Theresa May – 2008 Conservative Party Conference Speech


Thank you Michael for that kind introduction and also for your excellent session earlier today. It’s good to know that our education policy is in such good hands.

And thank you to Hillary and to Elizabeth Burton Phillips for your presentations. I think you’ll all agree that they really made us think about families today, the pressures they are under and the problems parents have to deal with.

I would just like to say this about Elizabeth. She is a constituent of mine so I have known her now for some years. I am a patron of her charity Drug Fam. I have heard Elizabeth speak on a number of occasions. Her speeches always get to the heart of the matter because what she says is not theoretical. It’s not some academic work; it’s not the product of bureaucrats in Whitehall. What she says is real life. That’s what happened to her and her family and it is happening to too many families up and down this country.

Elizabeth has set down her story in her book, ‘Mum Can You Lend Me Twenty Quid?’ She went through a personal tragedy. What has come out of it is a charity helping many thousands of other families to deal with drugs and we hope avert the tragedy that befell Elizabeth’s family.

Her visit to the Four Dwellings High School and the work to set up family support on the Welsh House Farm Estate will I hope leave a lasting legacy that will help countless families.

And we must help them, as Elizabeth is doing, to deal with addiction when they meet it face to face, but we must also do more to take people off drugs and to make sure they don’t get sucked into the downward spiral of drug addiction in the first place. It is ruining too many lives.

Supporting families has been a long standing principle for us as Conservatives. Families today come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, the problems they face have changed and we must adapt our policies to make that principle work in today’s world.

Maria spoke about how we would support relationships and families in the home. But that’s not all we need to do. Our aim is to make Britain the most family friendly place to do business. People want to have more scope to manage the balance between their work and home life better. They want to be more in control. To make Britain truly family friendly the workplace has to change. For young people today – Generation Y as they are known – there are no longer the same boundaries between work and home. They expect to be able to vary their hours at work, but they might also do work from home late into the evening. Technology makes this easy. Today’s generation demand more flexibility in how they work and in the workplace.

But it’s more than that. Flexible working isn’t some woolly liberal politically correct policy thought up by a focus group. For many, flexibility is an economic necessity. Many families need that extra second income to pay the mortgage and Brown’s stealth taxes. And how many older people find that their pension won’t support them in the way they expected so they have to carry on working long beyond when they had planned to retire. They look for flexible working too. And if we are serious, as Chris Grayling said, about getting more people off benefits and into work then we must accept that for some, say with certain long term health conditions, that’s only possible with flexible working.

So it’s time to explode the myths about flexible working.

First the myth that flexible working means part time work and part time work means part time commitment. Flexible working covers a wide range of work. It includes part time but it also covers job sharing, using flexible hours, working from home and all sorts of other arrangements. And by the way, people who work part time aren’t giving part time commitment. You often find that part time workers with flexible working arrangements or job sharers put far more into the job than someone working so called normal hours.

The second myth is that flexible working is only for mothers. Yes, flexible working can benefit women with children but it also benefits those caring for older relatives. It helps the father separated from his children who needs some flexibility so he can have regular access to them. It enables people with disabilities to access a wider range of jobs.

And the final myth we must explode is that flexible working is only ever costly and bad for business. That flies in the face of the facts. Studies have shown that those employers who use flexible working benefit from better retention, better productivity and a happier workforce.

In these difficult times, businesses need the best people for the job and across the country companies who recognise this are rolling out better working practices improving choice, promoting fairness and increasing profitability.

There doesn’t have to be a conflict between helping business and helping people.

We need a revolution in the workplace, accepting that its not just mothers who want to spend more time with their children but fathers too. That’s why at the Party’s Spring Forum George Osborne and I announced our policy of flexible parental leave. Under these plans, parents will have 52 weeks of leave on the birth of a child which they will be able to divide between them as they see fit. So if fathers want to take more of a role they can, if mothers feel the need to return to work earlier they can. If both parents want sometime at home together at the birth of their child, helping each other out in those first few weeks then they can. What matters is that they have the choice.

Likewise with our proposal to extend the right to request flexible working to all parents with children under the age of 18. Having children is one of the most important and challenging roles in an adult’s life and we want to support parents in that role. And that means both parents, not just mothers. More and more fathers want to take an active part in bringing up their children and so our flexible working policy is a step to help them achieve that.

If the culture of the modern workplace could adapt to accommodate the culture of the modern life then I believe we could all benefit. And choice would be at the heart of those changes. A choice to be a stay at home mum – or dad. The choice to look after your elderly parents or volunteer for a few hours a week. The choice to manage your business in the best way that suits you, your clients and your staff.

But there is more to be done to improve the workplace particularly for women. We’ve still got to address the shameful pay divide between men and women in this country. That’s why earlier this month I launched a campaign to tackle the pay gap. It’s on facebook – Theresa May for Equal Pay. If you agree then sign up to my group. We aim to introduce a bill in December that would strengthen the law against discrimination on pay and we’re calling for cross party support. Because this issue isn’t about party political point scoring. It should cross party lines. This is about treating women fairly.,.

How we can hope to raise the low levels of aspiration amongst young women in this country if they think they won’t get treated fairly when they get to the work place? We need to encourage young women to go down the path of work and career rather than the path of benefits and dependency. And that means being positive about the role women play in business, in politics, in the public sector. Let’s stop talking about the problems women face and start talking about the enormous benefits women bring to business and politics.

The demands of modern life are changing and the challenges we face are changing too.

As Conservatives, we want to remove the barriers to achievement for everyone. We want to give people the choice to live their lives the way that suits them best.

Labour talk about being family friendly.

They boast about their achievements. They claim they are the only party that understands women today.

But we know better.

We know it is the Conservative Party that has led the debate on flexible working.

It is the Conservative Party that is leading the campaign on equal pay; and it is the Conservative Party that has taken up the challenge and will bring in flexible parental leave.

Because only the Conservatives know the importance of personal choice and only the Conservatives are willing to propose the new policies that take us forward in the 21st century, confident in the decisions made by women and families and willing to trust the people.