Caroline Nokes MP: 10 years in Parliament has turned me into a feminist. It is like arriving in a boys’ prep school
Ahead of International Women's Day, the new chair of the Women and Equalities Committee Caroline Nokes talks to Georgina Bailey about the prime minister’s “ill-judged” comment, the women she most admires, and why the mute button is everyone’s friend
Working in Westminster has turned Caroline Nokes into a feminist. “I have been on an enormous journey in that respect,” she says. Prior to being elected, the Conservative politician felt there was nothing she could not achieve, provided she was prepared to work hard enough.
“But suddenly [upon joining Parliament] you become confronted with some really outdated attitudes, and some really challenging behaviours. It’s 2020, and we’re still talking about gender pay gaps, and we’re still talking about the appropriate way to behave towards colleagues in this place. Not great,” she notes.
Though we were previously unaware, the day I meet Nokes is exactly 100 years since Nancy Astor, the first woman MP to take her seat, gave her maiden speech in the Commons. First elected as the member for Romsey and Southampton North nine and a half years ago, Nokes is one of 169 Conservative women to follow Astor onto the green benches.
As we sit in her office in Portcullis House, the newly-elected chair of the Women and Equalities Committee reflects on the “shock to the system” of joining Parliament in 2010: “It’s like arriving in a boys’ prep school, where the inmates haven’t quite got to 13.”
Until fairly recently, Nokes was serving in the government. She first joined the DWP in July 2016, followed by a move to the Cabinet Office 11 months later. Between January 2018 and July 2019, she was immigration minister, before discovering she had been sacked by Boris Johnson when a journalist reported the news on Twitter.
It was her work in Government that inspired Nokes to run to succeed Maria Miller as chair of the Women and Equalities Committee. While at the DWP she worked on the disability employment gap and, in the Home Office, she dealt with asylum seeker women who were trying to escape domestic violence but could not access legal aid due to their immigration status – a situation Nokes describes as “completely wrong”. “[They were] some of the most moving, impactful, interesting, challenging meetings that I did as immigration minister,” she says. “It’s a real key area of interest for me.”
Nokes was elected unopposed earlier this year. The committee has yet to agree its inquiries, and Nokes does not want to presuppose what MPs decide. However, in her “dream scenario”, they would “do a lot more around disability, particularly disability employment and disability transport”. She would also like to finish the last committee’s inquiry on men’s mental health, and wider issues of body image and social media, an area where she believes “matters have arguably got worse”.
“Do I think the country has become less tolerant? Yeah, I do”
Nokes would like the committee to take a strategic approach to their inquiries, planning out a structure in advance rather than “knee jerk” inquiries on issues that are “merely topical”. Specifically, she would like to introduce close monitoring of the Race Disparity Audit and the gender pay gap as “standing issues” for the committee to consider on a yearly basis, in order to better hold government to account on progress.
“There is nothing to focus a minister’s mind quite so much as knowing you’re going to go in front of a committee in x-many weeks or months’ time and be asked the same questions that you were asked 12 months previously,” she explains.
Nokes would know all about this, having made some notable appearances in front of a range of committees herself – mainly on post-Brexit immigration plans as a Home Office minister. Is there anything she learnt from those experiences that she would adopt for her own chairing style?
“I think there can be a tendency to want to behave like a bunch of interrogators, and make it really aggressive,” she notes. “Whereas actually, if you ask people things nicely, sometimes they’ll be much more revealing.” She also wants to be rigorous in her follow-up to inquiries. From experience, she knows that ministers go through a committee’s report line-by-line and accept or reject recommendations. For those they’ve rejected, Nokes says: “Well, bring them back in and get them to explain why.”
The work of her former department has come in for scrutiny recently. A leaked early draft of the Wendy Williams review into the Windrush scandal included the accusation that the Home Office was “institutionally racist”, The Times reported. The claim was removed from later versions of the report.
