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Wednesday 22 May 2024

Not holding back: Interview with Harriet Harman

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Graham Martin

Even those with little or no interest in politics have heard of Harriet Harman. One of the few current MPs who can legitimately be called a household name, she’s respected despite people’s political leanings, with even the then-Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron praising her “outstanding contribution to women’s rights” and questioning why she wasn’t Labour leader in 2015.

Harman became an MP in 1982, at a time when 97% of them were male. Over the last four decades, she says Parliament has “changed out of all recognition. You cannot be anything other than marginalised as one of only 3%, unless you’re Margaret Thatcher, but that’s another story.” 

"Parliament has changed out of all recognition since I became an MP"

She recalls: “We used to have a situation where it was frequently all-night sittings. Now we’ve got a proper day time sitting hours, we’ve got a nursery, we’ve got an independent complaints and grievance system, we’ve got rules against sexual harassment and enforcement of those rules, so I think there have been massive changes but there is still far to go.”  

For her, one of the big changes is “a lot more cross-party working amongst women, which there wasn’t when I was first there, for two reasons. Firstly because there were hardly any Conservative women MPs [and] secondly because I would have felt quite nervous about doing cross-party working. I was regarded with so much suspicion from so many on my side that if I was actually working with the Tories it’d be: ‘Look what happens when you get a women, she works with the Conservatives’ - there wasn’t enough trust and confidence in me. In order to work cross-party you’ve got to have a bit of confidence in your own place in an institution.”

Harman says she first saw change happening in 1997, when Labour formed its government and began its positive action programme: “100 Labour woman arrived, that’s when Parliament started to be properly representative. The women in parliament are now properly representative of women in the country.” Harman sees amongst the newer women MPs “a confidence I never had but wished I could have had in the 1980s. There were still so many men in parliament who felt that it was not a place for women - that I should be like their wives, at home looking after my husband, looking after my children… If anybody’s thinking that now they certainly wouldn’t dare say it… They are a critical mass and very clear that they’ve got a right to be there.”

Harman is arguably best known for her work campaigning for equal rights and is the author of what ultimately became the Equality Act in 2010. Harman says the Act “brought together all the progressive and important social attitudinal change that there had been in the past four decades and it made it the law - the standards that had to run across central government, local government, agencies and the private sector and people’s own individual behaviour. It basically brought the law up to date at a massive time of social change and progress”.

She feels the act was “solidifying a change that had been fought for outside of Parliament”, adding that the most “important thing about it is that it has endured. We brought it in in 2010 and it is still making a difference 14 years later. It’s still there helping people and organisations keep up standards and decency.”

With the benefit of hindsight, what would she also have included were she proposing the Act today? Had Labour not been, as Harman put it, “chucked out of government”, she would have wanted “to enforce the idea that that gender pay gap is narrowed. At the moment you can see it but there’s no regulatory mechanism to do anything about it. I’d like to see the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) have powers that other regulators have of setting targets for individual companies or individual sectors or public sector organisations, to say ‘This is what you pay gap is now, in two years it’s got to be this much less, in five years it’s got to be this much less. And if they don’t, they should be fined, because the EHRC is the only regulator that doesn’t have any fining powers - it’s too much to just leave it.” 

Harman confirms that she has made this suggestion to Labour’s review of the gender pay gap, launched in 2023 and led by former TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady and hopes it is taken forward. “The Equal Pay Act said ‘unequal pay is a bad thing’, the Equality Act said ‘and we’re going to look at what you’re up to’. The next thing needs to be ‘and we’re going to make you do something about it and fine you if you don’t’.” 

We speak at a time where equality, diversity and inclusion in the civil service is under a lot of scrutiny, including the government’s ‘value for money’ audit of civil service EDI spending. Unsurprisingly given her background, Harman states that she is “very much against the culture war approach which stigmatises ‘woke’ politics. The civil service has played a leading role amongst organisations in actually enabling women who’ve got childcare responsibilities to combine their parental responsibilities with their work by flexible working, by part-time working at senior levels. And that is actually very good for productivity, because it means you don’t lose the value of that part which is your female workforce… I’d like to see more men taking advantage of flexible hours. I want to see more progress on this, including active encouragement and enabling of men to be playing their part in the family on equal terms with women, which is not the case at the moment.”

An increasing issue for FDA members is ministers and MPs attacking civil servants in the media. Harman calls this “really worrying… I think that it’s partly based on government ideology of hostility generally to the public sector and partly as a way of shifting blame from its own failures onto the civil service.”

“It’s never acceptable for Government ministers to blame civil servants for their own failings.”

“It’s never acceptable for Government ministers to blame civil servants for their own failings.”
“Divisive actions like that undermine the things that really are important for the future like parliamentary sovereignty, like rule of law, like the impartiality of the civil service. Now is not the time to be undermining those, but all three of those are being undermined by the government. It’s been a very challenging time. Hopefully things will be better after the election, in many ways.”

So if the next General Election does lead to a Labour government, how does she think her party would do things differently? “One of the things I’ll look forward to with a Keir Starmer government is a real re-setting of and a real imbedding and understanding of those things, the rule of law, the sovereignty of parliament and the impartiality of the civil service, they are what we need to make the country successful for the future.” 

Harman herself experienced public attacks as Chair of the Privileges Committee, when she and other Committee members were harassed by Conservative MPs during the investigation into former Prime Minister Boris Johnson. It got so far as a Conservative MP, Laura Farris, feeling she needed to speak up for Harman in the House, stating that Harman was chairing the Privileges Committee “as a final act of service to the House, not as a personal vendetta against Boris Johnson”.

