Harriet Harman is a Labour MP, having served as MP for Camberwell and Peckham, formerly Peckham, since 1982. Between 1997 and 2010, she served as a minister in Labour governments led by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. She began her ministerial career in Blair's Cabinet as Secretary of State for Social Security and Minister for Women between 1997 and 1998. Following Labour’s re-election in 2001, she became Solicitor General until the 2005 election, after which she served as Minister of State for Constitutional Affairs for two years. Between 2007 and 2010, during Gordon Brown’s premiership, she served as Minister for Women and Equality and Leader of the House of Commons.

Tim Lamden (TL)Harriet, you spent a decade as a minister in government across several departments. Looking back on that time, do you feel that civil society was treated as an equal to the state, and to business, in the policymaking process? If not, why was this?

Harriet Harman (HH): Well, I'm not sure equality is the right word. Because there's a different basis for government than there is a basis for the charity and voluntary sector. And there's different roles to play. I didn't have a massive amount of experience of dealing with business. Well, I suppose I was dealing with the CBI and things like that. I think what you're looking for is for the charitable and voluntary sector to play its fullest possible appropriate part in the business of policymaking and, really, accountability for delivery by government as well. I don't think the charitable sector is just about government policymaking. It's also about telling the government - because of the perspective of the charitable and voluntary sector - what is happening on the ground. It's not just about policymaking, and then walking away, and doing another policy. It's about that connection, which informs not only the policymaking, but informs an understanding of how the policy is working in practice in terms of implementation. And I think that there is sometimes a resistance in government, because the government is very, you know, subject to collective responsibility. And you've got the Civil Service, which is accountable to government, and the charitable sector is not under government's control and, therefore, sometimes people feel a bit wary about it. But, actually, the fact that it is independent is one of its strengths. Sometimes, the Civil Service will be wary of the minister having direct relationships with the charitable sector because they will want to be the sole conduit of information. So, I think, really, a confident government and a confident Civil Service has only anything to gain from a very close relationship [with the charity sector], both in the policymaking process and in understanding how the policy's working.

TL: So, during your time as a minister, what was your overall experience of engaging with the sector? Do you feel there was sufficient engagement? And was it constructive overall?

HH: Absolutely. You know, 100% constructive, and sometimes the charitable sector would be hostile to something that I was engaged in doing. But often that would be because they were right and they were looking at it from a different perspective. So, I don't think ministers are helped only by charities that agree with them. You know, it's got to be possible for the charity to be saying, "Actually, we don't think you're getting this right." I think if there's a lot of funding from the government to the charitable sector, certain charities might feel restrained and restricted. But, actually, they shouldn't. They should be always prepared to say, "Actually, we think you've got this wrong." And, you know, government will, in due course, be grateful for that, even if it's uncomfortable and causes delays, or what they see as obstructions. 

So I felt I had a very positive experience throughout my time in government, and I think that quite a few policies, I just wouldn't have got through without the support of the charitable sector, both ironing out problems where there were genuine policy differences out there - and the charitable sector would be part of bringing a perspective which met all the different interests, because the charitable sector is not homogeneous - but also helping back me up if I was getting resistance from other government ministers, other government departments. The charitable sector would be able to bring me information and articulate support, which would enable me to have the momentum to get policies through. So, for me, it was absolutely invaluable in every role I was dealing with. So, for example, even when I was Solicitor General, which is responsible for the Crown Prosecution Service, and also has various legal functions, you think that that would be not something which involves the voluntary sector. But, in fact, it was very important because there would be the charities that supported victims, there would be charities that supported children, that had a big perspective on how the Crown Prosecution Service should be doing its work.

"I think if there's a lot of funding from the government to the charitable sector, certain charities might feel restrained and restricted. But, actually, they shouldn't. They should be always prepared to say, "Actually, we think you've got this wrong."

