Interview: Eleanor Laing
"I have absolutely no idea what we're doing," Eleanor Laing explains as I walk into her office.
I'm not sure I do either. It's the first time politics.co.uk has sourced interview questions from our users. But instead of turning it into one of those tedious Q&A's, user suggestions form our briefing document for the interview. More of a nudge than a shove, if you like. It gives us a chance to learn which issues our audience is most concerned with.
As chair of the parliamentary all-party group on sex equality, Laing's subject area dominates online debate every day of the week. As I'm walking into her office, Theresa May is doing a speech on women in the workplace. The Thursday before, David Cameron signed a Council of Europe convention which could potentially outlaw wolf-whistling. Just before that, everyone was losing their heads over Facebook rules banning photos of breast feeding. And all the while, as one user pointed out, the Sun and its Page Three girls sits on the bottom shelf of the newsagent. Have we forgotten what breasts are for?
Laing laughs at that, but what follows is less than permissive.
"If you have a picture of breast feeding a baby it should be possible to produce it and make it tasteful and not offend anybody – least of all the baby when it grows up," she says. "How embarrassing if someone produces a picture 18 years later of a little baby being breast fed by his mother. How em-barr-a-sing! Can you imagine? I think it's incumbent on anyone who puts any picture on Facebook to make sure it's not embarrassing."
Now would be a good time to mention that Laing is not just chair of the sex equality group but also a Tory backbencher. Right now, the Tory backbencher persona is manifest, the chair of sex equality group not so much.
"So you don't really have a problem with the rule? You think Facebook's got it right?" I ask.
"Sounds about right to me."
"And this idea that women should be prouder, should feel free to breast feed public?"
"I think that's absolute nonsense. Feeding your baby is a private matter, it's not something you should do in the middle of the street. There's nothing wrong with doing it on a bench in the corner of a park, quietly. But it's not a public thing. There are lots of things you don't do in public, you don't change your clothes in public."
"But breast feeding is entirely natural," I suggest. "I don't see why it would be considered so private."
She snaps back: "Well it is. It's a private matter for a mother and her baby. I don't think people should go around flaunting their babies or their bodies, quite frankly."
Laing is a curious mixture of sentiment and intellect. She is a traditional Tory in every sense – from her clothes to her opinions. But the clothes and the opinions have this shiny exotic layer, an edge of glamour. She is more personable and warm than the 'Tory backbencher' tag would suggest, but, ultimately, that is what she is.
When I mention honour-based violence, she seems weirdly relieved. Her rhetoric sharpens and her tone takes on a little Margaret Thatcher. It's rather unnerving, especially when she raises her voice and maintains eye contact.
"That's a much more serious matter, yes," she says, sitting up in the chair. "And let's start with this: honour-based is a misnomer in the extreme. An absolute misnomer. It is bullying-based violence. It's disgusting that one group of people think they have power over others in their family or communities."
Some of our readers expressed the idea that women's rights were often the victim of multiculturalism, that young girls were being left at the mercy of patriarchal, potentially violent men, out of cultural sensitivity. Quite suddenly, and a little alarmingly, her voice becomes indignant and booming.
"In the UK, we have sets of laws by which we behave," she shouts. "If people transgress and break those rules they should be punished. In our society a father does not have the right to take his daughter's life because he doesn't approve of who she goes out with. That went out centuries ago. It is up to every one of us to uphold the freedoms of our country and sometimes we have gone too far in saying 'oh you can't say that because it will offend a certain ethic group'. Nonsense!"
She is actually shouting now. Seemingly at me.
"If I offend a bullying father who beats his daughter for her perfectly reasonable behaviour then I will offend him. That's OK with me."
I try to interrupt. "OK, let's move on to….
"It's time that has offended him. If he wants to live by barbaric rules, let him live in a barbaric place. If he wants to live in the UK, let him abide by our rules."
I suggest to Laing that while the honour-based violence is extreme, many of these attitudes stem from a more authoritative approach to teenage girls in some immigrant groups, one in which parents feel they have a right to control them until they are married. But parents of most British teenagers would be laughed at if they thought they still had a serious voice in their teenager's love lives. Perhaps we need to address underlying cultural issues, rather than their more extreme consequences.
"I don't think that's the correct assumption," Laing says, although she is back to the tea room rather than the pulpit. "I think most young people brought up well by their parents have a respect for their parents."
I can't help but smirk. "Do you really think most teenagers would be bothered about parental disapproval because they were going out with a boy in a rock band or something like that?"
"Yes," Laing replies. Then she adopts a slightly naughty smile. "And anyway, what's wrong with a boy in a rock band?"
