Friday, 26 May 2017

Humble Helen

Conservative MP Helen Grant has been described as political gold dust. But will the woman who grew up in a council house prove a useful ally
to social landlords? Caroline Thorpe finds out.

Meet Helen Grant. I could introduce her as the first ever black woman to become a Conservative MP. Or I could say, ‘Meet Helen Grant, she’s just won Tory veteran Ann Widdecombe’s old seat’. Or even, ‘This is Helen Grant, according to The Guardian she’s “political gold dust”’.

All of the above are true. But none of them match Helen Grant’s description of herself: ‘I’m just Helen,’ she says simply. ‘I always have been.’

Just Helen, then, is extremely friendly. She has a winning smile, kind eyes and an almost unfeasibly tidy office. It sits in the eastern-most turret of the Norman Shaw North building in Westminster, its bay windows offering views of the Thames, today thronged with tourist boats making hay in the July heat. ‘I find looking at the river very calming,’ says the new MP, as I fruitlessly scan her desk for so much as a paperclip out of place.

It’s two months since 23,491 members of her Kent constituency of Maidstone and the Weald voted Ms Grant into power with a healthy majority and just six weeks since she moved into this room, previously occupied by cabinet office minister Francis Maude. Four weeks ago she met one of her ‘political heroes’: Margaret Thatcher. ‘It was a tremendous experience,’ she says of meeting the 84-year-old former prime minister. ‘She asked me how I was enjoying being an MP and I passed comment on what she was wearing - a royal blue dress. She looked stunning.’

She is clearly thrilled to have entered this exciting new world: ‘It’s been very, very busy. I had my first taste this week of a very late night vote [on the finance bill] when we were here until about 2.30 in the morning.’

Standing out from crowd

For all her insistence that she is ‘just Helen’, there’s no denying that Ms Grant is unusual. The modern Conservative Party existed for 176 years without a single black female representing it in the House of Commons. Even now, just 4 per cent of the party’s MPs are non-white, somewhat shy of the 8 per cent non-white people in the UK population. It’s fair to say that Ms Grant does not fit the mould of your typical Tory MP.

The most interesting distinguishing fact about Ms Grant for social landlords, though, is this: she grew up in council housing. And it’s just possible that thanks to what she calls her ‘humble background’ she could prove a useful ally for housing in these straightened times.

Born in London to a black father and white mother, at 10 days old she was taken by her mother to live in the Carlisle council house where she herself had lived as a child. There, as a single mother, she raised Helen with help from her grandmother and mother, who also lived there.

It’s hardly the privileged upbringing normally associated with a party containing more than its fair share of Eton-cum-Oxbridge progeny. Ms Grant says where she lived - 144 Orton Road on the Raffles estate, to be precise - ‘certainly informed my politics’. ‘I suppose the estate itself instilled me with the determination that it doesn’t matter where you start, it’s where you finish at the end of the day that counts,’ she says in her soft, Cumbrian lilt.

For Ms Grant, who set up and ran a legal practice majoring in family law before entering politics, this is social justice in action. It’s her passion for championing this cause that, she says somewhat surprisingly, prompted her to sign up to the Conservative Party in 2006 (more on which later) and subsequently helped propel her to Westminster. Which is where it gets particularly interesting for social landlords. As the coalition government’s cuts squeeze funds for anything other than the bare essentials of providing homes, can - and will - Ms Grant help preserve the sector’s efforts to bring her vision of social justice to life?

Yes she will

First up, of course, she’s only too aware that contrary to popular opinion, a social home can provide the foundations for happiness and success. ‘I had happy memories in that house and it gave me a good start in life,’ she says of her first home. ‘There was deprivation around, there was certainly need, there was some domestic violence and there were some fights. But my memory of the square where we lived is that there was pride in people.’

She knows from more recent visits to Orton Road - she can’t resist stopping by whenever she’s in Carlisle - that today’s residents are perhaps less proud. And with good reason: The Independent includes the Raffles estate in a list of dangerous areas it labels ‘no go Britain’, while Carlisle police earlier this year recovered from a home there the largest haul of heroin found in the area in recent years.