Harman said she “never felt it was a personal criticism, it wasn’t really about me – it was about people trying to protect Boris Johnson from accountability for his own actions and his words and I think that’s very dangerous. It’s particularly deplorable if it’s MPs doing that, because they are our codes – we wrote those codes – we all have a say in those and sign up to them. Basically they were trying to undermine the whole system and if you do that, then people are left with no enforcement or no sanctions for misleading parliament.

“It’s a bit like saying that you’re in favour of people abiding by the criminal law, but when somebody is in the dock who you support, you say the Court’s rubbish, the judge is rubbish, the jury is rubbish, the whole system’s rubbish, in order to try and undermine the outcome. It’s contempt of court to do that, and we actually said it was very much bordering on contempt of parliament what these MPs did. We named them in our subsequent report because they were impugning the whole process. [As MPs] they are part of the sovereignty of parliament, so if you support parliament you’ve got to support parliament’s rights to enforce its own rules. It’s not about limiting free speech of MPs – anybody can say in the House of Commons whatever they like about it - but they’ve got their right when it comes up for the proposal that there should be an inquiry, they’ve got their right to vote against it – none of them did. They’ve got the right to vote against the report – none of them did. So they should use the rights that they’ve got, rather than undermining.”

Harman says the Committee did not allow itself to be distracted and remained focused  only on the evidence. It would all be about the evidence, and that we would have to show our evidence, so that’s why we were transparent about everything. We’d publish what we thought the case was that Boris Johnson needed to answer in a special report so that everybody could see that, including him. We had his evidence in public - normally Standards inquiries were private - because we needed people to know that our questions were relevant and fair.”

While she’s content with the outcome, Harman feels this was “quite a dangerous moment, because if the Committee had been turned upside down then parliament would be left with a situation where a PM was able to lie to parliament, any other minister would be able to lie to parliament and there would be literally no sanction. That would have been a terrible moment for democracy. 

She feels that “the question of public trust and confidence is never just a one-off issue, we have got to constantly be looking to ensure that people do feel that they can have continued confidence in the parliament that they’ve elected. Parliament’s got to be powerful for people to have confidence in it, nobody’s going to have confidence if parliament is powerless. So basically the Privileges Committee asserting the right of power to be told the truth by the Prime Minister was a very important thing for the public to see, that Parliament does have powers and will exercise them, because nobody’s going to have confidence in a parliament that’s weak and can just be ridden roughshod over. But also, that the behaviour within it by individuals is of a high standard, so they need to see both things. They need to see properly exercised power to scrutinise and hold the government to account, and high standards of individual MPs and that effectively is really what we sign up for when we put ourselves forward for election.”

Harman shares that the Committee on Standards’ landscape review, considering the bodies and processes regulating MPs, is looking “at the inconsistencies between the Ministerial Code and the Code of Conduct for MPs.”

“At the moment, a Minister who bullies a civil servant on the parliamentary estate is in breach of the MPs’ Code, but if they do so half an hour later when they are back in their Whitehall office, they are not in breach of the Code. These are the kinds of inconsistencies the Committee is currently reviewing.”  We need to not just apply the standards that everybody else would expect in their workplace - we set the standards for other people’s workplaces so we need to be exemplars of good practice… The truth is, we are in a privileged position.”

Harman herself is stepping down as an MP at the next general election: “I’ve been there for more than 40 years and I’ve got a fantastic successor.” Part of her future plans are her role as chair of the Fawcett Society: “It’s the national organisation against sex discrimination and there’s still plenty of sex discrimination out there and therefore I’ll be very active.” 

As for assisting a new generation of MPs, she does say “I want to be available if people want advice and support”, but is very clear that she doesn’t “believe, though, in breathing down people’s necks and telling them to do it the way we did it. They’ve got to forge their own path.”

Harman straightforwardly states that would like to provide this support “hopefully from another place”, the parliamentary parlance for the House of Lords. “For years there’s been a culture, especially amongst women, of not saying what your aspirations are, and waiting for the tap on the shoulder. Of course, for most women, the shoulder tap goes straight beyond them into the man standing next to them. So I’m doing my bit for women’s assertiveness now by actually saying ‘Yes, I do want to get into the House of Lords.

“For years there’s been a culture, especially amongst women, of not saying what your aspirations are, and waiting for the tap on the shoulder, which of course goes to the man standing next to them"
“I think there have been a lot of times in my life where I’ve not put myself forward because I’ve wanted to not rock the boat and cause a row, but I’m not going to be doing that any more. I’m not going to be causing rows, but I’m not going to be holding back from saying what I think I need to do.”

An independent process?

Harman applauds the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme and the more independent process for complaints of bullying, harassment or sexual misconduct against MPs: “The FDA and Prospect have been very instrumental in ensuring that there is no impunity for bad, sexist behaviour from MPs or ministers or bullying and that the standards have been improved so I think that the whole processes have changed. That was a huge change, because if you had MPs investigating ourselves then that was very problematic.”

While the rest of the process is done independently – investigation, formulation of a proposal for a penalty – the decision on whether to enforce a sanction still remains with MPs. While the FDA would like the process to be fully independent, Harman has reservations: “If an MP is sentenced to prison they can be chucked out but otherwise the mechanism for chucking an MP out of parliament is with the voters… Parliament’s currently got the system where it can go back to the voters without waiting for a General Election under the Recall Act but I think that it would put an independent process in quite an invidious position if it had to make the final decision of chucking an MP out.”

Advice for a new minister

Harman is one of the few current Labour MPs who have previously held a role in government. She says the most important things for a new minister are “clarity and focus. Be clear about what you’re trying to do and then to be very open about it.” She’s quick to add that “You’ve got to walk the talk. If you’re trying to get certain things to happen you’ve got to be: ‘what you see is what you get’, otherwise you can’t sustain any confidence in what you’re trying to do and you’ve got no integrity.”

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