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Cherie Blair interview transcript

On the Politics Show, Sunday 1 March 2009, Liz Lane, Louise Brooke Smith and Denise Christie interviewed the former prime minister's wife, Cherie Blair...

The Cherie Blair interview...

Interview transcript...

DENISE CHRISTIE: Well Cherie, thanks very much for agreeing to meet us. Obviously we realise your time is very precious.

CHERIE BLAIR: Well it's great, cos I usually ask the questions, so I'm delighted …


DENISE CHRISTIE: … it's going to be quite a friendly, hopefully a friendly conversation. Erm, the first thing I would like to ask you is woman's inequality, you know it's not new thing, but you know, what we wonder about is the effects that the recession is going to have on the equality agenda. What's, what's your views on it.

CHERIE BLAIR: Well, I think you know, like everything else, it's a challenge but it's also an opportunity; clearly it's a challenge because as people lose their jobs, the question is women have come in to the job market so much, over the last twenty, thirty years, are they going to be the first victims of the recession.

WOMAN: Yeah.

CHERIE BLAIR: But it's also an opportunity erm, you often find in, in times when things are going bad, that people are more prepared to take a chance and give a woman a chance. We were, we were talking sometimes about you know, it's often when business is, is in a crisis and its trying to recruit somebody new and then men maybe think well, I don't, I don't know whether I want to touch that and this can often be an opportunity for a woman to come in and make a difference.

LOUISE BROOKE-SMITH: I think that, it leads in quite nicely, cos in this day and age, it's nearly forty years since the Equal Pay and Sex Discrimination act. (interjection)

CHERIE BLAIR: I know, I, I, I remember, I was a law student, I was a law student at the time. I spent my entire life in employment law.

LOUISE BROOKE-SMITH: How is it, in today's days, how is it that some employers can and do still treat staff unfairly and I'm thinking particularly when it comes to women's pay.

CHERIE BLAIR: Well, absolutely. We know don't we that despite passing the 1970 Act, which didn't come in to force for five years, in order to make sure that there was equality, here we are, so many years on, and there's still only a (interjection) … well no, we're not at the same place, there's 17% difference between men and women's pay. Now that's better for example than in America, where the difference is, is bigger than that; it's over 20, I think it's about 23, 24%. It's better than, than in many other countries, but if you, if you look at Scandinavia or the places where we think equality has been achieved, there is, there's a problem that around 17% we seem to get stuck … (interjection) …

LOUISE BROOKE-SMITH: … (overlaps) … part time it's 36% and most women, who are working work part time.

CHERIE BLAIR: And that, that, that, that is one of the, the reasons of course why the latest legislation has been looking at trying to get equality for part-time workers and indeed that's what we do. But you know, I'm a lawyer and absolutely think we have to have these laws and the laws can make a difference and I've done cases that have helped make that difference, but at the end of the day, the law is only part of changing a culture. And that's a harder task.

DENISE CHRISTIE: When we came together from, of different backgrounds etc. we looked at what our ideal manifesto would be. Erm, and one part of … it came up with compulsory pay audits…and what is your view on that?

CHERIE BLAIR: I think that (fluffs), that this is, this is the latest thing. I know the government has very much been er, been looking in, in to that and the whole questions is as so many times, women don't even know that they're being disadvantaged, this is particularly true in, in places where you're getting bonuses and, and people - I don't know, we don't have a culture about talking about our pay in Britain and that can … (interjection)

DENISE CHRISTIE: (overlaps) … that's because there's a lot of clauses and some, some businesses saying that you can't ….

CHERIE BLAIR: And the result of that is of course, that a lot of things can, can, can happen that people don't even know about. Now we're lucky because in our country, if in fact you are the victim of equal pay and you don't find out erm, you can still bring a case. Now in America, just recently, just recently, the Supreme Court made, made a decision which said that a woman who discovered she wasn't getting equal pay, because she hadn't brought the case in the time.

WOMAN: Yeah.