‘I do feel saddened when I see the boarded up windows and the broken windows,’ she admits. When she lived there in the 1950s and 60s, Ms Grant was able to emulate the example of her mother. First a nurse, then a teacher who rose through the ranks to deputy head, she is now Dr Spedding, explains her daughter, proudly pointing to a framed photograph of her mother receiving her doctorate. In contrast, it’s a fair bet many young people living on the Raffles estate are victims of the ‘three generations of worklessness’ decried by work and pensions minister Iain Duncan Smith.

Social housing saviour

Where did it all go wrong, and what does she propose to do to help give social households the kind of start in life that enabled her to succeed? ‘Well that’s a really big question and there’s lots to be done,’ she begins. ‘We’ve got to build stronger communities to support those families and I also feel a key aspect would be if we can actually champion social mobility. There are many people in this parliament just like me who are the product of that. We have come from very humble backgrounds but we have got here.’.

Specifically, she says, ‘we must strive to preserve all of those things that underpin our chances of success and for me it was aspiration, family and enterprise. That’s not a limited list. But if we can develop even just those three things which were the elements that were fundamental in my life, then I think that would be a good start.’

Social landlords will prove crucial to success, Ms Grant believes. Her legal work in and around Croydon, as well as her early constituency work, has exposed her to landlords’ efforts to tackle worklessness. ‘I feel that through some of the very creative thinking that they are doing, they’re coming up with some great opportunities through work programmes, through apprenticeships, through all sorts of things which give people a second chance - and sometimes a first chance - to get some experience of something and to feel useful and good.’

She’s impressed by a scheme in her constituency run by Maidstone stock transfer association Golding Homes which helps teenage parents. It offers practical advice on studying or help to get them into work, says the mother of two. ‘It’s not complicated, but it’s real for those individuals and the families they’re helping.’

Age of austerity

Admirable ideals. But can they really come to fruition in what, true to the party line, Ms Grant herself calls ‘a period of austerity’? Time to test the honorable member’s mettle. Asked whether she’s concerned such programmes will fall victim to her government’s efforts to cut the national deficit, the brevity of her answer is unreassuring: ‘Well I hope they don’t. They’re needed.’

Then there’s the controversial matter of government plans to reform housing benefit by capping payments and docking them for those who remain on jobseekers’ allowance beyond a year. Ms Grant has not added her name to the hundreds backing this magazine’s What’s the benefit? campaign for a rethink amid concerns the moves could see thousands forced from their homes.

Though she says she is ‘looking at’ doing so, she argues the proposals serve her vision of a fairer society, rescuing people from a lifetime kept in splendid poverty. ‘If we’re seriously interested in social mobility and committed to it, you can’t just say to a whole generation of people, “well stay on benefit, you’ll be happier there, that’s all we want for you”. We want more. We want choice.’

And, says Ms Grant, a government led by the modern Conservative Party which she embodies, will deliver. She dismissed the Labour Party’s ability to do so shortly after experiencing a ‘fairly late party political awakening’ in the mid-noughties. ‘I had a quick look at the Labour party - a very quick, short look - and felt quite uninspired,’ she recalls. ‘They were certainly holding themselves up to be the champions of social justice. I had a look and thought, well no, you’re not the champions of anything in my opinion.’

It’s too early to know whether Ms Grant’s belief that the Conservatives truly have transformed themselves into the party of social justice will prove well-placed. Many housing providers would argue strongly that the early signs suggest not. Likewise, time will tell whether the lady described by her predecessor, the indomitable Anne Widdecombe, as having, ‘the makings of an excellent parliamentarian and stateswoman’, will prove able to stick to her principles amid the pressures of Westminster politics.

For now, at least, she seems determined to try. ‘As I say to some of my constituents, I will have to be your Helen. And you know, they seem happy with that.’

Helen Grant: either/or

Tea or coffee: Coffee

Owl or lark: Owl

World Cup or Olympics: Olympics

Heels or flats: Heels, always (apart from if they’re trainers)

Book or iPad: Book for me

Coalition or single party government: What I’m going to say about that is coalition is working extremely well, there is much to be done and there is determination on both sides and I actually think at this time we have very sensible, very practical politics. And you’re not getting any more out of me on that.

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