Speech by Harriet Harman QC MP, Leader of the House of Commons, Hansard Society, London, October 8, 2007
Thanks to the Hansard Society for bringing us together and thanks to you all for coming. I hope that we will able to have a ongoing discussion about these important issues.
As the new Leader of the House, I want to take the opportunity to raise a number of issues and to have a discussion. I am Lord Privy Seal as well as Member of Parliament for Camberwell and Peckham. I am Cabinet Minister for Equality as well as Leader of the House. I am chair of the Trustees of Chevening and I think really all of those roles, as far as I am concerned, are an opportunity to champion two things – equality and democracy. What I hope that I can do, as Leader of the House and in relation to these other roles, is to try continuously to make the House more representative, more topical, less exclusive – and by that, I mean not just more accessible but also more involvement by people outside.
This month I’ve been in the House for 25 years. During that time I sat on the Opposition benches for very, very many years. Michael Heseltine swinging the Mace, Geoffrey Howe making his devastating resignation speech. Robin Cook and I used to regularly do what’s described as “going through the night”, which was being up all night challenging the Tories on their health policies, when he was shadow Health Secretary and I was his deputy.
Normally, what happens when people have been an awful long time in an institution is that that they think that what used to happen was fantastic, and what happens now is not so good. They got stuck in thinking of the “golden age” and “the House isn’t as great as it was”, and people refer to “the House at its best” and people become quite nostalgic, conservative, hankering after some golden era. That can make people feel hesitant about change, that somehow change is going to undermine the greatness that was. I think that it has the quite the opposite effect on me. The changes that the House has undertaken have been all to the good and what we need is more.
But what hasn’t changed, I think, is the importance of being a member of the House of Commons. I think one of the reasons why I’ve have never been able to sympathise too much with people who lose their jobs as a minister. You lose your job as a minister but you’re still a member of the House of Commons, and that is the most important thing – and a huge privilege. That’s certainly how my constituents see it and, if that’s how they see it, then that’s good enough for me.
Now, I just mentioned something about the need for parliament to be more representative. Parliament is represented by different constituencies in the country. It’s unthinkable that you could have no MPs from the south-east or none from the West Midlands. And people expect things in their area to be represented. The concerns that I raise on behalf of my constituents in Camberwell and Peckham are very different from those which are raised by Chris Bryant on behalf of the members of his constituency in the Rhondda. So people’s identity is very important geographically, but it’s not just about their geographic identity. I think there are other aspects of people’s identity that people want to see parliament reflect.
When I first came into parliament there were no non-white MPs, and I think that to be able to argue that we are all equal, that our democracy represents everyone when, in an increasingly multicultural country, there were no non-white MPs – it’s difficult to do.
I think it’s very important that we now have – and this is one of the things that I think is a big change from when I was first in the House of Commons – 15 non-white MPs (13 Labour and 2 Tory), and I was in no doubt of the huge confidence that it gave my black constituents for me to be able to bring Bernie Grant down to Camberwell and Peckham. So I was their geographical representative but Bernie, being a black Member of Parliament standing at my side, increased their sense that they were indeed represented in the House of Commons. And to delight them now, as I do, to bring Dawn Butler down to Peckham. The first young black woman that she meets can’t believe that she’s actually an MP. She’s standing with me. They know I am their MP, the think she’s my assistant. Then I proudly explain that she’s a Member of Parliament, and they are hugely impressed. Not just by the fact that she’s in Parliament, not just impressed by her, but impressed by parliament and the fact that it includes her. Then you can see that they begin to think that parliament must just be representative of them too, and then some of them start thinking that they too could become an MP. I think we should never underestimate the importance of that. Sometimes the argument about a representative in the House of Commons is seen as people’s right to be an MP. I think it’s the other way round. I think we need a representative parliament in order to assert its inclusiveness.
And who is in parliament affects too our ability to debate. It’s not just people’s intellect, people’s commitment, it’s also about their experience of life. You cannot have a sensible, confident debate in the House of Commons on the veil when you have got women MPs and you have got Muslim men MPs, but you’ve got no Muslim women MPs. And I hope that that will change at the next election.
I think the remaining issue about representation in the House of Commons is that men and women lead very different lives – even when they live under the same roof. The parliament that I joined in 1982 was 97pc men and 3pc women. It was the case that parliament didn’t find time to discuss domestic violence, didn’t feel confident about discussing maternity services. Issues of burning concern to women – 50pc of the population – did not find space in parliament, which was overwhelmingly male.
