Harriet Harman

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

Fairness doesn't happen by chance


HARRIET HARMAN MP Secretary of State for Equality

17th January 2009


Previous recessions under Tory government evoked a laissez fair response.  The economy could be left to recover in its own time and people could sink or swim. That left hundreds of thousands of individuals with no chance to achieve their potential, it left communities struggling and society divided.


And the Tories are saying the same again now as we face the effect on our economy of the global economic crisis.  But it is exactly the wrong time to be saying

  • Leave it to the market. This is a disastrously wrong economic analysis. Gordon and Alasdair are taking an active approach, and led the way internationally with the recapitalisation of the banks. Peter Mandelson is getting help to business with early government payment of bills, and a new scheme for business loan guarantees.
  • It is exactly the wrong time to say cut public spending. Again, this is the wrong economic analysis, would make recession longer and deeper and mean this country was less equipped to take advantage of global economic growth when it returns (the global economy is set to double by the end of the next two decades). So in transport, regeneration, housing, schools and the health service we are bringing forward capital projects.
  • It is wrong to deprive people of the help and protection which they need and govt have duty to provide - Margaret Beckett is leading on protection against repossession. Debt advice is being expanded to help people cope.
  • It is wrong to be allowing the entrenchment of inequality - as those most vulnerable get left even further behind. (James Purnell is now taking forward measures which in contrast to what the Tories did - sign people off to worklessness through Incapacity Benefit - will redouble our support for those who become unemployed to get skills and take up vacancies.)


The task of government is to

  • Ensure the recession is as short and as shallow as possible
  • Protect the most vulnerable during it
  • And ensure that we lay the basis for a better Britain. A stronger economy and, absolutely crucially, a fairer society.


As we build a new economic order, it is also imperative that we lay the basis for a new social order. 


We are seeing a global economic shock with profound implications for our economy out of which we as government will play our part in the emergence of a new economic order with an emphasis on skills and sustainability.  As this is a public policy priority, we are looking to every corner of the public sector to play its part in delivering this.


But our public policy aims are not limited to economic objectives.  Indeed, our economic objectives are the necessary preconditions for - the servant of - our vision of a fair and equal society.  We want a strong economy so people can be better off and public services improved.  We want full employment not just for its own sake, but because we want no-one to be thrown on the scrap heap. But it is our task in government to play our part in fashioning a new social order with fairness and equality at its heart.


Fairness and equality is essential for the individual for the economy and for society. It means

  • Opportunities for every individual - it is harder to enable all to achieve their potential if there is a vast gap in the starting point of those at the top and those at the bottom.
  • A strong economy - drawing on the talents and skills of all and leaving no potential wasted
  • A peaceful society - divided and unequal societies are more beset by crime and disorder.



It is not just that we need, in the face of a global recession, to protect those who are most vulnerable. It is also that while at the best of times it is not acceptable for someone to have to face prejudice and unfairness, it is even more important as we face tough times that people have a sense that we are all in it together 


The fairness and equality which is our objective means tackling the many different aspects of inequality and the many different obstacles to equality.


There is the inequality experienced by women - most evident in the pay gap.  On average women are paid 22.6% per hour less than men.  The inequality experienced by black children - who still experience lower expectation of their potential at school.  The prejudice that affects disabled people, gays and lesbians and the outdated attitude to ageing.


And of course overarching, and interwoven with this is the disadvantage, the inequality which arises from the family you are born into or the place you are born.


Our quest for equality is an indivisible principle.  We want to tackle inequality wherever it springs from.  And there can be no hierarchy of inequality.  No setting the battle for gender equality against the battle for racial equality.  Nor setting the battle against class based inequality against the "strands" of inequality.  The point is it is all one great cause.  United we will make progress.  We cannot allow divide and rule.  Of course there are people who've made a contribution to challenging one particular strand of inequality.  There is nothing wrong with that.  But we are all part of the movement to tackle inequality.  And different aspects of inequality demand different strategies.  But all to the same principled end, the same future vision.



We have taken a great deal of action already and will do more because

  • we want to do more than just provide "escape routes" out of poverty for a talented few. We want to tackle the class divide and tackle those aspects of our society which make so many feel that they are "outsiders" rather than full members of our society and that success is for "someone else".
  • Because we believe that disadvantage and deprivation can be - if not eliminated - substantially reduced
  • Because we understand the importance of living conditions - individual effort and self confidence allows people to make progress in their lives. But we know that is more likely to flourish in a semi-detached with a garden than in bed and breakfast accommodation.


The White Paper published this week puts forward the prospect of underpinning this approach, for the first time, with legislation.  If - as it is - a major public policy objective to promote equality then it should be taken forward in the design and delivery of public policy. It should be a core function of key public services. The groundwork for how we might inform this approach is already being laid in the new National Equality Panel which I established last September with professor John Hills as chair which I announced at the TUC - and which I promised in my deputy leadership campaign.


We will not be back-tracking on our commitment to tackling inequality between women and men, and the discrimination which still holds back some minority ethnic communities.  And we will press forward with an Equality Bill to make public authorities more transparent about key equality issues:  gender pay, and the rates of employment of those from BAME groups and of disabled people.  You can't tackle discrimination when it remains hidden.  We will strengthen enforcement too. 


And when we come to pay back the public debt that we have necessarily taken on to recapitalise the banks and provide a fiscal boost to the economy, it is those with the highest incomes who will make the biggest contribution with a new top rate of tax of 45% for income over £150,000. Those who can afford to pay more can help those who are most in need.  And there are many amongst the high earners, as well as in society at large, who believe this to be right.  


And, as we seek to build a fairer society in the future, there must be no return to the awful spectacle of directors of companies awarding themselves bonuses of £100s of millions.  No-one seeks to defend that now and that sort of excess and greed has no place in the new social order of a fair and equal society.


And, as the White Paper published last week says, we will consider legislation to lay a duty on the public sector to tackle inequality across the board, narrowing gaps in outcomes for people from different backgrounds.  We will be consulting shortly on how we can achieve this.


In these tough and painful economic times, we are giving people real help now and real hope for the future. And as Labour, that hope is a fair and equal society which is strong, stable and prosperous and in which everyone has a genuine stake.    






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