Janet Street-Porter: She has let all of us women down

It is upsetting that the Minister for Women behaved in a way that is, frankly, pathetic
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Years ago, I was asked to sit on a BBC committee to monitor equal rights for women. I declined, because women don't need equality - we are the superior sex, and should aim higher and be paid more than men. To me, equality is a backward step. This week three women who have achieved more than most have featured prominently in the media. They operate at the centre of political life, setting the agenda on fundamental issues affecting us all, no matter what our sex.

On Monday Baroness Margaret Prosser's Women and Work Commission produced 40 recommendations aimed at ending the disgusting disparity between men's and women's pay. At the current rate of progress, it could take 80 years to achieve parity. Baroness Prosser thinks that more women should enter male-dominated careers. She stopped short of demanding compulsory pay audits, however.

Also on Monday, Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws produced the findings of the Power Commission with a raft of proposals aimed at ending the current apathy among the electorate, from lowering the voting age to 16 to ending the current first-past-the post system. Her proposals met with approval from all sides of the House, because MPs realise that unless something is done soon, they will be speaking but no one will be listening. Disenchantment with the three-party system and cynicism about politicians' performance has never been higher.

The third woman dominating the news has been the Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, not because of anything achieved at work, but because of money her husband may or may not have received from the Italian Prime Minister.

I am not particularly concerned about Ms Jowell's husband's business affairs. He sounds rather arrogant, but that's not necessarily a criminal trait. What I find so upsetting is that the Minister for Women behaved in a way that is, frankly, pathetic, when she signed a loan on a house she owned with her husband without asking for any details. What kind of message does that send to male employers who are reluctant to pay women the same as men for doing the same job? It says we women are feeble, trusting creatures, that's what. I do not know of any intelligent woman who would sign a piece of paper asking for a loan of hundreds of thousands of pounds on a jointly owned property without asking a few questions - like why?

Her behaviour seems even more incredible when it emerges the couple have taken out five different loans on the same house over a seven-year period, starting the year after they had paid off the original mortgage. Even more rum, many of the new mortgages were paid off within a very short period, sometimes only a month or so. This is not the usual way that couples borrow money to improve their homes or trade up.

Of course, Ms Jowell and her husband can run their financial affairs exactly as they please. But given her role at the very centre of government, why didn't she ask herself whether she felt comfortable being so closely involved with all this Byzantine borrowing and moving money around, given that the British media would try and find out how much she knew about her husband's involvement with allegations of corruption in Italy?

Sadly, there is not a level playing field in British politics. Women have to work five times as hard as men to get up the ladder of power. They have to combine running a family, being a good wife and mother, with all the demands of office and intense media scrutiny. Tessa Jowell knows better than anyone that's the way the cookie crumbles.

On the radio yesterday lunchtime, ordinary voters in her constituency described her as "loved and respected". Baroness Jay, a close friend, said she "felt sorry" for Tessa, and that she was the victim of media harassment, because she was a photogenic woman. Piffle - the reason why Tessa Jowell is the centre of attention is because we can't believe that such a smart person can be so besotted by her husband that she doesn't ask the kind of question she would have no problem firing at any one of her dozens of minions.

I have a lot of time for Tessa Jowell. But being the Minister for Women in a week when two committees have produced reports detailing how women can be empowered in their pay packets and at the ballot box should have been a chance for her to take these proposals and steer them into reality, not weave up and down her garden path dodging reporters asking about home loans.

Men in politics have always operated double standards, bonking secretaries, bestowing peerages on friends and financiers and awarding contracts to cronies. I accept that's the way it works, but I expect women to operate on a higher plane, to be above reproach.

Sir Gus O'Donnell may find that Tessa Jowell is guilty of no impropriety whatsoever. It is depressing that her unblemished track record should even be under the microscope. Is it unfair? Yes, but unless women decide to adopt a different code of ethics to men, politicians will never win back public trust.

Comments