CHERIE BLAIR: Couldn't …

WOMAN: Out of time.

CHERIE BLAIR: … it was out of time and as a result of that, the first thing what President - the first Act that President Obama signed, was an Act which over-turned that ruling of the Supreme Court. Our courts, took a different view when that problem arose and said, No, it's a continuing act of discrimination therefore, so long as you're continuing to be paid less, then you can still bring a claim, so to that extent, we did better in Britain.

LIZ LANE: Well, as you've said, it's been a long time since that Act in 1970, you know, it's nearly forty years. Erm, how depressing is it that in 2009, we're still talking about glass ceilings, we're still talking about equal pay and our training issues, and that's a big one for me in particular.

CHERIE BLAIR: Well I think we, we, we have to put this in perspective and not think too depressed because when you think of the progress that was, that was made; we were talking before for example about er, the problems of women now wanting to make sure they keep a roof over the head of their children, well, in the 1970s when my mother was trying to raise a mortgage, having been abandoned by my father for many years, getting her own job, before 1975, she couldn't get a mortgage unless she had a man to sign for her. Now woman at least (interjection) … so that's progress. There's now plenty of women can, can raise the money for mortgages. As for, for the question of the culture, I think we have to understand of course that, there - there are some compromises to be made. You know, I've made, I made compromises with my career and I'm sure all of you - and why, why are those compromises to be made, because of motherhood essentially and, and what we have to do is to do something that enables parenthood to be something that doesn't destroy a career, that people can come in and out of the job market. I think now what we've got to concentrate on is how do we allow people to balance their work and family life. How we allow them, how we, how we understand that people's employment patterns aren't the same over a thirty to forty year period of employment and that there may be times when you may want to concentrate more on, on work and other times when you're going to want to have erm, more time for your family, but that doesn't mean that across a whole lifetime of someone's experience … (interjection)

LIZ LANE: There's so many different issues there I think ….

CHERIE BLAIR: Yeah but that isn't just for women actually, actually, a funny thing is it happens to men too. And one of the interesting thing is we all talk about childcare but one of the other challenges is of course, looking after elderly parents and caring. Whilst everyone thinks childcare is a woman's issue, I don't think people realize how many men are involved in caring either whether its for parents or sometimes for their wives or children who are disabled. I mean you know it's not just a woman's issue.

DENISE CHRISTIE: The issues that you're touching on … for me things like … flexible working etc. … it's been reported recently in the media, know that the government are looking to retreat on these promises of better … better flexible working, equal pay audits. How do you think that we can campaign you know, to actually improve that, rather than making government retreat against it?

CHERIE BLAIR: Well, I think that one of the great achievements of these, this, the last ten, eleven years now of, of a Labour government is what we've actually done in these areas. It's been a really er, important journey which has opened up opportunities. You talk about the right to request flexible working. Remember it's only a right to request. (interjection) it's not a right to … (interjection) …to insist. But the interesting thing is there was a lot of speculation as to how this would work out in practice. In fact, first of all, so many more people applied than anyone ever contemplated. Secondly, 80% of the people who asked for flexible working, come to an arrangement with their employers without any problems at all. And then, on top of that, erm, then - there's another, I think it's about, we get … the remainder of only 7% when there's problems there, I can't do the maths exactly, it's about 13%. But we actually come to an arrangement whereby compromises will be made, so first of all, 80% of the cases the employer says yes, another 17% of the cases, they reach - sorry, 13% they, they reach agreement, and then there's only a few cases where they may actually end up going, going to a tribunal. So I think what that shows is that actually, co-operation and cooperative …. (interjection)

DENISE CHRISTIE: There has been, I mean that's a … there has been a commitment to existing maternity rights, well there was from 39 weeks … there was also a commitment to increase .. 2010, to fifty two weeks. Now again, reports, seem to retracting from that. I'm, I'm in agreement with increasing maternity rights but I think that you have to increase the pay along with it, otherwise … it becomes a rich woman's policy … the woman two years of - but if she can't afford to take that time off, then you know, it's no use to them. I mean what's your views on that?

