Interview: Minister for Europe Caroline Flint

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a white background.

A exclusive meets Minister for Europe Caroline Flint, to discuss the BNP, expenses, gay marriage and who she voted for in the Eurovision Song Contest.

Like many politicians and religious leaders have done recently, are you going to tell readers not to vote for the BNP?

They’re a fascist, racist party and no amount of looking nice and tidy and standing on the doorstep can get away from that. Fundamentally, they are a divisive, hateful party and in terms of equality, everything they stand for is against any form of equality or living in a society where people can define themselves and be their own person and have access to the sort of treatment that everybody should get, regardless of their sexuality, race, gender or disability.

Are you concerned about small extremist parties? Currently, it’s thought that UKIP could do better than the BNP; are you concerned about them?

I am concerned, because with a lot of the smaller parties, particularly on the extremes of politics, they’re usually against something which means they’re probably against everybody else, except the people who look like them.

Would you extend that to UKIP?

I think UKIP are very much set on the platform that they’re against the EU; that doesn’t stop them standing to become MEPs, and taking the salary and taking the allowances that go with that. But effectively UKIP want us to come out of the EU, that’s their standing, and therefore it does beg the question that when they actually go to Brussels or to Strasbourg, what sort of constructive discussions do they have with any of the other groupings or commissions as to the way in which European law and directives should be developed; they’re a negative.

There was a survey of gay men and women in April by the Outright Consortium, which found that gay men and women, part of your traditional voter base, were turning away from Labour.

I’m sad if gay people are feeling like that because I think on a whole number of issues, let’s start with equality issues, nobody can take away from the Labour government what we have done in the last 12 years to combat the discriminatory legislation that preceded us in 1997. We did take on some of the important issues surrounding civil partnerships, about allowing sensible discussions to happen in our school system about sexuality.

I think every step of the way where we have taken forward progressive legislation to ensure gay men and women can share in equality in this country, the Tory party have opposed that in one form or another.

Going back to civil partnerships, do you think they’re a good idea? Because a lot of our readers say it’s apartheid. Many resent the idea of civil partnerships; they want marriage.

Civil partnerships are a commitment to each other and a relationship, and whether you call it a civil partnership or marriage it’s about saying that gay people who want to form that commitment can do so, and in doing so get access to the sort of rights that are important.

I feel really proud of what we’ve done on civil partnerships, and I think in a situation where in other parts of the world they’re not even considered, and we’ve just seen this week in California [where Proposition 8 has been upheld], I’m really proud of what the Labour government has done here and I know there are many gay people who feel that this has given them something that is really practical but also respects their love for another person.

Can you see marriages for gay people happening soon in this country? Three American states have just legalised marriage.

There’s a whole thing about ‘what does it mean’. I got married in a registry office and in some ways that was a civil, legal partnership. Did I feel less married having not got married in a church? Not really. I think we’ve got something now that is still very new.

I know we’re seeing the first divorces, so unfortunately, even for gay men and women, normality occurs, in terms of divorce that’s just the same for everybody. But I think we’ve got something that is relatively new but it has proven itself worthwhile, it’s protecting people’s financial and emotional interests.

One of our big challenges in Europe is working with other European countries to make sure that we can get recognition for British civil partnerships in those other European member states. We’ve been doing a lot of bilateral work with France and the approach we’re taking is to seek to develop these bilateral arrangements so that we can create a force of change that will hopefully, eventually lead to anybody with a civil partnership being recognised across the EU. We’re not sitting back, we’re actively involved in that and MEPs, Michael Cashman and others are part of our campaign to try and make sure that British gay couples’ rights are protected wherever they travel or work in the EU.

There was a Fundamental Rights Agency report in March which found widespread discrimination, violence and harassment across the EU. They focused on Poland, which has a very homophobic president, and also Estonia, Latvia and Bulgaria. Is Britain working to counteract that?

Yes, we do. We do raise our concerns with countries that for example try to prevent pride marches, and that’s something we continue to try and influence, both our ministers and our colleagues in the European parliament to support the people in those countries who are fighting for gay rights, but also to make the case that part of our values in being part of the European Union is about respect for people whoever they are and their right to enjoy all the benefits of being part of the EU. It’s not easy and to be blunt we’re dealing with countries where the culture development in these areas is way behind ours.

In parliament, Tory MPs have abstained or voted against measures to support better and more equal rights for gay people in Europe. You can look shiny and new, David Cameron looks shiny and new, and be a metrosexual man, but the fact is he’s got the barbarians behind him You can talk the talk but whether you deliver or not is a question I hope your readers will ask; is there substance behind the rhetoric?

What do you think of the Slavic Pride protests and the heavy-handedness of the Moscow police?

It’s terrible, and again we do raise our concerns and we support other organisations who are striving to change this cultural mindset. It’s not about ‘how do you pass law on equality, it’s about how you implement it that’s important. You can have a set of values that are written down that unite the EU and the 27 member states, but it’s also how those values are implemented and interpreted on the ground and that is a work in progress.

