Harriet Harman

Member of Parliament for Camberwell and Peckham. Mother of the House of Commons

Current News

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In January 2019 Ken Clarke, the Father of the House and I proposed a Speaker’s Conference to address the issue of what should be the response to the growing threats of abuse and violence against MPs. After the concern expressed in the Chamber last night I am once again putting forward the idea that there should be a Speaker’s Conference. Click here to read the proposal.

The fundamental principle of democracy is that MPs are elected by the voters and once elected no-one must stop them carrying out their duties.  They must be able to get on with their job.  Yet, now, on a more or less daily basis, MPs are threatened with physical violence. Where MPs are threatened just because they are an MP that is a "contempt of parliament" and an undermining of our democracy and demands action.

The advent of social media means that the whereabouts of MPs whether at home or at work, are very widely known.  Social media is important for MPs to communicate directly with their constituents and account for what they are doing on a regular basis.  But it is also used by people who anonymously threaten MPs and by those who whip up hostility and violence towards MPs. 

Now, more MPs are women, living away from their families on their own during the weeks when parliament is sitting. MPs are high profile and when there’s an atmosphere of hostility to politics and politicians they are vulnerable.

BBC 5 Live has conducted a survey of women MPs asking about our security. It showed:

  • More than half of women MPs questioned had faced physical threats.
  • An overwhelming majority of women MPs have received online and verbal abuse from the public.
  • Two thirds felt "less safe" following the murder of the Labour MP Jo Cox.

This is a problem for men MPs as well as women.  While MPs are away from their home during the week their families, living at an address which is well-known locally and easily found on the internet, can feel vulnerable.  This applies to elderly relatives who might be living with them as well as spouses and children.  A police officer stood by while a member of the public shouted out at the young children of Jacob Rees-Mogg.  If their parent had been a member of the public rather than an MP it’s surely the case that the officer would have stepped in and asked the ranting member of the public to “move along now”.

Women MPs, particularly younger women and most particularly ethnic minority MPs, are subjected to the greatest number of threats. A study by Amnesty International in 2017 found Diane Abbott received almost half of all abusive tweets ahead of the June 2017 General Election and black women politicians are almost twice as likely as their white peers to be abused on Twitter.

There has always been a level of threat against MPs but we don’t know the scale of the problem because MPs are reluctant to report and many threats and offences go unreported.  

We also don’t know the full extent to which MPs are altering the way they work and travel because of these threats. Their priority is to get on with their job, not to talk about their own personal safety.

Parliament has taken many steps to protect MPs both before and in particular after the murder of Jo Cox as she held her constituency advice surgery.  MPs can apply for funding from IPSA for extra security in their own homes and constituency offices. 

MPs who are threatened all deal with it differently.  Some ignore it hoping it will go away.  Some call the police - and depending on which police area they are in get widely differing responses.  Some take out injunctions against the threatening individual - hoping that so doing will inflame them less than a police intervention or worried for the threatener’s mental health if the police are involved. 

When an MP is threatened by a member of the public the response of the police and the CPS varies in different areas.  On some occasions the Criminal Justice Agencies react on the basis that it is their job to protect the MP.  Sometimes their response is based on the sense that they regard it as their job to protect the rights of the public, to demonstrate, to have free speech in relation to their MP, to challenge their public representative. 

Over the past years the concern has mounted but there’s been no comprehensive consideration of the issues at stake and the measures needed to address them.

Unless we respond to threats and abuse we are colluding with the notion that we deserve to be denigrated and abused. We cannot just denounce every ugly incident but take no action.

There is also an issue of whether by our own words in the House of Commons our political debate fans the flames of threats and intimidation that leads to violence. The rules on language in the House of Commons date back centuries well before the era when MPs conducted surgeries in small community halls and tenants’ centres and before women were a major part of the Commons.

It is therefore time to review the rules about language within the House to consider whether they need to be amended so that they are appropriate for today’s context.