Nokes does not recognise that characterisation, although she says the Home Office “was and is a department that had massive challenges, not least around resourcing”.
“But one of my absolute main missions there was we had to make it a more human organisation. When you’re immigration minister, it should never ever leave your mind that you are part of a process making decisions on people’s lives,” Nokes explains. “It isn’t just a numbers exercise, it’s not about ticking boxes, it’s real people.”
“One of the toughest cookies I've ever come across in my life is Yvette Cooper”
Ahead of International Women’s Day on 8 March, I ask Nokes to name the women she admires most. Despite their clashes across the committee room, Nokes names Yvette Cooper, chair of the Home Affairs Committee, as one of them. “I think [she is] one of the toughest cookies I’ve ever come across,” she says. Also to make the list are Ursula von der Leyen, the new president of the European Commission (“terribly controversial”, Nokes admits), actresses Judi Dench and Julie Walters, and Rosi Prescott, the former CEO of Central YMCA. Dame Kelly Holmes, who Nokes says once managed to make her “run the last kilometre of the Race for Life just by yelling at me”, is another to be mentioned. Nokes says nominating her mother would “just be embarrassing”.
“I’m not great at flannel. So, I like people who are straight talking… I like people who get things done. I particularly like women who are prepared to stand up for themselves and for what they believe in,” she says.
Nokes could fit that description herself. She was one of the 21 Tory MPs who rebelled last autumn, to try and prevent a no-deal Brexit, and subsequently lost the whip although – unlike some of her colleagues – she was readmitted ahead of the election being called. Her mother appeared in Nokes’s garden while the MP was weighing up her options. “She said to me, ‘you know, whatever you do, we will support you’,” she recalls. She ponders: “So maybe she has been a huge influence on me.”
Nokes was one of only a handful of Conservative MPs to speak out against the hiring of "superforecaster” Andrew Sabisky to No 10. The short-lived Downing Street aide resigned after offensive online remarks were unearthed, including proposing mandatory long-term contraception to prevent a “permanent underclass” and derogatory comments on the intelligence of black Americans – views the prime minister’s spokesperson refused to condemn at a Lobby briefing before Sabisky’s departure. Nokes told Radio 4’s Today programme that while she was “relieved” Sabisky had left, she was “disappointed” in No 10’s slow response and refusal to distance themselves. Why does she think Downing Street responded in the way it did?
“I don’t know, is the honest answer,” she says. “I think that Mr Sabisky’s past comments were offensive, racist, misogynist. And I don’t think that individuals like that should have any place at the heart of government. I think perhaps Downing Street underestimated the strength of feeling on the subject and the level of abhorrence at the views that have been expressed. I wish that they had responded much more quickly.”
During his career, the prime minister has also come under fire for several controversial remarks. In a 2002 column, he referred to black Africans as “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles”, while in 2013 he suggested that the high intake of females to Malaysian universities was because “they’ve got to find men to marry”. He has claimed “voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts”, and used the term “tank-topped bumboys” in a column about Peter Mandelson leaving government. In a 2018 article for The Daily Telegraph, he said that Muslim women wearing burkas “look like letter boxes”.
So, does the prime minister have an equalities problem? Nokes considers her response for a moment. “I think that it is incumbent on the prime minister to think very carefully about what he is saying and the impact it could have on certain communities, on different ethnicities, on women,” she replies.
Does she think his comments in the past have been racist? “I think his comments have been really ill judged, and the one that stands out to mind was the comment about letterboxes,” she says. “I have always held the view that it’s not for any man to tell any woman what she should wear – advice that I would sometimes shout at my own father.”
She concludes: “I think the prime minister’s choice of words when grabbing headlines and being a newspaper columnist were unfortunate.”
There is plenty for Nokes to get her teeth into in her new brief; shadowing the work of the Government Equalities Office (GEO) is a complex task. Government figures show that last year, there was an 11% rise in recorded racial hate crimes in England and Wales, a 37% increase in transgender hate crimes, a 25% rise in LGBT hate crimes and a 14% rise in disability hate crimes.
