Harriet Harman

Member of Parliament for Camberwell and Peckham. Mother of the House of Commons.

A family focus at the heart of government


Connecting parents with politics

Speech to Fawcett Society
Attlee Suite, Portcullis House
Thursday 30th November 2006

Family the framework for women's lives

When I made my first speech on the family I was young and single. Two parents (who were getting on with their lives) and a gaggle of sisters.

Then married, children, two parents (still getting on with their lives) and a gaggle of sisters.

Now my children are getting on with their lives and we take more care of our mother as she is widowed and still a gaggle of sisters.

No grandchildren yet but the next generation has arrived through my great nephews and great niece.

Ask about something that happened in the past and women date it by their family events- it was after our Sion was born, it was before your dad died, it was when Shane was still with Sandra.

Most of what we become starts at home; our values and much of our knowledge is what we learn at home from parents, from spouse or partner, from brothers and sisters, from our children. The family, put simply, is the framework of our lives. It is everything for young children and becomes, as people age, once again just about the whole of their lives.

This is not a notion which is, or should be, separate from politics or public policy. It is central to it.

I want to argue, today that far from being marginal, or separate from mainstream politics


    * Family policy is key to Labour achieving our aim of equality and opportunity
    * That family policy is not just no less important than economic or social policy, it is central to it

    * That family politics must be very careful and respectful of family autonomy. Taking their cue from the family, not dictating to it. Listening to parents, not lecturing at them.

    *  That though Labour has opened itself up to the importance of family policy, family policy must stop being the poor relation and become central.


Why families matter to all of us

Families matter to all of us as individuals but it matters to society too. It's at home where you learn to stand up for yourself and to compromise. Not just life skills for every individual but what is necessary for successful communities. It's at home where you first learn social behaviour.

It's at home where you learn to learn, as Michael Young said, the family is the most important educational institution. More important, even, than school.

Home is where your health is determined and where, throughout your life, you get most of your healthcare. It provides the bedrock of mental and physical well being.

Home is where you feel (or should feel) secure and learn to value security.
Home is where you understand the way generations depend on each other. Where you have your strongest connections with the past and the future.
What matters to families must be at the heart of policy making.

It has taken a long time to get this recognised as belonging in the mainstream political agenda.

I remember when I asked my first question to the prime minister in l982. It was about after-school clubs for working mothers in my constituency. In those days you could talk in Parliament about the money-supply, motorways and the mines. But my question about my constituents' need for after-school clubs was greeted with derision not just from the Tory government benches, but from our side too. They thought that wasn't politics; that it was a private matter. Now no one questions their importance, just our progress in ensuring they are there for every community.

I can remember too the unease and embarrassment at the time which greeted demands to get the law to tackle domestic violence. Now no-one would decree the priority we give within the criminal justice system to tackling domestic violence or argue now that it was a private matter between husband and wife.

And I remember too when, as Shadow Employment Secretary, I developed the policy of a Low Pay Commission to set a National Minimum Wage underpinned by statute, I argued this as a question of time as well as money. You have to tackle poverty pay otherwise parents have to work all hours and don't have enough time to care for their children in the way they want. Though the proposal for a statutory Minimum wage was bitterly opposed by the Conservative Government as well as the CBI the Tories now embrace it and the director general of the CBI who led the attack on us went on to chair the Low Pay Commission.

These issues and family policies that are about time, as well as money, about services to support families, have migrated from being seen as just the private sphere, and no business of public policy, onto the public policy agenda. But I believe that family policy has yet to be understood as pivotal to our public policy aims.

Though Labour in government has made great strides forward, Politics in this country has yet to fully recognise something that has always stared us in the face. Every area of policy-making touches families and is influenced by them. So every area of policy making, whether it is social and economic policy, housing or agriculture, environment or criminal justice, must take families into account- how they make the policy work, how they benefit from it. What they are doing now. As a first thought, not an afterthought.