I remember that people used to urge me that, if I was to show that I was being effective and I was being a proper MP, I should stop talking about happens to children during the school holidays and that I shouldn’t be mentioning maternity services, because people would think that I hadn’t worked out what it was to be an MP and that I didn’t understand about politics.
The 1997 influx of women changed not only the way parliament looks, but also what we debate – and what are seen as political issues. I think it is very important, too, that it is normal to see Ann Begg MP in her wheelchair at the end of the Chamber involving herself in our debates.
So I think that diversity in the House of Commons is not political correctness – it is a democratic imperative. And we still have further to go. That’s why I am considering extending the opportunity for political parties to have all-women shortlists. A horrendously difficult and controversial issue, saying that everybody in this area can apply to be a Member of Parliament but not if you are a man. Very, very difficult, but it was the only way you could get them into the House of Commons. That’s why I have asked Operation Black Vote to look at how we could have shortlists reserved for ethnic minorities, and why the Prime Minister has identified making parliament more representative as part of the Speaker’s Conference which he announced will take place.
I think there’s also a huge structural problem about our parliamentary representation in terms of the constituencies. Our inner-city areas are under-represented compared to the countryside. We have had hours and hours of debates about the size of constituencies in Scotland compared to the size of constituencies in the south-east. But what is less recognised is that poor people are under-representative compared to the better-off. This is because our parliamentary boundaries are based on the electoral register. Our electoral registration disproportionately leaves out young people, leaves out black people, leaves out those in non-metropolitan areas, and leaves out those in rented accommodation.
I you are white, over 50, own your own home and don’t live in a city, you have only a 2pc chance of not being on the electoral register, but it you are black, African, live in a city in rented accommodation and are under 25, you have a 30pc chance of not being on the register. The problem is not just the unfairness. So if you look at the parliamentary boundaries, there should be eight more constituencies, on that basis, in London. I think there is a big structural problem with representation, because the representation is built on boundaries, which are built on the electoral register, and the electoral register has a structural inequality. The problem is not just the unfairness in parliamentary representation. The inequality of turnout reflects in the inequality of the electoral register.
Conventional wisdom is that turnout depends on the closeness of the contest. But, actually, the turnout is correlated not with electoral competition but with prosperity, that actually you are more likely to go and vote if you are better-off, if you are older. We have to ensure that our democracy doesn’t drift into a situation where it becomes the preserve of the better-off and the older. If that’s the case, people inevitably deliver for them and, therefore, those people who increase effective exclusion lead to disaffection and breed extremism.
Now, another of the changes for the better since I came into parliament is how MPs relate to their constituents. When I was a young parliamentary candidate working alongside Harry Lambourn MP, he would say to his constituents who came to see him in his advice surgery when they told him what their problem was, he would say “leave it with me”. They would say, “thank-you Mr Lambourn, and go away”. Now, if I said, “leave it with me”, people would say, “but what are you going to do about it, how do we know what you’ve done about it, when are you going to tell us what you have done about it?” No-one will accept that now.
There’s been numerous and routine criticisms of MPs’ allowances. But I think it’s essential that MPs provide a much better service than we used to do. So, I think the doubling of the parliamentary allowances to allow them to have got more websites, to answer letters promptly, to advertise your surgeries – all of those things are not MPs’ perks, they’re actually an important part of democracy. The more people see the involvement of their MPs the better they think of the parliamentary system. John Healy MP has done some work that says that people think less of MPs as a group but they think more of their individual MP. These allowances are underpinning and strengthening that.
Parliament is about representation and about MPs helping constituents. It is also about scrutinizing the executive and is the supreme legislature. The amount of time that parliament scrutinizes legislation and questions ministers has increased. The House sits for longer than it used to.
I think we should look at building on how we improve the scrutiny of the legislation and draw more directly on the experience and expertise of the public. One major obstacle to the public sensibly contributing to a debate on Bills that become law is that most are incomprehensible without a lawyer to translate the legalise. This is a problem, let’s face it, not just for the public but also for members of parliament and some ministers. On many occasions I have met many ministers come sweeping into the chamber with a great, fat Bill, hundreds of clauses and saying, “I haven’t a clue what’s in this Bill”. Not surprisingly, because it is all written in incomprehensible legal language.
