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Harriet Harman interview

On the Politics Show, Sunday 18 May 2008, Jon Sopel interviewed Harriet Harman, MP, Leader of the Commons

Harriet Harman, MP
Harriet Harman, MP, Leader of the Commons

JON SOPEL: The Leader of the House of Commons, Harriet Harman is with us in the studio, as are Bob and Jude.

Both of you, thank you very much for doing this viewer's panel and Harriet Harman, welcome to the Politics Show.

This is their panel of recommendations which we'll happily hand to you.

I know we've discussed some of them, are they recommendations you could sign up to?

HARRIET HARMAN: Well they've very interesting, very interesting and I mean I'd be happy to talk through each one of them but I think it's been a very, a very good process.

JON SOPEL: Yeah, and just on that one about the, you were able to claim 250 worth of expenses without a receipt, now it's 25.

Anyone, in any walk of life, where ever they are, even if they have to put in a claim for 2.50 for a cup of coffee, you have to provide a receipt. Why should MPs be different?

HARRIET HARMAN: Well I think it was recognized that the 200 figure was, was too high and therefore bringing it down to 20.00 was a reasonable and sensible thing to do.

I think the thing is, that if you go out and buy a notepad or a new set of pens, is it worth the public expense of actually looking through all of those individual receipts.

I think there is an argument for stronger auditing of what we do so that basically you keep all the information yourself, and that there could be spot checks or something like that. I think that ?(interjection)

JON SOPEL: I suspect there are ? (overlaps)

HARRIET HARMAN: I think you should have to prove it.

JON SOPEL: What do you guys think of that.

JUDE: What concerns me is why you see, feel that you should be any different to the rest of us in terms of receipts.

All my working life I've had to produce a receipt for everything that I do, to do my work.

HARRIET HARMAN: Well I think some private companies, they've got a level below which if you're only buying something that's worth a very small amount, you don't have to put in the receipt, but there is a question about the cost of going through all of these receipts, which is a genuine question because in terms of the amount it costs to run the House of Commons, do you want an army of people going through receipts for something that cost 3.50 or would you rather pay the House of Commons cleaners more, or would you rather have better, more people in the House of Commons research department, in the library.

So I think that it's you know, at the end of the day, you've got to get a cut off point and the question is, where there's a reasonable cut off point. I mean we do have to have public confidence on it, that is very important.

JUDE: And the cost of that can't be measured ? .(interjection)


JUDE: So what we don't want is carte blanche payments with little or no scrutiny, which is what we've had.

HARRIET HARMAN: I think if people, if MPs keep their receipts themselves, but they don't necessarily have to submit it, then if there is a suspicion that all these 20s have been adding up and somebody has been up to no good, then at least they've got to have the information there, for it to be checked.

For it to be routinely put in, all the time, I think that that might be more expensive than was worthwhile.

JON SOPEL: Bob, I know you had a specific question that you wanted to ask.

BOB: Yeah. Shouldn't there be a complete ban on MPs employing members of their own family?

JON SOPEL: Well, at the moment, there isn't a ban but what there is is a requirement now, that you have to disclose it, so that it has to be made public, there's a register and MPs have to say if they're employing a member of their family.

I mean what happened was, that - I mean lots of MPs employ family members some of whom are working at below the rate they could employ, the could get in the outside world, and work incredibly hard. But there is a question about public trust and confidence because one particular MP, Derek Conway, was you know clearly abusing the system and giving money to his family, when they weren't working hard for it and that was an abuse of public funds.

So, I think we've now to a situation where it's transparent, it's been put in the open, but the question of whether or not there should be an outright ban, is something which you know, is subject to this review that's happening at the moment, which is going to - a decision is going to be made by July.

I think on the one hand, it seems a bit arbitrary to say you can't employ your relatives, but on the other hand, it doesn't, people wouldn't think it was a fair recruitment process.

JON SOPEL: Let me give you another specific. What about this idea of MPs not being able to earn outside of what they get as their salary for an MP. I mean some of the MPs are earning eye-watering sums of money, outside of parliament.

HARRIET HARMAN: Well I employ three extremely hard-working members of staff in my office, doing - helping me with my case-work for my constituents.

If they had other jobs on the side, which say paid them an extra hundred thousand pounds, I would have a question mark in my mind, as to whether they were really working for me and I notice that that is one of your recommendations about outside work, and I think that that's something genuinely we should look at.