Labour is the true party of the family

When I was first elected to Parliament, conventional wisdom had it that the Conservative Party was the party of the family. This came to mean two things. One, that Mrs Thatcher's government wanted to unravel the welfare state and shift the burden back on to women at home for services no longer supported by government. And, two, as Conservatives, they opposed the change in women's lives which saw women equalling men in educational qualifications and going out to work.

I was advised that I would do best if I steered away from family issues, that this was narrow and I would get myself "labelled."

But Labour understood and responded to the change in women's lives and aspirations and the huge impact that has on families and so it was that Labour became the "party of the family of the 21st century." The 1997 government marked a watershed for families with more time off for parents, the Minimum Wage, the new deal to help unemployed people back into work, massive investment in childcare, education and health services, a stable economy, low unemployment, tax credits for poor families, a better deal for pensioners.

Now David Cameron is trying to reclaim the family. But though the Conservatives now recognise the transformation of family life, they show no readiness to go beyond warm words. For the Tories, talking about families is a way to show the Tories have changed and so win support. For us, it's not about getting votes off families but delivering for them, with the recognition that the family is key to our aim to tackle disadvantage and ensure equality in a strong economy and a fair society. The Tories will stop at warm words and will go no further. We have not shrunk from public investment and legislation and we must go further.

Families are the key to equal opportunity

Families are not just vital for the individual, but also for our public policy objectives, for their central importance in achieving the aims that define Labour.

The key to social mobility and equal opportunity is not just a matter of class or economic privilege. It is not even just a matter of gender parity. It's a family matter.

I firmly believe that stable, secure stimulating and supportive families are the key that unlocks social and economic well-being. The key that opens the door to mobility and opportunity for everyone.

If our quest is to end disadvantage and inequality - and it is - then we must start with families.

I want public policy to make it possible for family to trump class disadvantage. To help end the inequalities that hold back human talent, turn people against one another, generate fear, conflict and hopelessness. We want families to help every individual to do their best in the world, not only for themselves, but for everyone around them - relatives, neighbours, workmates, fellow citizens - and for coming generations as well as their own.

Government can help make that happen. It's what families want to do for themselves and it's what government should back families up to do.

But this cannot be by trying to assert one model of the family. Families come in all shapes and sizes. It's not the format of the family that matters, but how it functions. How it helps family members to learn, to live with others, build strong relationships, demand rights and exercise responsibilities, tolerate and care for one another.

And this is not just about those who have children. We don't all have children, but we all have a stake in them growing up well and happy. And all of us have, or have had, parents.

The responsibility of government is to create the conditions in which families can do their best.

The importance of understanding change

When I talk now about family policy inevitably, I don't mean quite the same as I meant when I used the same phrase twenty or even ten years ago.

Good politics depends on understanding how things change and making sure that policies keep in touch with changing times.

In past centuries, family policy changed to meet changing economic and social circumstances.

In the industrial revolution, government passed laws to protect women and children who moved out of work in family groups and were exploited in factories. No worry about allegations of the nanny state there. This was family policy for the 19th century.

After two world wars, the Labour government created the welfare state provided free healthcare and education, unemployment benefit, free orange juice, affordable housing, cash allowances for women with children. Again, no worry about the nanny state allegations. This was family policy for the first half of the twentieth century.

Then, in the 1960's and 70's in an era of social liberalisation, Labour governments passed laws against sex discrimination and made divorce and family planning easier, gave new rights to married women. Family policy for the second half of the 20th century.

The makings of a modern family policy

And the New Labour government, as I have said, has given us family policy for the dawn of the 21st century. But we need to look ahead again to help families meet the challenges of the future.

Today family policy needs to acknowledge that mothers have entered the workforce and fathers are set to play a bigger role at home. Mothers working helps the family budget and fathers' greater role in the daily care of their children strengthens the relationship to the advantage of both child and father. The focus of trade union bargaining has shifted from just getting better wages to getting flexible conditions that allow men and women to combine work and family responsibilities.

