‘Every single thing we do is really, really interesting, Maria Miller says with feeling, about her work as chair of the parliamentary women and equalities committee. I feel sorry for some select committees because that is not always the case, is it? In truth, how exciting is it to look at things such as transgender [experiences], the gender pay gap, gender discrimination … so many of these issues are so compelling.
Miller’s office in Portcullis House is hard to read: there are some canisters of clean air from an agitprop theatre production about Chernobyl, which made me think she was anti-nuclear (No, no, no, she clarifies, I’m trustee of an organisation called Belarus Free Theatre); a giant birthday card to the NHS from Unison; a painted homage to Amnesty International; on the bookshelves, Tony Atkinson’s seminal book, Inequality, three volumes of the Wallace collection. Except for a commemorative Diet Coke can, it could be Jeremy Corbyn’s office. Don’t you pigeonhole Conservative MPs, she chides merrily. I was born in a council house. One of your colleagues wrote that I was on the Hampshire tennis courts. I’m not; I went to a comprehensive. This only adds to my puzzlement: I don’t really see how it’s possible to read and understand Atkinson (topline: the first step to reduce inequality is to restore the welfare state) and be a member of the Conservative party. I don’t see the logic in taking take pride that you were born in a council house, while valorising a former prime minister who was opposed to social housing. I’m not sure I totally understand the contradiction between comprehensive education and tennis. All the signifiers point in different directions.
But we’re here to discuss her committee’s forthcoming report on sexual harassment and ingrained sexism in society, including but not limited to sexual harassment in schools. The BBC found out that there were hundreds of charges of sexual harassment, even rape in schools, and schools really didn’t know where to go. We decided to hold our inquiry because it was an issue that was being brushed under the carpet. It was very revealing that when Ofsted came in to give evidence, they did not acknowledge it as an issue. That was probably the most revealing piece of evidence. But I think what parents are going to want to know is how their school is going to deal with it.
It is a little far-fetched to throw a cultural problem of this magnitude on to Ofsted, an auditing body, although plainly she is right that it will be schools that have to deal with the fallout. What does she think is driving the trend? Others that have looked at it would say that it’s certainly an online culture: easier access to pornography online has definitely changed some young men’s views of women, and their relationships with women, and that’s one of the reasons that I feel the need for young people to receive sensible, grounded sex-and-relationship education at school. It is, I say, exactly what Corbyn has said, in his set of equality for women policies. She gives me a sort of surprised stare. Well, in my work in the select committee, we’re looking at the evidence … she begins, the implied difference being that Corbyn’s view is unsubstantiated, and just happens to coincide with her own. Relenting slightly, Miller continues: When it comes to equality issues, there is a lot of cross-party agreement. Transgender [issues are] a case in point. We made it our first report because nothing had been done, literally nothing, within parliament. We shouldn’t be judging people because of their gender dysphoria. And does this ever put her at odds with the rest of her party? Absolutely the opposite. I get very frustrated that the Conservative party can still be painted as the party that’s not interested in these issues, when, if you speak to my colleagues, you’ll find that these are the issues that they came into politics to deal with. I think of a few Tory MPs, trying to imagine one who came into politics to resolve systemic injustices perpetrated against transgender people, and find this proposition far-fetched. Yet Miller insists that the real impediments to solving discrimination, at least in this case, are certain feminists, Germaine Greer and whoever it might be.
For those who keep a less-than-constant watch on parliamentary select committees, Miller is mainly remembered for the expenses scandal, in which it was revealed she had claimed £90,000 in second-home allowances for her parents’ house, was asked to pay back half of it, and then had the repayment revised down by members of the select committee on standards to £5,800. She doesn’t want to talk about it, except that she plainly does: The idea of having my children in Basingstoke, which is an hour and a half from here … she starts. My youngest was three when I first got elected. Therefore the systems, the system of expenses, the system of allowances, these were not set up for women like me. Miller has essentially yoked the scandal to her drive for a 50:50 parliament; in this retelling, the rules she broke were forged in the flames of institutional sexism and, somehow, by breaking them, she was doing us all a favour.
The real challenge here is getting women to see that this [parliament] is a place that they can make a positive contribution. When I talk to people and try to convince them to stand as members of parliament, they think a couple of things: female members tend to get a lot of negative coverage, and the nature of the job is very combative. Women in parliament today have realised that’s what it’s going to be like and we take that as part of the job. But, ultimately, it does make it difficult to recruit new people. Therefore it shouldn’t be part of the job in the future. I think as people recognise that that is the case, media outlets will recognise what they’re doing and maybe try to address it.
The select committee’s other notable report was on maternity discrimination. This ought to have put her in direct conflict with the government, since the salient change in this area has been the introduction of tribunal fees in 2013. Since then, the number of pregnancy-related discrimination cases has fallen by 50%. It long predates the introduction of tribunal fees, she says stoutly. But if there’s an existing injustice, and the government removes the possibility of redress, that’s a bad thing, right? Our report says reduce [the fees] so we get better access to justice. It’s not the whole solution because, frankly, not many women want to go to tribunal when they’ve got a three-month-old baby. Most women who gave evidence said, We don’t want to be going to tribunals. Sure, and I don’t want to be burgled but, if I am, I don’t want to have to pay £1,200, or indeed any money at all, to take the burglar to court. The interesting thing, she insists, is the gap between what businesses think they’re delivering and what women think is being delivered. Businesses think they’re doing a really good job. Whereas three quarters of women said they had suffered some sort of detriment, some sort of discrimination during their pregnancy. So there is this enormous gap, a gulf even, between those perceptions. I don’t think there’s a lack of will from businesses to get this right, they’re just not aware.
Businesses, such as the media, simply need to realise they’re discriminating, and then they’ll stop. Again, rejecting all the words that would be discourteous, I arrive back at far-fetched. Miller would probably be fine with a different brief, but time and again I think, in a sisterly way, that to be sent out to sell the equality credentials of this government is the original glass cliff.
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