Blackwood: "The level of trust in public bodies has plummeted, when it comes to child protection." Photo: Flickr/Lawrence Harman
Show Hide image

Nicola Blackwood MP on reforming the law in child sex cases, and why Oxford isn't elitist

The Conservative MP and classically trained singer defends Oxford from claims of elitism, discusses how the law should change for child exploitation cases, and reveals why she came into politics.

“Every time we say goodbye, I die a little...”

Nicola Blackwood belted out a polished rendition of the Cole Porter classic a little after 4.30am on the night of her election as Conservative MP for Oxford West and Abingdon in 2010, snatching the seat from Lib Dem MP and current Hacked Off devotee Evan Harris by 176 votes.

And though the classically trained singer’s celebration of her victory sounded sweet, she met a rather bitter “hello” upon her arrival in parliament. One of the first things she had to deal with as an Oxford MP was the child exploitation case, “Operation Bullfinch”, in the area, in which six girls gave evidence in the trial of being raped, beaten and urinated on; seven men were jailed in 2013 for offences including child rape and trafficking committed between 2004 and 2012.

This subject is particularly poignant today, as the horrendous story of neglect of vulnerable children to abuse in Rotherham is unfolding. I interviewed Blackwood earlier this summer, before these revelations, and asked her about representing a constituency that has suffered such crimes.

***

Nicola Blackwood is sitting on the House of Commons terrace, looking out onto the Thames, with her thick Wayfarers keeping out the approaching summer recess sun. She is a very cool character, measured and softly-spoken, often referring to her notes and taking time to think through her answers.

She speaks to me about the shock of such a story unfolding in the shadow of Oxford’s spires, which are usually so relentlessly “dreaming”.

“We just didn’t believe that such a thing could happen in Oxford, which is so beautiful,” she recalls. “In those surroundings it seemed so alien, that victims have been denied justice too long and just weren’t believed.”

She continues: “The problem with these kinds of allegations is the level of trust in public bodies has plummeted, when it comes to child protection, and if there is any area in which we need to have confidence in public bodies and in one’s state bodies, it is in the protection of children from sexual abuse.”

Blackwood set up the Childhood Lost campaign for the protection of vulnerable children in a response to this child exploitation case and others like it, and has interesting views about the need to reform the law.

She suggests a change in abduction orders to erase a “ludicrous and unacceptable” quirk in the law. Currently, if a child goes missing regularly, and the police know who with, they can issue an abduction order for that person with the permission of the child’s guardian. However, if the child’s in care, they could issue the abduction order up to the age of 18, but if they live at home, they’re only protected up to 16. She also calls for a penalty for those in breach of the order, which currently is only really used bad character references in court: “if you’re taking a child missing and the police are involved and concerned, it’s clearly a very serious issue, so it should carry a penalty.”

Blackwood would also like to see “serious reforms in our court system”, including raising the age to 24 that one can give pre-recorded evidence (it’s currently 16), and “mandatory sexual offences training, not only the CPS, but also for defence barristers and judges in all cases involving vulnerable witnesses in sexual offence cases”.

She also advocates a compulsory “ground rules hearing”, which means judges can lay down their ground rules for the court, such as disallowing barristers on both sides saying or doing certain things, like calling the victim a prostitute, asking them the same question one after the other, and even instructing that they remove their wigs.

It is rather a big undertaking, and an ambitiously long-term project for an MP with such a slim majority, to take on the law. I wonder how optimistic Blackwood is that her proposed changes will take place.

“It’s very slow,” she nods. “I talk to the MOJ, I talk to the ministers, I talk to the judiciary and lawyers, and while there is resistance, I also think there is a recognition that this does have to happen. It just happens slowly.”

Oxford as a constituency has brought other challenges for Blackwood. She denies it’s a difficult constituency, but says that it is one of the “most educated”, which leads to bulging post bags from interested constituents. She says there is, “lots of opinion about what’s going on nationally, and I find that really positive because it means that I know about what local opinions are, I can engage with constituents on what’s going on. It’s not like I’m just sitting here in this bubble.”

Oxford is Blackwood’s home, and she also attended the university, studying music at St Anne’s College. Does she find it frustrating when people decry the proliferation of Oxford and Cambridge graduates at the top of politics and call the institutions elitist?