CHERIE BLAIR: Well I think when we're talking about, as I said before, the crunch time often comes for women, is when you start a family. I think the first thing we have to realize is that that isn't just a personal issue. You know, as a country, we need to encourage motherhood, we need to encourage parenthood, we need to encourage good upbringings for our children. We all have an investment in that, and therefore we have to take the long term view of that. Now, when I started er, you know, I went in to you know this masculine profession, the law, when so many women would drop out because it was just so difficult. I was so determined to prove that I could be a barrister and have my children. But you know, I took hardly any maternity leave at all … (interjection)

LIZ LANE: … (overlaps) cos a lot of women in law are like that ….

LOUISE BROOKE-SMITH: I can sympathise with that …

DENISE CHRISTIE: I, I think that's wrong message.

CHERIE BLAIR: At the time, I thought I'm really striking a blow here for women's equality. Looking back, I think actually all I was doing was reinforcing the system. I mean with Leo decided that I would actually … (interjection)

WOMAN: Take your time out.

CHERIE BLAIR: Take the time out.

DENISE CHRISTIE: Which is great to see.

LOUISE BROOKE-SMITH: That was your choice.

LIZ LANE: … women out there that can't afford to do that and they end up going back to work very quickly. They can't afford to …

CHERIE BLAIR: You touch it, cos it's easy for me to say that because I have a, I have a job which enables me to pay for really good child care and the key to this I'm sure - is, I'm convinced, is absolutely well-funded, well-resourced childcare and that involves… (interjection)

DENISE CHRISTIE: Good quality, affordable child care ….

CHERIE BLAIR: … respecting the workers, who actually work in the childcare industry as well.


LIZ LANE: I live in Cornwall. It's a very beautiful place, lovely holiday destination, but the reality is we work down there for very, very low wages and erm, a couple of years ago, looking in to childcare for my son, I'd be looking at earning 50p an hour. It's no incentive and I've never been unemployed. But no incentive there, so really is, issue that has to be pushed forward.

CHERIE BLAIR: Now and that's why the government has done things like the - it used to be called Sure Start and … (interjection)

WOMAN: Sure start. Yeah.

CHERIE BLAIR: … now we have the children's centres now - and I used to go around when I was married to the Prime Minister, I used to open a lot of these centres and I've seen some fantastic schemes in very deprived areas … (interjection)

LIZ LANE: There's pockets, there's areas, there's pockets where they're really looked after and areas of neglect


CHERIE BLAIR: … cos a lot of these schemes were in urban areas.

LOUISE BROOKE-SMITH: I'd like to do a reality check here and there is a need for a reality check here. As an employer, I need to make sure that my business rides the storm of this recession. Is this the wrong time to be concentrating on equality matters? Companies, particularly small businesses are having to make some very, very difficult decisions, with regard to staffing levels, redundancies, flexible working. What are your thoughts? How, how can we as employers, balance things?

CHERIE BLAIR: I absolutely agree with you. There is a real challenge for smaller employers. To some extent, bigger employers have more flexibility if you like, to take this, to take the slack. However, I also think that one has to remember that small employers tend to be closer to their workforce in the first place, and they have a personal relationship and I think because of that, they also inspire personal loyalty and I think that way, they often want to help and support their employees and their employees also feel much more (interjection) … a commitment to them. And you know, every time we look at what, what is the key, you know, where is Britain going to go in the 21st century, given that we have higher wage level, we're not going to go back to an economy that's based on people earning very low levels; it has to be about getting the best out of our workforce, using the talent of our people, and that's about, it's a co-operative venture between employers and employees.

LOUISE BROOKE-SMITH: Our view is that we … people and the staff, we're - we haven't got a business without the people who are working in the business. So, you respect the people in the business.

CHERIE BLAIR: And therefore, you have someone who contributed to your business, you've put a lot of money in to them and then they become pregnant …

LOUISE BROOKE-SMITH: You support them.