The responsibility for ensuring that MPs are able to get on with their work, vote without looking over their shoulder and freely engage with their constituents and the wider public lies not with them as individuals or their party or the Government.  It lies with Parliament.  Parliament must step forward to address them.

Proposal for a Speaker's Conference on threats of violence and abuse against MPs

In January 2019 Ken Clarke, the Father of the House and I proposed a Speaker’s Conference to address the issue of what should be the response to the growing threats...

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Sending a mother to prison has a serious, detrimental impact on her children.

As our recent Joint Committee on Human Rights report shows, the harmful effects of a mother going to prison begin the moment she is sentenced and are felt throughout her sentence and continue for many years after she is released.

We heard from one mother who told us no arrangements were in place to collect her children from school on the day of the sentence being handed down. We heard of the trauma caused by prison visits, where children have not been allowed to sit on their mother’s knee, and of working kinship carers unable to afford to make prison visits due to the cost of travel.

Research shows that children who experience a parent going to prison as a child are more likely than their peers to have future problems.

These include an increased likelihood of criminal offending, mental health problems, drug and alcohol addiction and dying before the age of 65. They are likely to earn less than their counterparts as adults and stop education at a younger age than is the norm.

Those who give birth in prison, or who are mothers of new-borns when sentenced, experience particular difficulties. In some cases, new mothers have had no access to necessities such as breast pads, or even adequate nutrition. We heard of mothers and their new-born babies being separated whilst applications for places in a Mother and Baby Unit were made and processed - even when there was actually a place available.

We welcome the review of the use of these Units: its ultimate outcome must include an assurance that mothers are not separated from their babies simply because they have been imprisoned.

The Right to Family Life, set out in article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, states that “Everyone has a right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence”. It is this right that is violated when a child loses their mother to imprisonment.

There is a complete lack of reliable data on the number of mothers in prison, the number of children whose mothers are in prison and the number of women who are pregnant and give birth in prison. Without proper data collection it is impossible to fully understand the scale and nature of the problem or to properly address it - the Ministry of Justice must prioritise the mandatory collection and publication of this information.

Judges can only fulfil their obligation to consider the rights of the children of offenders when sentencing if they know that a child exists. There is no guarantee they will have that information, let alone consider the likely consequences of separation of a child from his or her primary carer. The welfare of the child must be at the forefront of the judge’s mind in sentencing a mother or primary carer.

We recommended a change in statute law to require the judge to consider the interests of the child when sentencing.

Our report found that where there are kinship carers willing to step in to care for children who have lost their mother to prison they should be entitled to financial and practical support. Mothers should be placed in facilities close to their homes, and there should also be financial support available for the cost of bringing children to visit their mother in prison. The Department for Education must revise their framework for safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children.

Much greater attention must be paid to the needs of children and their families when a mother is sent to prison.

 

View the article as it originally appeared on the PoliticsHome site here.

Imprisoned mothers should not be separated from their children - PoliticsHome article

  Sending a mother to prison has a serious, detrimental impact on her children. As our recent Joint Committee on Human Rights report shows, the harmful effects of a mother going to...

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Monthly report - August / September 2019

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HH_2017_New_Portrait.jpgFollowing John Bercow’s announcement that he is standing down as Speaker by the 31st October I’ve decided to run for Speaker of the House of Commons.

The Speaker still undertakes all their responsibilities to their local area and to individual constituents seeking their help. I would absolutely continue with my same commitment were I to be elected Speaker.

Helping constituents has always been the most important aspect of my work and since the last election in June 2017 I and my team have helped over 10,000 local people facing a range of problems including with immigration,
housing and benefits.

Parliament has never been more important as we face turbulent times.

We need a Speaker who will stand up for Parliament and not allow the Government to push Parliament around.

After 600 years we have had only one woman Speaker. It’s time for another!

And as the last Speaker was a Conservative, the next Speaker will be Labour.

I will remain totally committed to the people of Camberwell and Peckham who I will continue to serve as their MP if I become Speaker.

