Harriet Harman airbrushing herself into another LibDem campaign

Well Harriet is having a bit of a morning of ‘me too’. I see that she is now keen to join in the Liberal Democrat campaign against airbrushing being used in advertising to produce fake images. Hurrah again!

Come on girl – keep up! You can read the article  here – but no acknowledgement that this is a Liberal Democrat campaign. We don’t mind her jumping on our very excellent campaign – but it would be nice if she acknowledged where she got the idea from!

I first proposed this as a campaign two years ago. Since when, via the LibDem Women’s Policy Group, it became LibDem policy at Conference last year and is now being ably promoted by my colleague, Jo Swinson, MP. Jo has scored an Adjournment Debate tonight in the House – so I expect Harriet wanted to demonstrate, before this debate, that she totally supports our campaign.

You can find out more about our ‘Real Women’ campaign at: www.realwomen.org

Harriet Harman's u-turn!

Lying in bed watching the news – well blow me – Harriet has done a u-turn. Hurrah!

Harriet has suddenly been converted and announced that the mandatory retirement age is no longer to be compulsory – and I assume she will put it through in the Equality Bill – which is currently in the Lords.

Shame when I brought this forward at Second Reading of the Equality Bill in the Commons she was incapable of agreeing with me then.

As  I said from the front bench to Harriet during the Equality Bill Second Reading on May 11:

“My last point about age discrimination and matters mandatory is that I cannot for the life of me understand why the Government have retained a mandatory retirement age. It seems completely wrong. I am surprised, as it is clearly discriminatory to decide on an arbitrary age as a cut-off. “

As ever – Labour are having to play catch up to the LibDems!

A debate on who inspects the inspectors

Following on from my recent post on who inspects the inspectors, I raised the issue in Business Questions in the Commons.

The point I made was that with OFSTED giving 3 stars to Haringey just before the Baby Peter tragic story broke – and giving them 1 star soon after – we needed a debate on how to inspect the inspectors.

Harriet Harman – actually said she thought this was an issue for consideration. There was a lot of support in House for my request for a debate – so fingers crossed.

Of course, it’s even worse than I had time to state in the Commons (you only get a few words before Mr Speaker has a go at you for verbosity). Recently the judge in the Sharon Shoesmith appeal is having to investigate whether a hand written note which apparently instructs everyone at OFSTED who has emails re the Baby P case to delete them is genuine and whether its instruction was followed.

If it was – and emails turn out to have been deleted – this is just outrageous. We wait to hear the outcome of the judge’s investigations.

So much for an 'exemplar' Bill

Harriet Harman declared that the Equality Bill would be exemplar. Part of its examplarness (if that’s a word) would be that the Government would consult the opposition benches over how to handle the debate when it came to the floor of the House for Report Stage and Third Reading – which it does next Wednesday.

However, there had been no discussions, consultations or anything – just an announcement that the Bill would be on the floor of the House on 2 December – a derisory one day only. This means that the dozens of amendments and New Clauses that are down for debate won’t even get discussed. For only one day – and almost certainly a statement after Wednesday’s PMQs on Afghanistan – will mean that we will be lucky to get a few hours.

Report Stage is not just about the Government getting its amendments and New Clauses down and through -but it is the only chance back-benchers get to put down their amendments and debate the issues.

So in Business Questions today, I along with many other MPs asked Harriet to extend the time to allow proper scrutiny. Harriet was disingenuous about the ‘discussions’ and led the House to believe that they had taken place when they had not. Moreover, in her view there was plenty of time and it appeared as if she thought we were all making a terrible fuss over nothing.

Exemplar – I don’t think so.

Just a few things………..

Broke my toe on Thursday morning rushing out door to get to engagement (but did nothing about it except hobble and moan)so hobbled to British Association of Social Workers conference where they had invited me onto a panel to talk about my experiences during Baby P. What was lovely was the amount of social workers who came up to me and thanked me for what I said. I was really pleased – for during the whole Baby Peter tragedy I was very careful to refer to the need for proper support for social workers – and to point to what happened in the Victoria Climbie case. In that case the only person to take the blame was the social worker on the end of the food chain. It was the Labour leadership and chief officers and managers who all got away completely from any consequences – actually it was that that motivated me to speak out when Baby Peter died. I wasn’t going to see another tragedy blamed on the social workers.

But I think it was also what I was saying about the need for an open and transparent culture, about the job being about trusting social workers to use their instincts and critical faculties rather than ticking boxes – and outside of case load reduction – perhaps the main drum I bang is the way that the pendulum has swung far too far towards management holding sway regardless of professional and clinical opinion.

