When Hackney South and Shoreditch MP Meg Hillier entered Parliament in 2005 Tony Blair was Prime Minister, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was a scarcely noticed backbencher and Brexit a fringe idea. How things have changed.
“I think it has a big impact on an area where there’s such need,” says Hillier as we begin on the topic of how austerity has affected Hackney since 2010. In particular she singles out law and order as an area where government cuts have disproportionately hurt Hackney.
“We’ve lost a lot of police officers in Hackney and that has had a big impact”. Specifically she mourns the loss of neighbourhood police officers who “got to know their locality, got to hear what was happening on the ground, could head things off”.
“Hackney schools are amongst the best in the country” and “people have to fight to get into them”
However when it comes to Hackney education Hillier is clear that there has been a big improvement.
She notes that “when we were discussing tuition fees back in 2004-6 I used to say well it’s a bit academic in Hackney as Hackney children aren’t going to university, or not coming from Hackney schools anyway”.
Now, she says, “Hackney schools are amongst the best in the country” and “people have to fight to get into them”. She attributes this to the “very deliberate choice of a Labour administration in Hackney to grasp what the government was offering on schools”.
“I came from a big happy family… not everyone had the same opportunities I did”
“It’s a dog’s breakfast,” Hillier says, as we move on to the topic of Brexit, the issue which currently dominates British politics.
Hillier, a strong remain supporter representing a constituency which voted to stay in the European Union by over 75%, isn’t a fan of the Government’s record. She describes leaving the EU with only a two year transition period as “a very big challenge.”
As a Hackney MP, Hillier is aware of the concern Brexit is creating in her constituency, noting that a lot of businesses, particularly in and around Shoreditch, worry about the impact of leaving the Single Market.
Unlike her leader, Hillier supports the UK remaining in the Single Market after Brexit.
Jeremy Corbyn has said it would be impossible for Britain to remain in the EU’s single market but has laid out a plan for a permanent customs deals to be struck with the EU when the Brexit transition deal ends on 31 December 2020, a move she calls “a good step in the right direction”.
“The time for dialogue with Russia is sadly over. We need to deal with it quite robustly”
Hillier has been using her important parliamentary role as Chair of the Public Accounts Committee to scrutinise the Government’s preparations for Britain’s exit from the European Union on 29 March 2019.
“I’ve been looking very closely as Chair… at how the Government is preparing for this and it’s very, very worrying…it’s very difficult to know practically how Brexit can be delivered in the time available”.
Hillier notes that she still frequently comes across people who are “tearful” about the issue adding that people, particularly those from European and other overseas backgrounds, “are very, very scared and worried… [and feel] they are not as welcome as they were before”.
Considering the damage she thinks Brexit will cause, Hillier says Corbyn could have “done more” during the referendum campaign to campaign for the remain side, noting the “enthusiasm he was able to whip up” during the 2017 General Election campaign.
“It’s a dog’s breakfast. it’s very difficult to know practically how Brexit can be delivered in the time available”
We turn, on a closely related note, to what it’s like being a female MP in such a polarized political environment.
Hillier doesn’t mince her words saying attacks on social media are “very wearing” before adding a lot of female MPs have chosen to withdraw entirely from some social media platforms.
“I think it’s very off-putting for people looking at the option of going into politics to see that nastiness,” she says.
Some have accused supporters of Momentum, the pro-Corbyn campaign group, of leading the online abuse against Corbyn’s party opponents. I ask whether the group needs to shoulder some of the blame.
“I know colleagues around the country have had some very hard times which you could say is Momentum… but sometimes it’s not, sometimes it’s just individuals within Momentum or the Labour Party”.
“Corbyn could have done more during the referendum”
Hillier says she was motivated to get involved in politics when she started noticing inequality as a child. Whilst “I came from a big happy family where I was told I could do whatever I wanted” she remembers “a couple of incidents in my youth realising…that not everyone had the same opportunities I did”.
She notes that the level of inequality of opportunity “made me angry… opportunities get cut off in life if you’re unlucky with where you’re born… it’s that burning sense of injustice that has driven me on”.
Before the interview concludes I ask about Corbyn’s response to the accusation that the Russian state poisoned former spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, which was to call for “robust dialogue”.
Hillier takes a firmer line, stating: “the time for dialogue with Russia is sadly over. A state which has had a direct attack on citizens within its midst needs to deal with it quite robustly”.