paid female director of a FTSE 100 company took home £3.8m last year - but it is a figure dwarfed by the highest paid man - who took home £36.8m - almost ten times as much.

In case you are in any doubt - I think pay levels like that are insane and obscene.

But the issue is - from the highest earners to the lowest earners - women get the raw deal. It is as tragic as it is shameful that these gaps remain 40 years after the Equal Pay Act.

And it happens - and can happen - because that differential is hidden from public or indeed, the employees' gaze.

Liberal Democrats would introduce mandatory pay audits. We would expose a company's overall pattern of pay - not individual salaries - but enough information to show quite clearly where the pay gap lies.

That would put power into the hands of an individual to see for themselves whether they were being discriminated against - enabling them to take forward a case of discrimination -b e that man, woman, someone from an ethnic minority or a person with disabilities.

When it comes to pay, everyone is entitled to greater transparency.

And there are wider inequalities we must tackle.

A primary school child in an inner city constituency is not judged by the content of his or her character or the passion of his ambition. He is judged by the invisible barriers he or she will face because of both the colour of his skin but also his class and family income.

Poverty reinforces class barriers. That's why in difficult times for the taxpayer Liberal Democrats make our priorities clear.

We will cut taxes for those who are on middle and low incomes - so that no one pays a penny on income tax on the first 10 thousand pounds they earn.

And then there's religion. In recent years, sadly the spectre of religious discrimination has arisen again. A party born of revulsion at the treatment of Catholics and Non-conformists stands four square behind all those who seek to practice their faith.

9/11 and the subsequent Iraq war has fostered increasing ignorance and prejudice - on all sides. And it deepens apace - as we saw with the fascist demonstrations against the Harrow Mosque on the anniversary of 9/11.

And there has been so much damage done to the image of Muslims with the reporting of news from overseas and here, where so-called Islamic terrorists often feature - but when those fighting the terrorists, or the victims of terrorism, are also Muslim - this often goes unmentioned.

The drip-drip effect of linking the word 'Muslim' and the word 'terrorism' - but not linking "victim" and "Muslim" in the same way - is pernicious.

And at the same time we have seen a rising tide of attacks on Jewish people too.

It is better to confront and address these challenges before we are at real risk from violent internecine strife or the hideous bile of the far right - especially as there is no doubt that with an economic downturn the far right will be looking to turn the screw on peoples' fears.

Liberal Democrats believe in cohesion - not separation.

Friends, there is not enough time to talk in one brief speech about all the inequalities that exist today. I would love to have the time to tell you exactly what I think of BBC's sacking of Arlene Phillips from Strictly.

What on earth are we doing when we throw someone of Ms Phillips experience - one of the world's foremost choreographers - on the scrap heap in favour of someone young and pretty? No offence to Alesha and I'm sorry she had such a rough ride on her first outing. It's not her fault - it's the BBC bosses.

What message do we send out - other that we don't value what is important but we pay homage to the fleeting, the superficial and the desperate quest for youth?

We believe there should be no mandatory retirement age - something Labour refuses to support.

And I'd love to have time to talk about the severe prejudice encountered by our young people and the many barriers that remain for those with disabilities, I'd like to talk about caste discrimination, and gender identity issues.

So - let's not kid ourselves that there isn't discrimination out there - whether it is on the basis of gender, race, class, sexuality, religion, age or disability.

Discrimination is still rife. After hundreds of years of fighting against it.

But what I do have a moment for - is to persuade you, to continue your fight against prejudice, to use your powers in local authorities and devolved bodies throughout the land to use your powers as the great campaigners that I know you are. To fight and continue to fight until issues of equality no longer need to be on the agenda.

We are called on, as a party, by our history to fulfill our creed and fight for equal rights.

This is not the politics of single issues that should remain in the province of women, or minority groups.

It is a cause to which all those who hold a liberal world view are drawn.

In facing the scale of that challenge - and the urgency of that need - we have to persuade people that doing nothing is letting entrenched discrimination win.

I want to turn on its head the way we approach campaigning on this issue - I want to reframe the debate - so that we don't just present issues in a way that appeals to those who already agree - like us - but which takes the argument to those who don't.

Tackling discrimination helps all of us.

Because when a company discriminates in its choice of senior staff - and ends up predominantly male - it's not just the woman who gets overlooked for promotion who loses out - it's all those who lose their jobs, men and women because the management of the company itself is not up to scratch.

Tackling discrimination helps all of us.

Because when the police carry out stop and search on black and ethnic minorities. Searches which are out of all proportion to the numbers in the population and crime figures - it isn't just those who are stopped who lose out, it's all of us who lose out - from the police wasting time on the innocent rather than catching the guilty.

Tackling discrimination helps all of us.

Because when so many schools assume that information about children of separated parents should be given to their mothers - it isn't just the fathers who lose out, it's all of us who lose out from the damage to our next generation.

Whoever the discrimination is against - even when it is against the less talked about groups such as men - no I hadn't forgotten you - we all suffer.

On many of these issues there is progress.

Not that long ago it was against the law to be openly gay. Now it is against the law to refuse to register a civil partnership

Conference, this is a call to arms. For each and every generation has the opportunity to shape our society and our communities. In this year, an election year, we accept that challenge.

Liberal Democrats are different - we are the real alternative to failed red-blue/blue-red stale old politics. Liberal Democrats are straight talking - we are prepared to stand up for what is right for people - not what is popular with the tabloids.

Liberal Democrats are ambitious - for change - for every woman who is underpaid, for every child who is denied life opportunities, for every person who suffers the insult and injury of discrimination.

The battle lines are drawn at our childrens' feet.

Against us - those who can live with - racial hatred, gender discrimination, and homophobia. Those who point fingers but don't point out solutions. And those who just can't be bothered.

Ladies and gentlemen: be bold, be brave, be active. History will judge us on our action and our purpose.

The Liberal Democrat purpose is to set our nation free.