Lynne Featherstone: 'I have the powers of high-level nagging'

Why does equalities minister Lynne Featherstone attract such hostile criticism? As the world celebrated International Women's Day this week, we sent our esteemed women's editor to meet her. It was, suffice to say, a baffling encounter

What to make of Lynne Featherstone? This Liberal Democrat MP is one of a tiny handful of women in government; she is dedicated to tackling violence against women internationally, and is a feminist who has spoken up for equality and women's rights. What's not to like? Yet few ministers suffer such a bad rep, not just from Conservatives, but the very women's groups who fought so hard for her role to be created.

Her tendency to go off on a tangent during debates, or say the wrong thing ("there's nothing wrong with sex" when asked to comment on a pornographer-turned-candidate to a crowd of young feminists) has led to much name-calling.

Some of the disappointment is political, of course. The fact she was elected on a liberal agenda, to work in a coalition that can seem anything but, makes her position more invidious than most. One rights campaigner compared her to Neville Chamberlain, "waving around papers and policies while services [for women] are dying on their knees, as are women's wages and the value of women's economic contribution generally".

Still, I wonder how much of the criticism is fair. Is this just an example of women in power being held to a higher standard? Boris Johnson makes faux pas all the time and his popularity as an amiable buffoon just seems to increase. When Featherstone forgets what she wanted to ask after spending ages attracting the speakers' attention, the laughter is a little meaner.

As the Guardian's women's editor, I want to support her, and will face charges of hypocrisy if I don't. But our previous meetings have not been encouraging. The last time I saw her at a public event, Featherstone was asked what powers the government had to encourage boards to appoint women. "I have the power of all middle-aged women," she said without missing a beat, "the power to nag." My heart sank.

Am I just failing to see the joke? Am I becoming the po-faced feminazi the women's editor is expected to be? Surely the focus should be on her performance as equalities minister, a post that is an achievement in itself given that it took the government six months to decide to appoint someone to a job created by the last administration. An interview during International Women's week seemed the perfect opportunity to find out.

Featherstone, 60, has had a busy week following a UN summit on the status of women in New York, in which she hosted an event on women's representation in the media and its impact on body confidence. She argues that body image is a kind of violence against women, as they contort and twist themselves into unrealistic shapes. "People can be a bit sniffy and say, what's that got to do with anything," she says. "It's massively important. It affects everybody, especially young people. Women are made to feel bad about themselves by multimillion [pound] industries. And it's a truly international issue."

In the stream of consciousness that follows, she says this: "There's obviously sometimes a good rationale for plastic surgery. When you've had five children and your breasts are hanging around your waist, and it's affecting your life, then I wouldn't really have a problem with that woman getting that sorted … " Before I can draw breath, she adds that such a decision is a "judgment for a doctor to make", before going on to talk about the iniquities of young girls having breast implants at 16.

I feel a bit floored. Feminism is a broad church – big enough for those who believe the right to choose covers women who choose surgery – but here is an equalities minister, outraged by women being forced to look a certain way, who thinks droopy boobs are cause for surgery.

More frustrating than this is the nagging sense that she is not entirely on top of her admittedly wide-ranging brief – or that she is playing politics. I'm left with this impression after the conversation turns to legal aid and domestic violence. The government's controversial plan to cut £350m from the legal aid bill, which this week suffered a defeat in the Lords, has been attacked by women's groups such as Rights of Women, who believe that as many as half of victims will no longer be eligible for aid.

This is partly because of a changed definition, which prompted the defeat, but also new evidence rules that place the onus on victims reporting to the police. Yet Featherstone says: "There's a lot of misconception over this, and my understanding is that legal aid for domestic violence will be as it has always been, and if you need an injunction you can go to any solicitor and it will be paid for."

Really? That will cheer campaigners. "That's what drives me mad," she says. "You work to preserve legal aid for victims of domestic violence and then …There are issues around definition that weren't warranted. It was legalese."

After phone calls to the Home Office it becomes clear the definition she is talking about has to do with what constitutes domestic violence, rather than the evidence issue. There are no plans to change the so-called "gateway plans", and none set to be announced by the Home Office. So to say that legal aid for domestic violence will be "as it has always been" isn't entirely right.

To be fair, the most controversial government policies on women were not her fault. She is one woman from the weaker partner in a coalition that set off on the wrong foot with its very first budget and earliest plans to end rape anonymity (which she condemned).