And I can think of one thing, which was when I was in the Department for Constitutional Affairs, which is now the Ministry of Justice, where I was proposing that after a murder or a manslaughter, where, obviously, the victim can't speak in court because they're dead, and everybody else speaks in court, but the only people who are silent are the victim's family. And I proposed that they should, after conviction and before sentence, be able to say in court what the impact had been on them. Otherwise, they're just out on the steps of the court in the wind and the rain, saying what had happened. So, [I was proposing] to give them a place in the court process, but not before the conviction, but before the sentence, and the judiciary were very opposed to that. And, obviously, colleagues in government don't want you to be having a big row with the judiciary. But there was really informed support from organisations involved with families who'd had a relative who'd been murdered, or was the victim of manslaughter. And it was their informed support for the policy - of saying how it would work and why it would work and that it was necessary - that enabled me to actually get that through. I'm thinking of an organisation called SAMM  - Support after Murder and Manslaughter - because they had the direct contact with the families. You know, it wasn't about reading research papers, they had the direct contact with families.

So, I think that that direct connection that ministers can get with people who are subject to an issue, which they're considering policy on, is really important, especially if you're doing something to support victims - you don't want to do something which makes them feel worse. So, the judiciary was saying, "Oh victims will hate it, they'll feel its emotional pressure. They'll feel that it's a pressure on them to speak in court." But, actually, the victims organisations said, "No, no, we want a voice." So it gives you confidence to know whether what you're doing is right, as well as giving you backing to get it through. But, I mean, there's hundreds of different examples.

TL: That's really, really interesting. Thank you for that. What was your assessment as a minister of the quality of evidence provided by the sector when it came to measuring its impact and making its case for support from the government?

HH: Well, very good. Because I think that the charitable sector knows that it stands or falls by the quality of its evidence, because it doesn't have any power, except the power of its advocacy and the power of its connectedness to the issue, and the power of the information it gives. So that means that, I think, charities are very careful to make sure that what they give by way of evidence is right. And I think what's important also is backing it up, not just in terms of numbers, but in terms of examples and stories and cases. So it brings it to life. So, I mean, evidence in the broadest sense.

"...I think that the charitable sector knows that it stands or falls by the quality of its evidence, because it doesn't have any power, except the power of its advocacy and the power of its connectedness to the issue, and the power of the information it gives."

TL: Do you feel that you saw a lot of data, when you were a minister, that charities came to you with? Hard evidence of the success of their various interventions? Because what we have found at PBE is that, as with a lot of organisations, a lot of industries, like government itself, data is an issue in the sector.

HH: Obviously, it is, and they're only measuring what they're measuring, and their data is only the data that they're looking at. So, you have to have it in the right context. It's not looking at an overarching, you know, huge picture of everything, but it's giving you an insight using data on a particular thing. So, really, so long as the data is accurate, it doesn't matter if it's only covering part of a situation, it's valuable in itself. I mean, I can't remember an example where I was given bogus data.

TL: The Law Family Commission on Civil Society is a two-year research project that we ran and concluded earlier this year. As part of the Commission, PBE called strongly for more collaboration between the state, business, and the voluntary sectors in tackling the problems facing our country. Did you have any experience as a minister of successful collaborations between the three sectors? And how can we foster more of that?

HH: Well, I mean, one example was rolling out the National Childcare Strategy, which was, you know, charitable organisations running nurseries, charitable organisations lobbying for childcare, local government running nurseries, the private sector running nurseries, and the government rolling out a strategy. And, actually, the voluntary sector was crucial in all of that, because it was a sort of mixed economy of provision and was able to move quickly with funds provided. Trusted voluntary and charitable sector partners are very important in terms of delivering, not just policy-shaping, but delivering and doing pilots, which can be quickly done. So, I think it's not just, as I say, policymaking, it's a lot of other things as well, in terms of the collaborations between the sectors. That's just one example.

TL: I see you very recently became Chair of the Fawcett Society, the women's rights charity. And I know you've put the advancement of women's rights and equality at the forefront of everything you've done as a minister and as an MP. What part do you feel that civil society, and charities generally, have played in the progress made on equality over the course of your career?