Nokes thinks there are two aspects to these figures. “Firstly, I think people are much more willing to come forward and report hate crimes… But I don’t think you can shy away from those stats. Do I think the country has become less tolerant? Yeah, I do. And I think it’s incumbent upon government, it’s incumbent upon the education system, it’s incumbent upon all of us to be more tolerant, and to be more understanding,” she says.
“We’re really good as a country at having some national outpourings of grief and upset over high profile things but actually that massive increase in hate crimes… is just horrific.”
The committee will also have a role in scrutinising the Gender Recognition Act and related consultation – but Nokes won’t be drawn on her own opinions on the matter. One area that is not in the committee’s remit however is social class, and Nokes believes it should remain that way. “When you look at the issues that are within the committee’s remit and within the GEO, they’re very identifiable and quantifiable,” she explains. “Is class? I think that’s a much trickier area.” The day after we meet, a report is published which shows that the life expectancy of the poorest women in England has dropped for the first time in 100 years
“Somebody told me that Diane Abbott got more abuse than the rest of us put together. It’s just horrific.”
While it can take a leadership role, the Women and Equalities committee has no direct responsibility for the ongoing work to improve attitudes and behaviour on the Parliamentary Estate. While Nokes agrees that it should be the responsibility of the parliamentary authorities, and believes there has been progress since her arrival in 2010 (“slow progress, I’m compared to concede”), she says she still “sometimes looks at [the situation] in despair”.
Two weeks ago, ITV released data showing that 61% of black and minority ethnic MPs have experienced racism on the Parliamentary Estate, a statistic Nokes describes as “absolutely shocking”.
“You have female colleagues facing horrendous insults and comments. And you know, I first became a minister in 2016 and I lost count of the number of times people would comment ‘well she only got that job because she’s a bird’,” she says with a hint of weariness. “Well, great.”
The insults are not limited to within Westminster either – social media has made all Parliamentarians more visible targets, particularly BAME and female MPs. “Somebody told me that Diane Abbott got more abuse than the rest of us put together. It’s just horrific.”
Personally, Nokes’s mantra is ‘the mute button is your friend’ – although she initially had to get her colleague Thérèse Coffey to do it for her, as Nokes did not know how. The only way she is made aware of the abuse she receives is if her daughter lets her know by text.
More broadly, Nokes is supportive of Abbott’s proposals to remove anonymity for online trolls, but accepts that “it’s a really hard area” to deal with. “The social media companies have so much responsibility but unfortunately they are clearly reluctant to step up to the plate. Without wishing to sound so completely hand wringing and in despair, I don’t know how you deal with it,” she says. She adds: “We have to do something. What I think I’m really bad at explaining is what.”
Something Nokes is clearer on is what needs to be done to get more women into senior government roles.
“First, we have to get to a 50:50 parliament. And then we have to make sure that there is a pipeline of talent. And I think it’s really challenging once you’re in this place to understand how you make progress…Certainly when we went into the last reshuffle, there were very few female ministers of state,” she argues.
Without a line manager or formal HR structure to support you, it is challenging to make career progress in parliament. However, Nokes believes it “would be helpful” if figures such as the party whips “were to be a little more determined in career development”. “You almost get promoted by accident here,” she notes.
Even if you do get promoted, there is chance you can languish in the same position. Nokes gives the example of Caroline Dinenage, who has been in government since 2015. “If you want me to be honest, I think she was an absolute perfect candidate to make it to the cabinet table [in the recent reshuffle] and didn’t for whatever reason,” she contends.
Currently, only six out of the 22 full members of Cabinet are women, plus Suella Braverman who attends as attorney general. What does Nokes think of the current gender split in the upper echelons of her party?
“There’s clearly a lot of progress to be made, isn’t there?”