And the world of work has changed too.More services, more retailing, more skilled and white-collar work. A 24-hour, seven-day-a-week culture. Less manufacturing and manual work. People expect to change jobs, are more likely to work part-time. And the beginning and end of the working life is changing as paid work continues to start later and end later in life.

There's been a big change in the age when women start having children and how many they have. For some, later parenthood is a matter of personal choice or the time taken to find the right partner. But for others it's not really a free choice but instead them delaying having a child so they can first get a firm foothold in the world of work before they 'risk' having a family. The knock-on effect is profound. It is harder to conceive when you are older. And the demands of work (particularly to pay for the cost of your home) can force you to limit the size of your family. The health and well-being of children and mothers and personal choice should decide the age of childbirth. Not the labour market. This is not something that we should allow, by default, the labour market to be dictating.

Parents having fewer children than they want not only represents a personal disappointment for those who want to have a bigger family, it also contributes in two ways to the demographic problem of an ageing population.

Older parenthood means older grandparents. I delayed having my children, like many of my generation. I was 37 when I had our youngest. If she leaves it till she's 37 to have her children, I'll be 74 when I get to be a granny. Far from being an active leaping about granny, I might even need my daughter to do a bit of shopping for me. The growing gap between generations means grandparents who are less helpful, more dependent. And smaller cohorts of the generation who will pay taxes to fund the pensions of their parents and grandparents. It is parents who should have the choice; they will make the right choice for themselves and their family. Not the labour market.

Families are where we first learn about the obligations that generations owe to each other. They are the reason why many of us feel so intensely that we must act against global warming. Many more of us now understand much better what terrible damage we are doing to the planet, that we are on the brink of ecological disaster that threatens the lives of our own children and grandchildren.

Family policy exists in a context of new international tensions. New sources of conflict between faiths and ideologies that scarcely registered in British politics 20 years ago. From the 'cold war' to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. From London bombings fuelled by the struggle between unionists and republicans in Northern Ireland, to London bombings by disaffected young Muslims. I have said that families are the place where we learn about tolerance and compromise. Strong, stable families are our best defence against social conflict. The more we can do to give families a sense of security and confidence, the more we enable them to turn outwards to respect and help their neighbours, not just inwards to protect their own.

In this changing world, we understand better what it takes to tackle disadvantage and promote genuine equality of opportunity. We know that equal opportunity in employment is limited unless work is shared more equally at home. Measures against sex discrimination will leave plenty of women mired in disadvantage unless they go hand in hand with action against racism, against discrimination on grounds of disability.

I think we can see more clearly how families provide the infrastructure on which society and economy depend. If roads and railways and energy supplies and telecommunications are the hardware, families are the software - without which all that hardware is useless.

Making Family policy for the 21st century

So we have to make policy that listens to and understands how 21st century families are responding to these changes.

I firmly believe the next stage of policy must be designed by and for families themselves. So I do not propose to set out an exhaustive list of new policies today. What I will be doing over the coming months, is putting a renewed focus on what I have done over the past decades - making the connection between parents and politics, listening to what parents say they want. Listening to what their demands of government are. And we will need to show them that, as with any area of vital public policy, we will be prepared to deploy the necessary public investment and legislate where required.

I will listen to what parents say and give them the confidence that we will act. The Childcare Commission which I chaired in 1999 was based on listening to what parents wanted from childcare and work flexibility. Mothers in Manufacturing was a report based on listening to what mothers working in the East Midlands leather industry told me about their babies, their parents and their relationships. It was listening to them that underlined to me the importance of getting work patterns right, not just for children and their parents, but also for the parents' relationship. Though we've acted to improve maternity pay, introduce paternity leave and greater flexibility since then - in no small part due to what they said - we still have not done all that we need to do to really let them be the sort of parents they want to be.

