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By Emma-Louise Boynton
t is easy to feel disillusioned by politics. To feel disconnected from a political sphere that more often than not feels as out of touch as it does frustratingly monolithic in its makeup. The gender split of the cabinet is 27 per cent women to 73 per cent men. (The high point for female representation at the top table came under Tony Blair, whose cabinet was 36 per cent women from 2006 to 2007.)
But then someone like Jess Phillips comes along – 39, MP for Birmingham Yardley since 2015 and Shadow Minister for Domestic Violence since April 2020 – and it’s impossible not to feel a fire in your belly as she speaks, a rush of optimism for what this newer brand of political operative, so adept at navigating the theatrics of Westminster politics, makes possible.
“A lot of female politicians complain about the rough-and-tumble of the chamber,” she tells me from her Birmingham home via video call. “But I’m afraid I’m a shouter, so I really like that sense of landing a blow, getting a win. I was probably much more fit for parliament than I realised. Years of training, being a barmaid. There’s something about working in pubs that’s not dissimilar to working in parliament, which is essentially just a massive brawl.”
Phillips’ “shouting” has undeniably been effective. She is one of the primary campaigners behind the Domestic Abuse Bill, which is due to pass into law later this year. The bill will ensure local authorities have a legal duty to provide safe accommodation for survivors. Currently, the 2017 Homelessness Reduction Act requires local authorities to support people at risk of becoming homeless, either by preventing them from losing their home or by helping them find a new one, but if survivors fleeing domestic abuse can’t prove they are more vulnerable than another person at risk of homelessness would be, then they’re not defined as being in “priority need” and so guaranteed an offer of settled housing. Some authorities were also restricting refuge funding to women from their area, but many survivors will have to cross local authority boundaries to escape abuse.
The new bill will also outlaw use of the legal defence of “rough sex” when a woman is killed or seriously harmed. In 2019, the campaign group We Can’t Consent to This found that use of the defence was increasing, and that in the preceding decade, 30 women and girls had been killed in what was claimed in court to have been consensual activity. Seventeen of those cases resulted in men being convicted of murder, nine led to manslaughter convictions and two ended in acquittals. This change feels more urgent now than ever: since the start of the pandemic, frontline abuse charities have seen a rise in demand for their services, with the National Domestic Abuse Helpline having reported an increase in calls of almost 50 per cent three weeks after the beginning of the first national lockdown in March 2020. By May, calls were 66 per cent above the average.
“The thing I am most proud of,” Phillips explains, “is that it will now be a statutory duty for every local authority area to provide refuge accommodation. Local authorities have a statutory duty to provide adult and juvenile social care, and bins… and I think women and children matter as much as bins.”
After years working at the domestic abuse charity Women’s Aid, Phillips saw first-hand how many women’s lives are destroyed because of domestic violence, yet how chronically underfunded the services there to help them are (funding for women’s refuges was cut by almost £7 million during the years of austerity between 2010 and 2018).
“I charge anyone who works for an organisation like Women’s Aid not to come out feeling that you have to fight for gender equality,” she says. “Because this is literally costing people’s lives. You’d see them one day and then you’d read about them being murdered. The reason the women at Women’s Aid didn’t have freedom was almost exclusively because they were women. This is very hard to ignore.”
A card-carrying member of the Labour party from her early teens – with ambitions to be Prime Minister from the age of 13 – Phillips’s formative memories are defined by activism. Her parents, Stewart Trainor, a retired teacher, and Jean Trainor, a former deputy chief executive of the NHS Confederation and chair of South Birmingham Mental Health Trust who died in 2011, instilled in her, practically from birth, the notion that it was the “the job of a citizen to speak up”.
“It is like a religion in my family,” she says. “Activism, standing up for things you believe in: all of my family do it. The idea was you had to try and change things.” During election time, the family home would be filled with Labour posters, and in the garage was an old hand-powered printer which she’d use to make leaflets whenever a local issue needed sorting.
“My whole life,” she says, “has been a political campaign.”
Phillip’s life mission is “to change the way we commission domestic abuse services, sexual violence services, services for vulnerable people”, and she entered political office in 2012 to do just that, first as a councillor, before being elected MP for Birmingham Yardley three years later. A failed leadership bid aside, she’s made a mark on Westminster from the very start of her six-year career there.
“In the first budget, George Osborne didn’t mention domestic abuse once,” she says with still-palpable frustration. “I set myself the challenge then that I would never sit through another statement where they didn’t mention something to do with domestic abuse and felt they could get off the hook. So far… so good!”
When it comes to the lack of policy attention and funding the issue gets, the problem, Phillips says, remains the same. “There have never been enough women in the room. But it has never been more obvious than in the first lockdown that the experiences of women are almost completely forgotten.”
As a recent report Phillips co-authored with the Conservative MP Laura Farris found, women are, as a result of lockdown, more likely to be made redundant, less likely to have their wages topped up while on furlough, more likely to take on additional caring responsibilities... the list goes on. So why, she asks, “was no one saying: ‘You know what, we are going to need some sort of emergency childcare?’ It gets forgotten, and then people like me and campaigners like Pregnant Then Screwed once again have to campaign.
“We have got to recognise that just as our roads and rail have to be good to get into work, if people cannot leave the goddamn house because they’ve got kids or an elderly relative they look after… if they cannot work, they lose their jobs.”
‘It has never been more obvious than in the first lockdown that the experiences of women are almost completely forgotten’
While Phillips has spent her career fighting to protect women’s lives and liberties, her own freedoms have been curtailed as a result of taking public office. Since entering parliament, she has become a target of a particularly vicious and persistent series of hate crimes, forcing her to spend “at least a few hours, on a near weekly basis, filing police reports”.
“It takes a lot of time to be a victim of crime,” she tells me. “I could be using that space to be looking into something else!” As we speak, in fact, she hears the doorbell ring downstairs, and her husband hurries to ensure the children don’t answer it first – “something that has become totally normal for us”. Phillips’ home is fitted with multiple locks, panic alarms and a reinforced front door. Does living in this constant state of fear ever make her want to give it all up and bow out of politics for a quieter life? “No, never. Even when Jo [Cox, the Labour MP murdered in her constituency in 2016, with whom Phillips was close friends] was killed. It will always be worth it,” she says.
It will come as little to surprise to most that the government is bureaucratic. But if the rapid-fire response to the global pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that when the state needs to act, it can, and in the face of what it deems an emergency, billions of pounds can be found. The government has, to date, spent about £46.4 billion on the furlough scheme alone. Why, then, has it acted with such little urgency when it comes to addressing domestic violence, when one woman every three days is being killed at the hands of her abuser?
“There is still not enough political capital in women’s issues,” Phillips explains. “Voters are the ones with the responsibility to make it their most pressing issue; as soon as it really matters to the electorate, it will really matter to politicians.” In the end, she says, tackling domestic violence has to feel to politicians “like winning a war”.
For the first time, the Domestic Abuse Bill will force local authorities to provide safe accommodation for survivors of domestic abuse.
By Emma-Louise Boynton