Webchat with Harriet Harman MP

This is an edited version of our live webchat with Harriet Harman MP, on 25 November 2008, who is deputy leader of the Labour Party, leader of the House of Commons, secretary of state for equalities and minister for women.

maternity/paternity leave | equal opportunities | flexible working | the economy | special needs education | breastfeeding | sex industry | personal | useful links

HarrietHarman: Hi everyone. It's great to chat to you today, and please bear with me as I'm not the world's greatest typist!

Maternity/paternity leave

My Red Cardigan: Hi, when are we going to reach the stage where the year's maternity leave is allowed to be taken by each partner as they see fit? Perhaps women take an obligatory six weeks then a couple split it according to their own family dynamics and finances giving reasonable notice to their employers. I believe if employers thought that a 30-something man was just as likely to take maternity leave as a 30-something woman, this would help eliminate sex discrimination. Thank you

HarrietHarman: My Red Cardigan, for very well-off families taking time out of work with the children is not a problem. But we want to help parents take as much time out of work as they feel the child needs - that's why we've doubled maternity pay and leave. And we've introduced paid paternity leave, too. Fathers as well as mothers can use the right to request flexible work if they have a child up to age six and in April next year we'll extend that to parents with a child up to 16. We will bring in 26 weeks' additional parental leave. This will also give fathers the right to take leave and statutory pay if the mother returns to work after six months but before the end of her maternity leave and pay period. This is to give parents more choice in sharing child care and work. This will be before June 2010.

Equal opportunities

soapbox: Is this recession another nail in the coffin of equality of opportunity for women? I personally have witnessed many women with childcare responsibilities (how do fathers get away without this tag?) being rather closer than others at the front of the redundancy queue!

AuraofDora: Hi, Harriet. Last Sunday I heard a shocking statement on Bremner, Bird & Fortune. They stated that the UK national debt (excluding personal credit/ mortgages) per household was now £96,000. Are we, as a country, heading for bankruptcy? Would appreciate your take on this. And thanks for bailing out the banks, the one true act of socialism by your government.

HarrietHarman: Soapbox and AuraofDora, we must not let the global downturn in the economy be a 'nail in the coffin of equality of opportunity for women'. Women's pay is important to them and their family. So we need to protect women in work every bit as much as we protect men. And when the global downturn ends - and grim as the situation is it will not go on forever - we need to ensure that women as well as men are there, in the workforce, with the skills and qualifications they, and the economy, need.

And we will be backing up women in small businesses, too. We need more women to be making a go of it in their own businesses. I know that many women start their own business because it can be more flexible than working for an employer.

We don't agree with the line of argument that equality is a luxury that you can only "afford in good times". As a senior executive of the CBI said to me yesterday "it doesn't cost anything to be fair and not discriminate". And prejudice is wasteful and stupid as well as unfair.

And, Phantom of the Chocolate Cake Avena (mad name but very sensible point!) it is not the case that women are not as bright or as hardworking or as well-educated as men. Yet they are paid so much less. This is discrimination. And there shouldn't be a "parent penalty" whereby people who work shorter hours because they are caring for children get penalised by lower pay and opportunities. Caring for children is important and working mothers should be respected not subjected to discrimination.

Flexible working

cali: Every week there seems to be some article or report on the shortage of neonatal nurses and the difficulties in retention of staff in neonatal units. I have over ten years' experience as a neonatal nurse and although I am currently working, I will soon have to give up a career that I enjoy. This is because I have two young children and it is becoming increasingly difficult to do the 12.5-hour shifts that I have to work and arrange childcare. My husband and I, unfortunately, do not have the ability to share childcare. He is in the armed forces and out of the next 16 months will be away for 12 months. Some employers say they offer flexible working, but then when this is requested employees are then informed that it is not in the interests of the service to offer flexible working arrangements. What can the Government do to help families in a similar situation as ours? Should also add, we don't qualify for tax credits and we cannot afford for me to stay at home. This is especially true after the pre-budget announcement. The more you earn, the greater the penalty.

HarrietHarman: Cali, we have helped famililes - with more child benefit, increased maternity pay and leave, and paid paternity leave. And loads of other things. I know we need to do more, and we will. But the truth is that it's men who are better off after divorce and women become worse off! And check out Tax Credits - you should not be worse off in work. You should be able to choose your shifts, with your valuable qualifications and experience. Are you in the RCN or in a union? They could take up your case for you. It's always in the interests of the service to keep experienced and qualified nurses.

cali: We do not qualify for Tax Credits. My husband is a higher rate taxpayer (just). My unit's shifts are 12.5-hours long - and they will not allow flexible working. They prefer to lose experienced staff, who they then replace with inexperienced staff, as it is much cheaper to do so.

The economy

Bubble99: Rather than pouring billions into the banks, wouldn't it have made more sense to write off all or a large part of domestic mortgages? This would boost the economy as people would have money to spend.

HarrietHarman: AuraofDora, Bubble99 and Phantom of the Chocolate, about the economy, we are in uncharted waters with problems across the global economy. Gordon Brown and the Chancellor are doing two things: first to protect families, small businesses, and jobs in this country, and, secondly, to work with other countries to make sure that we have a robust system for regulation and rules for the international financial services market so that families and businesses are not put at risk.

The economy is not bankrupt. The government has had to put a lot of money in to back the economy up. But without that action it would be a total disaster. And when we come to balance the books after the economy has stabilised, we will make sure it is fair, making people who earn over £150,000 pay more and people on lower incomes protected.

sunshineakindat: You have said nothing to convince me that I would be better off working rather than staying at home. How can you convince me that I am wrong?

