Meg Hillier, MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch and Under-Secretary of State for Identity talks to Blood and Property.
Blood and Property: How does your job as a minister fit in with your job as a constituency MP?
Meg Hillier: There’s quite a lot of overlap with Home Office issues and concerns in Hackney and it’s helpful to have the experience of being a Hackney MP for my ministerial work and vice versa.
In terms of the time I spend in Hackney, it is much the same as it was when I wasn’t a minister; a lot of an MP’s time is spent in Parliament during the week.
The difference is that I can’t speak about issues in the chamber of the House of Commons that aren’t related to my ministerial portfolio or department.
So I can’t ask questions in the House on certain issues but that’s not necessarily a problem because there are other ways I can raise them. For example, on the Crown Estate proposals, which is a big issue in the constituency, threatening to sell off its property in Victoria Park, I’m working very closely with the other MPs involved who are not ministers. We’re working together but they’re speaking and I’m supporting.
Blood and Property: When I tried to get in touch with you about Brian Pead (Hackney child therapist caught in polic sting), the initial response was that I couldn’t talk to you about it without going through the Home Office press office.
Meg Hillier: In my Parliamentary office my staff are funded to deal with my Parliamentary work, not my Home Office work and don’t field any Home Office phone calls. The staff there deal with Hackney, not the Home Office.
Blood and Property: So you couldn’t talk to me about that stuff?
Meg Hillier: I couldn’t talk to you about an individual case.
Blood and Property: But if there’s an issue in your constituency that is brought up by a constituent, do you find out about it?
Meg Hillier: If any constituent raises an issue with me, I take it up. There’s nothing stopping me taking anything up.
Blood and Property: It just sounded, from your description of how you have to deal with the Crown Estate Issue, that you are limited in what you are allowed to do.
Meg Hillier: No, I can’t speak on another minister’s portfolio because I’m a member of the government. But I’m not silenced. There are many ways of raising issues. And realistically, you don’t always get to speak about the issues you want to speak about in Parliament. There are constraints on what is spoken about and you have to queue for your space.
So I’m still very active dealing with my constituents. I’ve dealt with 11,000 since I was elected (although that number includes some who have come back on other issues). I do all the things that I did in Hackney when I wasn’t a minister. Nothing has changed there at all.
Blood and Property: It’s just that that doesn’t sound realistic. Your ministerial job must involve a lot of time.
Meg Hillier: Yes, but as I say to my office, my main job is as a constituency MP. What I mean by that is that my time spent in the constituency and on Hackney issues is priority.
Blood and Property: How many people do you employ and, in the Home Office, how many people are specifically dedicated to you?
Meg Hillier: 2.8 - two full timers and one person working a four day a week, that’s for Hackney and Parliament. (In terms of the Home Office) there’s a private office and that has four people and those four people shadow the work that I do and part of that is about Home Office continuity.
Blood and Property: Do you think that you get enough scrutiny from your constituents? There seems to be an unhealthy level of disinterest.
Meg Hillier: Constituents contact me on a whole range of issues but one issue is the timing of that engagement. Influencing policy is better the earlier you get into that process. The earlier people get involved the more likely it is that any individual MP or group of MPs can influence policy. Part of the challenge is how people find out about what is going on. I try and write a report every month to say what is coming up in Parliament and what’s been going through (with the aim of getting feedback and having consultations) Essentially I welcome that earlier discussion.
Blood and Property: But do people come and speak to you about what’s going on in Hackney rather than what’s going on in Parliament?
Meg Hillier: It’s a fair mix of both. There is a level of misunderstanding still. People think that I work for the council. And although councillors in Hackney are very active, a lot of people don’t know what a councillor is. If you come across an issue that affects you or that you are passionately interested in, at that point you have to engage, and if you have never engaged before then the system probably is a bit confusing. We need to do more to explain what happens and how to engage and make it easy for people to find things on the website or in the literature.
Blood and Property: In comparison to Islington, is Hackney a lot less sophisticated?
Meg Hillier: People have stereotypes about places. I spent my first two years in Parliament taking every chance I got to speak about Hackney and to raise issues like poverty in the borough. But people have a negative impression and I felt that part of my job was to say some of the good things about Hackney too, to challenge the stereotypes.
Blood and Property: One issue that pops up every now and again is that some communities don’t seem to have any political representation. Like the Vietnamese community.
Meg Hillier: The Vietnamese community did have a representative, Than Vu who was a Hackney Councillor.
Blood and Property: How big is the community?
Meg Hillier: I don’t know off the top of my head but it is significant. We talked about having a Viet Town in Hackney. There is Bangla Town and China Town and Hackney has one of the largest Vietnamese communities in the capital.
Blood and Property: Any idea why they don’t have a representative?
Meg Hillier: Well he (Than Vu) was but the Chinese community as well has never been massively represented. It’s an issue I have discussed with the Chinese Association. It’s partly cultural, but certainly there’s a level of engagement.
I have to say diverse representation is not a big problem in Hackney. If you look at the diversity of Hackney council it is the most diverse council of anywhere, I would say in the country. So something is going right in Hackney.
