THE RT HON HARRIET HARMAN QC MP’S SPEEECH AT THE GLA’S “WOMEN IN LONDON’S ECONOMY” CONFERENCE, 28TH FEBRUARY 2008
MINISTER FOR WOMEN AND EQUALITY, DEPUTY LEADER AND CHAIR OF THE LABOUR PARTY & LEADER OF THE HOUSE OF COMMONS
Harriet with children in the Anne Bernhardt Centre before she made her speech.
I’m delighted to be here today, and to be able to congratulate you on this really excellent report which is not only in-depth serious research written in a way everyone can understand but is a real spur to action.
It is typical of Ken Livingstone that he should have brought us all together at this event.
Ken has always understood that equality is not just important as a matter of principle, but that equality is necessary for a strong economy and a fair society. And he understands that whilst globalisation offers the opportunity of greater prosperity, we need to ensure globalisation is not a driver of inequality.
It is vital that we keep a fair and equal society, and extend opportunities for all within our society. Because ultimately, equalities of opportunity underpin a strong economy; a strong economy is one which enables everyone to play their part; and people can’t play their part on equal terms if they have starkly different starting points in life.
And I want to acknowledge Ken’s long history of championing equality whether it’s on grounds of gender, race or sexual orientation long before it became fashionable and others joined in.
London is the greatest capital city in the world – and its success today and in to the future will be built not just on what men do but on what the women of London do in their families, in their communities in our services and in London’s economy.
Today, I want to say something about three things that are fundamental to women achieving equality at work;
• good childcare,
• flexible working and
• tough new equality laws.
Show me what is described as a post-feminist woman and I will show you a woman who either has not had children or who is married to a man who has lots of money.
Because there remains a profound division of labour in the home - with women taking most of the responsibility for the day to day care of young children.
I’m not saying that men nowadays don’t want to do more in the home. Many do and are often prevented by unequal pay. It’s a vicious circle. If he – as is usual - earns more than her, as soon as the baby comes along there is no choice but that it is her who cuts back on her hours and her commitment to her work and he has to work more to boost the household income.
And so the question of good, affordable, accessible childcare is vital for women to be able to go out to work.
The quality of childcare is essential. And one of the important and welcome changes is that working in childcare is beginning to be respected as the demanding and professional work that it is. So childcare cannot be, and should not be, on the cheap.
So you hit another problem. Women going back to work after having children are likely to be lower paid and working fewer hours – so paying for childcare is a struggle.
That is particularly the case for childcare in London.
When I first started out as an MP in Southwark 25 years ago, women could not get a nursery place for their child unless they were on the “at risk” register.
Now our goal is childcare for all who want it and we have invested massively in a huge expansion of childcare. The number of childcare and after school club places in Southwark, which my constituency is in, has gone from less than 5,000 in 1997 to more than 9,000 today – and it’s the same across London.
But for a great many families – even with tax credits - there’s still a problem with the cost of childcare.
And that’s why it is so important that the London Development Agency, working with the Government Department of Children Schools and Families has set up the Childcare Affordability Programme which has already helped 7,000 families and can still help thousands more and which will show us what is the best way to get childcare help to women on low incomes.
Combining parental responsibilities and work responsibilities is more than just about finding the right childcare – important though that is. It’s about time, too. And that means parents having the time off they need with young children and about having some choice about the hours that you work, so that your work can fit in with your family responsibilities rather than the other way round.
That’s why we changed the law to give equal rights to part-time workers. And why we introduced longer maternity leave, higher maternity pay and a new right to paid paternity leave.
But it’s also important to have flexibility at work. So that you can – perhaps – drop the children at school, start work later and finish later. Or, so that you can work fewer hours when demands at home grow – as they can at any time for any reason when you have children.
That’s why we introduced a legal right to request flexible working for parents with children up to the age of 6. But, the demands of parental responsibility don’t end at the age of 6, and so the Prime Minister announced last November that we were going to give the right to request flexible work for parents with older children. He asked Imelda Walsh – of Sainsbury’s - to look into how we should do that and she will be reporting back shortly and then we will change the law.
Flexibility at work is also important for women who are caring for older relatives – and, again, it is mostly women. Just as the stay at home mum has become the working mum, the stay at home daughter who used to look after the older relatives is now going out to work.
The employment of mothers has meant the public policy imperative for big changes in financial support like tax credits; big changes in services like nurseries and after school clubs and big changes in rights at work – as I’ve said.
But the employment of women also has big implications for the care and support for older people. And we now must look at the financial support, services and employment rights for families caring for older people. The Prime Minister has set up a big programme of work across health, social services, benefits and employment rights and that will be reporting in the spring.
We never worried about being called the nanny state – and I am rather hopeful we will soon be called the granny state.
The final thing I want to turn to is the role of the law in equality for women and in equality more widely. As Minister for women and equalities I have responsibility within government for equality legislation.
We consulted in June last year, before I took over, about a new law to bring together in one Act of Parliament all the different laws on equality on grounds of race, gender, age, disability and sexual orientation.
But I think we can do more than just consolidate and simplify – important though that is – I think that we can make progress.
In the past, equality legislation has established the principle of anti-discrimination by giving individuals rights not to be discriminated against and then, by and large, left them to get on with it. Then we introduced the duties on pubic authorities to promote equality.
But what I think we have, so far, lacked is a structural solution to a structural problem. Discrimination is a systemic problem and needs a systemic – not just an individual - solution.
So we will have a radical and progressive equality bill in the next session of parliament. We will publish our proposals and consult further on them before the bill is brought in after the Queens Speech at the end of the year.
And the approach we will be taking will focus on four new dimensions
- transparency, public procurement, enforcement and positive action.
As your report makes clear, the gender pay gap in London is stubbornly persistent. The same is true nationally. And we want to increase the employment rate of disabled people – and close the “ethnic employment gap” whereby minority ethnic people are more likely to be unemployed. So we need to be able to see what’s going on, to chart progress, year on year and to compare those who are making good progress against those who are lagging behind.
You can’t tackle inequality if it is a national statistic but is hidden where it is actually happening. So, just as we have transparency about school results, school by school and we have unemployment statistics, area by area, we have to be able to see what is going on and use the existing public sector duties and the lever of public procurement to achieve that. When we put the spotlight on inequality where it is actually happening – that will be the biggest lever for change and progress.
To move rights from theory to practice you need effective enforcement. We need to look beyond the –often beleaguered - individual enforcing their rights. And we can go further in a number of ways including:
• considering a stronger role for trade union equality reps; and
• effective action by the new Equality and Human Rights Commission.
And we are considering further ways to make enforcement work better along the lines Ken described.
Many of those who responded to the consultation which the government undertook last year agreed with our proposal to expand the scope of the actions that employers and service providers can take to encourage training, recruitment and promotion of people in under-represented groups in the workforce. Existing domestic law allows us to do less than EU law allows and less than other European countries do on promoting positive action.
So I think we can make progress with more childcare, help for families caring for children and older relatives, more flexible working and a strong equality law.
I just wanted to thank you for inviting me today and I look forward to working in partnership with you Ken as Mayor of London and your very excellent team who I pay tribute to as we press forward for equality for women in London.