CHERIE BLAIR: … you support them because you want them to come back, they actually will come back more committed and I - one of, one of the keys to this also is that we need to make sure we keep in touch with women when they're on maternity leave. It shouldn't necessarily mean that out of sight is out of mind. There are still ways of making …


CHERIE BLAIR: … people feel that they belong in, in, in the, in the company environment.

DENISE CHRISTIE: Let them know want to know about promotion prospects, let them know about any … where they can come back ….

CHERIE BLAIR: Yeah, keeping in touch is a really, really good idea.

WOMAN: It's a positive thing.

CHERIE BLAIR: It's actually something …


LOUISE BROOKE-SMITH: Course it is, particularly in this current environment.

CHERIE BLAIR: But that's, that's what I'm saying to you. Let, let's be realist here, we cannot have it all and there are always trade offs. When I, I said to you I didn't take my mat, my maternity leave, erm, but but because - I was self-employed anyway, it wasn't actually as I was entitled to any, cos I didn't get any benefits. Erm, but when I went back and, and worked, the fact was, whereas my male colleagues who didn't, who had a wife at home looking after the children, their careers went like that. My career went there - and then it kind of plateaued a bit while I had my children, but, you know, I was still on that plateau and then I was able to go up again.

DENISE CHRISTIE: Did you feel a difference between having your first child and going back really quick after (fluffs) after you'd had your first child and your second child, the second time out, a bond. Did you feel a difference?

CHERIE BLAIR: Funnily enough, I probably, I took longer with my first child than my second child, because by the time I had my second and my third child, I had my child care arrangements in place. For, for when I had my first child, of course I didn't, I mean I, you know, I, I didn't come from a family who had ever employed a nanny before. You know, my grandma and my mother you know, they managed the child care between, between the two of them. So, just even sorting that out was a, was a new experience.

DENISE CHRISTIE: But you can see the positives of taking time out to have a family you know and bonding with that, that child …


DENISE CHRISTIE: Just to maybe diverse a bit. Erm, one of the questions that I was quite keen erm, to ask you was that - do you think the banking industry would be a different place if there were more women at the top?

CHERIE BLAIR: Well, you're asking the wrong person there. Of course I'm biased, I come, I come back to the, the whole thing that we said is that, I don't think that women are better than men. But I, I don't think they're the same as men either. I actually don't think, yeah, we're, we're different, but that's actually what makes life more interesting and actually, I think all society works better when women and men, with their complementary skills, come together ...

WOMAN: Yeah.

CHERIE BLAIR: .. from a position of equality. So that there's equal respect.

WOMAN: Yeah.

CHERIE BLAIR: And, and research tends to show, if you look, the, the boards that have …

DENISE CHRISTIE: Diverse workforce….

CHERIE BLAIR: even on the Board, diverse people on the Boards, tend to do better in return and the, the money that's invested in them, than Boards that all full of dare I say it, white males in suits.


LOUISE BROOKE-SMITH: You know, it's working in the construction industry, property industry, it's shown to be the successful way forward. So.

CHERIE BLAIR: And when you look as well, look at all these industries where women actually make the decisions. It's like the car industry, for example, you know, they have all these sort of male orientated adverts and then actually research shows it's the woman who usually takes the decision on the car.

WOMAN: Oh yeah.

WOMAN: Yeah.

DENISE CHRISTIE: And I think in order for, you know for them to get … good policies and place in order for her to excel and get promoted through that company or through that business.

CHERIE BLAIR: But I think a key to that you see is about er, networks and mentoring. Because I think women erm, there are so many women who would like to help other women and I think that if you can make opportunities for women to come together and to share experiences, that can make a real difference and when, when I was er, a young barrister, I benefited from mentors. Now they happened to be men because when I was starting, you know, you'd, you'd look hard to find a woman role model, though there were some but these days there are lot more women who can help mentor other women and you know, it's nice to have someone you can sit down to and say, you know, what do, what do you do when you're just about to go to a meeting and the school rings up and says, I'm really sorry but your child has got, You know, he's crying cos he's got a tummy ache and that happens to be the day …

WOMAN: …You're doing a big presentation.