I think there's two questions about that: one is, what are people getting when they're paying MPs additionally, you know, is it influencing them in a way that it shouldn't, they should only be influenced to represent their constituents and the second it ? (interjection)

JON SOPEL: So you're in favour of that.

HARRIET HARMAN: ? are they really focused.

JON SOPEL: Let me just push you. You're in favour of that?

HARRIET HARMAN: Well, I think that there is a lot to recommend, I think people would be more confident if they know that MPs are focused only on their MP job, not actually distracted by earning lots of money to do something else.

JON SOPEL: Now this whole business of second homes has been taken to the High Court by the Commons Authorities, by the Speaker.


JON SOPEL: I know you wanted to ask ?

JUDE: Yes, I wanted to ask you, how you can justify the two hundred thousand pounds of public money that's been spent preventing disclosure.

HARRIET HARMAN: Well, the main reason that the House of Commons Authorities appealed was about the question of addresses because there is a question, I mean we've just lost in the High Court and there will be - consideration of the judgment it only happened at the end of last week, and next week there will be a decision about what to do about it.

But this is the argument we made and lost in the court, which is, that if MPs have got flats in London, you know, if you've got a constituency in Scotland or North Wales, you have to have somewhere to live in London when you're, you know, working in Westminster and voting in the House of Commons, and when the House is not sitting, during the summer recess or something like that, then everybody would know that if your address is printed, they'd know that your flat was empty and there's also a security issue, that is one block for example, where I think about seventeen MPs all live in this block and it makes them a bit of sitting target if it's all published and the other people in the block are saying, we don't want it published that actually, we've got seventeen MPs in our block.

JON SOPEL: Okay, you've made your point.


HARRIET HARMAN: because it makes us feel unsafe? well we lost in the court I'm afraid but that's our argument.

JUDE: Do you think you will appeal.

HARRIET HARMAN: I, I think we've got to look at the judgment and make a decision about that. The judgment is quite a long and detailed one and we'll have to look at it and take legal advice, but I think it was worth that money, to actually put forward the argument to the court, that there is a security issue here and in what other walk of life, I mean police chiefs don't have their addresses, where they're living in the papers.

JON SOPEL: Doesn't it ?


HARRIET HARMAN: I know it looks as if we're trying to just be, trying to take money and not be prepared to be open about it, but I think it's not about the amount, it's the addresses that was key issue for us.

JUDE: But there are lots of other legal resources that you can use to find out where MPs live. Go to your local library.

HARRIET HARMAN: Well, if MPs, in London, there isn't, there isn't a place that you can find out where, where MPs live in London. In their constituency, you can, because they have to declare it when they actually are standing for election, but I think it's different if people are at home and you know, in their own communities than if they're living on their own, in London and their address is made public.

JON SOPEL: Bob, a final point from you.

BOB: If you fail in this review, getting it right, aren't the public just going to become more cynical and more disengaged from the political system.

HARRIET HARMAN: Well, I think we do. This is a root and branch review, it's our once and for all chance to actually put our house in order, show it's above board, make sure that we've got the proper support services for MPs, so they can do their job properly for the public, but make sure the public have got confidence in it.

JON SOPEL: Harriet Harman, I'm going to do something, a first for the Politics Show, you can ask them a question.

HARRIET HARMAN: Right. Did your view of MPs change in terms of how favourable you were or against MPs you were, did you become more favourable the more you looked in to it, or more kind of hostile to MPs, the more you looked in to it. Are we worse or better than you thought we were?

JUDE: We only saw a couple of MPs and it certainly didn't influence me either way. I think they do an important job. They have a great responsibility and should be paid appropriately, but I don't think that exempts them from every rule and system that everybody else has to abide by.

BOB: I was persuaded to be more sympathetic about the press hounding of MPs, but on the whole, talking to them I found them slithery and didn't want to answer questions, didn't want the public nose in my business.

JON SOPEL: Do you think she's answered your questions today, by the way.


JUDE: We don't get a chance to probe.

JON SOPEL: There was a telling pause there. Both of you, thank you very much indeed for taking the time out to do this for us, it's been a really interesting process and Harriet Harman, I know you're going to stay with us for a little bit longer, to talk about some wider political issues.

JON SOPEL: Harriet Harman is still with us in the studio. We heard there from our North West Political Editor about this toff campaign that you've been running and Steve McCabe, who's running the Labour campaign up there, has talked about the Conservative candidate as being, from an "excessively privileged" background. What is excessively privileged.

HARRIET HARMAN: Well, I think what they're saying, is they're just putting a spotlight on you know, the difference between, between the two candidates and you know ? (interjection)

JON SOPEL: I want to know what excessive privilege is.

