If I ruled the world: Harriet Harman

Change the discussion—and policy—when it comes to families
February 16, 2017

All prime ministers talk about families, which isn’t surprising. After all, families are everything for a child and for an elderly person—and very important for all the years in between. But, if I ruled the world, I’d have something to say about the way that politicians had this discussion.

I’d ban them from going on about how important marriage is and how damaging divorce is. Most cabinets are full of ministers on their second or third wives so they are in no position to lecture. I’d ban sneering at lone mothers too. The mean message it sends to their children is: “There’s something wrong with your family and therefore something wrong with you.”

I’d forcibly narrow the gap between what women and men earn. It benefits children to have a strong relationship with both mother and father. But most new fathers can’t afford to take more than a few days off. It’s hard for fathers if they work all hours and end up missing out on the children. We should have Swedish-style paternity pay and time off. But I’d keep a careful eye out for spikes in the number of men taking family leave during the World Cup.

It’s hard for women to be equal at work if they take most responsibility at home. I’d have a real crackdown on employers who pay part-timers less and fail to give them promotion. All jobs should be advertised as being available part-time as well as full-time. And I’d back men who work part-time. Part-time workers should not be seen as second-class citizens. We all have a big stake in the next generation being brought up successfully.

I’d give grannies (and grandads) a right to time off work to care for their grandchildren. You can get help to pay a childminder, but not your own parents if they give up work to care for your children. The mother and father have a right to take leave when there’s a new baby. But what if the mother wants to go back to work and wants her parents to look after the baby? I’d rule that she could transfer some maternity leave to her parents as well as to the baby’s father.

I’d make childcare part of the welfare state and oblige all governments to guarantee childcare for all children whose parents want it. The woman teaching your children or treating you in hospital is probably someone’s mother. She should know that while she’s at work her child is safe, happy and learning.

I’d rule that there’s time off work for a parent of a sick child. No one wants a sick child to be at home alone—it’s against the law. If the mother or father is sick, they can get sick pay and leave. But if a child is sick there’s no right to either. Parents end up relying on their employer’s goodwill, or they lie and say they are ill.

People are working till they are much older. Often because they can’t afford to retire. But elderly relatives are living much longer and the years of frailty and potential loneliness are growing. We can’t leave elderly relatives to fend for themselves. Families provide vital support and company. But they shouldn’t have to choose between the care the elderly relative needs and the job they need. So there should be a right to flexible work for people caring for older relatives.

“We can’t afford it,” I hear you cry. We’ve never really tried. And bringing up children and caring for elderly relatives are so important. Instead of just lecturing them, it’s time we backed families.