WOMAN: You deal with it.

CHERIE BLAIR: Well you do deal with it. That's what make us such good managers.

LIZ LANE: Can I take you back to, you, you kind of touched on yourself but you've juggled with children and work and you've been very successful with your law and you actually dabbled in a bit of politics yourself. What advice would you give to women that are looking to go back to work after children.

CHERIE BLAIR: Well I think certainly, do what's right for you. Secondly, don't feel guilty. You know, we are so good at beating ourselves up. You know, we think oh god, you know, I'm not doing, I'm not being a good enough mother, I'm not being a good enough - at work. For some reason, men don't seem to have these anxieties. They …

LIZ LANE: No we take it all on board ourselves.

CHERIE BLAIR: And I think the … is actually, always remember that there should be some time, a little bit of time that's just me time.

LIZ LANE: Just for you.

CHERIE BLAIR: Just for you and I think that's, that's the thing I found the hardest and I think most mums do. If something is going to give, it's going to be the me time, but actually, you do need that to give you the strength to carry on.

LIZ LANE: It would be nice also doing a job you enjoy.


CHERIE BLAIR: I am so lucky because I have a job that even thirty, even thirty years on, I'm still enthusiastic about. I get a buzz out of and I know that there are so many women, as you say, like my mother when she was abandoned by her husband with no money. Had to go and work in a fish and chip shop, you know, this is … (interjection)

LIZ LANE: I've done that.


CHERIE BLAIR: Of course my grandmother, … my grandfather broke his hip in a shipping accident. She went out and cleaned floors. How lucky am I, because I had the education that I've got a job that I don't have to make those sorts of decisions. I have a job that stretches me and makes me want to get up in the mornings.

LOUISE BROOKE-SMITH: Can I ask a question, which is slightly, a slightly different question. You've suffered I think, in the eyes of the media and you've acknowledged that in your book. Do you think there's a cultural bias against successful women?

CHERIE BLAIR: I think we're still not used to the idea of success - of successful women and that's where I, I think - the more women we see, the more women are visible, it, it's, it's - I think in everything that we see it's, it's, it's the volume that matters so you know, you don't change the law by having one woman who becomes a QC. The first woman QC breaks through a ceiling, but it's only when you get, you know, research seems to show 20% or 30%, that you're actually really changing a culture and erm, changing that culture doesn't just benefit women, it actually benefits everybody.

DENISE CHRISTIE: You know there is a concern I think that women asking for you know, equality rights, flexible work in Britain, better maternity pay will be discriminated by employers and especially in this recession and for actually - for years, women, you know we've fought for these equal rights, we've fought for the flexible working, the good child care and now in this day and age in this recession, you know, there's, there's kind of a concern that they will be discriminated against the … put an extra burden basically on the, on the business.

CHERIE BLAIR: Well I think one, one of the things that I know from doing these cases, employment law cases, is that actually, we shouldn't under-estimate erm, what courage it takes actually, to take a case against your employer. Many women of course, do that in context of dismissal, so what they - they're no longer in the job, which is hard enough. But it's even harder if you're bringing a sex discrimination case or an equal pay case because you're still working.

WOMAN: Yeah.

CHERIE BLAIR: In that environment and that doesn't always necessarily er, make for an easy partnership at work, so we, we need to be really grateful for, for the brave women who've actually said, I'm going to do this and stand up for my rights …. (interjection)

DENISE CHRISTIE: Do you think that will increase then because of the recession, do you think that, that these cases that you're saying … do you think there'll maybe be an increase in that?