It’s not a pick and mix, it’s not as if you have to have someone from every group, to make it representative. A council is elected for four years and if you look at it now I’d say it’s pretty genuinely mixed.
Blood and Property: Do you expect communities to be self-interested for a multicultural system to work?
Meg Hillier: We have a party system in this country and people will look at what policies work for them. People don’t necessarily vote down ethnic lines. They wouldn’t necessarily vote for a Vietnamese councillor because they are Vietnamese or for a Turkish councillor because they were Turkish or African councillor because they were African. People tend to vote more for the party of their choice and I think that’s healthy.
Blood and Property: And if they weren’t doing that, would you say it was unhealthy?
Meg Hillier: Lots of people vote for parties, but of course a lot of people don’t have parties, they float, and there are many factors in their decisions. There are lots of people who will vote for the same party, not necessarily mine, for years and years. Others vote for one party one year and another the next and they have different reasons for voting. Rarely is it a personality decision. My view is that there is very little personality voting and it is more on the big issues and wider concerns.
Blood and Property: Does it matter if you have large, politically active communities, that do act with a certain level of self interest – or promote issues that affect this community?
Meg Hillier: That’s what politics is about.
Blood and Property: But if that’s all happening in the North of the Borough, and you’re south, does it mean that the political attention of the council is drawn up there.
Meg Hillier: I have no indication or worry that the political attention of the council is being drawn away from my area on important issues.
I have no concerns there at all. The divide in the borough is artificial. One of the things about Hackney is that it’s multicultural, it’s diverse and that is very healthy. You don’t get the same divides that you get in other boroughs where perhaps you don’t get that level of diversity. Why is it that the BNP doesn’t get a grip in Hackney? Part of that is because it is so diverse.
Blood and Property: How important do you think religion is in terms of understanding Hackney? Is it a big issue or not really?
Meg Hillier: Well there are lots of people of different faiths, are you talking about the political influence of religion?
Blood and Property: It’s just that there seems to be a stark divide between Hackney politicians, a very atheist secular side and a very religious side.
Meg Hillier: But that’s what you get in society, a mix of different faiths and different views. Hackney council is no different to the rest of the world in that respect. There are certainly plenty of different faith communities that are very active in Hackney so it has a place as much as elsewhere. I engage with people of all faiths and none.
Blood and Property: Are you religious at all?
Meg Hillier: I don’t really want to talk about my personal situation. It’s not relevant to my job.
Blood and Property: What about a question I asked other Hackney politicians – do you believe in ghosts? (Do Hackney Politicians believe in ghosts? )
Meg Hillier: I’m an MP and I talk about what I do in Hackney as a politician. To be brutally honest I’ve got better things to do with my time than answer questions like that.
Blood and Property: There was an issue back in 2005 about child abuse, exorcism and witchcraft in Hackney which put this stuff on the political radar.
Meg Hillier: Diane and I put out a joint press statement at the time. The story came from one line in a metropolitan police report where one person who had been interviewed said something. That one line was played up. Diane Abbott and I were both annoyed that it had been played up that way. That’s why we put out a joint statement saying that we did not believe there was ritual sacrifice going on in Hackney.
Blood and Property: Diane said some quite strong things about some of the churches ( Ban these witchcraft churches).
Meg Hillier: That’s all pretty old stuff now.
Blood and Property: It’s just to show that issues about religion do come up.
Meg Hillier: I didn’t say I didn’t talk about religion, I said I engage with all groups on an equal basis. I visit mosques, churches of all denominations, faith groups and groups who I don’t know if they’ve got a faith commitment or not. I don’t question people on that basis. And if people want to lobby me on particular issues they need to know they can do that without fear of favour.
Blood and Property: Do you think that Hackney has seen the worst of the financial crisis?
Meg Hillier: I don’t think I could say one way or another at this stage. It depends what happens nationally, it looks like we’re coming slightly out of recession. One of Hackney’s challenges and one of the things I’m keen to pursue further is the issue about skilling up the population.
In Hackney you get hundreds of people applying for checkout jobs in places like Sainsburys. And that’s partly because the level of skills required in those jobs means that they are open to a lot of people.
Hackney’s got a very fast turnover of population. If you talk to the local bus company, they will tell you they take people on as bus drivers, skill them up and they move up to become managers then very often move out of Hackney.
That’s my biggest concern, that we are working with schools and colleges, and that we are skilling people up to take jobs in and around Hackney. And Hackney doesn’t have that many big employers at the moment other than the NHS and the council.
Blood and Property: Have things got much worse though, since the financial crisis?
Meg Hillier: I went to the Job Centre recently to ask them what they are doing and who they are seeing. Certainly there have been some changes. A slight increase in unemployment as you would expect although I’m not complacent about it.
And I go back to the skills thing. The best way to deal with this is to make sure that the people offering advice and training are doing their jobs properly. So that in bad times Hackney residents are in a good position to do well.
So the fact that Hackney schools are improving is a real welcome step because Hackney school children will be the workers of tomorrow and the better equipped they are to take on jobs available, the better equipped they are to compete.
Blood and Property: How seriously do you think Hackney would be affected if a Conservative government came into power?