We talk about a recent survey on rape by website Mumsnet, which found one in ten respondents said they had been raped and 83% had not reported it to the police.
Is this about changing the police or the courts? Laing is pensive and measured. The figures do not surprise her.
"Very often the natural reaction is just not to talk about it and certainly not to become involved in any official procedure which will make the woman go over the matter again and again," she says. "So many women say that if they end up in court giving evidence it's like being raped all over again."
"What can we do to fix that without changing the way the legal system works, though?" I ask. "We have a system where we have witness testimony – you're questioned by defence, by prosecution."
She says: "We don't need to change the system and it's correct we have proper procedures and appraise the evidence. But what we can do is change attitudes to rape."
"Did you see what Brian Paddick said the other day?"
The mention of the former Met deputy assistant commissioner and Liberal Democrat mayoral candidate makes Laing roll her eyes and stare conspiratorially at her assistant.
"No," she says pointedly. "I did not hear what Brian Paddick said."
"He suggested that when he was at the Met they watered down a rape review, which included better ideas for handling rape cases, for press relations reasons. Do you think we've got a problem with the way the police deal with rape?"
"I don't understand Brian Paddick's assertion."
"He was speaking from personal experience."
"Yeah, I expect he was. I wonder what his motives are for speaking at this time. I don't understand why he would say that. If…" There's a long silence. "If suggestions have been put forward about changing the system to make it work better, why on earth would that play badly in the press?
"Because it reflected badly on their performance at the time."
"Well, I'm not sure that's actually relevant to the way we go forward on sensitive matters like this. What matters is that police officers are properly trained."
Which, of course, is why the alleged watering-down review was important. Politicians are often asked to juggle their political backbench role – jeering in the Commons, briefing against opponents – with their supposedly impartial role – chairing all-party groups, sitting on select committees. They rarely succeed and it's clear that as soon as Paddick is mentioned, suspicion overrules curiosity.
A similar problem arises when we discuss spending cuts and their effect on women. One of our users had an interesting phrase, suggesting the state had replaced the husband and that now, when the state slips back so does women's lib.
"The state hasn't and shouldn't replace the role of the husband," Laing says. "But society has to accept that women, in addition to all other things they do, have to produce children – or at least some of them do. Therefore there is a duty upon society to take responsibility for future generations by assisting women who are being a mother as well as something else."
"So you accept that spending cuts will inevitably have a disproportionate effect on women?"
"I've seen many statistics on this and you can prove just about anything with statistics. There are some spending cuts which do hit women quite badly but there are just as many which hit men."
"But because they disproportionately use public services they'll necessarily be disproportionately hit," I suggest.
"I think that probably is the case but it's a fact of life."
"Yvette Cooper [shadow home secretary and equalities minister] made an enormous deal of…"
Laing grimaces. I plough on.
"Well, regardless of who it comes from, she made a big deal out of the statutory requirement to do an equality impact assessment," I say.
"What a pity she didn't think of that when her government was spending money the country didn't have," Laing replies. "Let's get it straight: no-one wants the cuts. No-one wants to cut child benefit, no-one wants to make large numbers of women in public sector redundant. It has to be done because public finances are in such a mess."
"So you wouldn't agree with having an equality impact assessment before you carry out cuts? Just to make sure you don't disproportionately affect women?
"There's no point. It has to be done." She shakes her head. "There's no point." A long pause, and then she adds: "I'm actually quite in favour of equality impact assessments before legislation, but as far as current cuts are concerned, if Labour wants to stop a particular cut then where will they make a cut instead? They've spent all the money."
"But isn't that why you use the impact assessment – to find out which cuts to avoid and which to pursue?"
"Well then you hurt someone else. Don't pretend there's some way the government can make cuts easy or that it won't affect people. It affects every single person except perhaps the super rich. Many of us will lose child benefit."
I sense that passage of debate basically sums up Laing. Measured and thoughtful, then brazenly partisan, equal measures emotional, intellectual and confounding. Little bit Maggie, little bit Ghandi, dash of Franco and a side of John Smith.
For my last question I ask her if the phrase 'calm down, dear', which caused David Cameron so much trouble when he used it against Labour frontbencher Angela Eagle, is sexist.
She laughs, and then delivers a poised, deliberate answer, as if undoing a ball of string.
"It depends who says it and how," she says. "If I told you to 'calm down dear' that might be considered to be ironic. But when a man says it in a certain way to a woman in certain circumstances, it possibly doesn't have… quite the right ring to it."
The sex equality group chair defeats the Tory backbencher. For now.
This month's briefing provided by:
Hanane Eve Spayne-Bensalah
Jessica Sian Leeman
Louise Alexandra McCudden