As Heather Harvey, research and development manager at Eaves, a London-based domestic violence charity, says: "It's a fundamental problem in this government that they don't understand feminism and women's rights."

But even well-received news doesn't seem to be driven by her. Astonishingly, just a day before David Cameron and Nick Clegg announce the government does in fact support the Council of Europe convention on violence against women, Featherstone defends the UK's previous footdragging. It's all about inquiries into "forced marriages" and the difficulty of "jurisdiction", apparently. She may not have wanted to spoil the boss's thunder, but why defend the failure to sign?

She is not helped by the fact that her role as "international champion" was meant to be a ministerial one when it was first given to Glenys Kinnock, but now merely provides a small budget to book flights while the men in the three big foreign departments get to announce the policies. So when she says, as she does again in this interview, "I have the powers of high-level nagging which are extremely good", it may actually be a fair assessment. Isn't she disappointed by her lack of ministerial office? "I am disappointed with everything that doesn't put women on every line, but in terms of negotiating and achieving, the end may be achieved by a more subtle approach." On the plus side, there are no "silos", and everyone is now working on fighting for women's rights. "It really doesn't matter if it's me or our male ministers, everyone gets it now."

Yet evidence on the government's position on Afghanistan, an acute issue given the emphasis on women's rights as a reason for military intervention in the first place, and the fact that details of the withdrawal are being negotiated, suggests "getting it" only goes so far.

So although she won plaudits for attending the Bonn summit that agreed the safety of Afghan women must be a priority, the government's own strategic pact, signed just a few months later by Cameron and Hamid Karzi, made only fleeting mention of women in a sub-clause on human rights. Cameron failed to mention the issue at all in his speech. Featherstone says there is still much to play for with future conventions and denies the statement was a disappointment.

There have, of course, been successes since her appointment in November 2010. Her advocacy for lesbians, gays and bisexuals – in marriage and overseas – is making waves in a government where few other ministers seem to want anything to do with it.

Featherstone is also proud of the ringfenced central government funding for women – £28m for domestic violence services and £10.5m over three years for rape crisis services. Asked what her biggest achievement is, she cites the joint victory of herself and her boss at the Home Office, Theresa May: "Ringfencing so much funding for the domestic violence agenda against the necessary austerity and economic situation left by Labour is a bloody miracle."

The issue is a "priority for the government and we want to send out a message to local authorities not to look on voluntary organisations and women's charities as a soft target".

This prioritising has not stopped local authorities cutting services to women, though. An interim report this week led by Vera Baird, the former Labour MP, found services offering help and counselling to battered women have had their funding cut by 31% since the coalition came to power in May 2010.

Have women been hardest hit in this recession? "Women are affected by the cuts, just as everybody is," says Featherstone, "but as a Liberal Democrat in a coalition trying to do the right thing with the biggest deficit in peacetime Britain, we have done everything to protect the vulnerable, particularly women."

Baird is scathing about her erstwhile counterpart on the equalities bill. "I want good services for women. I don't want it to all go backwards. It would be better if I sent the report to Theresa May. She can at least make decisions, and understands it a bit."

Featherstone is by all accounts an effective and popular constituency MP in the north London suburb of Hornsey and Wood Green, despite a hiccup over tuition fees. "There was a few weeks when I wasn't their favourite popular princess," is how she puts it, but "it's fine on the doorstep now."

Featherstone is known to have inherited part of family business Ryness, but denies rumours of great wealth. "I've always had to work for my living … If I'm wealthy it's because I have a nice house, like most people in London." A divorcee, she is often described as "nice" by lobby hacks and politicians, and brought up two children singlehanded. She has not been afraid to criticise the government's plans to introduce a "marriage tax" to benefit couples, and has spoken out on how lucky happy couples seemed

She is also unafraid of talking up about male dominance in Westminster – she is one of just seven female Liberal Democrat MPs. "David Cameron, Nick Clegg – if you're listening, you've said a lot of good things. Now let's see some action," she calls into my dictaphone.

After nearly an hour, it's clear Lynne Featherstone does herself no favours as a political interviewee. Theresa May has won more plaudits for her work on equalities. Yet by scoffing at Featherstone and marginalising her impact, we risk marginalising the issues on which she works, which is perhaps what the government wants us to do. So it is hard not to support her in a difficult role. But as I walk out of the room and she says, "The future is bright, the future is women," I can't help but grimace.


Jane Martinson

The GuardianTramp

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