As Leader of the House, one of the things I want to take forward is publishing Bills in a plain, English translation alongside the legalise. And, interestingly, the parliamentary drafts people, who do such a great job in drafting the legislation, are also gripped with writing plain English. I reckon that what will happen is that we will soon migrate into a situation where we will find we don’t need the legalise, and that actually the judiciary can perfectly well get on with something that is written in something more like English. That’s what we did with the Coroners’ Bill.
We make Bills that have clear objectives and clear intended beneficiaries. Beneficiaries have a wide range of experience but there’s a case, when there is a specific category of beneficiaries of a Bill, for the House to hear directly from them, for them to go through the Bill, clause by clause in plain English, and say how it would or would not affect them. This is what we did with the Coroners Bill. One of the objectives of the Coroners Bill was to ask questions in the public interest. The second was to give bereaved relatives at inquests a better experience, making them to be treated better and to have their questions answered. So we did pre-legislative scrutiny for the intended beneficiaries of the Bill, people who previously had had experience of inquests, allowing them to go clause by clause through the Bill and say whether it would make a difference to them, and how.
When I was proposing this, some of my officials in the Department of Constitutional Affairs said – because this was a public exercise in Westminster in the House of Commons with MPs and peers – “but supposing they say it’s rubbish”. Of course, the answer to that was, well, if they say it’s rubbish, that’s because it is rubbish.
One the criticisms parliament faces is that we do “too much legislation”. Is it the case that every Secretary of State wants their own legislation. Size matters. The more Bills you’ve got in the legislative agenda clearly the more important your department is. Is it really more about people making their mark? We can’t rebut this allegation unless we get on with post-legislative scrutiny. Did the Act, in practice, deliver on the objectives that it set out? Was it even brought into effect? Quite a lot of legislation is not brought into effect. When we consider how to do this and are ready to get on with it, one way is, say, to get departments three years after Royal Assent to report to the relevant select committee what actually happened, has it been brought into effect, what is the effect compared to what its objectives were, and the select committee then to have a chance to accept the report or to take it further.
I’d like to conclude with just two very brief points. One is about the ability of the House to call the executive to account. This can’t happen if opportunities cannot properly be found for backbenchers to raise topical issues and to ask topical questions. Of course, ministers need time to prepare and the business of the chamber needs to be planned. But there is more that we can do on topicality, and we will be taking this forward, building on the work that Jack Straw led in the Modernisation committee.
And MPs, elected representatives, should be the first to have the chance to question ministers – not the Today programme. MPs should hear it first in the House – not read it in the morning newspapers. The House should have the right to set the accountability agenda - not the press. So, I have the task of being the policewoman in the cabinet, enforcing the “parliament first” rule. I think we have been in a situation where every single point in a statement has been on the Today programme and in the newspapers. And, literally, then MPs can comment on what’s been in the newspapers rather than comment on the statement. I do remember in the olden days where you would go into the chamber in order to hear what was actually happening in that respect.
My final point is about the Lobby, about the connection between parliament and the public that comes through the press, that comes through the Lobby. It has privileged access to the chamber and to ministers, but the Lobby too has a problem with the news being conveyed from parliament to the public through entirely white male eyes. My first survey of male hegemony in the Lobby was in 2000, when there were 72 men and only 15 women in the Lobby. Many newspapers had all-male Lobby teams and nearly all the political editors were men. This does reinforce the sense that politics is exclusively a white male activity, which excludes people who don’t fall into tat category. Since then, there has been a bit of progress in the Lobby, but we need to make more progress on diversity in the Lobby just as we do among MPs.
It’s a great thing, after 25 years, to find myself as Leader of the House. I want to build on the good work of my friends and predecessors: Robin Cook, who changed the hours and introduced draft Bills; Margaret Beckett, who pioneered the Westminster Hall changes; and Peter Hain, who took forward the outward-facing purpose of Parliament with the visitors’ centre and the website.
I will just conclude by saying that I am neither on my way up in my career or on my way down in my career. I am the correct position, the position I want to be in, the position I want to stay in, to be able to be Leader of the House and do a bit of good. And, in that respect, I look forward very much indeed to working with all of you here, who have worked every bit as long as I have on these issues. We are not sad anoraks, we know that constitutional matters are important for equality and democracy.