HH: Oh, well, I think it's played an absolutely fundamental role. This was about a need for change, and, therefore, there isn't that dynamic from within the system, sort of endogenously, if you like, to generate the desire for change. The desire for change often happens outside of the state system and, therefore, that's about advocacy for concerns and articulating concerns, but also lobbying for them. And I think that you need, as a minister, that outside help to create the momentum. And, certainly, the things that have worked well - like the National Childcare Strategy, the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims bill, the Equality Act - none of those would have happened without an absolute partnership with civil society, without a shadow of a doubt. They never would have come from within ministerial ranks, and the Civil Service.

"...the things that have worked well - like the National Childcare Strategy, the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims bill, the Equality Act - none of those would have happened without an absolute partnership with civil society, without a shadow of a doubt."

TL: If you were advising a charity, which I'm sure you are in your formal role, on how best to engage with and influence a government minister, what key advice would you give?

HH: I think it's to look at the government minister's stated objectives, and see whether or not what you are advocating for aligns - where it fits in. And then you can be approaching the minister on the basis of: "You have said you want to do this, this is what we think would help achieve that." Or, if there's not any stated objectives, or manifesto commitment, I think the thing is to say, "This is a gap." You need to be clear whether or not it's something new you're proposing, or whether you're wanting to work in partnership on something which is already a commitment, but you need to help it go forward. So, for example, it's always important to read the manifesto of a government, to look at the minister's policy speeches, and to build on that, or to identify gaps in that. And also, I think, it's important to offer help to a minister, because help is always appreciated and if you could help by giving information about a sector in a particular geographical area, or you can give particular examples, or identify particular stakeholders who will support or, you know, run a brainstorming session for the minister, then I think help is a way in. Don't assume the minister's got all the help they need and, therefore, doesn’t need any more help.

So, I think, know what the minister has said, know the manifesto, and offer help. And I think that you can influence a minister indirectly by getting stories on social media, in newspapers, on broadcast. There's the direct communications, but there's also help shaping the world in which the minister is living, because they read social media, they read newspapers and look at TV programmes, and also [charities should] engage with the civil servants as well. So that's, I think, the best thing to do. And I would say, it's good to identify what the minister is wanting to do and has said they want to do, but it's not worth undermining your objectives by going to a starting point that you don't agree with. Sometimes there's something about power whereby people will go along with things and support a minister doing something because they think it's good to have a good relationship with a minister and, ultimately, it will pay off. You've got to keep your integrity as a charitable organisation and not throw in your lot with an argument because you think it's going to curry favour with somebody.

I can think of one voluntary organisation, whose name I won't mention, that started saying something about the Tories before 2010. And I was like, "What on earth are you saying that for? It's manifestly wrong." And they were saying, "Yeah, but we think they're going to be in government, and, therefore, we want them to think we're friendly." And that is a very bad thing to do because, actually, you've got to keep the integrity of the organisation, because whatever government it is, there's no point relying on people who are just saying things because they want to curry favour with whoever's in power, because people remember that, like I remember that. You know?

"You've got to keep your integrity as a charitable organisation and not throw in your lot with an argument because you think it's going to curry favour with somebody."

TL: What was your perspective of the Civil Service's attitude towards the sector generally? Do you feel there was caution when you were a minister from civil servants?

HH: Well, I don't know because, on the one hand, I've met examples where civil servants don't want the voluntary sector to have any say at all, and regard them as a nuisance and interfering with the relationship between policymaking and the Civil Service. But, for the most part, I have discovered civil servants are very, very keen to listen to and engage with the voluntary sector and the charitable sector, the third sector generally. So, I think it, really, kind of varies from issue to issue, from department to department. So, I couldn't give an overall generalisation on that. But I think if the Civil Service is feeling, in a particular department or on a particular project, they are not wanting to engage, it's down to the minister to say to them, "I want you to engage. I want to hear from x and I want to know you've engaged with y."