Public policy for families will not be right unless families shape it. And currently people see precious little connection between their family and politics. People are familiar with Labour's determination to ensure a strong economy and good hospitals and schools. But family policy, is incredibly difficult territory. Any time government broaches the subject, parents feel judged. So, for example, when we press for more childcare for children of working mothers, mothers who are at home with their children feel criticised and mothers who are working feel they are being pressed to work even more. And when we argue for more rights for part-time workers, mothers working full-time feel blamed. So we need to be careful and we need to listen.


Of course we have many ideas of where further change is needed. Let's start with money.

The pay gap has narrowed but it's still 12.6%. While the average wage has increased by £2.71 per hour since 1999, the minimum wage has gone up by only £1.45 per hour.

Unequal pay between men and women prevents fathers playing a more active role in their children's early years.

It entrenches the division of labour in the home - women have to take time off when the baby is young because the father's pay is better. And that cements the father's exile from the home. She goes out to work less - he works longer to earn more and sees less of the children. Everybody loses.

If we want to make sure that all families can be the key to social mobility and equal opportunity, we have to tackle poverty and we have to tackle unequal pay and it is because it is important for family policy that I have proposed that we have compulsory equal pay audits in both the public and private sector and set a target for ending unequal pay between men and women

And let me just point to another modest proposal that could give practical help with family finances. I'm thinking of those events and activities that family members plan for and do together. Weddings, christenings, holidays, Christmas and other religious festivals. I've already said that if your family is lower down the income scale you are not only poor in money terms but poorer in terms of time. And when it comes to saving it costs you more. The tragic failure of Farepak showed this all too clearly.

Government could do more to help families save for these shared events. By setting up a Family Events Savings Trust. This could support a range of savings plans, including, for example, an 11-month tax-free savings plan, with interest paid at the end. And there could be a top-up for poor families.

This would help families plan for and save for what they want to do and spend time together. And it could offer a practical way of stopping those events, which are such a great source strength for families, becoming a financial booby-trap which undermines them instead of supporting them.

And there's one more very important point about money. Pensions. Because women live longer than men, earn less than men, take time out of paid work to look after children and the elderly they get lower pensions and are more likely to live in poverty in old age.

We can't let caring for families be a ticket to poverty in old age. That?s why our forthcoming pensions changes are so important.

"I hated it, I hated the guilt, I felt guilty all the time. When you get home tired and miserable, you're juggling it all. You're trying to be a good mum, but you're trying to bring in the money as well."

Ann, Coates Viyella, mother of 5 year old child, returned to work at 12 weeks


Now let's talk about time. We now know only too well that we can't end the pay gap between men and women unless we tackle the issue of time. Nor can we hope to enable fathers to have more time with their children unless we tackle the issue of pay.

It's partly a circular issue, of course. The minimum wage and tax credits have helped greatly. But particularly for women and men who are lowest paid and have least control over their work, parents need to be able to fit their work around their family without losing out on better work prospects.

This is not just when children are very young. It matters throughout a child's school years.

It seems that the more we recognise how important it is to children that both their parents are actively involved in their upbringing, the more parents are under pressure to spend long hours away from their families, earning a living. However, the solution doesn't lie in some kind of throw-back to the 1950s, sending mothers back home from the workplace.

The answer is yet better maternity and paternity pay and leave and to make sure both parents have flexibility in their working lives - so that they, and not just their employers, have power to choose how best to mesh together earning and caring - to combine their responsibilities at work and at home.

I want to see the legal right to request flexible work which Labour introduced, much more strongly entrenched, more widely recognised.

We'll find out more about how families themselves think this can best be done.

But why don't we put this right into every person's employment contract. We know smoking is bad for your health, so we put a notice on every cigarette packet. We know work flexibility is good for the family, so why don't we require every contract of employment - as well as setting out the details of pay and hours - to set out the employee's right to request flexible work and the employer's obligation to consider it reasonably. And shouldn't all workplace notice boards carry a poster setting this out. Parents should not feel they are on their own trying to struggle to balance work and family. They are not. The government is backing them with legal rights.