CHERIE BLAIR: Well, I think that we have to, but then I'm an optimist. I think we could see things differently this time. We've had other recessions at a time when we're still very early on in our employment rights, when the, the workforce wasn't that diverse as it is before. Now we've had thirty years of proving actually, that it's not just that are an optional extra in the, in the workforce, but they make a difference, they bring something extra to the table, and they have a lot to offer and I think the intelligent employer, the ones who actually want to weather this storm, are going to make decisions about er, how to do that er, with a, with a background of knowledge which maybe we didn't have in, in the past. And so I, I think that we, we, we've shown that we're worth it and that that will make a difference in the future… (interjection)

LIZ LANE: So does that make you feel positive about the future of working women?

CHERIE BLAIR: I absolutely think so. I think that erm, when you look at all the progress that has been made for women now, and I look at the difference in my own life to my mother and my grandmother. I think one of the keys to this is the fact that women have their economic independence, that they're no longer seen as a burden on their fathers or a burden on their husband or even a burden on the children. They're seen as, as contributors in their own right and once you've … (interjection)

LIZ LANE: … if we have the wage.

CHERIE BLAIR: That's, that's the society that we want them to build and that's the society - we have to say to our daughters, erm, don't lose sight of this. Don't - just remember where we came from and don't let those precious, hard won rights, that women really fought for go to waste.

LOUISE BROOKE-SMITH: The main reason why I contacted The Politics Show, … why we're all here.


LOUISE BROOKE-SMITH: What are your views on positive discrimination and has it done more harm than good.

CHERIE BLAIR: Well, of course it depends on what you mean by positive - positive discrimination is one of these phrases that people use. If it means … you chose someone who's not qualified for the job, because they're a woman, then it's a bad thing. But, is that what it really means or does it mean actually, what I would see is actually looking at the qualities you need for a job and by and trying to work out what the competencies are - that's a, I'm afraid that's a jargon of employment trade … What actually are the skills and if you look at jobs and look at the skills, rather than looking at a job and having in your mind a picture of what the worker looks like, which tends to be, as I was saying, particularly as you go higher up the chain - white, male erm, middle class, then I think women can be more fairly judged because if you actually look about what the skills are needed, then you may well find that women are qualified for the job and it's just you haven't been realizing, what those qualities are.

WOMAN: This is the final question from me Cherie, at the moment it feels like the government are only listening to what businesses have got to say, what we'd like to know is who do you think in government would listen to our concerns and do you think they would be onside with our views.

CHERIE BLAIR: Listen, I definitely think that the government has actually shown through its actions over the last ten, eleven years, that it has taken this agenda seriously and we have implemented proposals for that. You're going to speak to Harriet Harman, she's been in this field for ages and I'm sure she, she will (interjection) What I think made the difference is that in '97, for the first time ever, we had over a hundred women in parliament. You know, in 1979, there were more MPs in parliament called John, than there were women, That was the year we had a woman Prime Minister. '97 was the first time that we actually had women in any volume in parliament.

LIZ LANE: And we will have more.

CHERIE BLAIR: And I believe that's one of the reasons why things have changed, because they were reflecting the priorities of 50% of the nation. I actually think it's probably 51% of the population, but we won't go there.

WOMAN: Okay, finally, just a quick one for you Cherie. Do you think Gordon Brown is doing a good job.

CHERIE BLAIR: Of course I do. (laughs)

WOMAN: you're gonna say that


CHERIE BLAIR: … the Labour Government is doing a good job too!


WOMAN: Just to finish up. We all appreciate the time you've taken out. We've .. a visit.

CHERIE BLAIR: Oh that's a pleasure, I've enjoyed talking …


DENISE CHRISTIE: … it's been great. Some of the views and that you've said have been great and you know, just go out there and, and … you know fight for these equal rights, these flexible working ….

LIZ LANE: … with us. We know that your circumstances are totally different to mine, but you're with us on that …

CHERIE BLAIR: No, absolutely. … my circumstances weren't that different and I got lucky. And I could bore for England on it. I've just got lucky, as I said, I just got lucky and I got those opportunities.


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The Politics Show Sunday 1 March 2009 at 12:00 GMT on BBC One.
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