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Going to their aid: The Preet Kaur Gill interview

7 min read

The pandemic has plunged an additional 47 million women into extreme poverty, yet the government is cutting the aid budget. Preet Kaur Gill tells Rosa Prince this is a mistake.

“Women don’t want to get back to business as usual.” So says shadow international development secretary Preet Kaur Gill as she contemplates a world – including her own home – which has been utterly upended by the pandemic.  

Gill is a shadow minister for a job that doesn’t exist; an MP in a Parliament hobbled by lockdown and a member of a shadow cabinet which has never met in person. It’s no wonder she’s desperate for change.

Like many female MPs, Gill has found juggling the demands of lockdown a challenge, the balancing act of representing her constituents and focussing on her policy brief complicated by the additional ball tossed into the mix of working from home.

With two school-age daughters interrupting Zoom calls to ask for lunch and a daily scramble to find somewhere to put her laptop, Gill says she sometimes ends her succession of Zoom calls in the evening and realises she hasn’t eaten that day.

She is all too aware her story is being replicated millions of times over, both at home and globally, and particularly in developing nations where the impact of coronavirus on women’s health and employment prospects has been catastrophic.

“Even before the pandemic, women spent three times more on unpaid care work in comparison to men,” she says. “This is something we need to talk about, because we don't want to go back to business as usual.

“There's this element of guilt as a professional woman, that if you're doing something which is furthering your career and [that’s] impacting the family, then the onus and responsibility is yours; it's a cycle we can't get out of. It's no different for me, I've assumed the domestic chores and the caring responsibilities [during lockdown]. I end up doing all the work.

“And [the problems of lockdown] are not just here in the UK; we've seen that everywhere, [so I have] solidarity for what it's been like for women and girls across the world. There are women and girls in complex situations, or in crisis like Yemen, the world's worst humanitarian crisis, and we’ve seen violence and domestic abuse against women increase.”

The pandemic has meant Gill’s first year as a frontbencher has had a surreal aspect. Keir Starmer, who she backed in the leadership contest, took up the role at the start of April, a few days after the first lockdown began, meaning his shadow cabinet has yet to meet in person.

If her new position didn’t feel remote enough, in September the government announced it was merging the Department for International Development [DfID] into the Foreign Office, something she suggests sends a message that the Conservatives do not prioritise the development agenda.

When the move was announced, Starmer got on the phone to Gill to assure her she would stay in post. ”The conversation he had with me was: ‘I will not do what the government is doing, because I just do not believe in it.’ It is the wrong thing to do. And I think that sends a very strong message.”

So would a future Labour government restore DfID? The answer is – probably, although perhaps not under the same name. If it did, Gill would very much like the job.

She says: “This is a life-changing brief, the people you meet, the things that you learn, the work that [a department] has to do, it's something I feel really passionate about. The fact the government doesn't see it as important doesn't matter, because actually, there are enough people in the Conservative Party that do care about development.

“It's been heartening to see some of them be very vocal and speak up for the world's poorest. And I'm really pleased that they have done, but I think we will be able to set a very clear difference between us and the Conservatives going into the next general election on development.”

As well as scrapping DfID, the government has abandoned the commitment to spending 0.7 per cent of its budget on overseas aid, a pledge every administration had signed up to since 1997, including, Gill points out, Gordon Brown’s Labour government even as it battled the 2008 financial crisis.

I really do worry about girls’ education, because that's how you get them out of poverty, that's how you build a workforce, that's how you create jobs.

Gill says she was “shocked” by the scale of the cuts, as well what she describes as a lack of a strategic plan for deciding where the axe will fall, fearing it is women and girls who will suffer the most.

“We have no understanding at this moment what the impact of those cuts are [or] where those cuts are. It’s disheartening – 20 million more secondary school-aged girls could be out of school after the pandemic [and] an additional 47 million women worldwide are expected to fall into extreme poverty as [a result of] the pandemic.

“I really do worry about girls’ education, because that's how you get them out of poverty, that's how you build a workforce, that's how you create jobs.”

Gill is scathing about what she sees as the government’s assumption that those living outside of London do not see the value in overseas aid. “I've pushed back on this narrative that somehow if you're from the north, the Midlands, or in red wall seats you don't care about development. I don't think that's true. That tarnishes the British public; actually when there have been disasters, when there's been a call for action from the British public, we've seen the UK step up. What we want to see from this government is leadership on the world stage not retreating.”

Another concern for Gill is coronavirus vaccine distribution, particularly in light of the emergence of mutations, along with combatting vaccine hesitancy at home and abroad.

She has had first-hand experience of a reluctance to take the vaccine among her constituents and even her family, along with the potentially disastrous repercussions of believing conspiracy theories, when her brother, who had been something of a Covid-sceptic, was hospitalised with the virus in January.  

“He got it really bad, where he just couldn't breathe,” she says. “He was in hospital for four days. That was a scary time, terrifying. He was a fit and healthy young lad of 38 years, had never been unwell.

“So it's been a bit of a wake-up call for him and he's been sharing that.”

Back in Westminster, Gill thinks not enough has been done to make it easier for MPs, particularly those with caring responsibilities, to attend Parliament during the pandemic. It is part of a broader critique she has of an environment which she says can be difficult for women to work within, as MPs but also staffers and other members of the parliamentary estate.

Earlier this year, a bullying complaint Gill made against a peer was dismissed by the Lords’ Standards Commissioner partly on the grounds that the commissioner considered it impossible for a peer to bully an MP as they had equal power, a take Gill describes as “bizarre”.    

How about Labour; how welcoming to women is a party which has still never had a female leader?

“I'm really proud that 45 per cent of our MPs are women,” she says. “But it’s true there is a lot to do. I don't just say this for [Labour], I say this across the board. Fifty per cent of our population is women. How can it be there be any political party that does not reflect the country? So of course I want to see a future female leader of the Labour Party.”

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