Harriet Harman – 2008 TUC Conference Speech


Below is the text of the speech which was made by Harriet Harman at the 2008 TUC Conference, 10th September 2008.

 It is a great honour and a real privilege for me to be here with you this morning and to take part in your debate.

We all know that the background to this conference is very important indeed and that whilst we have made big steps forward on the things that we care about, we face difficult economic times. We know that whilst these economic problems are not homegrown, they are certainly hitting home and they have hit hardest at those who can least afford it. That is why the job of the Government and the determination of the Government is to see the economy in this country through the difficult times, make the right decisions to do that and also to protect those who are hardest hit and most vulnerable to the economic difficulties.

There are some people who step forward quickly and say, “Because the economy is seeing difficult times, you will have to put issues of tackling inequality on the back burner, that it is a luxury that we cannot afford when the economy is hard pressed, that we will just have to take a raincheck on that and revisit it later”.

However, we are not going to do that and I want to say why. If you are discriminated against, treated unfairly, subjected to prejudice because you are a woman or because you are black and Asian or because your face does not fit or they say you are too old, that is unacceptable at any time, but it is even more objectionable when you feel times are hard for you and you feel that your back is against the wall. So we are not going to step back in our quest for equality. Quite the opposite. Just as Gordon Brown led the economy to strengthen it with more jobs and our quest for fairness, investing more in public services and helping people better off, so Gordon Brown, as our Prime Minister, will lead the country as we take the economy through these difficult times and we step up our determination to have more fairness and social justice.

These are shared values between the trade union Movement and the Labour Party. It was the trade union Movement and the Labour Party that together worked to deliver the National Minimum Wage; it was the trade union Movement and the Labour Party which introduced new rights for working parents and protected older people against discrimination and it was the trade union Movement and the Labour Party which together have worked to set up the really powerful now Equality and Human Rights Commission.

Together we have worked to make a lot of progress and together we have worked to see that even more progress will be made. So, having already increased maternity pay and leave, we are going to see maternity leave increase to a full 12 months. Having extended rights to working mothers, we are now going to ensure that fathers can take more time off when their children are young. We are going to bring in a tough new Equality Bill and we are going to make all of our work more effective by strengthening the work of trade union equality reps in the workplace.

But we all know that inequality is not just a matter of unfairness between black and white or men and women or people with disabilities. It is also a question of the gap between rich and poor and the gap between the north and south. Although we do know we have made a lot of progress, let me just give you two examples of how inequality can be stubborn and can be persistent. It used to be the case that women could expect to live longer than men. Now a rich man can expect to live longer than a poor woman. We all expect children to be able to achieve their full potential in school, but it is the case that by the time they reach the age of six, a less able child from a wealthy family will have overtaken a more able child from a poor family. These are inequalities that we must tackle and we must root out.

That is why I am announcing to conference this morning that I am setting up the National Equality Panel which will chart where we have made progress during the past 10 years and where we need to make much more progress. We could not have anybody better to chair it than Professor John Hills. I know that he is already working with the TUC and will expect the trade unions to be playing an important part in his work. He will report to Government after 12 months and then that will be able to lay the basis for even stepping further forward on the important work to tackle inequality and to bring forward social justice.

Whilst I am talking about inequality and social justice, of course, I have to mention the Conservatives who are now posing as the new friends of equality. On all the causes of Labour and the trade union Movement that we have campaigned for and worked so hard on during the last decade and that they have attacked so viciously and persistently, they have now whipped round and said: “Oh, we are in favour of it all; we are the new friends of equality”. However, they are the false friends of equality and fairness because, although they are now sidling up to trade unionists, fawning over equality campaigns and lurking around women’s organisations, they are still false friends of fairness because the Tory Party which bought this country back to basics now says it recognises that families come in all shapes and sizes. But look at their policies, their tax policies, the so-called tax break for married couples which would penalise couples who have separated or lone mothers. It would actually make their life harder. The Tory Party, the party that decried our concern for more childcare as the ‘nanny state’, now say they too want to see more nurseries, oh, but they would cut back on Sure Start. The party that decried our quest for more women Members of Parliament as political correctness gone made now say that they want to increase the number of Tory women MPs they have. By the way, we have 96 Labour women MPs and they have only 17 Tory women MPs. They say they now want to increase the number, but they would never take the positive action and the steps that we actually did to make that a reality. I always say about David Cameron that he wants women for one thing and one thing only, and that is their votes.

It is no surprise, if you look at the pattern of equality legislation, with Labour Governments in the 1960s and 1970s pioneering new legislation to tackle race discrimination, unfairness in pay for women and sex discrimination, then the Labour Government again coming in 1997 extending our equality laws for people with disabilities, older people on grounds of sexual orientation. So Labour Governments have always championed equality. And what did the Tories do when they were in power for 18 years? Can anybody remember the equality laws they brought in? Not one. Not one during 18 years unless, of course, you count clause 28.

So the Tories have always been against tackling inequality and Labour has always been for tackling inequality and so it remains. We have made progress. We do face difficulties. We will get through those difficulties and we will make further progress. But, remember, Congress, that though we have made progress, we all know there is further work to be done. That is why we need to work together to win a fourth term for a Labour Government. Thank you.