I hobble on to the Spectator Annual Awards where strangely Harriet Harman and Peter Mandelson won the main awards. Was it an ironic parting gift to those who would not be in power by the next time the awards come around?

After that, I gave up and came home and put ice packs on my foot and laid down for the evening. I managed to do my advice surgery this morning at Hornsey Library – but then decided I couldn’t go on. I had to reschedule my Big Lottery Tour this afternoon  (as I really can’t walk) so went to the Whittington and then came home. Hoping for tea and sympathy from my children…………………….

Troubles at the Equality and Human Rights Commission

Thought I’d pitch in with my thoughts on the troubled Equality and Human Rights Commission.

I remember being on the London board of the original Commission for Racial Equality when this new all singing, all dancing Equality Commission was first mooted. All the race bodies and leaders of different groups in the community were against it – including Trevor Phillips. The leaders of the other commissions (women and disability) were all against it – as they all appeared to resent to some degree (and not surprisingly) giving up their leadership positions and becoming commissioners under someone else – particularly when that someone else turned out to be Mr Phillips. There was also genuine concern that the clear fight for a particular cause would be muddied and subsumed by being part of a greater whole. And there was fear and competitiveness as to whether the Chair would give more attention to race (as that was his background) and would that leave women, disability, sexual orientation and so on playing catch up.

Nevertheless – the new Equality and Human Rights Commission came into being, chaired by Trevor Phillips, who hired as the new CEO Nicola Brewer, and is now about 18 months old. Ms Brewer has recently left for a plum job as South Africa High Commissioner.

There was always going to be trouble at mill. Lots of old scores, egos and enemies all thrust into one body would inevitably lead to jealousy, noses out of joint and undoubtedly the real feeling of being ignored when it came to some decisions.

In terms of the tide of resigning commissioners – there are some who are and have been phenomenal campaigners, leaders and experts in their particular field – and there are some that may simply be crumbs fighting.The severe reduction in number of commissioners which is coming, and the fact that they all have to reapply for their jobs, may also play a part in their ‘brave’ decision to go at this point.

What I don’t understand is if it has been so dreadful why none of them really rocked the boat prior to the possibility of losing their jobs? It’s one of the reasons I think that if Trevor Phillips survives this debacle new blood might be a very good thing. Well – there will be blood on the carpet – that’s for sure.

However, there is always a difficult balance to strike when people have championed causes and been instrumental in moving forward the agenda on whichever equality is their drum to beat. The problems arise, I think, in twofold ways. Firstly – if you have banged a drum for years and years – it is very difficult to change the way you beat it or the repertoire that you play. Secondly, Trevor Phillips appears to have trodden on many other egos to make announcements, change direction, challenge the status quo – without consultation or agreement. That too is a difficult balance to strike – leadership versus consultation. Phillips has clearly got it wrong in terms of Commissioners’ feelings and also, perhaps, his style of leadership. On the other hand – there are such major challenges for this country in terms of equalities – taking the agenda boldly where no one has gone before may require such leadership and saying the unsayable.

Phillips has been right on some things like changing multiculturalism – or aspects around it. He said we were sleepwalking into segregation – and that did change the multicultural weather. Councils who for so long had funded so many different communities – funding separateness – have started to fund togetherness instead. Critics turned that into Phillips wanting to attack multiculturalism – but it wasn’t – it was acknowledging that what was once good policy had had its day.

My main anger with the EHRC is that it is compliant with the Labour agenda – not independent enough. Women have been the sacrificial lambs that Phillips has happily led to slaughter in the Equalities Bill . But Harriet Harman lost in cabinet to Mandelson on that – ergo women can just wait for equality. Trevor Phillips is a Labour man and won’t really challenge the Government.

The other main complaint is that the EHRC is just dreadful at answering mail – both in terms of getting an answer – and the content when it finally comes. However, I would lay this at the door of the ex-Chief Executive. It was Nicola Brewer’s job as Chief Officer to run the Commission – and she singular failed in terms of efficiency on this score alone.

It’s not just growing pains that have caused the hoo ha at the EHRC. There are real problems that need sorting – and fast. With Brewer gone – and about six commissioners gone – who knows whether Trevor Phillips will survive. Having just signed a new three year contract for his job – and with Government backing – he may do. If he does – he has one hell of a lot of mending to do – and perhaps a little bit of humility might help.

Helicopters again!

Gordon Brown in his statement to the Commons on the G8 – which was mostly about Afghanistan – re-iterated the same exact statistics on helicopters that Harriet gave at PMQs. He said that we had increased them 60% in the last two years as well as increasing the flying time capability. Many members referred to the need for helicopters – but the Prime Minister just repeated the mantra again.