HARRIET HARMAN: I, I think he's a multi-millionaire, I mean, you know, those are the, the issues that are being ?

JON SOPEL: Well his parents are, he's a barrister.


JON SOPEL: So your parent's background counts, it's to be used against you?

HARRIET HARMAN: Well, no, I think it's his, you know, his own, you know personal situation and we're putting the focus on our candidate, Tamsin, who is a hardworking mother of five children, and we think would be the very best representative for Crewe and Nantwich.

JON SOPEL: You're the niece of the Countess of Longford, you went to the poshest girl's school in the country, which gets the best private school results. Does that make you excessively privileged?

HARRIET HARMAN: Well, I've never made any issue about my background and you know, what we're saying in Crewe is we think that Tamsin is the best candidate and you know, we're putting the focus on her and how she would be a very good person to be Member of Parliament for Crewe and Nantwich.

JON SOPEL: Can I show you the front page of your website which I think we can bring up. That's the front page of your web site. Do you think that's positive campaigning.

HARRIET HARMAN: It's not the most positive campaigning, no, but I think most of the campaign is focusing on you know, the good that has happened over the last ten years since Labour has been in government in Crewe and Nantwich and also our plans for the future and our very good candidate. That is obviously, you know, the best way forward.

JON SOPEL: Not the most positive - I sense you feel uncomfortable with this campaign.

HARRIET HARMAN: Well it's not the main focus of our campaign. I mean you've taken that ? (interjection)

JON SOPEL: That's the front page of your website.

HARRIET HARMAN: Yeah, but it's not the main focus on our campaign. The main focus of our campaign is Tamsin Dunwoody is an excellent candidate and you know, we think that she would be the best person to be a representative for Crewe and Nantwich and we're proud of what the Labour government has done over the last eleven years and have got a good programme for the future.

JON SOPEL: I mean, you know, this is, this is another leaflet that's been put out. It says, do you think, you know, 'Tory Boy application form. Do you think that regeneration is adding a new wing to your mansion.' I mean we've seen a picture in the papers today of where Tamsin Dunwoody lived, it looks like a mansion to me as well. It's just, isn't it just class politics that harks back to a bygone era.

HARRIET HARMAN: Well, I think the reality is that under the Tories, there wasn't any regeneration of any city areas. There was mass unemployment, that people who were at the bottom of society were really suffering, especially with the recessions, and Labour has focused on cutting unemployment and ensuring that there are good public services, and that's what we stand for, and that's what that's illustrating.

JON SOPEL: Are you worried the polls look bad for you.

HARRIET HARMAN: Well, I think, you know, we're trying to campaign for every single vote we can get and I don't think there's any point at this stage, with the vote on Thursday, second-guessing the decision that will be made by the people of Crewe and Nantwich on Thursday.

JON SOPEL: Tamsin, your candidate, who you've spoken so highly of, was asked, I saw a clip on YouTube, where she's asked, three times, is Gordon Brown an asset or liability, and she pointedly refuses every time, to answer that question. Doesn't - isn't what Tamsin Dunwoody feels, your handpicked by-election candidate, can't say a good word for Gordon Brown. Isn't that the problem you face in the country.

HARRIET HARMAN: Not at all. I think what Tamsin is doing is saying that she's the one running for election in Crewe and Nantwich, not Gordon Brown. But you know, I've got absolute total and complete confidence in Gordon Brown, who has steered the economy through very difficult circumstances for the last ten years and is exactly the sort of person we need taking the country forward when there is difficulty with the cost of living and food prices going up and the credit crunch that's been coming in from America.

JON SOPEL: And if you lose, do you accept there will be fresh murmuring and mumblings in the corridors at Westminster about how fit and suitable he is to carry on?

HARRIET HARMAN: Well, I'm not going to second guess or hypothesize about what the result will be. But whatever happens on Thursday, and obviously, I hope that we do have Tamsin because we think she'd be by far the best representative for that area. that actually, what we're going to be doing is getting on with the job of making sure that the economy stays strong and that our public services continue to improve and that people can get on with their lives. That's our responsibility and our focus as government.

JON SOPEL: Harriet Harman, thank you very much for being with us throughout the rest of the programme.


Please note BBC Politics Show must be credited if any part of these transcripts are used.

NB:These transcripts were typed from a recording and not copied from original scripts.

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

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The Politics Show Sunday 01 June 2008 at 1200BST on BBC One.
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