HarrietHarman: sunshineakindat, I don't want to convince you about anything. I just want to ensure you have the choices you want. That means there needs to be good quality childcare which you can afford, so if you do go out to work you're not tearing your hair out. And you can take time out after having a baby without having to throw in your job if you don't want to. And we need employers to be more flexible so that they recognise that most of the women they employ are someone's mother, too.

Special needs education

Candlewax: Hello Harriet. My LEA wants to place my Asperger son in a residential school for children with severe learning difficulties and communication difficulties (mostly non-verbal). My son has an IQ of 120, is definitely verbal, he just suffers social and communication difficulties because of his diagnosis. He is capable of eventually going to university and that is what he wants. My son has a history of suicial ideation and is currently receiving medication for clinical depression. He has told us that he would rather kill himself then go to the school they want him to. There are no intellectual peers he could relate to nor any pupils whom he could converse with on the same level as him, he is too high for them. They wish to send him to that school rather than an Asperger specific school because "it would be an inefficient use of public resources". What is the ceiling price on a child's life and a child's future? Our tribunal is on Thursday.

needmorecoffee: Why don't disabled people under 60 get a Winter Fuel Allowance. Despite ministers' illusions, DLA is NOT stretchy and doesn't cover everything a disabled person needs. My dd is four with severe cerebral palsy. Her DLA does not cover the extra expenses she has (ketogenic diet, equipment, cooked food, taxi fares to hospital etc) but she is in danger of dying or getting very sick this winter because we cannot afford to heat the house. Last night it was 3°C in the bedroom where she and I sleep. (No heating nor insulation up there.) But in-laws, who are wealthy, get WFA and go skiing with it. Why does the Govt ignore the plight of disabled children? If I handed my daughter to the State, the taxpayer would be looking at £2,000 a week to care for her. Yet we are paid £50 a week Carers Allowance. This is meant to compensate my husband for his loss of income when he gave up work. 'Scuse me while I laugh.

HarrietHarman: Pooty Applewater and Candlewax and Needmorecoffee, the whole attitude to disabled people is changing - at long last. And it starts with a recognition that, like all children, disabled children have a right to achieve their full potential. And that means a big focus on education for children with special needs. And we're going to strengthen the law to ensure that all public agencies, like local authorities and health services, make sure they are doing everything possible for disabled people in their communities and as employers as well. I do think it's worth contacting your local councillor if you are not getting the services or choices that you need for your or your child. When it comes to heating, the financial support for disabled people is set at a level to include costs like heating. And disabled people can get free help with insulation to cut their heating costs.


VeniVidiVickiQV: Answers/ views on breastfeeding, please.


HarrietHarman: VeniVidiVickyQV, breastfeeding is best for the child, but not everyone can do it. It can be a struggle to get it going properly. Women need help and encouragement to feed. But still some mothers want to breasfeed and can't. But where women do breast feed they should be treated respectfully in public places. I was once feeding one of my children in a restaurant - and some of the other diners were making much worse slurping noises - and I was told to go and feed the baby in the ladies! Things have changed a lot since then, but we're introducing in the Equality Bill a law which makes it clear beyond doubt that breastfeeding women are not to be discriminated against.

Sex industry

cmotdibbler: In the light of your speech to the Women's Institute today, why do you not feel it more important to get the police to close down known brothels and massage parlours? They trade openly and with public signage, but yet never seem to be visited by the police, let alone shut down.

HarrietHarman: Hi cmotdibbler, we do want the police to be raiding brothels where they suspect women are being held against their will. And running a brothel is illegal. But we also want to clamp down on the 'demand side' of the evil trade of human trafficking. It's not just the trafficker and the victim - the person who makes the whole exploitative trade continue is the man who pays. And Jux, just because something has been around for a long time does not mean we have to put up with it. The same could be said for domestic violence. Anyway, what's happening now is very different - 80% of the women in these brothels are from abroad and have been brought here mostly under false pretences - told they will get a good job in a bar or a hotel. And it's serious organised crime of international gangs who do gun and drug dealing as well as trading in women. When I was solicitor general I saw a case where a woman was sold in a supermarket car park by one gang to another for £6,000. This is modern-day slavery and we're going to do something about it. And rights matter, I just don't agree that being a 'sex worker' is a reasonable choice for women. Surely, we can aspire to more than that relations between men and women can be commercialised sex. This is the 21st century, for heaven's sake!


Doobydoo: Do you feel your husband has hindered you at all? Would you say that you are a Socialist?


HarrietHarman: Doobydoo. No, far from it. He has helped by having an unreasonable belief in my abilities!

soapbox: Are you a Ms or a Mrs, and why?


HarrietHarman: Soapbox, I'm not Miss because I'm married, I'm not Mrs Harman because that's not my husband's name...so it's Ms. And my husband is still Mr!

soapbox: You are often described as being somewhat less intellectually able than many of your colleagues - how do you cope with this and how would you rebut that assertion

HarrietHarman: Soapbox, when I was younger I was told not to appear too bright or I would never get a husband because men would be intimidated by my brain! Then as soon as I became an MP they said I was thick! Best to be thick-skinned.

Swedes: I think Michael Portillo and Diane Abbott make a lovely couple. Which Conservative MP would you like to cosy up with on Andrew Neil's This Week sofa

HarrietHarman: Swedes, John Bercow is my choice - but naming him will probably ruin his career in the Tory party. But really I'd prefer Anton DuBec. Is that possible instead of a Tory MP?

HarrietHarman: Great to chat to you. will read all your comments and reflect on them. All the best.

Useful links

Talk: employment issues
Home Front
Working Families
Daycare Trust
EHRC: family-friendly working


Last updated: 9 months ago