Meg Hillier: If you look at the investment that’s gone into Hackney both from central government and from the council – the government has been pouring money in. We’ve got, five new secondary schools, 12 new Sure Start centres, other school improvement work, work at the Homerton Hospital and new GP surgeries. That investment is not an accident, that’s because Hackney has not had that investment for a very long time and the government prioritise that. For instance Decent Homes. When I started out in politics in the 90s I used to have to say to people I’m sorry, I have no idea when your window will get replaced. It was awful, people would have problems in their properties with no likelihood for improvement and now that work happens. But I don’t think it will be Conservative priority to focus on areas like Hackney.
Blood and Property: But is there much that can be done about that if the Conservatives do get into power?
Meg Hillier: Were the Conservatives to get in they would be bored of the word Hackney because I’d be bringing it up so often. I’d be looking endlessly at the Parliamentary end of things, looking at the detail of everything going through, every funding formula, any slight amendment or tweak that could benefit Hackney. Whether or not we could ever change it is another question but we would have to be ever vigilant.
Blood and Property: You and Diane seem to have very different views and styles, does that ever cause a problem? For example you seem to be on opposite sides on issues like the DNA database and Yarl’s Wood.
Meg Hillier: We actually get on very well. She’s been a great support as a fellow working mum. Her experience has been very helpful and she’s happy to share that with me. We are separate MPs representing different constituencies but sometimes there are issues that are Hackney-wide and we work together on those things. Even on the issue of children and detention there are areas of overlap, we actually share some views on that even though it might seem that we come from different positions. We work more together behind the scenes than people might appreciate.
Blood and Property: Do you think that in places like Hackney, or Tower Hamlets, that council departments and staff become politicised?
Meg Hillier: I deal with them on a very factual basis. If I’m dealing with a licensing issue then I’m dealing with them in relation to a licensing issue. But I think it’s right that council employees should follow the policy mission of the council. They should also be able to change course if the leadership changed. But I don’t think there’s any likelihood that the leadership will change.
Blood and Property: Do you think that concern over Hackney’s communications department, with Hackney Today for example, is fair? Do you think there are safeguards to prevent these becoming political tools?
Meg Hillier: There are safeguards because there have been councils in the past that have been taken to court when they’ve put something in the paper that’s been seen to be political. If anyone has an objection they should raise it and it should be investigated. But I don’t deal with Hackney Today at all beyond updating surgery details. I do publications from Parliament and I have to make it very balanced and not party political. There are very strict rules for all of us in public life.
Blood and Property: Back in 2005 when you were the parliamentary candidate for Hackney you were working in Tower Hamlets council press office which I think the Lib Dems had an issue with.
Meg Hillier: I wasn’t employed by Tower Hamlets council.
Blood and Property: No you were employed by an agency but you had a job in the press office.
Meg Hillier: I didn’t actually have a job in the press office. I was employed by my employer who then sent me on an appointment and they took me on because of the skills I had and my politics was really neither here nor there. If I hadn’t been able to do the job I wouldn’t have got the job.
Blood and Property: Yes, but its just an example of having people who are clearly political in roles that may be shouldn’t be political.
Meg Hillier: But there are rules about that. You can’t do that in jobs of a certain level.
Blood and Property: But you were able to do that job in Tower Hamlets because you worked for an agency instead of being a council employee.
Meg Hillier: I was employed by someone to do a job and I was not there to do any spin for any particular political party. In my job before I was very professional and you don’t last very long if you are partial. But equally, if you work in any local government environment you have to follow the policy that your political leadership sets. And that’s the job of a non-politically aligned administrative body.
Blood and Property: So if someone like Andrew Boff won and became Mayor you wouldn’t see a huge exodus of staff at a certain level?
Meg Hillier: Well. I don’t know. I don’t see it happening. But really there a lots of examples of people being councillors from one party or another and they wind up being chief executives of a council of a different political hue and it’s not an issue because they’re good at their jobs.
Blood and Property: What about crime?
Meg Hillier: Crime has definitely gone down massively in Hackney. When I speak to people on doorsteps they recognise that.
Blood and Property: Is that because of the number of policemen?
Meg Hillier: Well there are record numbers of police in London compared with what we’ve had. Neighbourhood policing has played a fantastic role in that, as well as building people’s trust in the system and reducing fear of crime because people are seeing bobbies on the beat. It’s an example of how the public can be right, they wanted more bobbies on the beat which has reassured people as well as making a difference.
Blood and Property: Do you think that these improvements are reversible?
Meg Hillier: Certainly, if there was a dramatic reduction in police officers across London that would be challenging. But normally, in a recession, we see crime increase and we haven’t. Although figures are all very well, if you’re a victim of crime you’re 100% a victim and you wouldn’t care about us saying that it’s all great. But you’re far less likely to be a victim now than you ever were – I think since the 50s. But if you are the victim it’s horrible for you. But that’s why we make sure that there’s victim support, that we catch the perpetrators and we let people know what’s happened to them. If someone’s done something wrong, you need to know, as a victim, that that person’s being held to account.
Links to Diane Abbott interview and Jules Pipe interview.