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9 July 2020

Stella Creasy: “Coronavirus is like a magnifying lens on inequalities”

The Walthamstow MP on why the pandemic has been bad for women, and what policymakers can do about it.  

By Alona Ferber

She thought she had everything lined up perfectly. Stella Creasy, the Labour and Cooperative MP for Walthamstow, would get off at Green Park station and walk her seven-month-old daughter, Hettie, in the pram to Westminster. This would get Hettie to sleep just in time and – hopefully – long enough for Creasy to be present for an urgent question on the Northern Ireland abortion regulations that she helped champion through parliament.  

“Two minutes before that question time started, boom, I hear her crying and I thought well I’ve got no choice but to bring her in. So I took a whole load of food in with me and kind of stuffed her mouth in the hope that she’d be quiet.”

The careful, desperate strategising around a baby’s naptimes will sound familiar to parents of young children. Video from that day last month of Creasy holding her daughter while addressing fellow MPs was an inspiring sight for many who juggle work and childcare. But behind that footage was the story of a dilemma. That week, Creasy, had already withdrawn from asking questions because the current guidance to MPs is that they can’t bring anyone else with them to parliament. Given the current crisis, MPs can still attend parliamentary debates virtually, but they must vote in person. 

“I was told off for bringing her in, but I felt I had no choice if I wasn’t going to let down the women of Northern Ireland,” Creasy told me in a recent phone call. 

That experience highlighted for Creasy the problems that working parents, and perhaps chiefly women, are facing in the aftermath of lockdown. The MP is meant to be back from maternity leave. However, like many women at this unprecedented time, Creasy says she can not fully return to work yet. “I can’t get childcare, because it’s quite difficult,” she says.  

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Last year, the 43-year-old became the first MP in history to get maternity cover.  Creasy has been a representative – those she prefers the term “advocate” – of Walthamstow since 2010. On election night in December, when she won by a landslide, a two-week-old Hettie slept in a sling on her chest as she claimed her victory. Her move into national politics followed a career in local government, which saw her climb the ranks from councillor in the London borough of Waltham Forest to the borough’s deputy mayor by her mid-twenties. She became mayor four months before her election to parliament. Now a backbencher, she served in Ed Miliband and Harriet Harman’s shadow cabinets.

Getting a locum MP “was a fight for my constituents because they shouldn’t be short-changed, and there shouldn’t be the idea that somehow if you elect a woman you are going to be missing out,’ she says. “If we make the law we should be leaders in challenging those cultures to make sure that the law works for people.”

When lockdown started, there were predictions that the pandemic would be bad for gender equality. Women, on the whole, would pick up the bulk of childcare and housework, even in cases where a couple both worked from home during lockdown. It’s too early to tell what the long-term impact will be, but the evidence collected to date indicates that these theories have been borne out. A poll by IPSOS Mori and the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London, found that, on average, female parents are doing seven hours of childcare a day, while male parents are doing five.

The pandemic has been bad for women on other metrics, too. In the UK, and indeed elsewhere, domestic abuse, which disproportionately affects women, escalated during lockdown. At the same time, there is evidence that access to abortion and sexual and reproductive health services has been disrupted for many women and girls. Maternity services have also been affected by changes to healthcare systems during the pandemic.

“Coronavirus is like a big magnifying lens on the underlying inequalities in society,” says Creasy. The crisis has served as one giant reminder of how far down the priority list women tend to be.  When it comes to the care burden, the MP is particularly concerned that women, particularly mothers needing flexibility to take care of their kids and pregnant women, will be first in line for redundancies as organisations feel the crunch of the economic crisis. This is also borne out by research. According to a study by the IFS and UCL, mothers are 23 per cent more likely than fathers to have lost their jobs during this crisis.

In a recent report, the Trades Union Congress warned that if the government doesn’t bail out childminders and nurseries, women could be forced out of the workplace. “I am very taken by the fact that the government has found time to think about how to get horseracing and angling back – and don’t get me wrong they are both pastimes that people enjoy – but no thought seems to be going into how do we make sure that the early years’ childcare sector in this country doesn’t collapse entirely.”

The problem, says Creasy, is that “we haven’t tackled the underlying assumptions and discriminations and inequalities that mean that it will be women who pay the price.” Women, and certainly those with children, don’t fit the default mould of the man of independent means that the working world is built around. They are difficult. She notes that maternity discrimination charity Pregnant Then Screwed is threatening to sue the government over the fact that self-employed women who had been on maternity leave have lost out on government support because having the leave meant didn’t meet the minimum income threshold for support.

But it won’t just be women who pay the price. “It will be families who pay the price, because there will be plenty of dads who will feel the pressure not to spend time with their kids, not to have the family life they want, because they are going to lose an income,” she says. 