Flexible work for people with family responsibilities should be vigorously adopted by employers too, because it helps them to build and sustain a committed, skilled and experienced workforce. There is a good business case for this.


"I didn't see my boyfriend after the baby. I worked 5 - 10. I'd leave for work as he'd come in."

Amy, Coates Viyella, returned to work when child was 6 months old

"Shifting the baby from place to place shifted our marriage from place to place as well. It was a vicious circle"

Deborah, Courtaulds, mother of 5 year old daughter

"Our baby never sees his mum and dad together. It's a struggle on all sides - for me, my husband, our parents and especially for our baby."

Amber, Pretty Polly, returned to work at 8 weeks for both children

"When I get in from work, he's not there. When he gets in I'm asleep. We leave each other messages."

Joan, Coates Viyella, returned to work when child was 6 months


Practical support



"At the mother and baby club you see how other children of the same age are doing. You exchange ideas of how to solve daily problems, but I can't go now I'm back at work"

Stacey, Courtaulds, mother of 14 month old baby, returned to work at 14 weeks

"It's the mothers' right to take the child to the mother and toddler club. It helps bring them on. If it's your first child you learn from other parents."

Jane, Burberry's, mother of 2 children

"There's no time at work to talk about these things with other mums"

Vicky, Courtaulds, mother of 3 year old child, returned at 7 months

 I'd like to turn to the question of the practical support and advice that families need, the sort of advice and information that was exchanged between all mothers when hardly any worked and every day included the chance to chat at the school gate or in the mother and toddler group. This is not about helicoptering in expert help, which can sap the confidence of parents.

Can we knit that experience and support back together through a voluntary network like the one that has done so much to bring victim support to every community which has public funds sustaining the infrastructure and well-trained volunteers providing support.

Public services cannot substitute for families, but they can and must support them. And public services need families in order to give of their best. They depend on each other and public policy must be based on an understanding of how the two work together.

To enable families to function at their best Government must keep on investing in child care and in services to support people looking after disabled and elderly relatives.

Invest and legislate

A decent income. Time to care as well as to earn. Practical support that meets the real needs of families. These things combined will back up families and help open the doors to opportunity for every individual, regardless of class or race or gender or disability.

We mustn't shrink from investing in measures that meet the needs of families. I hope that before they say the public purse can't afford it, those who themselves can afford good childcare for their own children but who want to cut public spending, will reflect on the misery and anguish of hard-working parents on low incomes who tear their hair out trying to patch together arrangements between family and friends.

Nor must we shrink from using legislation where encouragement and exhortation is not enough.

So I hope that employers' organisations will reflect on the sheer misery and anguish of hard-working parents bringing up children on a low income before they decry as unnecessary, proposals for greater legal rights.

Politicians in the 19th century did not simply exhort mill owners to limit children's working hours, to treat their infectious diseases and to teach child employees to read and write. They legislated and so should we.

Family policy in a parliament of women and men

And we need a body politic confident in its ability to have those discussions with parents and make those decisions. And that has to mean women and men are equally represented. It is unthinkable that a parliamentary debate about, or cabinet decision on, family policy should be the exclusive province of men. That is one of the many reasons we had to increase the number of Labour women MPs in Parliament and increase the number of women Ministers in Government.

The Labour Government since 1997 has done as much as it has on family policy largely because of the influx of women MPs. Quite simply a PLP made up of 97% men (as Parliament was when I joined in 1982) would not have done the job. My view is we would have done none of this had we remained as the Conservative Party still are - a party of men. Although they talk a lot about women in Parliament, disgracefully, they've got 179 male MPs and only 17 women - and of those, only 3 are younger women from the 2005 intake.

It is, however, gratifying to see the Tory men (and indeed women) who over the years have heaped such derision on us, Labour's women, now agreeing with the arguments we have been making for many years.

But Labour's women and men have established Labour as the party of the family in deeds as well as words and we want to do more. To take it to the next stage we now need to create a new connection between parents and politics and put the family at the very centre of all policy.



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