Harriet Harman

Parliament has been dissolved until after the General Election and I am no longer an MP

Speech to the TUC Women's Conference


Women’s TUC

Harriet Harman MP

12th March 2008

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This is my first Women’s TUC since becoming Minister for women and equality in June last year.

But it is not my first women’s TUC.  I think the first one I attended was as long ago as 1975. 

And for a number of years I was proud to be a member of the SERTUC women’s committee.

And I think back over the years and our concerns then and what we were calling for.

And we have been consistent -  Women in the Unions and women in the Labour party. 

We’ve been consistent because

*we’ve concerned about inequality and injustice

*we’ve listened to women and

*understood the revolution that has been taking place in women’s lives, in families and in the workplace.

So we said

Women are going out to work now – and they are underpaid

And they are still doing most of the caring for children

They want to be sure that their children are safe, happy and learning while they are at work.

And it’s in the interests of every community and all of society that that should be the case.

And our economy depends on women as well as men working.

So we argued that because women’s work is vital for their families, and for our economy we should back up working women with the childcare they need

And we were concerned that women who were working part-time were not just working for pin money but making an important contribution to the household budget.  Keeping many families above the poverty line. 

And therefore they should not be treated as second class citizens at work.

And we argued that employers should allow parents to fit their work around their family responsibilities not the other way round.

And we listened to the concerns of mothers who had to go back to work before they or their baby was ready – and we called for longer maternity leave and higher maternity pay so that women could afford to take their full maternity leave.

And we counted up the hundreds of thousands of women earning £1.60 and hour and demanded a minimum wage.

And we campaigned for domestic violence to be recognised as a public policy imperative not just a private matter.

And we were concerned not just about women in this country but also women internationally – in the developing world. 

And we knew that it would be women that would put this on the front of the political agenda so we campaigned together for more women in local councils and in parliament.

And I think it’s worth stepping back – for a moment – and thinking of how far we have come.

We were right and we did persist until

We now have

  • more childcare – double the number of childcare places than in 1997
  • equal rights for part-time workers and a right to request flexible work
  • double the length of maternity leave and twice the level of maternity pay
  • a new department of international development – with a millennium development goal to cut the tragic rate of maternal mortality
  • new laws on domestic violence

and we have been able to do this because we these were the priorities of the Government – re-inforced by  96 strong labour women MPs now – fighting the cause of women in this country and abroad.

I think we should be gratified – but I  don’t think we should be grateful.  We weren’t asking for favours – just that women should have their rights.

But for all the progress that we have made – we still have a long way to go and we must work together to make further progress.

Because still some of the old problems remain – and there are new problems too.

There are still too many women who struggle to find childcare which they trust and which they can afford – so we’ll press on with help with childcare including learning the lessons from the Childcare Affordability Programme in London

Work flexibility is still a problem. Parents with a child under the age of 6 have the right to request flexible work.  But children don’t stop needing their parent’s time when they have their sixth birthday.  So the Prime Minister announced last November that we will change the law to extend flexible work to parents of older children and we will be announcing our plans on that shortly. 

And with an aging population family responsibilities are not just children.  Families are multi-generational.  We have to recognise that many families couldn’t begin to cope without grandmother – and that many families support and care for older, sick or disabled relatives, as well as children.

So The Prime Minister has asked government departments to work together to look to how we can ensure that

*working families caring for an older or disabled relative can get a break – with alternative care they can trust

* so that you don’t have to face a choice between caring or working, but so that you can do the caring you want to and still keep on with your work and when our Carers Strategy is published this summer it will map out ways we improve the lives of 6m family carers.

When the government was setting up childcare and rights for parents we were never afraid of being called the nanny state – now we are looking to back up families with older relatives – multi-generational families – we will be proud to be called the “granny state”.

Domestic violence remains a major problem – and we have to strengthen the Criminal Justice System further and make sure that the law on domestic homicide is effective. 

And tackle the hideous new phenomenon of human trafficking where women are shipped in from abroad, forced into prostitution and their services advertised in the classified sections of local newspapers. Men aren’t allowed to buy a faulty car – yet they can buy a woman for sex.  In the 21st century we can do better than that. This is an evil trade, fuelled by those intent on exploiting vulnerable women and those who choose to pay for sex in this country.  We must, and will ensure we are doing all we can to stop it.

We are also taking forward work to address the problems of vulnerable workers including vulnerable agency workers – those who due to a combination of factors, such as a lack of English skills, are less able to protect themselves when they do encounter a rogue company. We are working with trade unions, the enforcement agencies and business through the Vulnerable Workers Enforcement Agency Forum and by tightening existing legislation to devise ways to improve our enforcement and crack down on rogue employers.

As I said at the start, we always understood that equality for women is a matter of principle but it is also important for the strength of the economy.  The hallmark of a strong economy is one which is not marred by discrimination but which can draw on the abilities of all its people.

So we will have a new Equality Bill.  Unequal pay for women is not a special problem to do with the particular woman. It is to do with systematic discrimination – it is a systematic problem. 

The inequality at work of a particular black person is not to do with them as an individual – it’s to do with systematic discrimination.  So if you’ve got a structural problem you need a structural solution. 

The problem with our laws in the past is that they have

*stated clearly the public policy objection to discrimination and inequality but

*left the remedy to the beleaguered discriminated against individual – often the person in the worst position to champion the cause of equality.   

Our new Equality Bill will be part of a package of measures which will allow us to make progress by adding structural solutions to what is a structural problem, systematic solutions to what is a systematic problem.  So our new Bill and package will focus on four things

  • transparency – so everyone can see where there’s progress and where there’s unfairness and work together to change it
  • looking at how public procurement can promote equality practice in the private sector
  • tougher enforcement
  • positive action

And we want to build on the work of equality reps.  I think the equality rep role holds so much promise for the future. Helping the person who develops a disability arrange with the employer work which enables them to keep their job.  Ensuring hard-pressed working mothers – and fathers for that matter – get the hours they want.  Confronting unequal pay.

We are having a conference of all equality reps on April 1st so we can hear at first hand of your work -  if you have any names you want to give me to invite please let me know.

I hope to publish the details of the Equality Bill and package before the summer and will legislate as soon as Parliamentary time allows

Yesterday you heard Alastair Darling introduce his new budget.

You will have heard the full range of proposals  - but I just want to mention  to you

  • that our economy will continue to grow – and that means despite the international financial turbulence, no return to the devastating unemployment of the Tories.
  • That child benefit is increased – but more cash help for families that need it most – and that means more children taken out of poverty and
  • More help for pensioners – and extra £50 for the over 60’s and an extra £100 for the over 80’s

So we will be able to continue with our commitment to equality and fairness and that will play a part in our ensuring that we have a strong economy as well as a fair society.

I hope that I will work with you all throughout the year ahead.  I hope that many of you will come to our meetings, our conferences and our receptions in Downing Street. – don’t worry, I won’t offer you beer and sandwiches.  It will be canapés and a glass of wine.  But we will work together and together we will make progress.


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