I managed to get called myself to ask him what percentage of that 60% increase were helicopters that can transport troops. Once again he re-iterated the figures he had now given a number of times. I can understand he didn’t want to give numbers – but percentages should have been alright.

He went further than Harriet in that he did say that both types of helicopter were in that 60%. What is so difficult though without a proper answer – is to know whether the Government is hiding the fact that so few of the helicopters in that additional 60% could actually carry troops or whether it is a military secret.

Helicopters in Afghanistan

Listening carefully to the row over helicopters – the provision of which (if adequate) would stop our troops having to be transported in USA reject land vehicles over mines and bombs that blow up and kill our young soldiers – I remembered Harriet Harman’s words last PMQs:

Ms Harman: The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that we must do everything possible to ensure the greatest protection for our troops in the field, and there is no complacency about that. We have increased the number of armoured vehicles that have been procured for and made available to our troops, but we are not going to be complacent and there must be more. We have increased the number of helicopters by 60 per cent. over the past two years, but we recognise that we should do more. We want to do more not only for their personal protection but in recognition of the importance of their mission in Afghanistan, not only to that country but to the region and to the security of this country.

As you can see – Harriet claims increased helicopter numbers by 60% – but she is being disingenuous – because the sorts of helicopters she is talking about cannot transport troops – they are attack helicopters. It is the Chinooks that we need to carry our troops safely.

I do not understand how a minister of the state like Harriet can think that such an answer is acceptable. She knows perfectly well that she is avoiding a proper answer which would have been: ‘we have increased our attack helicopters by 60%, but the honourable member is right, we have not provided any more of the type of helicopters that can transport troops – or we have provided x more troop carrying helicopters.’

Bad karma Harriet!

What's coming in the Equalities Bill?

So – the long, long, long awaited Equalities Bill has arrived. As usual, media first – Parliament second. Published last Friday but embargoed until Monday – presumably so other parties can’t get hands on it to comment. I thought Harriet Harman was better than that – but given her office has refused to brief me or meet with me – should have known.

The man who wrote the book on equalities – Lord Lester – will be leading on the Bill in the Lords for the Liberal Democrats – but in the Commons, that job falls to me.

I notice that the Government has made a huge fanfare over its stance on pay audits. From the media it sounds as if mandatory pay audits will be introduced for large firms, but I suspect from the details it will be the same as before – voluntary for five years and then possibly mandatory after that. We will see when the details are finally unveiled to one and all!

Mandatory pay audits would be a really effective way of adding pressure to end discrimination in pay between men and women – as you can see from the example of Cambridge University. Their audit highlighted some big differences in pay – and so gave me the grounds to refer them to the Equalities Commission whilst also causing the university to hared down to Parliament to justify what they are doing – all in the knowledge that with this in the public domain, things can’t just be brushed under the carpet or not talked about.

The other ‘announcement’ in the Bill is a public duty to reduce the equality gap between rich and poor. Very laudable – the equality gap is widening and if you look at stats around the world you see that those countries that have less of a gap do much better on every scale – including happiness! The Tories will term this class war. I would say that the ambition is right but the methodology is wrong. Or rather – the equality gap should be narrowed – but by bringing the bottom up without lessening the universal services and their standards that all are entitled.

How the Equality and Human Rights Commission is failing women

How many pieces of silver did Peter Mandelson give the Equality and Human Rights Commission to come out in the media this morning basically saying that equality was too expensive during a recession?

Nicola Brewer (Chief Exec of the EHRC) was quoted in The Guardian this morning saying that this was no time to make companies carry out and publish pay audits that would demonstrate the disparity in men and women’s wages.

Mandelson has been sending smoke signals through the trade and right wing press for some weeks now – vilifying any part of the Equalities Bill which might be a cost. But the scandal of women’s pay (compared to men) – even now, 30 years after the Equal Pay Act – is something that this Government said it would address in the Bill.

Ms Harman keeps assuring me in Parliament that they are committed to equality but that pay audits must be voluntary not mandatory. Well – we saw how effective voluntary codes were in banking!

Clearly from these weasly words from the EHRC the Government wants to be able to point at their statement as referred credibility for backing away from any commitment to real equality. The EHRC should be ashamed of themselves. They are meant to fight for equality – not be lackies for Labour’s failed commitments.

Ironically, to mark International Women’s Day, we had a debate in the chamber on ‘Support for Women (Economic Downturn)’ – the gist of which was that women are particularly vulnerable in a recession as they usually have less financial resilience and are already much disadvantaged through things like unequal pay etc. As I said in the debate, “The needs of those who face discrimination do not stop where the needs of British businesses begin.”

But clearly Mandelson, Harman and the EHRC are going to let us eat cake!