Ellie Reeves: ‘Victims are being let down and that’s happening on the government’s watch’
The shadow Solicitor General on how the justice system is failing rape survivors, why her passion for politics started at school, and life in a family of MPs
The Labour Party’s constituency office in Lewisham, with its unmissable bright red door, has been a part of Ellie Reeves’ life for just about as long as she can remember.
As a child the Labour MP, now 40, had dance lessons in the house next door. A few years later at sixth-form college, she decided to take a week off to campaign for then-Labour leader Tony Blair in the run-up to the 1997 general election.
Reeves, a mother-of-two and daughter of retired teachers, was elected MP for Lewisham West and Penge at the 2017 general election, succeeding Jim Dowd.
It may sound like a cliché, but the shadow Solicitor General really does lives and breathe politics.
She is married to the Labour MP John Cryer, who represents Leyton and Wanstead 10 miles away in east London. Her sister, Rachel, has just been promoted to the key role of shadow Chancellor. Ellie, the younger sister, does not want to discuss her private life in detail, but acknowledges she is part of a uniquely political family.
Reeves has lived in and around her patch of south-east London for most of her life, and it was at the girls’ school she attended in Penge, a “forgotten” school that “nobody cared” for, that her interest in politics began.
There is absolutely a crisis in the justice system
“I loved my school and the teachers were brilliant, but there was such a huge lack of aspiration for the girls who went there,” she tells The House.
“We had quite a high rate of teenage pregnancy. It wasn’t unusual for someone to stop coming to school and we would later find out they’d had a baby. There was no expectation that the girls would end up going to university.”
Reeves, who bucked the trend by graduating from Oxford with a degree in law, recalls how as a secondary school pupil she had lessons “in huts” because there was not enough room in the school, while regular shortages of textbooks meant the girls often went without.
“There was just not enough investment coming from the government or the local authority. Everyone should have the same access to opportunities, and that was really missing.”
Reeves landed her first shadow ministerial brief just over a year ago, when new Labour leader Keir Starmer made her shadow Solicitor General. As first front bench jobs go, she couldn’t have hoped for a better one.
Before fulfilling her childhood ambition and beginning a career in politics, Reeves spent a decade as an employment law barrister representing trade unions and their members. She then set up her own business giving advice to women on maternity discrimination.
If she could pick any government department to be in charge of, it would be justice.
“There is absolutely a crisis in the justice system,” she says. Reeves is leading Labour’s efforts to pressure the government into doing more to tackle violence towards women and girls.
With rape prosecutions falling to a record low, two years ago the government launched a ‘cross-sector, end-to-end review’ into how rape and sexual violence cases are handled across the entire justice system.
You could have a situation where you’re looking at the effective decriminalisation of rape
However, to the visible exasperation of Reeves, its findings still haven't been published.
“Victims of rape are currently waiting several years before their cases go to court. This means victims are having to relive their trauma and are unable to move on.
“So many of these cases depend on oral testimony and obviously, as time goes on, memories begin to fade. Any sort of inconsistency creates the opportunity for the case not to succeed.”
Reeves believes the reasons why rape prosecutions have fallen to the lowest recorded levels in the UK are systemic, affect every level of the justice system, and require root-and-branch reform.
“It’s throughout the entire system and you could have a situation where you’re looking at the effective decriminalisation of rape,” she says. “Have a look at the number of prosecutions being taken forward and the number of those that are successful, and it starts to look that way.
“I am concerned that the more cases of alleged rape and violence the Crown Prosecution Service [CPS] says they’re not going to prosecute, the police might think ‘well, if the CPS aren’t going to prosecute these cases, what’s the point of sending them to the CPS in the first place?’
“But it doesn’t begin at the CPS level,” she stresses. “It’s really important, for example, that there are dedicated rape units within every police force in the country, and at the moment there aren’t.”
An October 2020 survey by the victims’ commissioner found that just one in seven rape victims expected to receive justice, with survivors feeling “angry, hurt and betrayed” by the system.
The situation facing survivors is “just terrifying”, Reeves says. It has driven her and colleagues including Jess Phillips, the MP for Birmingham Yardley, to put together a Survivors’ Support Plan, which they hope will be taken on board by Robert Buckland, the secretary of state for justice.
“If the government isn’t going to get on and do this, we will do it ourselves,” Reeves says.
Labour wants rape and serious sexual assault cases to be fast-tracked through the police, CPS and courts to stop them getting caught in the backlog of cases which ballooned to nearly 58,000 in March this year, and for victims to receive free legal advocacy from the day they report a crime.
Reeves and her colleagues are also calling on Prime Minister Boris Johnson to appoint a minister for survivors of rape and sexual violence, whose job it would be to tackle delays in the system and to explain to Parliament the work the government is doing to make sure victims are better protected.
Government ministers must talk about rape and violence against women and girls much more often, she says. “We are just not seeing that enough at the moment.
“The Conservative Party talks about law and order but the reality is if people aren’t being prosecuted for rape, then they are not on the side of law and order.
“Victims are being let down on every front and that’s happening on the government’s watch. How can the government be on their side when the Police, Courts and Sentencing Bill doesn’t mention women?”
Amid the chaos of the pandemic, Reeves admits she has nearly forgotten what it’s like to do a “proper” week in Westminster.
It wasn’t exactly what I had planned for maternity leave
The Labour MP went on maternity leave at the end of October 2019, months before the government imposed the first lockdown, and as a result has spent little time in Parliament since.
However, Johnson’s decision in early November 2019 to call a snap general election meant she was propelled back into her constituency office just days after her maternity leave started – writing leaflets, filming clips for her social media accounts and door-knocking in south-east London. She kept her hospital bag in the boot of her car in case her waters broke or contractions started while she was out campaigning.
Her youngest child, Thomas, was born five days after the election campaign officially got under way.
Politics can be quite a lonely place
Reeves says there was a “bit of a juggling” trying to home school her other son, Albert, “with a baby in a sling and while also trying to keep on top of casework with the help of my fantastic team”.
Her husband has been “really hands on” and cared for their two sons as much as possible, but she admits it “wasn’t exactly what I had planned for maternity leave”.
“Politics can be quite a lonely place,” Reeves says, reflecting on a breathless and at times antagonistic few years in Westminster marked by Brexit warfare, a divisive general election and then the bleakness of the pandemic.
She feels “very lucky” to have her sister and close friend Rachel, the MP for Leeds West, alongside her in Labour’s shadow ministerial team, to “talk things through and share things with”.
Politicians say they seldom get a chance to switch off. With her sister and husband being Labour MPs, how on earth does Reeves manage it? Do they talk about anything other than their jobs?
“We’ve both got young children and when we get together we generally talk about completely normal things and not about politics at all,” she laughs when asked what she and Rachel discuss.
“Pre-pandemic we’d have play dates with the kids where we’d be baking and not having really deep conversations about politics".