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 senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Want an independent-minded MP? Vote for a career politician

The brutally ambitious are not content to fall in with the crowd. 

“Never having had a ‘real’ job outside of politics”: this is what the majority of respondents told a YouGov poll in 2014 when asked the most undesirable characteristic of the British politician. The result is hardly surprising. Type the words “career politician” into your search engine or raise the topic at a dinner party, and quickly you will be presented with a familiar list of grievances.

One of the fundamental criticisms is that career politicians in parliament are elitists concerned only with furthering their own interests. Their pronounced and self-serving ambition for climbing the ministerial ladder is said to turn them into submissive party-machines, sycophants or yes men and women, leading them to vote loyally with their party in every parliamentary division. But do we actually have evidence for this?

A new in-depth analysis, to be published later this month in the academic journal, Legislative Studies Quarterly, presents a forceful challenge to this conventional wisdom. In fact, I find that career politician MPs in the UK are more likely to rebel against their party than their non-career politician peers. Why?

My study was motivated by the observation that the existing impression of the party loyalty of career politicians is based mostly on anecdotal evidence and speculation. Moreover, a look through the relevant journalistic work, as well as the sparse extant academic literature, reveals that the two main hypotheses on the topic make starkly contradictory claims. By far the most popular — but largely unverified — view is that their exclusively professional reliance on politics renders career politicians more brutally ambitious for frontbench office, which in turn makes them especially subservient to the party leadership.

The opposing, but lesser known expectation is that while career politicians may be particularly eager to reach the frontbenches, “many of them are also much too proud and wilful to be content to serve as mere lobby fodder”, as the late Anthony King, one of the shrewdest analysts of British politics, observed nearly thirty years ago on the basis of more qualitative evidence.

Faced with these opposing but equally plausible prognoses, I assembled biographical data for all the MPs of the three big parties between 2005-15 (more than 850) and analysed all parliamentary votes during this period. I followed the debate’s prevalent view that an exclusive focus on politics (e.g. as a special adviser or an MP’s assistant) or a closely-related field (e.g. full-time trade union official or interest group worker) marks an MP as a careerist. In line with previous estimations, just under 20 per cent of MPs were identified as career politicians. The extensive statistical analysis accounted for additional factors that may influence party loyalty, and largely ruled out systematic differences in ideology between career and non-career politicians, as well as party or term-specific differences as drivers of the effects.

As noted above, I find strong evidence that career politician backbenchers are more likely to rebel. The strength of this effect is considerable. For example, amongst government backbenchers who have never held a ministerial post, a non-career politician is estimated to rebel in only about 20 votes per parliament. By contrast, a career politician dissents more than twice as often — a substantial difference considering the high party unity in Westminster.

This finding reveals a striking paradox between the predominantly negative opinion of career politicians on the one hand, and the electorate's growing demand for more independent-minded MPs on the other. In fact career politicians are the ones who perform best in delivering on this demand. Similarly, the results imply that the oft-cited career-related dependency of career politicians on the party can be overridden (or, at the very least, complemented) by their self-image as active and independent-minded participants in the legislative process. This should attenuate the prevalent concern that a rise in career politicians leads to a weakening of parliament’s role as a scrutinizing body.

Finally, the findings challenge the pervasive argument that a lack of experience in the real world disqualifies an MP from contributing meaningfully to the legislative process. Instead, it appears that a pre-parliamentary focus on politics can, under certain circumstances, boost an MP's normatively desirable willingness to challenge the party and the executive.

Raphael Heuwieser is researching political party loyalty at the University of Oxford.