Harriet Harman – 2021 Speech on Employment Rights

The speech made by Harriet Harman, the Labour MP for Camberwell and Peckham, in the House of Commons on 25 January 2021.

I join the hon. Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) in paying tribute to all those who have worked through this covid crisis, and particularly to those in essential services.

I support the motion, and I agree with everything said from the Labour Front Bench: we must have no watering down of hard-won employment rights. However, a new employment Bill is also an opportunity for new rights, which are sorely needed by families in today’s world of work. The structure of our current rights was based on the notion of the employed male breadwinner, supported by the wife at home looking after their children. Even if she worked, her primary responsibility was to the children, and she would be supported by her own mother, who would most likely be retired. However, most women now work—many are self-employed rather than employed—and grandmothers, who used to be able to be relied on to step in, are still working.

We have introduced important rights, such as the right to request flexible work, paternity leave and parental leave, but there are glaring omissions, which should be addressed in any future Bill. A man or a woman employee is entitled to paid sick leave, but what if the child is sick? Parents cannot leave a sick child at home on their own. We should back our working parents when their child is sick. Instead, we leave them in the lurch. One parent—usually the mother—has to ring the employer and beg for time off, often to be told she has to take it as holiday or unpaid leave, which is especially hard for low-income families.

In a future employment Bill, we therefore need to give a parent of a primary school-age or younger child who cannot go to school or nursery when they are sick the right to paid leave. Other countries do that. That also needs to extend to grandparents, in case that is who is best placed to take the time off when the child is sick. Many parents rely hugely on grandparents, especially in the first year of a baby’s life, so we should factor them into parental leave too. Currently, the mother and the father can share 50 weeks’ leave between them. We should make it so that that could be split between, say, the mother, the father and one of the grandparents. The point is to give families the choice.

The Government mentioned having more employment rights for families in their manifesto. That is encouraging, and there will be strong support for that from the Labour Benches, but also from the Government Benches and, above all, from the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes). I welcome the Secretary of State to his new job. If he wants to do some good and make a difference, I look forward to him agreeing across parties to make progress on this.