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The Joint Committee on Human Rights publishes our report on the Right to family life: Children whose mothers are in prison. After hearing powerful evidence, we propose urgent reform to data collection, sentencing, support for children, and pregnancy and maternity for mothers in prison.

The harmful effects of a mother going to prison start at sentencing and continue for years

When a judge is considering sending a mother to prison, her child's right to respect for family life should be a central concern – but too frequently this is not the case, says the Human Rights Committee in a new report.

An estimated 17,000 children each year are separated from their mothers when those mothers are sent to prison, the vast majority for non-violent offences.

Children whose mothers are sent to prison are more likely than their peers to have future problems. These include an increased likelihood of criminal offending, mental health problems and drug and alcohol addiction.

They are also likely to earn less than their counterparts as adults and stop education at a younger age than is the norm. They are more likely to die before the age of 65.

The Committee makes proposal for urgent reform in four areas:

  • data collection
  • sentencing
  • support for children
  • pregnancy and maternity. 

Human Rights Committee Chair Harriet Harman said:

“The right of a child to family life is only given lip service when their mothers are sent to prison.

The harmful effects of a mother going to prison start at sentencing and continue for years, even after the mother is released.”

Sentencing

The court often lacks adequate information about whether a defendant has children and what the impact of a custodial sentence would be on them.

The report recommends that:

  • when sentencing an offender the judge must make reasonable inquiries to establish whether the offender is the primary carer of a child, and if the offender is a primary carer, the judge must not sentence unless a pre-sentence report is available at the sentencing hearing, unless the circumstances are exceptional
  • judges must ensure that they have sufficient information about the likely consequences of separation of the child from the primary carer, including hearing from the child if appropriate. Judges should state how they have taken this information into account in their sentencing remarks
  • the impact of sentencing on children must be a distinct consideration to which full weight must be given by the courts. This duty, which reflects existing case law, should be given statutory force.

Committee Chair Harriet Harman said:

“Judges can’t respect the human right of a child to family life if they don’t know the child exists.

At the moment there is no guarantee that they have this information; there must be proper checks before sentencing.”

Support for children

The report concludes that in order to ensure that children’s rights to family life are respected, every step must be taken to ensure that children are able to maintain positive relationships with their mothers.

The report recommends that:

  • the Department for Education, working closely with the Ministry of Justice, must revise the framework for safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children so that much greater attention is paid to the needs of children and their families when mothers go to prison
  • kinship carers who step in to care for children when their mothers go to prison should be entitled to financial and practical support
  • non-means tested financial help should be made available to allow children to visit their mothers (or primary carers) in prison; and
  • contact should (other than in exceptional circumstances) be premised on the children’s right to respect for family life rather than the mother’s behaviour in prison.

Committee Chair Harriet Harman said:

“Visits of children to their mother in prison should not be part of the Incentives and Earned Privileges Scheme.

How can it possibly be right to punish children for their parents’ behaviour?”

Pregnancy and maternity

The Committee welcomes the Women’s Policy Framework and supporting guidance issued in December 2018, which ensures that pre and postnatal needs are assessed and addressed for all women in prison.

But the evidence received about women’s own experiences clearly demonstrate that their imprisonment poses a serious threat to their human rights – and those of their babies and very young children.

The report recommends that, other than in exceptional circumstances:

  • if a baby is born during the mother’s sentence, they should both be discharged from hospital directly to a Mother and Baby Unit (MBU)
  • when a mother with a baby is sent to prison, the sentence should not start until a place is secured in an MBU.

Data collection

The Committee found a complete lack of reliable quantitative data on the number of mothers in prison, the number of children whose mothers are in prison and the number of women who are pregnant and give birth in prison.

The estimates of the number of children whose mothers go to prison each year range from 2,544 to 17,240.

The report calls on the Government to act urgently to remedy this, recommending that:

  • it should be mandatory to ask all women entering prison whether they have dependent children and what their ages are; this should be cross-referenced with child benefit data
  • an annual census in prisons should ask women whether they have dependent children and what their ages are
  • the data should be collated and published.

