Since the summer I have been using one day a week of my time to support the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Women, Peace and Security in the UK Parliament. This role is a bit of a departure for CARE. Given the UK’s cross-party support for international development, our advocacy priorities chiefly focus on policy-makers in government, meaning civil servants, policy experts and ministers. MPs have never been the main target – not irrelevant, but not exactly a priority for our small team.
But Parliament has always fascinated me. It seemed mysterious and closed, the link between national politics and our programming vague, and the process of drafting laws hard to follow. Even getting inside seemed hard: with no obvious main entrance and members walking in from tunnels or straight from the tube, the whole set-up seemed altogether designed to confuse. So when the opportunity to take the role on behalf of the network Gender Action for Peace and Security (GAPS) presented itself, I jumped at the chance. Here are my key take-aways:
The first thing I learnt was how to get in. It turns out to be rather straightforward. Westminster Hall itself is a public space, and apart from taking a bit longer to queue on a Wednesday, Parliament is remarkably open. I would recommend everyone go along and sit in the public gallery or a select committee to watch their representatives at work. It’s a strong tonic against the rather cynical mood of our age, and the history and energy of the building is incredible.
2. MPs work for us – in the best sense, they are our voice
Something perhaps that has to be seen to be believed, but the MPs and Peers whom I encountered work extremely hard. No, really. Between time in London and their constituency, they were working at least six-day weeks, and each day stretches from breakfast meetings to late night debates. They are also very interested in what their constituents have to say. It was only after starting this role that I thought it worthwhile to write to my own MP for the first time around supporting the 0.7% Aid Bill. Within a few days I had received a response and clarification on how he would vote. Perhaps it is something more celebrated in the USA, but it seems in the UK we do not call up or write to our MP nearly as readily as we should.
3. MPs and Peers are a resource but need civil society support
There are many hundreds of All Party Groups, representing the diversity of interest areas of politicians, but also the breadth of their expertise. Many members have built up decades of experience on a specific country, region or thematic area. Sometimes this is a political decision, reflecting constituency interest, but often this is personal, and can result in APPG discussions as complex as any taking place in a think tank or academic institution. Conversely, few of these APPGs have funding for staff, and civil society has much it can share in terms of ideas, research and facts on the ground. Civil society needs to make better use of this resource in Parliament and build relationships with APPGs more consistently.
4. MPs and Peers can be relentless and ferocious (great!)
Despite our reputation, NGOs can sometimes be rather reluctant to speak out. Our staff and communities with whom we work are often in harm’s way, and as an operational organisation we can be reluctant to say things publicly which could put vulnerable people at risk. Equally, NGOs may be reluctant to press a point too far with governments if they are concerned that being too blunt could damage a key relationship. However, a good campaigning MP or Peer will not let it lie, and can be quite happy to press an issue or demand an answer both privately and publicly until a response is received. In particular, oral, written and urgent questions are the tools of the trade for politicians, who can use the shield of ‘parliamentary privilege’ to stay out of legal hot water. These questions are invaluable at helping civil society get answers from deep within government ministries and help hold the powerful to account.
I feel privileged to have had the chance to work, in a very small way, in Parliament. While many of my tasks revolved around organising meetings and events or drafting questions to suggest to MPs and Peers around topical subjects of the day, the reality was anything but routine. On one occasion I found myself on a panel next to a DFID minister with just a few hours’ notice, on another I sat in the Lords dining room while two Peers, passionate defenders of women’s rights both, received a briefing on abuse by AU (African Union) troops of women and girls in Somalia. I have been part of a two-minute ‘off the record’ briefing to one minister grabbing coffee between appointments, as well as a formal sit down on the top floor of the MOD.
In my time the APPG has solidified its reputation as a resource for government departments around women, peace and security, helping the MOD to think through how gender advisors have a role to play in operations, and giving a platform to women’s activists from Afghanistan to talk candidly to parliamentarians and officials from the FCO and DFID ahead of the major December conference. It continues to be the go-to space for discussions between officials, politicians and civil society, and will have a big task keeping the issue of women in conflict as a cross-party issue into the next Parliament, whomever is in charge.
A career high
It has been a whirlwind tour behind the scenes of British politics and against my initial expectations I found myself really encouraged by what I saw. My abiding memory will be of standing in a committee corridor before an event which brought together activists from Northern Ireland with those from across the UK, as well as MPs and Peers. I found myself in front of portraits of William Wilberforce, William Pitt and others who did so much to change the world 200 years ago. It struck me then as it does now, that the UK still has power to wield, with powerful advocates willing to wield it. It is our great fortune to live in one of the most open societies in the world. We must not waste it.