Having obtained a degree in Politics from York University, Harriet qualified as a Solicitor and her first job as a solicitor was at Brent Law Centre in 1974.
At Brent Law Centre, Harriet was legal advisor to the Trico Equal Pay strike committee and the Grunwick Strike Committee. She represented tenants and residents groups – including in a notorious case against noise nuisance from Futters, a local factory. Michael Howard, then a barrister, represented Futters but the local residents, represented by Harriet, won.
Harriet then became Legal Officer to Liberty (then the National Council for Civil Liberties) where she took the first cases for women under the then new Equal Pay and Sex Discrimination Acts.
At NCCL, Harriet also campaigned for prisoners’ rights, for a Human Rights Act and against Government secrecy. She was prosecuted for contempt for showing a journalist documents already read out in open court. The case was against the Home Office for keeping a prisoner for 6 months in a “control unit”. She was found guilty of contempt by the British courts, but later found not guilty on appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. The UK Government was ordered to pay Harriet’s legal costs.
As NCCL Legal Officer Harriet represented Brenda Clarke in a successful landmark Sex Discrimination Act case against her employer, Ely Kinnock, who had discriminated against women part-timers through a redundancy scheme which made part-timers redundant before full-timers.
From the 1970s, Harriet campaigned for increased women’s representation in the Labour Party – more women Labour councillors, more women Labour MPs and for a Labour leadership team of three of which at least one should be a woman.
Harriet was first elected MP for Peckham (now Camberwell and Peckham) in 1982. The MP Harry Lambourne died in 1982, causing a by-election. Harriet was elected – when she was 7 months pregnant. At that time, Labour had 268 MPs compared to Tory 339 MPs and she came into Parliament as one of only 10 Labour women MPs.
After joining Parliament in 1982, a Parliament of 97 % men, Harriet set up the first Parliamentary Labour Party Women’s Group.
In 1984, Harriet was appointed by Labour leader Neil Kinnock to Labour’s front bench as Shadow Minister for Social Services.
From 1987-1992, Harriet was Labour Spokesperson for Health - deputy to Robin Cook - campaigning against long waiting lists and Tory cuts in health spending.
To prevent Labour having all-male shadow cabinets, Harriet campaigned for places to be reserved for women in the shadow cabinet. In 1989, 3 places for women were added.
Harriet served as deputy to Shadow Chancellor Gordon Brown, as Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury (1992-1994), playing a key role in building public confidence in Labour as a party which would invest in health and education and would tax fairly.
As Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, under the leadership of John Smith MP, Harriet led Labour’s campaign against the Tory decision to put 17.5% VAT on gas and electricity.
Harriet fought for more Labour women MPs through ‘women-only shortlists’. The 1993 Labour Party Conference introduced the rule for ‘women-only shortlists’ in 50% of all target seats. This policy led to the election of 101 Labour women MPs in 1997.
In 1993, Harriet was elected by a national ballot of Labour Party members to the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the Labour Party and was re-elected each year till Labour came into government and she became a minister.
She was a member of the leadership team with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown re-shaping the Labour Party and preparing the successful 1997 election campaign.
In 1994-5, whilst as Shadow Employment Secretary of State she formulated the policy for the National Minimum Wage, devising and campaigning for Labour’s commitment to establish a Low Pay Commission. In 1998 – the Labour Government passed the National Minimum Wage Act and set up the Low Pay Commission.
Between 1995 and the 1997 General Election, Harriet served first as Shadow Secretary of State for Health (1995-6), and then as Shadow Secretary of State for Social Security (1996-7).
When Labour entered government, Harriet was appointed Secretary of State for Social Security (1997-8) and Minister for Women. She introduced the Minimum Income Guarantee increasing the income for the poorest pensioners by 12% to £75 per week and introduced the £200 winter fuel payment. She introduced the New Deal for Lone Parents, to help lone mothers who wanted to get off benefit into work.
In 1998 Harriet established the National Childcare Strategy. From the backbenches, she campaigned for longer maternity leave and higher maternity pay. Working with the Trade Union KFAT, Harriet carried out research on the problems faced by mothers working in manufacturing in the East Midlands. She chaired the Childcare Commission in 2001 which proposed a £150 payment for new mothers. In 2004 a maternity payment of £102.80 and an increase in maternity leave to 9 months was announced in the Budget.
A member of the Transport and General Workers Union, Harriet has worked with the Trade Union movement, in particular on the issue of equality.
In 2001, Harriet was appointed Solicitor General. She led a drive within Government to make tackling domestic violence a priority. The successful campaign led to a new law - the Domestic Violence Crime and Victims Act, the introduction of a new team of specialist prosecutors to ensure more effective prosecutions for domestic violence and a new network of 60 specialist domestic violence courts.
After the 2005 General Election, Harriet was appointed Minister for Justice at the Department for Constitutional Affairs. Her responsibilities include giving the relatives of homicide victims a voice in court, reform of the family justice system, community justice centres and improving the antiquated coroner’s court system. This includes opening up the family courts to make them more accountable, improving the coroners system in particular for the bereaved families of service men and women who have died in Iraq and giving local communities affected by crime a say in sentencing.
Because of Harriet's commitment to international development and because her constituency has the largest number of people from the African community in the UK, Harriet has been a regular visitor to Africa. She visited Sierra Leone in March 2004, Nigeria in September 2004 and Tanzania in May 2005.
Harriet has represented the diverse inner-city constituency of Camberwell and Peckham in the London Borough of Southwark for nearly 30 years. At the last General Election she was re-elected with 59% of the vote on a turnout which had increased from the 2005 General Election by almost 18,000.
Harriet has one of the busiest constituency casework offices out of all MPs. People seek Harriet’s help for many different reasons: their housing situation; immigration status; benefit entitlement; and many other issues. Harriet always does what she can to help. On average Harriet takes action on over 5,000 cases per year.
The Labour Party in Camberwell and Peckham is an active campaigning party with nearly 800 members. At the 2010 Council elections, all the wards in Camberwell and Peckham returned Labour councillors.
Under the leadership of Neil Kinnock, John Smith and then Tony Blair, Harriet has been a “key campaigner” for Labour, Harriet has campaigned in all Council elections, General elections, European elections and Parliamentary by-elections.
In 2007 Harriet was elected as Deputy Leader of the Labour Party and appointed as Chair of the Labour Party . She also served in the Government as Leader of the House of Commons, Secretary of State for Equalities and Minister for Women.
Following her re-election as MP for Camberwell and Peckham in 2010, Harriet became acting Leader of the Opposition until Ed Miliband was elected in September 2010 at the Labour Party Conference in Manchester.
Between October 2010 and October 2011 Harriet was Labour's Shadow Secretary of State for International Development. In October 2011 she was appointed Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.