“Well, I think my constituency is the only one in the country where it’s required that I went to Oxford, or Oxford Brookes,” she smiles. “I do think that Oxford gets misrepresented a lot as elitist. And it does do a huge amount to improve its access. Of course it needs to improve, it needs to get a better balance, but the idea that it’s not working at it is inaccurate.

She adds: “I do also think that one of the barriers is schools who think that their students won’t be considered properly by a university like Oxford or Cambridge and therefore discourage their students from applying, which I think does happen and I think is really, really not fair to the students... I think it’s damaging.”

Yet her defence of the university’s students wasn’t necessarily reciprocated last May, when the student union condemned her for voting against same-sex marriage in the bill’s third reading. Blackwood argues that she had a “huge amount of correspondence on that bill” from both sides, and not just from students.

“I think I had over 1,500 letters and emails on that, and the students were part of it, a very important part... I did find voting on that bill very difficult,” she pauses. “I supported gay marriage in principle, I didn’t like the way the government was doing it. It’s gone through now and I’m happy that it is possible for gay couples to get married.

“I personally think that we should’ve separated civil and religious marriage and I really believe that we should have been reforming civil partnerships and doing other things. It was a very difficult process.”

Blackwood’s reticence was from her concern for religious freedom; she is a committed Christian and a member of the Conservative Christian Fellowship.

She was born in Johannesburg in 1979, and although her family left South Africa when she was a baby, she maintains an interest in international development and human rights overseas. She has chaired the all-party parliamentary group on Women, Peace and Security since 2010, and calls the situation for women in a conflict a “personal priority” and “one of the reasons why I wanted to become an MP in the first place, so that I could make it more of a priority in foreign policy”.

Blackwood praises former Foreign Secretary William Hague’s work on the subject, compounded by his involvement in the Global Summit on Sexual Violence Against Women in Conflict earlier this year, though argues that “there’s an awful lot more we could be doing.”

She elaborates: “I think that while we’ve won the battle a lot with our ministers in this country, and while we’ve won the battle a lot with the department [the Foreign Office], and we’ve got a lot of policies in place, we still get the general attitude that women’s rights and these kinds of issues aren’t really security issues, but development issues.”

Blackwood has done a lot of volunteering in different parts of the world – she mentions the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, South Sudan and Mozambique – and describes the particular problem of the plight of women in war-torn countries as “a massive blind-spot in foreign policy”.

She reveals that it “makes me feel very humble” meeting women who risk their lives day to day overseas, “because we complain about the way politicians get treated in this country when they’re women; it is nothing compared to the way female politicians get treated in countries like Afghanistan or Syria or any other place where being a woman politician probably means that you’re called a witch and a whore and your family is targeted for acid attacks.”

As is clear from her work on such a range of difficult subjects, Blackwood doesn’t have much downtime in parliament. She has permission to use the Speaker’s piano – apparently the only piano in parliament – but otherwise says she is a bit out of practice.

“I really miss it [my singing]... I haven’t been practising and maybe that will be my priority after the election, to get back into training if I win, and if I don’t we’ll have to wait and see.”

Perhaps another blast of Cole Porter would do for either scenario.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

Show Hide image

An unmatched font of knowledge

Edinburgh’s global reputation as a knowledge economy is rooted in the performance and international outlook of its four universities.

As sociologist-turned US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan recognised when asked how to create a world-class city, a strong academic offering is pivotal to any forward-looking, ambitious city. “Build a university,” he said, “and wait 200 years.” He recognised the long-term return such an investment can deliver; how a renowned academic institution can help attract the world. However, in today’s increasingly globalised higher education sector, world-class universities no longer rely on the world coming to come to them – their outlook is increasingly international.

Boasting four world-class universities, Edinburgh not only attracts and retains students from around the world, but also increasingly exports its own distinctively Scottish brand of academic excellence. In fact, 53.9% of the city’s working age population is educated to degree level.

In the most recent QS World University Rankings, the University of Edinburgh was named as the 21st best university in the world, reflecting its reputation for research and teaching. It’s a fact reflected in the latest UK Research Exercise Framework (REF), conducted in 2014, which judged 96% of its academic departments to be producing world-leading research.

Innovation engine

Measured across the UK, annual Gross Value Added (GVA) by University of Edinburgh start-ups contributes more than £164m to the UK economy. In fact, of 262 companies to emerge from the university since the 1960s, 81% remain active today, employing more than 2,700 staff globally. That performance places the University of Edinburgh ahead of institutions such as MIT in terms of the number of start-ups it generates; an innovation hothouse that underlines why one in four graduates remain in Edinburgh and why blue chip brands such as Amazon, IBM and Microsoft all have R&D facilities in the city.