TL: You've spoken about the National Childcare Strategy, and you've spoken about the victim impact statements and that specific bill that you were obviously instrumental in. Can you think of another example, besides those two that you've already given, from your time in government that you feel best illustrates what can be achieved when policymakers and civil society work well together?

HH: Well, obviously, the most major one for me was the Equality Act. When I got appointed to be Minister for Women and Equalities in 2007, we had a manifesto commitment from the 2005 election, which said we'd have a new Equality Act, and nothing had been done on it in that first two years, so it was like a greenfield site. And I got in all the kind of advocacy organisations, you know, Fawcett, Stonewall, Operation Black Vote, Age Concern, disability organisations. I got them all in together and basically said, "Right, what are we going to put in this Equality Act?" And, obviously, civil servants were there. But it was like, "Okay, we've got the opportunity for some legislation, because we've got a manifesto commitment, what do you want in it? You know, give me your ambitious demands." And then, as we developed the policy for the bill, all the way through, those organisations were absolutely instrumental. And then when it came into effect, after 2010, they've been instrumental in using it in the courts, in policing the adherence to it. So, they've been involved all the way along. Although we had the Women and Equalities unit in the Civil Service, it was a very small, underfunded bit of the machinery of government. So, they very much depended on these outside organisations as well.

TL: The charities that you invited in to contribute must have absolutely loved that 'open door anytime' policy from a Secretary of State.

HH: They were a bit inhibited to begin with, because they were not wanting to be over-demanding, but I wanted the Equality Act to be what was needed, not for them to make a judgement about what was possible. So I basically said, "I want to hear your unreasonable demands, because unreasonable demands today are tomorrow's conventional wisdom." So, I had to really say to them, "Don't suggest to me what you think I can manage to get through, suggest to me what you think is needed, and what will be right." So then they helped with all of that and everything. And also, where there were issues of conflicts of views within the charitable sector, they worked together to sort them out, like there was, at the time, over the trans rights that we were putting in the Equality Act, and the safe spaces for women, which we were putting in the Equality Act. And we worked through them collaboratively and they came to a sort of accommodation amongst themselves. So I think it's wrong to assume that all the voluntary sector will all have one view, and government will all have one view. Within government, there will be different views. Within the voluntary sector, there will be different views.

"...I think it's wrong to assume that all the voluntary sector will all have one view, and government will all have one view. Within government, there will be different views. Within the voluntary sector, there will be different views."

TL: Of course. Thank you, that's a great example. Conversely, can you think of an example, from your ministerial career, which exemplifies, in your opinion, the challenges and obstacles that get in the way of effective working between government and civil society?

HH: There was a lot of opposition to the things that were in the Equality Act. So, for example, the health service was very worried about the public sector duty on age discrimination, because they were worried if they couldn't discriminate on grounds of age, would the health service go bust? Local government was saying, a duty not to discriminate on grounds of sexual orientation would give them another duty, which wasn't going to be financed, and how is it going to be done when nobody was seeming to be going to pay for it? And business were like, "We don't want the gender pay transparency, because we've just had a global financial crisis, and, therefore, we don't want any burdens on business." So there was loads of resistance all around. But, basically, my relationship was with those who wanted an equality bill. And, therefore, it was pretty clear what the starting point should be: the allies, the allies who had caused it to be put in the manifesto in the first place. But that wasn't to say there weren't lots of obstacles, including within government.

TL: On the whole, it sounds to me like your general experience as a minister of engaging with the sector has been a fruitful and productive one.

HH: Oh totally. I can't think of any example [of poor engagement], except the one case where this organisation was going on about how marvellous the Conservatives' policy was on something, when it clearly wasn't. And they were swerving, because they thought we were on our way out and the Tories were on their way in.

TL: And that's more about the integrity of an organisation. So, two more questions, Harriet. Looking back, how would you summarise the approach and attitude of Tony Blair's government towards civil society as a whole? And do you feel the approach differed at all under Gordon Brown?

