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Last Updated: Sunday, 11 June 2006, 10:28 GMT 11:28 UK
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On Sunday 11 June 2006, Andrew Marr interviewed Harriet Harmon MP, Minister for Constitutional Affairs

Please note "BBC Sunday AM" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.

Harriet Harmon MP
Harriet Harmon MP, Minister for Constitutional Affairs

ANDREW MARR: Now the late Tory MP Alan Clark made no secret of the fact that when he was a minister he couldn't make much sense of the legislation he was proposing himself because the language used was far too obscure for ordinary people to understand.

Well, Harriet Harman to the rescue, in a move that Alan Clark would have welcomed, the first plain English legislation is being published tomorrow by the Constitutional Affairs Minister.

Harriet Harman, welcome.


ANDREW MARR: Now we're not going to talk about the details of the legislation published tomorrow. But explain to us how people who pick this up tomorrow will find it different from anything that's been published before.

HARRIET HARMAN: Well what it does is it has one side of the page is the legalese and then on the other side of the page, directly facing, it has ordinary English. So any person who's interested in the content of the Bill can actually read it and know what it means.

And I think that's important, not just so that Ministers and Members of Parliament, God help us, can understand the legislation we're debating, but also so that members of the public who otherwise find the debate which gets caught in cross currents of politics internally within parties, or between parties, but who actually want to know what the effect of the Bill is going to be, can actually read it for themselves instead of just listening to the political debate.

ANDREW MARR: And does this mean that the legal language goes? Presumably not, you have to have the legal language there so that judges interpret the law exactly as you would wish them to do?

HARRIET HARMAN: Well at the moment the legal language is there right alongside the plain English. But I do wonder just how much of the legal language we will find we need when we are actually able to legislate in English.

ANDREW MARR: There's hundreds of thousands of people out there with very, very high salaries depend upon it being obscure. You'll worry them greatly! But this is only part of your campaign to try and reconnect legislation or law-making a little bit more with the rest of us.

HARRIET HARMAN: Well it's to try to do government better. I mean one of the things that we say about Bills when we bring them forward, we say what the objective is. But I think that we should be prepared to test that amongst the people who actually are the subject of the Bill so that, for example, in this Bill we say it's to improve the experience of next of kin at inquests.

So what we're going to do is bring into parliament people with recent experience of inquests. They will be able to go through the Bill clause by clause, and of course they'll be able to understand it and read it. And they'll say what they think about it. And it was put to me within the Department but, supposing Minister, supposing they say the Bill is rubbish. And I said well if that is the case it might well be that they're right. I mean, we need to have public examination as well as parliamentary debate of Bills.

And the other thing is that we need to look at what the effect of Bills has been, we were talking about gun crime just a moment ago, is that we legislate, we say what our intention is, people say what their fears are and we say "don't worry it'll be absolutely fine". But what we're going to be doing is bringing Acts of Parliament back to Parliament and saying well let's see who was right. And if we were wrong and it needs amending we'll give Parliament an opportunity to amend it.

ANDREW MARR: You are much touted as somebody who might become Deputy Prime Minister in due course. And there's been a great debate as to whether or not there should be a woman at the top of the party. How important is that to you, do you think, or rather how important is to the Labour Party if that should happen?

HARRIET HARMAN: Well I think the question of women's representation is incredibly important. I mean women's lives have changed hugely. Instead of just being at home, bringing up the family, looking after elderly relatives, women are working as well. And that means a huge change in what is required from public policy.

Maternity pay and leave is a huge political issue, as is child care. And I think that what's important for a party who believes in equality is that we are a team of women and men. And I don't think women in the country will believe that there will be a guarantee for further improvement on child care and maternity leave and pay unless there's women up there pushing for it.

ANDREW MARR: So you're not stepping back at all from the idea there must be a woman somewhere near the top of the Labour Party leadership?

HARRIET HARMAN: Oh no I'm not stepping back from it at all. I mean obviously there's no vacancy at the moment. But this is a principle I've been putting forward with a number of my women colleagues for many decades. And you really don't get anywhere unless you challenge things.

I mean, when I was first a Member of Parliament there was 97% men in Parliament, only 3% women. And, you know, we kicked up about it and caused a row, and we've made some progress. We used to have all-male Cabinets, we used to have all-male Shadow Cabinets. And we only got there by protesting. So we're actually saying right at the top we need a team of women and men.

ANDREW MARR: And when there is a vacancy you'll stand for it?

HARRIET HARMAN: Well, we'll have to see, you know, that might be some way off.

ANDREW MARR: Do you think that the sort of, the macho attitude if you like, or the macho impression that's given by politics at the moment - I'm thinking, I have to say fairly obviously of the current holder of the DPM's office, John Prescott, and all of that, has done damage to the way the party and the government's seen in the electorate, particularly among women?

HARRIET HARMAN: Well I think that, I think we've done a huge amount of policy and we've brought about a huge amount of changes which make a difference in women's lives. And we have got more women in government and in the Cabinet than ever before.

But I think that we can't rest on our laurels, we've got to always be saying we need to make sure that we really do put women in the forefront. Because women outside of government, women outside of politics, need to know that there are women in there with the foot in the door, with the seat at the table, saying these issues are important.

ANDREW MARR: Your party, without being rude about it, is kind of about up to here in the brown sticky stuff if the polls are anything to go by. How important is it that we get a clear message from the Prime Minister soon about what he proposes to do?

HARRIET HARMAN: Well he's got to make his own decision about when he leaves office. He's said he won't stand again and he's said he wants a stable and orderly transfer. But I think - of power - but I think in the meantime it's for all of us to be getting on with our jobs and to making the arguments that we believe in.

ANDREW MARR: And you'd go along with Jack Straw would you, I can't remember what the phrase was, but bags of time, or something like that, before the next election for the new leader to get stuck in?

HARRIET HARMAN: Well I think it's a decision that Tony Blair himself has got to make and he said he wants, as I said, a stable and orderly transition. But in the meantime we're taking the opportunity of saying, let's not just assume that that stable and orderly transition is from one group of men to another group of men.

ANDREW MARR: It doesn't feel to many people like a stable and orderly transition at the moment. I mean, are you, people keep saying this phrase, it's become "the phrase", the mantra. And yet you look from the outside, it doesn't look stable, doesn't look orderly?

HARRIET HARMAN: Well it is an unprecedented situation, to have a Prime Minister going into an election saying he's not going to stand at the next one. Inevitably that causes speculation.

ANDREW MARR: All right, well we'll carry on speculating. Harriet Harman thank you very much indeed for joining me.


NB: this transcript was typed from a recording and not copied from an original script.

Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy

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