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The Equality Minister's speech to Conference

September 22, 2010 10:35 PM
Lynne Featherstone - London Pride 2010

Lynne Featherstone - championing LGBT equality at London Pride, in the Home Office and in Government

"And so conference, this is a new politics which has equality at its heart. An equality which sets people free, rather than imprisons them with rules. An equality for the future, which is driven by our liberal principles of the past."

Speaking at Liberal Democrat Autumn Conference today, Home Office Minister, Lynne Featherstone said:

Liberal Democrats.

I look around and I see the faces of so many friends, colleagues, Cabinet Members. Yes - I did just say that - Liberal Democrat members of the Cabinet.

Now conference, I was pretty clear at the time as to just what I thought of having an all male all pale team sent to negotiate on our behalves in May. Often for some of us women we get frustrated when we see mediocrity promoted above us.

But in this case, they weren't mediocre - our negotiating team did one hell of a job and I thank them all for their dedication and hard-work, but guys, no excuses next time!

Anyway - that's enough praise for the men …for the moment. As we race towards the future, I am conscious of our Liberal past. And I think of great female titans who are no longer with us.

Women like Nancy Seear, Margaret Wingfield, Laura Grimmond - who all held the torch of Liberalism for so long - through the darkest toughest days. I just imagine what they would have done with this great privilege that I have been given.

To be a Minister in the new Coalition Government - and to fight every day to set people free from inequality. I know that it is critical to all of you that this is not an opportunity wasted, but an opportunity celebrated.

Celebrated by the people we were elected to serve: The women to whom equality in the work place is still a pipe dream; the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender members of our community - who still feel defined by that identity, not their personality; the black and ethnic minority teenagers who are condemned daily by assumptions and prejudice

For these people my ambition is nothing short of a celebration. A celebration of equality finally becoming a reality. A reality that can only be realised with a new kind of politics.

And this is a new kind of politics, a new government, and a direct challenge - thank goodness - to the tired old ways.

We have created much confusion. We have also created some alliances even stranger than our own.

When Jack Straw, Norman Tebbit and John Prescott are united against us, we know only one thing. We must be doing something right.

Neither Labour nor the media know what to do with us. The media is obsessed with tensions and splits. And Labour's bitter scream of anger and entitlement is unimaginative and so predictable.

It's a no-brainer that there are differences between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. We are two separate parties. Working in partnership.

A professional working relationship - a far cry from the early, heady days of the Blair Brown partnership recently described by Tony Blair "Our minds moved fast and at that point in sync. When others were present, we felt the pace and power diminish, until, a bit like lovers desperate to get to love-making but disturbed by old friends dropping round, we would try to bustle them out, steering them doorwards with a hearty slap on the back."

Well anyone could have told them that wasn't going to last.

But conference, the old politics was always looking backwards. And today I want to look forward. Forward to a Britain no longer suffocated by state intrusion. Forward to a Britain where local and individual power is restored. Forward to a Britain where individuals can live how they like, and love anyone they choose.

The Labour party liked to claim that they were the party of equalities. But where I come from there is nothing equal about hoarding the DNA profiles of innocent people on a national database; there is nothing equal about high unemployment rates for people with disabilities; there is nothing equal about a child's life chances being determined by their parents' income.

No conference - after 13 years of a Labour government, this looks nothing like equality to me. What Labour did was turn equalities into a burden. It became a byword for bureaucracy and red-tape.

Less about liberation and more about frustration. And if ticking boxes and filling out forms led to equality, then Britain would be a utopia of fairness and optimism.

But it doesn't. And it isn't.

What Britain needs is a seismic cultural shift in the way people view and relate to each other. Let's be honest - people are still not free from the barriers of their place of birth, their sexuality, the colour of their skin.

But this will not be changed with lazy, short term thinking or shallow, headline-grabbing laws.

Nick Clegg told us that we must govern for the long-term. And I couldn't agree more. And ensuring that equality lasts for the long term means refusing to be sidelined and characterised as just "women's issues" or "gay issues".

Social mobility, education, work and pensions - these issues are at the heart of creating an equal society. And conference, we are already making huge strides towards this goal.

Last month I launched a consultation on the public sector equality duty. Public bodies have huge potential to create a fairer society through the way they deliver their services, the people they recruit, the training they offer.

But too often these bodies are sidetracked centralised targets - distracting them from the real goal- serving their local community in the best possible way.

Under our plans, these organisations will be free. Free to focus on the community they serve, not the Whitehall bureaucrat they fear. But in return they must be transparent.

Public bodies will have to publish a whole range of equality data - about their staff - about their services. Complete transparency, putting people in charge of the public bodies they pay for.

Because what really matters is not something complicated and expensive, but a service that is equal and fair.

One of my proudest moments so far in government was the launch at Number 10 of our action plan for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights. Civil partnerships were a great first step - but as we know, in the classic words often used at a Liberal Democrat conference.

This did not go far enough! In schools, in the workplace, in family life and in public life - I am committed to tearing down barriers.

In schools, we will tackle homophobic bullying. In the workplace, we will fight to end discrimination. In family life we will protect the rights of same-sex couples to raise children in stable and loving families.