HH: Well, I know it's conventional wisdom that Tony Blair was much more interested in voluntary organisations and civil society, and that Gordon Brown was somehow more statist. But I don't think that's right, actually. I mean, if you think about all the work that Gordon was doing on international development, with, you know, the Make Poverty History. I mean, that was organisations like Oxfam, Save the Children. They were massive protagonists for this policy and that was under Tony Blair, obviously, but Gordon Brown was a key player in that as well, and carried on with that approach when he was in government. So, I think that that's too simplistic to think that somehow they had a different approach. I think both of them were pragmatic and if you're pragmatic, you want to hear from and engage with the charity sector, because if you think of the ecosystem you're dealing with in terms of delivery, in terms of information about what's going on out there, government delivers, but the charitable sector also delivers. Government can get information through the Civil Service, but the voluntary sector can get different sorts of information. You know, government can hear from public opinion, but charities can also mobilise and transmit. So, I think if you're pragmatic and you want to have a successful government, then you have to have the confidence to engage with a sector that you don't control and be sharing with them your troubles, as well as your aspirations, and be quite trusting of them.

"...I think if you're pragmatic and you want to have a successful government, then you have to have the confidence to engage with a sector that you don't control and be sharing with them your troubles, as well as your aspirations, and be quite trusting of them."

TL: And how do you feel the governments since those Labour governments have compared in their approach to the sector?

HH: In government, we set up in the Cabinet Office, the minister responsible for the voluntary sector. I think the first one who did it was Ed Miliband, actually. We actually institutionalised it. I don't know whether we've got a minister responsible for the voluntary sector anymore. But I think it's very difficult because the government has for so long been so dysfunctional, it's quite difficult to detect any sort of strategy for dealing with anything.

TL: There was Cameron's Big Society.

HH: Yeah, but it didn't really get much beyond a sort of strapline. I'm not sure I can see what the outcome of it was that made change. I mean, it was like a descriptor, rather than a method, and I think the other thing is that charities have to be quite worried that they're not used by government, as a way of government shedding its responsibility and giving big responsibilities to the charitable and voluntary sector, which it's not in a position to discharge. So, there's also the fact that the voluntary and charitable sector has got to have boundaries, where it just says, "We're not in a position to do that, that's your job.”

TL: Final question then. Over the course of your time in government, what was the most inspiring charity - if you had to pick one, and I'm asking - or civil society initiative that you encountered, and why?

HH: Okay, so I would say two, if I could. One is Support after Murder and Manslaughter, which was a very unique group of people who have had the experience of having a relative murdered, or become the victim of manslaughter. But normally you're used to hearing from police, the CPS, the court, barristers and everything. But they were a completely distinctive, empathetic voice and trustworthy, and made a difference in policy. And then the other one was what was called Kids' Club Network at the time. Previously, it was called the Out of School Alliance. It was about after-school clubs and then it became a childcare advocacy organisation - the Kids' Club Network - and Anne Longfield was the leader of it at the time. And she was such a great gleaner of all the information that this network was privy to on the ground and helping shape policy and helping argue for the value of policies. If you're doing progressive change, by definition, it's probably not being done on a statutory basis, but there will be people who are trying to do it in different local areas with different local authorities. You've got to combine an important cause with inspired leadership, you've got to have both, really, because the voice that that charitable sector has to the public, generally, is really important, as well as the voice that it has to ministers.

TL: Thank you very much Harriet, that's all I've got.

HH: By the way, one of the things I'd say is that the relationship between policymaking in opposition and the charitable sector is much closer than in government, because, of course, we don't have the Civil Service [in opposition]. And the danger is that you suddenly get loads of people in the Civil Service all prepared to do whatever you ask them, and then the charitable sector gets overlooked, because suddenly you've got the real thing. But, of course, it's not the real thing, it's something different. So that is a moment when the new government has to cement its relations with the voluntary sector, because they're going to need them on an ongoing basis, even though they're joined by the massed ranks of the Civil Service.

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