Interview: Harriet Harman

Article excerpt

Her critics see her as a turncoat and harasser of lone mothers. She says she's got better things to do than worry about whether or not she's liked

Harriet Harman has an ability to arouse fury from within her own ranks which exceeds that of any other minister. But the more her foes huff and puff, the more determined she is to stand her ground, apparently unmoved personally or politically by their attacks.

We meet in her office at the Department of Social Security hours after she has been given a typically rough ride on the World at One. A tough interview followed a lengthy introduction with a subtext that asked, in effect, "why people hate Harriet Harman". The evening before she had, according to press reports, been "mauled" by Labour MPs at the weekly parliamentary meeting.

But the Secretary of State seems untouched. I thank her for seeing me on such a horrendous day and, in a way that calls to mind Margaret Thatcher, she ticks me off. "Horrendous? What can you mean? It hasn't been horrendous at all. We're just getting on with the job."

Her "mauling" (she insists the PLP meeting was much more harmonious than reports suggested) was over her refusal to reverse a[pounds]400 million cut from lone-parent benefits proposed by the last Conservative government. Perhaps her confidence was based on knowledge that in a few days Gordon Brown would announce an injection of cash for childcare and the elderly.

The additional childcare provision illustrates where Harman's priorities lie. "We made it clear at the election that we are not going to tackle social exclusion and poverty by tax and spend. We will tackle them by welfare to work, encouraging savings and reforming the welfare state. In the first two years we said we would stick to Tory spending plans. Ken Clarke took the money for lone-parent benefits out of the budget. It would mean finding [pounds]400 million to put it back, which would break a manifesto commitment. Our pledge was not to add more money to the benefit bill. You can't turn round and say: 'We've changed our minds'."

Her solution for lone mothers, and indeed for some who are disabled and without work, is employment. Next to her on the sofa is a series of documents with graphs that illustrate the continuing rise in payments to single parents and the disabled. "Look, this chart shows you have two million long-term sick and disabled of working age, but written off. When I meet lone mothers the conversation nearly always begins with the need to work, not with the level of benefit. They want a job, partly so that their children are introduced to the world of work."

There will be no compulsion, forcing lone mothers into work. Schemes will be voluntary, but the value of the benefit for new claimants will decline because of the Clarke cutbacks. As a matter of principle, not just financial rectitude, I doubt if the cuts will be reversed when the two-year spending deadline has passed. Harman claims for her entire brief the Blairite mantra of the moment. "This is the department of hard choices. We don't make a virtue of that. It's the reality."

But the hard choices do not extend to challenging on principle the idea of means-testing, as Harman' s influential junior minister Frank Field did with elan when on the opposition benches. Both means-testing and universal benefits have their role, she says. "The organising approach is to look at where the system is old-fashioned, where it has failed to match economic and social change, whether the system is unfair. Then you identify what you want the outcome to be. At which point you pull in the right methods to achieve those outcomes. To make methodology your organising principle would be a different way of approaching reform. But we're looking at outcomes first and will apply different methods to achieve them."

That means, for example, that child benefit will remain universal. It looks as if Brown's proposal in opposition to scrap child benefit for late-teenagers and invest the money in education and training will be scrapped. …