Barbara Follett was born in Jamaica and spent her early childhood in Britain and Ethiopia. In 1957, her family moved to South Africa where Barbara finished her schooling. She became involved with the anti-malnutrition charity, Kupugani, in 1966. By the 1970s she was managing its operations in the Cape and Namibia and directing its health education programmes nationally.
In the spring of 1978, Barbara moved to Britain after her ex-husband, the political philosopher Richard Turner, became one of the first victims of South Africa’s death squads.
In Britain, Barbara worked in management training, specialising in cross-cultural communication. She stood for the Labour Party in the 1983 and 1987 General Elections, and pioneered presentation training in the Labour Party. In March 1995 she was selected as Labour’s prospective parliamentary candidate in the marginal seat of Stevenage. Barbara was elected Member of Parliament for Stevenage in May 1997 and was re-elected in 2001 and 2005.
Barbara is a member of the research committee of the Fabian Society and is one of the four founder members of Labour Women’s Network. She also founded EMILY’S List UK in February 1993, a donor network dedicated to helping Labour women get selected – and elected – to Parliament.
In Parliament, Barbara served on and was Chair of a number of groups and committees. These included sitting on the Select Committee on International Development, as well as becoming Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on the Pharmaceutical Industry; Chair of the Eastern Group of Labour MPS and Joint Secretary of the Population, Development and Reproductive Health Group.
In June 2007 Prime Minister Gordon Brown made Barbara Minister for the East of England. Her experience as Chair of the Pharmaceutical APPG served her well as the East of England is home to approximately 50 percent of the UK’s pharmaceutical companies. Stevenage, Barbara’s former constituency, houses the GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) Research Centre, the largest of its kind in Europe.
As the MP for Stevenage and Minister for the East of England Barbara was instrumental in finding the funding to establish the Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst, a joint venture between the Department for Business Innovation and Skills; GSK; the Wellcome Trust and Innovate UK. This was finally approved just before Barbara stood down from Parliament in May 2010 and the Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst campus is now a major hub for early-stage biotechnology companies. Situated next to the GSK research facility in Stevenage, the campus provides smaller biotech and life sciences companies with access to the expertise, networks and scientific facilities traditionally associated with a multinational pharmaceutical company.
For the past eight years Barbara has been the Chief Executive Officer of the Follett Office which represents the interests of her husband, international bestselling author, Ken Follett. She maintains an active interest in the health and the pharmaceutical industry, with a particular focus on maternal health. She is a patron of Action on Pre-Eclampsia (APEC), a UK based charity that helps and supports women worldwide who have had or are worried about pre-eclampsia. Barbara became involved with APEC after discovering that pre-eclampsia was hereditary family condition which had killed a sibling she never knew, nearly killed the young Barbara, and later, daughter Kim and granddaughter Alexandra. She remains committed to women’s issues and is a member of the White Ribbon Alliance and the Abortion Rights Campaign.