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By Edwina Langley
MP: Jess Phillips
Constituency: Birmingham Yardley (since 2015)
orn in Birmingham, Jess went to a grammar school before attending the University of Leeds, where she studied economic and social history, and social policy. She had a number of roles in the voluntary sector before becoming an MP, one of which was working in women’s aid, helping to provide domestic abuse refuge and support services for the local West Midlands community. This included a sexual violence rape crisis service and a sexual exploitation service for children and adults who had been trafficked in the UK.
“There is a sort of pathway through [to parliament] from being an activist, working in lobbying and the voluntary sector,” she says.
She was later elected on to Birmingham City Council because, as she explains, “I saw that most of the decisions that were made about what got funded locally [were not] made not by the government, they were made by local councils.”
“I wanted to make the decisions about what got funded,” she continues. “And then, when I realised that Birmingham City Council was essentially hamstrung by poor decisions made further up the chain, I basically just wanted to keep climbing until I got to the point where I got to be the person who made the decisions.”
In 2013, she was selected from an all-women shortlist to stand as MP for Birmingham Yardley, and, in the 2015 general election, won the seat. Since 2020, she has served on the front bench as Shadow Minister for Domestic Violence and Safeguarding.
‘I wanted to keep climbing until I got to be the person who made the decisions.’
How she voted
Jess has voted in favour of same-sex marriage and in favour of climate change prevention measures. She has voted against reduced spending on welfare benefits and campaigned for the UK to remain in the EU.
What’s she working on
For the past four years, Jess has been focusing on the Domestic Abuse Bill – a piece of legislation which aims to provide better legal protection and support for victims of domestic abuse, while improving the process through which abusers are brought to justice.
“When I went to Westminster, I went driven by the desire to improve the situation with domestic abuse,” Jess says. “And we fought for the Domestic Abuse Bill to exist.”
The first Bill put forward was, in Jess’ opinion, “very weak”. But with the help of cross-party campaigning and “brilliant activism” on the part of organisations such as Women’s Aid and Action for Children, she says the Bill is “hopefully now going to be a genuinely ground-breaking piece of legislation, that has some hope of ending some of the terrible epidemic of violence against women and girls.”
It begs the question, however, what existed before it? Lots and lots of bills which contained “elements” of legislation connected to domestic abuse, Jess replies. She cites the Sexual Offences Act and “various immigration bills” as examples. “But there’s never been an overarching one piece of legislation that was specifically around [it],” she says.
While the Bill is at the final stage (amendments were considered on 21 April 2021), Jess’ work is far from over.
“Last week, I had it said to me, ‘Oh well, what more do you want? You’ve got the Domestic Abuse Bill!’
“I was like, ‘What about rape? What about trafficking? What about all of the stuff that isn’t in [it]?’”
She says the word ‘rape’ doesn’t once appear in the Bill. Neither does the word ‘women’ – “That happens when you have an ideologically driven rather than fact-driven piece of legislation that should absolutely recognise all victims,” she says.
Advice for aspiring female MPs
If you think you’re not good enough to stand, tune into Parliament TV. There you’ll find “plenty of examples of other people standing up and saying a lot of things when they know nothing about it,” Jess says.
“You are definitely better than you think you are,” she continues. “And you’re almost certainly better than at least 50% of the people in the Commons.”
If you’ve ever wondered how to start a Bill when the party you represent isn’t in power, Jess has a solution.
“Campaign for an issue that you really, really care about – and get [the government] to be frightened of it,” she says.
Bet you didn’t know…
Aged 13, Jess plucked one of her eyebrows out. She told herself she’d never do it again and she’s stuck to her word: she’s never had her eyebrows done.
Header image: Jess Phillips speaking at the Progress annual conference at the TUC Congress Centre in Great Russell Street, London.
Jess Phillips’ work on women’s aid projects helped kickstart a political career that has focused on ending domestic violence.
By Edwina Langley