Committee Chair Harriet Harman said:

“It’s an indictment of the system that the prison service does not know how many women in the system have children, and that – in 2019 - we don’t even know how many children are separated from a mother in prison.”

Irreparable harm caused to children whose mothers are in prison - report

The Joint Committee on Human Rights publishes our report on the Right to family life: Children whose mothers are in prison. After hearing powerful evidence, we propose urgent reform to...

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Thank you to the 100s of constituents who have taken the time to email me. It is really important for me to hear from you as we face unprecedentedly dangerous times with the Government seeking to override Parliament and the country threatened with leaving the EU without a deal.

As you know, I backed and campaigned for Remain.

I was bitterly disappointed that, by a narrow margin, the vote was to Leave.

I still believe that there is no deal which is better than the one we currently have as a full member of the EU.

The worst of all worlds is No Deal.

In the votes so far I have voted:

• Against leaving the EU with No Deal and
• For a further referendum

Fearing that there is a majority in Parliament against No Deal, the Government is seeking to override the will of Parliament, including by reducing the time available before October 31st by proroguing (suspending) parliament and by contemplating denying royal assent to any Bill to block No Deal.

I will, by working with my Labour colleagues and with MPs across the House of Commons, be seeking to do all I can to protect our country from the dangers of a No Deal Brexit and from an undermining of our democratically elected Parliament.

As the situation is fast-moving, I will report my votes on Twitter as they happen.

Thank you again for writing to me. I share your concerns.

Best wishes,
Harriet Harman

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We regard ourselves as a civilised society with a respect for human rights. And it is right that we should take extra care to support young people and those with disabilities. But the brutal truth is that we are failing to protect some of our most vulnerable children and young people - those with autism and learning disabilities. And indeed, worse than that, we are currently detaining and inflicting terrible suffering on them and causing anguish to their distraught families.

The horrific reality is that children and young adults with autism and learning disabilities are being sectioned under the mental health act and taken to specialist hospitals with poor conditions, far away from their families. They are being detained for months, or even years on end when they should be in their community. The recent Panorama programme showing the taunting and abuse of vulnerable young patients in Whorlton Hall exposed this horrific reality and it has put the inhumane treatment of people in institutions back under the spotlight, eight years on from a similar scandal at Winterbourne View hospital. 

The pathway from diagnosis to detention is tragic. What happens is this: A family grow worried about their child and raise concerns with the GP and with the child’s nursery or school. It takes ages before they get an assessment and yet more time passes before they get a diagnosis of autism. All the while, families are struggling on their own, without the appropriate help for their child.

Parents who ask for government support soon find they have to battle for it - on top of holding down a job, whilst also trying to provide a peaceful home not only for their child with autism but also for their other children. Their living situation becomes impossible.

As the child gets older, families find it harder to cope. The problems mount and the mother gives up work so she can be there for her child at all times. The family income suffers, which leads to them relying on a complex, inadequate benefit system. Families ask for extra care support, but due to austerity,  find their care package is going to be cut back. There are not enough specialist beds or local services to support the child.

As the situation worsens, parents are told that their child will have to go into hospital temporarily. Families are not being told about the proposal before it goes to the panel which makes the decision. They are not allowed to attend the panel.  Then, the child is taken miles away from their home and placed with strangers - losing the familiarity and routine which is so essential to their wellbeing.

The parents are desperately concerned. They have difficulty visiting their children. But their concerns are treated as hostile and they are seen as a problem. The child gets worse and suffers physical restraint and solitary confinement - which the institution calls ‘seclusion‘. The child gets even worse, so plans to return home are shelved. The days turn into weeks and then months. 

This is such a grim picture, yet they are the stories of families up and down country. And their experiences have come across powerfully in their evidence to the inquiry being undertaken by the parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights, which I chair. The media has exposed some of this, and we’ve had a compelling report too from the Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield.