One such spin out making its mark is PureLiFi, founded by Professor Harald Haas to commercialise his groundbreaking research on data transmission using the visible light spectrum. With data transfer speeds 10,000 times faster than radio waves, LiFi not only enables bandwidths of 1 Gigabit/sec but is also far more secure.

Edinburgh’s universities play a pivotal role in the local economy. Through its core operations, knowledge transfer activities and world-class research the University generated £4.9bn in GVA and 44,500 jobs globally, when accounting for international alumni.

With £1.4bn earmarked for estate development over the next 10 years, the University of Edinburgh remains the city’s largest property developer. Its extensive programme of investment includes the soon-to-open Higgs Centre for Innovation. A partnership with the UK Astronomy Technology Centre, the new centre will open next year and will supply business incubation support for potential big data and space technology applications, enabling start-ups to realise the commercial potential of applied research in subjects such as particle physics.

It’s a story of innovation that is mirrored across Edinburgh’s academic landscape. Each university has carved its own areas of academic excellence and research expertise, such as the University of Edinburgh’s renowned School of Informatics, ranked among the world’s elite institutions for Computer Science. 

The future of energy

Research conducted into the economic impact of Heriot-Watt University demonstrated that it generates £278m in annual GVA for the Scottish economy and directly supports more than 6,000 jobs.

Set in 380-acres of picturesque parkland, Heriot-Watt University incorporates the Edinburgh Research Park, the first science park of its kind in the UK and now home to more than 40 companies.

Consistently ranked in the top 25% of UK universities, Heriot-Watt University enjoys an increasingly international reputation underpinned by a strong track record in research. 82% of the institution’s research is considered world-class (REF) – a fact reflected in a record breaking year for the university, attracting £40.6m in research funding in 2015. With an expanding campus in Dubai and last year’s opening of a £35m campus in Malaysia, Heriot-Watt is now among the UK’s top five universities in terms of international presence and numbers of international students.

"In 2015, Heriot-Watt University was ranked 34th overall in the QS ‘Top 50 under 50’ world rankings." 

Its established strengths in industry-related research will be further boosted with the imminent opening of the £20m Lyell Centre. It will become the Scottish headquarters of the British Geological Survey, and research will focus on global issues such as energy supply, environmental impact and climate change. As well as providing laboratory facilities, the new centre will feature a 50,000 litre climate change research aquarium, the UK Natural Environment Research Council Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in Oil and Gas, and the Shell Centre for Exploration Geoscience.

International appeal

An increasingly global outlook, supported by a bold international strategy, is helping to drive Edinburgh Napier University’s growth. The university now has more than 4,500 students studying its overseas programmes, through partnerships with institutions in Hong Kong, Singapore, China, Sri Lanka and India.

Edinburgh Napier has been present in Hong Kong for more than 20 years and its impact grows year-on-year. Already the UK’s largest higher education provider in the territory, more than 1,500 students graduated in 2015 alone.

In terms of world-leading research, Edinburgh Napier continues to make its mark, with the REF judging 54% of its research to be either world-class or internationally excellent in 2014. The assessment singled out particular strengths in Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences, where it was rated the top UK modern university for research impact. Taking into account research, knowledge exchange, as well as student and staff spending, Edinburgh Napier University generates in excess of £201.9m GVA and supports 2,897 jobs in the city economy.

On the south-east side of Edinburgh, Queen Margaret University is Scotland’s first university to have an on-campus Business Gateway, highlighting the emphasis placed on business creation and innovation.

QMU moved up 49 places overall in the 2014 REF, taking it to 80th place in The Times’ rankings for research excellence in the UK. The Framework scored 58% of Queen Margaret’s research as either world-leading or internationally excellent, especially in relation to Speech and Language Sciences, where the University is ranked 2nd in the UK.

In terms of its international appeal, one in five of Queen Margaret’s students now comes from outside the EU, and it is also expanding its overseas programme offer, which already sees courses delivered in Greece, India, Nepal, Saudi Arabia and Singapore.

With 820 years of collective academic excellence to export to the world, Edinburgh enjoys a truly privileged position in the evolving story of academic globalisation and the commercialisation of world-class research and innovation. If he were still around today, Senator Moynihan would no doubt agree – a world-class city indeed.

For further information www.investinedinburgh.com