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

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Chuka Umunna calls for "solidarity" among Labour MPs, whoever is voted leader

The full text of shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna's speech to Policy Network on election-winning ideas for Labour's future, and the weaknesses of the New Labour project.

There has never been an easy time to be a social democrat (or “democratic socialist” as we sometimes call ourselves in Britain). Whereas the right can demonise the poor and extol the virtues of the market, and the hard left can demonise the market and extol the role of the state, our position of constraining the domination of markets and reforming the state is, by definition, more complex.

It is nonetheless the case that social democracy has a historic responsibility, in every generation, to renew democracy and preserve a civic culture. This is achieved not through soundbites and slogans, but through the hard-headed development of a progressive politics that reconciles liberty and democracy, new comers and locals to our communities, business and workers, in a common life that preserves security, prosperity and peace.  This historic mission is all the more urgent now and my determination that we succeed has grown not weakened since our election defeat last May.

But, in order to be heard, it is necessary to make balanced and reasonable argument that both animates and inspires our movement, and which is popular and plausible with the people.  The first is pre-requisite to the second; and there is no choice to be made between your party’s fundamental principles and electability. They are mutually dependent - you cannot do one without the other.

We are in the midst of choosing a new leader and it is clear to anyone who has watched the UK Labour Party leadership election this summer that amongst a significant number there is a profound rage against Third Way politics – as pursued by the likes of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder and others - as a rejection of our fundamental values.

In the UK there is a view that New Labour accepted an uncritical accommodation with global capital that widened inequality, weakened organised labour and we were too close to the US Republicans and too far from the European left.

I do not believe this is fair, not least because we rescued many of our public services from the scrap heap when we came to office in 1997 and there were very significant achievements  we should celebrate.  New Labour renewed our National Health Service in a fundamental way; we built new schools and improved existing ones; we set up new children’s centres all over the country; we brought in a National Minimum Wage; we worked with others to bring peace to Northern Ireland; we introduced civil partnerships.  Just some of our achievements.

However, though we may take issue with the critique, I do not think we can simply dismiss out of hand those who hold critical views of New Labour. Like any government, the New Labour administration made mistakes - it could and should have achieved more, and done more to challenge the Right’s assumptions about the world. In the end, it is not unreasonable to be ambitious for what your party in government can achieve in building greater equality, liberty, democracy and sustainability. It is far better we acknowledge, not reject, this ambition for a better world, as we seek to forge a new politics of the common good fit for the future.

Realising our values in office has been disrupted by globalisation and the surge of technological forces that are displacing and reshaping industry after industry.

Some argue that globalisation as an ideological construct of the right. But we must recognise that we live in an increasingly integrated world in which markets have led to an unprecedented participation of excluded people in prosperity, a rise in living standards for hundreds of millions  of people and a literacy unprecedented in human history – this is particularly so in emerging economies like my father’s native Nigeria. And the internet has led to a level of accountability that has disturbed elites.

Yet, this has been combined with a concentration of ownership that needs to be challenged, of a subordination of politics that requires creative rather than reactive thinking, and these global forces have exacerbated inequalities as well as helped reduce poverty.

So it is important that we understand the sheer scale and impact of new technologies. At the moment we are engaged in a debate about Uber and its threat to one of the last vestiges of vocational labour markets left in London, those of the black taxi cabs and their attainment of 'The Knowledge'. But the reality is that within the next decade there will be the emergence of driverless cars so we have to intensify our exploration of how to support people in a knowledge economy and the realities of lifelong learning, as well as lifelong teaching. As people live longer we will have to think about how to engage them constructively in work and teaching in new ways.

Once again, I'm addressing all of this, Social Democracy requires a balanced view that domesticates the destructive energy of capital while recognising its creative energy, that recognises the need for new skills rather than simply the protection of old ones. A Social Democracy that recognises that internationalism requires co-operation between states and not a zero sum game that protectionism would encourage.

Above all, Social Democratic politics must recognise the importance of place, of the resources to be found in the local through which the pressures of globalisation can be mediated and shaped. Our job is to shape the future and neither to accept it as a passive fate nor to indulge the fantasy that we can dominate it but to work with the grain of change in order to renew our tradition, recognising the creativity of the workforce, the benefits of democracy and the importance of building a common life.  Sources of value are to be found in local traditions and institutions.

This also requires a recognition that though demonstration and protest are important,; but relationships and conversations are a far more effective way of building a movement for political change.

One of the huge weaknesses of New Labour was in its reliance on mobilisation from the centre rather than organising. It therefore allowed itself to be characterised as an elite project with wide popular support but it did not build a base for its support within the party across the country, and it did not develop leaders from the communities it represented. It was strong on policy but weak on strengthening democratic politics, particularly Labour politics.

Over half a million people are now members, supporters or affiliated supporters of our party, with hundreds of thousands joining in the last few weeks. Some have joined in order to thwart the pursuit of Labour values but many more have joined to further the pursuit of those values, including lots of young people. At a time when so many are walking away from centre left parties across the Western world and many young people do not vote let alone join a party, this is surely something to celebrate.

So it is vital that we now embrace our new joiners and harness the energy they can bring to renewing Labour’s connection with the people. First, we must help as many them as possible to become doorstep activists for our politics. Second, I have long argued UK Labour should campaign and organise not only to win elections but to affect tangible change through local community campaigns. We brought Arnie Graf, the Chicago community organiser who mentored President Obama in his early years, over from the U.S. to help teach us how to community organise more effectively. We should bring Arnie back over to finish the job and help empower our new joiners to be the change they want to see in every community – we need to build on the links they have with local groups and organisations.

I mentioned at the beginning that in every generation Social Democracy is besieged from left and right but the achievements of each generation are defined by the strength of a complex political tradition that strengthens solidarity through protecting democracy and liberty, a role for the state and the market and seeks to shape the future through an inclusive politics. Solidarity is key which is why we must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office.

Yes, these are troubled times for social democrats. All over Europe there is a sense among our traditional voters that we are remote and do not share their concerns or represent their interests or values.  There is surge of support for populist right wing parties from Denmark to France, of more left wing parties in Greece and Spain and in Britain too. There is renewal of imperial politics in Russia, the murderous and abhorrent regime of ISIL in the Middle East, volatility in the Chinese economy and in Europe a flow of immigration that causes fear and anxiety.

But, the task of Social Democracy in our time is to fashion a politics of hope that can bring together divided populations around justice, peace and prosperity so that we can govern ourselves democratically. We have seen worse than this and weathered the storm. I am looking forward, with great optimism to be being part of a generation that renews our relevance and popularity in the years to come.

Chuka Umunna is the shadow business secretary and the Labour MP for Streatham.