The House of Lords. Photo: Leon Neal/AFP
Show Hide image

Parliament? Over the years I've met several powerful men there who have no idea of boundaries

Suffice to say that it’s an uncomfortable place for someone like me. One feels like a masked anarchist simply being there as a woman.

I remember very well the first time I went to the House of Fun. Westminster. The Commons. Parliament. Whatever you want to call it.

Like the fool that I am, I didn’t just nip in and out for the spicy bits. I sat in the chamber all day, every day, for aeons. Actually, maybe an entire three weeks. That’s still longer than many hacks who just turn up for the brawl that is PMQs.

First, I was given a guided tour and told how beautiful it all is. Here is Pugin’s throne. Here is the cupboard where the Queen gets dolled up for the opening of parliament. Here are some servants. Men with swords.

Possibly if I was a tourist from Utah, I might have found this “beautiful”, but the whole place is a cathedral of gloom with frilly bits and mannered decoration. It also smells, if repression has a smell.

Nonetheless, Westminster attracts a certain type. Not just politicians, but the kind of people who like to murmur in corridors and burrow away into its recesses. People who have grown up with, or grow to understand, a set of arbitrary and arcane rules paraded as tradition. Public school people.

Suffice to say that it’s an uncomfortable place for someone like me.

I spent the whole time, and still do, accidentally breaking rules.

One feels like a masked anarchist simply being there as a woman. A man in tights once tried to stop me entering the Press Gallery.

“You can’t go in there with that.”

“That” was a long scarf. Some ancient law, or the presumption that I was going to abseil down on to Michael Fabricant’s head? Who knows?

Several times, I was told off for talking. Near important people. Or for trying to get a sandwich in the wrong place. Or for trying to buy a drink in a bar that is for bishops only. Doh!!

I began to see how anyone cooped up there would have “moments of madness”. There’s something very odd about it all, but I wanted to understand it. So when a lord offered to take me to tea, I leapt at the chance to cross from the green carpet to the red and look at the Lords.

I thought Greville Janner, for it was he, would be explaining how the Lords functioned. Instead, he spent the entire time telling me about a birth he had attended. In gory detail. The birth of his grandchild.

This seemed to me extremely inappropriate. What woman has her own father there while she gives birth? I don’t know if what he told me was true. Mostly I squirmed, as I did not know why on earth he was describing this intimate experience to me.

All I can say now is that over the years, in this House of Rules, I have met several powerful men who have no idea of boundaries. Of any kind. At all.

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 24 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, What does England want?

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

No, IDS, welfare isn't a path to wealth. Quite the opposite, in fact

Far from being a lifestyle choice, welfare is all too often a struggle for survival.

Iain Duncan Smith really is the gift that keeps on giving. You get one bile-filled giftbag of small-minded, hypocritical nastiness and, just when you think it has no more pain to inflict, off comes another ghastly layer of wrapping paper and out oozes some more. He is a game of Pass the Parcel for people who hate humanity.
For reasons beyond current understanding, the Conservative party not only let him have his own department but set him loose on a stage at their conference, despite the fact that there was both a microphone and an audience and that people might hear and report on what he was going to say. It’s almost like they don’t care that the man in charge of the benefits system displays a fundamental - and, dare I say, deliberate - misunderstanding of what that system is for.
IDS took to the stage to tell the disabled people of Britain - or as he likes to think of us, the not “normal” people of Britain -  “We won’t lift you out of poverty by simply transferring taxpayers’ money to you. With our help, you’ll work your way out of poverty.” It really is fascinating that he was allowed to make such an important speech on Opposite Day.
Iain Duncan Smith is a man possessed by the concept of work. That’s why he put in so many hours and Universal Credit was such a roaring success. Work, when available and suitable and accessible, is a wonderful thing, but for those unable to access it, the welfare system is a crucial safety net that keeps them from becoming totally impoverished.
Benefits absolutely should be the route out of poverty. They are the essential buffer between people and penury. Iain Duncan Smith speaks as though there is a weekly rollover on them, building and building until claimants can skip into the kind of mansion he lives in. They are not that. They are a small stipend to keep body and soul together.
Benefits shouldn’t be a route to wealth and DWP cuts have ensured that, but the notion that we should leave people in poverty astounds me. The people who rely on benefits don’t see it as a quick buck, an easy income. We cannot be the kind of society who is content to leave people destitute because they are unable to work, through long-term illness or short-term job-seeking. Without benefits, people are literally starving. People don’t go to food banks because Waitrose are out of asparagus. They go because the government has snipped away at their benefits until they have become too poor to feed themselves.
The utter hypocrisy of telling disabled people to work themselves out of poverty while cutting Access to Work is so audacious as to be almost impressive. IDS suggests that suitable jobs for disabled workers are constantly popping out of the ground like daisies, despite the fact that his own government closed 36 Remploy factories. If he wants people to work their way out of poverty, he has make it very easy to find that work.
His speech was riddled with odious little snippets digging at those who rely on his department. No one is “simply transferring taxpayers’ money” to claimants, as though every Friday he sits down with his card reader to do some online banking, sneaking into people’s accounts and spiriting their cash away to the scrounging masses. Anyone who has come within ten feet of claiming benefits knows it is far from a simple process.
He is incredulous that if a doctor says you are too sick to work, you get signed off work, as though doctors are untrained apes that somehow gained access to a pen. This is only the latest absurd episode in DWP’s ongoing deep mistrust of the medical profession, whose knowledge of their own patients is often ignored in favour of a brief assessment by an outside agency. IDS implies it is yes-no question that GPs ask; you’re either well enough to work or signed off indefinitely to leech from the state. This is simply not true. GPs can recommend their patients for differing approaches for remaining in work, be it a phased return or adapted circumstances and they do tend to have the advantage over the DWP’s agency of having actually met their patient before.
I have read enough stories of the callous ineptitude of sanctions and cuts starving the people we are meant to be protecting. A robust welfare system is the sign of a society that cares for those in need. We need to provide accessible, suitable jobs for those who can work and accessible, suitable benefits for those who can’t. That truly would be a gift that keeps giving.