Jenny Marra MSP 

Speech in the Scottish Parliament debate on Women


12 March 2014


I support the Government’s amendment as well as our motion.

I also associate myself with the comments that have been made regarding the late Ailsa McKay and her contribution to Parliament and Scottish public life.

The Labour Party has a long and very proud tradition of advancing the role of women in our communities.

It was our minister, Barbara Castle, who recognised that child benefit was better placed in the purses of women than in the pockets of men.

It was she who pioneered the Equal Pay Act 1970, which was one of the most important pieces of progressive legislation for the economy and for women in the 20th century.

It is now 44 years since the Equal Pay Act but, despite our progress, we still live in a country where even the most fundamental rights of women, such as the right to a fair wage, are not yet realised.

As we made our way to work this morning, thousands of other women across our country also made their way to work in jobs that pay them 17 per cent less than their male colleagues are paid—a point that was well made by Clare Adamson.

Through countless studies and evidence to Parliament, we know that as well as earning less, women are more likely to work part-time in temporary jobs, or on zero-hours contracts that are completely unsuited to their needs and responsibilities, including their caring responsibilities.

Such is the scale of female underemployment, which has been continually highlighted in Government statistics over the past few years, that the gap between women’s part-time hourly rate and men’s equivalent full-time hourly rate is more than a third.

Because of that, the gender gap in pensions has now grown to more than £1,000 a year—the widest it has been in decades.

We cannot rely on the 1970 act alone to solve that.

We must innovate and find new creative ways to make improvements across all our Parliaments and in our communities. In the coming months, we will be considering how to reform public sector procurement.

I believe that we need to take action through our laws to eradicate the barriers that so clearly keep women from meaningful and gainful employment.

We are clear that a contract of employment should give a woman the opportunity to plan and to save, and that it should provide peace of mind, rather than leaving her unsure whether she can feed the family from one week to the next.

Zero-hours contracts are particularly pernicious, and they affect women especially.

The issue of zero-hours contracts takes me back.

My great-great-grandfather was a jute mill worker in Dundee and every day ran from mill to mill in the morning looking for a shift.

He was on a zero-hours contract, alongside the thousands and thousands of female mill workers in Dundee.

Those contracts were not good enough for my great-great-grandfather or for the female mill workers in Dundee, and they are not good enough for women throughout Scotland today.

That is why Scottish Labour, through the amendments that my colleague Mary Fee has lodged, will insist that the Procurement Reform (Scotland) Bill bans Government services from being contracted to companies that use exploitative zero-hours contracts.

It is the Government’s responsibility to set an example and to place itself proudly in the vanguard of fairer employment rules.

However, we must be more ambitious still.

We know that when women are adequately represented at the top of a company, the pay and conditions of all women in that company improve.

Scottish Labour voted in the European Parliament for gender quotas on the boards of big business in order to tackle the in-built discrimination of an appointments system that is a false meritocracy that keeps women from achieving their potential, regardless of their capabilities.

I have lodged several amendments in Parliament to three separate pieces of legislation to try to implement gender quotas on the boards of our public bodies.

Unfortunately those amendments were defeated, but I am pleased to hear the Government say today that it will finally consider a consultation on the subject. I look forward to its subsequent legislative proposal.

Shona Robison: The consultation will provide evidence to the UK Government, which has made it clear that it is where the reserved power lies. We know, of course, that Jenny Marra accepts what the UK Government says about constitutional matters.

Jenny Marra: The minister knows that I do not accept that she has tested the power of this Parliament and of the devolution settlement, which she knows is fluid, to see whether powers are vested here.

I see that the minister is shaking her head.

The devolution settlement is fluid and has been shown to be so previously.

If the minister—and the Government, as I have said in Parliament before—were serious about putting gender quotas on public boards, she would bring a bill before Parliament that would go before the Lord Advocate and we would see whether the power is vested in this institution.

I remind the Government of the powers that it has at present.

It has the power of policy at its fingertips, so it is a crying shame that when, last Tuesday, the Scottish Government announced 11 new regional chairs of college boards throughout Scotland, only two of those new chairs were women.

The Government has the power of policy through the public appointments process, so it should put its money where its mouth is and start to advocate equality through the policy process.

We have had a good debate today.

Last week’s announcement on college boards shows that the debate is still necessary and timely.

We will continue to fight in the chamber for women’s equality.


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