We also recognise that transgender issues are often distinct and sometimes need to be addressed separately. That is why this government will be the first ever to produce an Action Plan on transgender equality.

But the greatest shift is that this government sees gay rights not only as a domestic issue, but in an international context. Homosexuality is still illegal in over 70 countries.

This is unacceptable.

And it is why we will use Britain's influence to push for a unified EU stance on LGBT rights. And we will go further and proactively question those countries who retain homophobic laws.

And while challenging homophobia abroad, we must get our own asylum laws in order. I was delighted when the Home Secretary welcomed the recent Supreme Court ruling on gay asylum.

A ruling which vindicated our commitment to stop the return of asylum seekers to countries where their sexual orientation puts them at proven risk of imprisonment, torture or even death. How can anything like that be tolerated in this day and age?

But as I said, conference, equalities is not an issue for one section of society only.

You must judge this government; indeed you must judge me, on whether we put equalities at the heart of every department.

And in this, I am so proud of the advances Liberal Democrats have already made in government.

Civil liberties - is an equalities issue. So we have scrapped ID cards and are committed to ending the detention of child asylum seekers.

Education - is an equalities issue. So we are introducing a pupil premium to target support to children who need it most.

Poverty - is an equalities issue. So we have taken 900,000 people out of income tax altogether.

But I know there are still many challenges ahead. And believe me, I won't rest after one or two or ten achievements. I will keep on fighting for fairness and equality where it doesn't exist.

And I will always be looking to you, conference, to guide me. We as party will not follow in the others' footsteps. We are in Government but that will not stop our conference and our policy making from being as radical and robust as ever.

And I am proud this tradition continues with the motion you passed yesterday calling for equal marriage. It is a sensitive matter, and while of course I absolutely respect the right to religious beliefs, I believe that equal rights should mean just that.

The same rights, not different rights.

Not an Orwellian Animal Farm where "all animals are equal but some are more equal than others". So I am working with those with a key interest in this issue about what the next steps should be.

And I want to thank you, Liberal Democrats, for continuing to inspire me. But perhaps the biggest challenge that we face as I stand here today is to ensure that while we work to reduce this broken balance sheet left to us by Labour the most vulnerable members of this society are not hit the hardest.

A society where the gender pay gap still stands at 20%. Where women lose their jobs, or don't get hired at all, because they have children. Where we still have a mountain to climb to achieve fair and flexible working

I saw a film recently called 'Made in Dagenham'. It is a fantastic film coming to a cinema near you October 1 - go see! Set in the sixties, it tells the story of brave women at the Ford factory in Essex, who walked out in protest against unequal pay.

Forty years later, it's a tragedy and a travesty that we are still fighting the same battles. But these women should be an inspiration to us all. Like all of you here today, they refused to accept the status quo. They refused to accept that the way things are, is the way things have to be.

And this is a principle that has always driven Liberals. What these pioneers showed us was that government will take us only so far.

But it is you, the people, who have the power to demand change. And how will you know that this change has finally happened?

When you walk into a boardroom and half the Directors are women. When a man, other than Nick Clegg, dropping his kids at the school gates is considered the norm, not the exception. And when Jeremy Clarkson ditches the career in telly to take up equalities training in Leeds.

Government can't force people to change. But it can enable them to change.

This is why Vince Cable and Ed Davey are working so hard in the Department for Business to extend the right to request flexible working to all employees.

It is why Sarah Teather is driving work on child poverty in the Department for Education

It is why Nick Clegg announced that the government will refocus its aid efforts to put the lives of women in developing countries at its heart.

And there are many more issues that affect women's - and for that matter men's - confidence and ability to succeed.

Narrow ideas of beauty, distorted and propagated by the media, puts endless pressure onto young boys and girls that can lead to low self-esteem, depression and eating disorders.

This is why Jo Swinson and I co-founded the Campaign for Body Confidence - and I want to applaud Jo for working so tirelessly to champion this cause.

And we are already having an effect! Debenhams is no longer using airbrushed models in any of its marketing materials, and Channel 4 has launched its own campaign against airbrushing.

And I will be hosting a government roundtable to drive forward these issues. Whilst we're on the subject of confident women - Miriam - can I thank you for doing us all proud during the election campaign.

You refused to take any nonsense - from the media or indeed (I suspect) from your husband! You did what so many others have to do, you carried on with the day job and we salute you for it!

And so conference, this is a new politics which has equality at its heart. An equality which sets people free, rather than imprisons them with rules. An equality for the future, which is driven by our liberal principles of the past. And it is from the past, from another one of our very own titans, that I would like to end.

In 1945 Violet Bonham-Carter said "A Britain without Liberalism would be a Britain that has lost its soul."

Well we've taken our time, but we are finally back. But we must be back with a purpose - and that purpose is to put the soul back into Britain. I can't think of a greater challenge, or a finer reward, than the fight for equality for everyone in Britain.

For the child who deserves a better future; for the woman who demand equivalent pay; for the gay man who expects to be treated as an equal; for all the others who are left out by a society that needs to change.

That is my goal. That is our shared vision. That is Liberal Democracy in action in Government.

Thank you conference.