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"I'm Harriet Harman, you know where you can get me" were the words allegedly spoken by one Harriet Harman, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Chairman of the Labour Party, Lord Privy Seal, Leader of the House of Commons, and Minister for Women and Equality, during an incident which took place in Camberwell on the afternoon of the 3rd July 2009.

It came to pass that Ms Harman was driving her red Ford Fiesta at Bushey Hill Road near to where she had her home at Camberwell in South London, and was holding a conversation on her mobile phone when she struck a parked car. Naturally this incident attracted a small crowd of onlookers, including the owner of the struck vehicle, who then approached Ms Harman, at which point she wound down her window, made her pronouncement, and then drove off.

According to a "senior police source" they were later contacted by "concerned members of the public who had witnessed the accident and the behaviour of Ms Harman". Details were then passed to the London Traffic Unit, which proceeded to launch an investigation, since hitting a stationary vehicle would itself be a prima facie case of driving without due care and attention; leaving the scene of an accident without handing over your insurance or registration details would be an offence under the Road Traffic Act 1988, whilst using a mobile phone whilst driving would also an offence, normally punishable with an automatic three points and a £60 fine.

When the story first hit the press in early October 2009 it appeared that although the incident had taken place some three months previously, the London Traffic Unit had oddly enough yet to interview Ms Harman. There were rumours that they had attempted to do so, but that Ms Harman refused to speak to them, on the grounds that they were civilian support staff rather than actual police officers, despite the fact that it was her own government that was encouraging the use of civilian support staff in such circumstances in order to free up police officers for more important duties.

The press were particularly interested in the tale, not only because it involved a senior government minister, but also because the government minister in question had, as we say in Britain, 'previous'. In 2003 she was fined £400 and disqualified for a week after being convicted of driving at 99 mph on a motorway, and again in 2007 she received a £60 fixed-penalty notice and three penalty points after being caught driving at 50 mph in a 40 mph zone on the A14 in Suffolk. In the latter case, she narrowly avoided a further appearance at Ipswich Magistrates' Court due to her failure to pay the fine on time. A quite understandable lapse given that she was engaged in the contest for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party at the time.

As far as these latest allegations were concerned, Ms Harman produced a spokeswoman who announced that she "strongly refutes the allegations but is co-operating with the police". Students of the English language would immediately have noted that the word refute means to "disprove, overthrow by argument, prove to be false", and wondered why, if Ms Harman was capable of disproving the allegation, she had not simply handed this evidence over to the police, and avoided the public expense of a trial. However as the Oxford English Dictionary notes, refute is "Sometimes used erroneously to mean 'deny, repudiate'" which is presumably what Ms Harman really meant to say.

Nevertheless a case file was duly sent to the Crown Prosecution Service, and the CPS duly decided to charge Ms Harman with driving without due care and attention and driving while using a mobile phone. She was not however charged with 'leaving the scene of an accident' presumably because she had sufficiently identified herself by shouting "I'm Harriet Harman, you know where you can get me" before driving off. Stranger still however was the fact that the charge of driving while using a mobile phone was withdrawn when the matter came before Westminster Magistrates' Court on the 8th January 2010. This appeared to be a particularly perverse decision given that Prosecutor Michael Jennings informed the court that Ms Harman was "using her mobile phone when she got into the car and throughout the low-speed incident". To cap it all the nation discovered what Ms Harman really meant by "refutes" as she pled guilty to the charge of driving without due care and attention.

She was fined £350, ordered to pay £75 costs together with a £15 victim surcharge, and had three points added to her driving licence. Naturally some people were rather upset at this display of leniency.. A certain Cathy Keeler, from a road safety campaign group known as Brake, was particularly incensed at the at the failure to charge Harman with the use of a mobile phone whilst driving, and declared that it was "unacceptable" for "someone who is so much in the public eye to disregard laws that are there for the safety of the public". Cynics noted that had Ms Harman also been charged with the mobile phone offence, the additional three points would have taken her total up to twelve and resulted in an automatic driving ban. A state of affairs that would have no doubt caused her some inconvenience, there being an election expected in the near future. Perhaps the CPS knew what it was doing after all.

SOURCES

  • James Millbank, 'I'm Harriet Harman - you know where you can get me...', Daily Mail, 04th October 2009
    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1217974/Im-Harriet-Harman--know--What-Minister-allegedly-told-witness-crashing-parked-car.html
  • Harriet Harman fined £350 for careless driving, BBC News, 8 January 2010
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/8447784.stm

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