And I have to say that again, the Tory party in Europe actively abstains and votes against more progressive directives around sexuality and at the same time we have then, leaving the mainstream of centre-right politics in Europe, and try and form alliance with far more right wing groups that are actively hostile towards gay people.

They are making those decisions and people need to be aware of that. It’s all very well saying ‘do you want to form an alliance with people who want Europe to have less influence and less power’ but in doing so you’re also aligning yourself with people who have very homophobic views. You can’t pick one bit of your friend’s manifesto and ignore everything else, I think they are going much further in this alliance to the right of European politics. They’re removing themselves from the centre almost.

Do you think the expenses row is going to damage Labour’s chances in the European election?

I think expenses situation affects all of us, regardless of big parties or small parties. What we’ve got to focus on is getting it sorted. In parliament we agreed that all MPs’ expenses over the last four years will be gone through by an independent panel, there’s a commission that will come up with a set of proposals about how the court system should be run and thirdly we’ve made it very clear that we do need to accept that it’s not right that parliament should set its own rates, whether it’s for pay or whether it’s for expenses as well.

A couple of gay MPs, Ben Bradshaw and Chris Bryant, have, in the words of some of our readers, used homophobia as a defence against their expense claims. What do you think of this?

I don’t know the details of Chris and Ben’s circumstances. Part of the problem is that things are being printed in the papers that cause huge concern to members of the public and undoubtedly (though I’m not commenting on Chris or Ben) there are some claims that I didn’t even realise you could claim for. It’s beyond my imagination to think what some of these people claimed for.

But when some of these thing are published (and I don’t think there’s any point blaming the Telegraph) you need to have an independent assessment on the situation and what was happening and I don’t think that’s easy to do in the commons or in newspapers. I believe strongly that both the public and MPs need this independent assessment of claims over the last four years. I’d like to believe that I have claimed in good faith within what I thought were the rules, but if there is something that they feel that I shouldn’t have claimed for or shouldn’t have got as much for then I want them to do that and I will do whatever I can to put that right, and if that means paying something back that’s fine.

There are different stories here and everyone does need to have it independently looked at and to explain themselves. I don’t want to be judge and jury on anyone on the basis of what I’ve read in the newspaper. Everyone’s being looked at regardless of their sexuality. All I hope is that we don’t end up with a system where you have to be a millionaire to become an MP. I think we’d go back to a system where you have to have a lot of money, or a trade union behind you.

Regarding Hazel Blears’s avoidance of capital gains tax, last week you defended her saying she’s technically done nothing wrong. There’s a suggestion that other MPs in the party did the same thing. Do you think she’s been lined up as a fall guy?

No, I don’t think so. I echo what the Prime Minister’s said in that Hazel’s doing a good job and should be allowed to get on with it. Hazel, in her own words, said capital gains tax is nothing to do with the House of Commons. There are arguments both ways on this capital gains tax situation. Hazel felt, looking at it, that she wanted to get rid of anything that could be seen as being wrong and that’s why she said whatever the situation, whatever the rules, I’m just going to go and pay this, and she did that. That was her choice.

Nothing to do with her criticism of the Prime Minister’s appearance on YouTube, which is what’s been suggested?

No, not at all. In the article that Hazel wrote she said we’ll be going to the next election with Gordon Brown as leader, and all ministers need to work together to make sure that we’re focusing on delivering, that we’re out there, using YouTube yes, and we mustn’t forget being out on the doorstep and some of those more traditional ways of meeting people because not everybody spends their whole life on YouTube.

On a lighter note, is is true that you and a number of other female Labour MPs have a tap-dancing troupe?

It is true but I do feel a bit guilty now when people mention it because it has been about a year since we’ve had one of our classes. It is true that a year or two after we got elected in 1997, some of us did decide we wanted to just do something extra-curricular that was fun and healthy and we did have tap dancing lessons. We did a couple of routines to raise money for Macmillan [Cancer Support] and that’s when we called ourselves the Division Belles. So it’s been a while but unfortunately in the last year it’s not really been happening so I feel a bit guilty every time I see it somewhere. But it’s good, it’s nice. You’ve got have something outside of politics to do.

Finally, we wondered who you supported for Eurovision…
Actually I voted for Turkey, funnily enough. I thought she was a bit like Shakira so I quite like that. I have to say, I’d watched the voting and how political it was and I was seeing who voted for us and who didn’t vote for us. So the week after the Eurovision results, in every meeting I was having with people I was saying ‘Do you know how they voted in Eurovision? That’s what their people think of us!’. I think it was a pretty good production this year actually.

And I thought Graham Norton was pretty good. It was a good result for us actually. I thought Jade did really well. There was one bit where I thought one of the violinists nearly knocked her with their bow as she was coming downstairs. I don’t know whether you get extra points with Andrew Lloyd Webber sitting on stage. I thought she did really well, and apparently she worked really hard, she went round the other European countries and got herself on TV, so it was pretty good!