Back in March, only a few weeks into lockdown, the Department of Health announced landmark changes to abortion regulations in England. As a temporary measure during the pandemic, women would now be allowed to take abortion pills at home and the procedure could be signed off by one nurse or midwife, instead of two doctors. But within hours, the statement on the Department of Health’s website was deleted, with a message saying that the guidance had been “published in error”.

Those developments were “sinister” says Creasy, who says she was involved in those discussions. “A process was drawn up for that to happen, agreed with the Royal Colleges, it was announced and then suddenly it was withdrawn at short notice, and then government ministers tried to pretend it had never been talked about. I was literally looking at the paperwork for this, so somebody intervened somewhere in the decision-making process at short notice to try to prevent that, and we had to kick up a fuss to get that overturned.”

On 3 April, more than 20 front-line domestic abuse organisations sent an open letter to Boris Johnson urging action in the face of what they termed a “highly forseeable” increase at a time of reduced specialist support services. Though additional funding for front-line services has been made available, the UK government has not made domestic abuse a strategic cross-departmental priority.

Creasy believes legislation is one solution for understanding and tackling this issue better. Her amendment to the Domestic Abuse Bill, which passed its final stage in the Commons on Monday and will now be debated in the House of Lords, sought to require the police to record misogyny as a hate crime. This already happens in forces in Nottingham, north Yorkshire, Somerset and Avon, according to campaigners.

“The reason why some of the police don’t want to do this,” Creasy told me, “is because they say well if we had to capture this data we would have to do something about it because data is a very, very powerful spotlight on what is happening. It’s absolutely the worst reason not to do something”. There are ways “of building into the way in which you work” and focussing on systemic, rather than individual, change, she says. It’s not, Creasy insists, just about finding a clone of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, whose approach to coronavirus, her wellbeing budget, and her focus on tackling poverty and violence against women and children are held up as examples for progressives. 

But it took a female prime minister in Britain to get domestic violence on the political agenda, she says. “I would pay tribute to Theresa May who made domestic abuse a mainstream issue in parliament. So often with these issues where inequality and diversity are part of it, we expect the people excluded to champion them and to be the ones who fight for them without recognising the role of those people already in the room, already in the Downing Street meetings, already making decisions.” 

But what about dealing with domestic abuse in the shorter term, and indeed ahead of a potential second wave of Covid-19 and further lockdowns? How can policymakers ensure issues that affect women particularly are a priority? Creasy says Westminster should take a leaf out of the book of local authorities. “In local government we used to do an equalities check on every policy we did. It’s not a difficult thing to do you just have to ask yourself how is this going to affect different groups of people. I don’t see that same process happening at a national level. That’s what needs to change.” She says the fact that this already happens at locally shows “it’s a political choice not to have people in the room asking that question, and not to be asking that question yourself”.

It’s about representation, too, but it’s not enough to just have women at the table. “If you are coming at an environment which has fundamental inequalities built into it they are being asked to fight a losing battle.” Inequalities need to become part of the questioning around policymaking. “I think we have seen that very powerfully when it’s come to the growing evidence that Covid itself has a disproportionate impact on people from black and ethnic minority backgrounds. Now the research is being done and the questions are being asked.”

And it’s not that women know better necessarily, it’s that when you get a diverse set of people in a room, they learn from each other, and policy is better for it. 

When Creasy does talk about women in parliament, though, it’s like she is speaking a different language. “I feel like I’m talking Klingon because people hear the word ‘woman’ and they have one issue – what I call a ‘lady issue’ – on which they know something, so ‘oh yes, gender pay gap, we’ve want to do something about that’, and you think I’ve just asked you about women in the supply chain, that is a completely different issue, but you’ve heard the word lady in your head, and everything else is Klingon.”

As an MP, Creasy is identified with “lady issues”. Aside from the history-making matter of getting maternity cover, she is perhaps best known for her (also history-making) work on abortion legislation in Northern Ireland. She has been warned that focussing on women’s stuff will harm her professionally, however. “I’ve been readily told that I’m ruining my career… I get absolutely pigeonholed… I get told that somehow it’s a silo ‘lady issues’ and now I’m a lady with a baby.” The irony, of course, is that while women’s issues are side-lined, women are also expected to be the ones who raise them.

It is a cliche that motherhood is life-changing, but the discrimination Creasy says she has encountered as a working mother, that she is “somehow less committed to my job, less committed to my community”, has also been eye-opening. Challenging it has been hard work. “I cannot pretend to you that that’s not hard to do. You feel like you are making a fuss and I’m not making a fuss. I’m just not prepared to be treated in that way”.

More than anything, Creasy says, the way to fix any problem is to come with solutions, rather than gripes.  

“With the greatest will in the world, I got elected ten years ago. I didn’t get a magic wand. I always say to people in my local community I’m your worst nightmare as an MP because I’m gonna get you involved, but that’s how I know change happens.”

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