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Women in Westminster: In Conversation With Baroness Benjamin

6 min read Partner content

Baroness Floella Benjamin has spent a lifetime advocating for diversity and the rights of children. As part of our Women in Westminster series, PoliticsHome went through the Square Window with Baroness Benjamin to learn more about how positivity has powered her career in public life

“Every disappointment is an appointment with something better,” Baroness Floella Benjamin tells PoliticsHome, recalling the words of her mother; “Don't get down if something doesn't work out the way you want it to.”

A conversation with Baroness Benjamin feels a little like being engulfed by a whirlwind of unbridled positivity. In a political landscape increasingly characterised by division, Benjamin seeks to unify and inspire. She has the rare gift of connecting with colleagues across the political spectrum and the wider public alike.

Born in Trinidad, Baroness Benjamin’s positive outlook has propelled her on a remarkable journey since arriving in the UK as a 10-year-old as part of the Windrush generation. She has made the unusual transition from TV presenter, to author, to a highly active member of the House of Lords. Earlier this year, she played a prominent role in the Coronation, where she carried the King’s Sceptre as the eyes of the nation and the world watched on.

“It was great that the King asked me personally if I would carry the Sovereign’s Sceptre With Dove,” she tells us recalling the day. “The Sceptre represents spirituality, equity and mercy. Those are the values that I have always tried to stand for.”

Benjamin’s very visible role at the Coronation is just the latest instalment in a life characterised by a conception of public service and duty that has always had inclusion at its heart. Central to everything Benjamin does is a desire to make a positive and tangible difference to those without a voice, particularly children. When describing her role at the Coronation, Benjamin is typically modest.

“There's absolutely nothing special about me,” she says. “All I have done is be committed, dedicated to duty, and tried to do what's best for this country. I thought it was terribly important to show all the little boys and little girls that anything is possible.”

At first glance, the transition from beloved children’s TV presenter to campaigner and public figure may appear slightly unusual. However, Benjamin herself believes that her current role in the Lords, and her wider contribution to national life, is a natural progression that builds on her abiding interest in driving positive change.

She tells PoliticsHome that politics, “has always been in my DNA.” Her grandfather was a deputy prime minister of Antigua, her uncle a councillor and mayor in Bolton, and her father an active trades unionist. But alongside key political figures like Barbara Castle and Shirley Williams, she identifies the most significant influence as her mother.

“My mother was such a great woman,” Benjamin recalls fondly. “She could have been a president or prime minister. She was a woman of such wisdom and vision. Those are the kinds of women I admire. Those are the kinds of women I feel we should appreciate.”

The pivotal role that Benjamin’s parents played in shaping her worldview and giving her the conviction and assurance to step forward and make a difference is a theme that Benjamin returns to time and again during our discussion. It is clear that she regards self-belief as the key gift that her parents gave her. As she seeks to continue inspiring children and young people, it is a gift that she wants to hand on to the next generation.   

“Children are looking for love and appreciation and the confidence to make them feel as if they can do anything in the world,” she explains. “That's my job. That's what I've always done in the past and it is what I will continue to do.”

It is Benjamin’s unwavering commitment to the rights and welfare of children that have resulted in her taking a leading role in current discussions of the Online Safety Bill as it passes through the House of Lords. She is particularly keen to see the introduction of more safeguards to prevent children from being able to access online pornography.

“Age verification is something that I'm fighting very hard for in the House of Lords, making sure that ministers understand that we have got to protect our children,” she tells PoliticsHome. “When I started talking about online pornography, I was probably the only person on the benches to do that. But I knew that I was in a place where I can change the world.”

It is a battle that Benjamin believes the nation simply cannot afford to lose if children are to be adequately protected. Without stronger checks in place, she is convinced that society is storing up future problems for mental health services and the criminal justice system.

Benjamin warns that continued unbridled access will lead to a “conveyor belt of sex offenders”, citing the stories she has heard from men in custody who believe access to pornography triggered their own offending behaviour.

Strengthening protections in the Online Safety Bill is just one example of the way that Benjamin believes the Lords can use its weight of experience and expertise to ultimately help deliver better legislation. She is a strong advocate for the House of Lords itself, describing it as “one of the most diverse places I've ever been part of”, and highlighting the importance of a culture where detailed scrutiny of legislation is more important than political point scoring.

It is a culture that she believes has wider lessons for the way that both Houses operate, seeing the current culture in the Commons as something that may dissuade some people from entering public life.  

“I think MPs need to look at themselves and say, ‘Is this an example of how you want society to be?’" she tells us after a thoughtful pause. “Because when you see Prime Minister's Questions or when you hear about what's going on in Parliament some people will feel it’s not the right place for them and not put themselves forward.”

It is clear hearing the passion with which Benjamin speaks on the issues that she cares about that what motivates her is not the pursuit of fame or personal profile. Instead, she is driven by a burning desire to improve things, particularly for children and young people. She believes that her role in the Upper House provides a platform to achieve that.

“I feel as if I'm standing on the summit of a mountain looking down at a valley of experience that I can bring to this place,” she says. “I want to get people to see things differently. I want to speak out for children. I want to continue to stand up for the things that I believe in.”

With passion, purpose, and positivity, it is a platform that Baroness Benjamin intends to continue using to the full.

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