Action is urgently needed – and the solutions are not complicated. First, there must be extra resources so that diagnosis is prompt. There must be extra funding too to support the child continuing to live with the family at home. (Institutional care is, in fact, more expensive to the public purse but it comes from the NHS rather than cash-strapped councils). Parents must be supported to continue to work. Councils’ housing policies must ensure that families with a child with autism can be appropriately housed.

The family should be recognised as the people who know the child best and care for him/her the most and must be put at the heart of the decision-making process. Residential hospital care - where it’s absolutely necessary and not just because of lack of community support - must be near the child’s home to allow the parents to visit regularly.

The parents should be asked regularly if they are happy with the care their child is getting and any concerns immediately acted on. There should be proper complaints procedures which can be anonymous. And there remains a major question mark over the Care Quality Commission, the regulator of this provision. It had certified Whorlton Hall as ‘good’. In doing so it provided parents with false reassurance and helped shield their children’s abusers. A regulator which gets it wrong is worse than no regulator at all.

Our country is prosperous and values human rights. We cannot turn away from the suffering of these children and their families. It’s time to act.

 

This article originally appeared in the Fabian Society Review, July 2019

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Most of us are starting to change what we can day to day to minimise the harm we inflict on the planet and tackle climate change, whether it’s stopping using plastic carrier bags and disposable coffee cups, doing more recycling, using less water, driving less, or cutting down on our food waste.

Hundreds of Southwark people have contacted me about this and I’ve been so encouraged by the thousands of young people who’ve taken to the streets over the past few months to protest and demand government action on the climate crisis.

Southwark Council were one of the first councils to declare a climate emergency and this month they hosted their first Climate Change Summit, bringing together local residents, NGOs like Greenpeace and central government officials to develop a plan to ensure by 2030 Southwark achieves ‘carbon neutrality’ which means we are removing as much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as we’re putting in.

But the good work of individuals, charities and Southwark Council will never be enough. It needs government action.

The science shows that unless governments back up local work and take strong action on climate change within the next 12 years, it will be too late.

The consequences of unchecked climate change would be catastrophic.  It's already a reality for millions of people around the world – with more wildfires, longer droughts and intense tropical storms. And it is the poorest and most vulnerable people who are always hit hardest. Climate change is forcing increasing numbers of people to abandon their homes and farms and become climate refugees. Last year, climate change displaced 16.1 million people. It is estimated that, by 2050, between 150 to 200 million people are at risk of being forced to leave their homes because of droughts, rising sea levels and extreme weather conditions.

Our government urgently needs to play its part in leading action against climate change. Everything the Government and Parliament does must be judged by whether we are making progress on reducing harmful carbon dioxide emissions.

Labour has been leading the fight against climate change in Parliament. In May this year we voted to make the UK Parliament the first in the world to declare an “environment and climate emergency”.

But in the 2 months since then the Government has not taken any decisive action.

The UK is still not on track to meet our targets to cut our use of harmful coal and gas by 2030. 

The Government must use all their powers to achieve this – by increasing the use of clean energy sources such as wind and solar power, stopping big supermarkets using low grade and single use plastics, investing in buses, walking and cycling to cut car use and by making bus travel free for under 25s.

The children leading the climate change school strikes have made a powerful case. They are right to be worried about the kind of planet they will inherit.

We stand in solidarity with them. Their action is a wake up call to the Government and to all of us as MPs. We can see the science. It is our responsibility now to act.

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Everybody needs to use the internet and apps now for everything they need to do including to apply for jobs or get the benefits they are entitled to. As Chair of the Human Rights Committee I’m leading an inquiry into how we can protect people from human rights abuses as companies carry out extensive gathering of people’s personal data through their use of the internet. It is unrealistic to expect individuals to know about the risks they are taking, the risks to privacy and discrimination, and what steps companies and government should take to protect them. It cannot be down to the individual to know about this. There has to be a very strong regulatory regime. We will report later this year.

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