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Baroness Scotland: The cost of being in political life

In her first interview since revelations about her housekeeper nearly ended her political career, the Attorney General talks frankly to Sarah Cassidy about her new fight against domestic violence

Friday 05 March 2010 01:00 GMT

Her story is a history of firsts: she was the first black woman to be made a QC in 1991, and at 35 the youngest Queen's Counsel since William Pitt the Younger. She became the first black female government minister in 1999 and the first woman and black person to be appointed Attorney General since the post was created in 1315.

And then came a record of another kind: the first chief lawyer of the country to be fined for breaking a law she herself had helped to bring in as a Home Office minister.

Until last September Baroness Scotland had a fairly low profile. Very little was known about the country's chief law officer and she seemed content to keep it that way, as it enabled her to quietly and modestly go about her work.

But that all changed when it emerged that she had mistakenly employed an illegal immigrant as a housekeeper and was fined £5,000.

The housekeeper, Loloahi Tapui, from Tonga, claims that Baroness Scotland did not look at her passport before giving her the job, something the Attorney General has insisted she did. The pair look set to face each other in court next month when Tapui goes on trial for fraud and Scotland appears as a prosecution witness.

Since the scandal the 54-year-old Attorney General has been keeping a low profile. Friends say it has been as if she entered a bunker that she was not sure how she would ever get out of.

Now in her first interview since the scandal broke, Baroness Scotland clearly hopes to re-emerge on to the political stage in what could be the dying days of a Labour Government. She bursts into her Commons office, brightening the rather gloomy room with her pearls and cream jacket, beaming smile and animated gestures. Throwing herself onto the sofa, she launches into an almost unstoppable monologue about the Government's successes.

But she is, she says, still very upset about what happened with the housekeeper and the effects the media storm had on her family. She said: "I think it was a maelstrom. It was extremely difficult but I can't talk about any of that because it is still sub judice. It was a very difficult time. They camped outside my house, they camped outside my office and it was an extraordinary experience to go through."

It made it hard to do her job. She says: "It was very, very difficult. For instance I launched in the middle of this storm the Attorney General's Youth Network. It was much more difficult to do that. I think that many people thought that because of the storm I wouldn't go but I was absolutely determined that the young people and women whom I'm passionate about helping were more important than me and therefore nothing was going to prevent me from doing that. But was that extremely difficult to do against that background – absolutely. Was anyone focussing on that aspect? I don't think so. It went on for weeks, for weeks, for weeks. You have no idea as to how long it will take and where it will go. I answered all the questions immediately. It was dealt with, I accepted the penalty and that was it really."

She thanks her devout Catholic faith for getting her through. "I've been very clear to myself that I have to be true to me and I have never made any question about the fact that I am a very committed Christian; I have been very reliant on my faith during this period. I now really understand the cost of being in political life."

Born Patricia Scotland in Dominica in 1955, the 10th of 12 children, Scotland did not at first seem destined for a political career. She came to Britain when she was two and grew up and attended state schools in Walthamstow, east London.

After co-founding a successful legal chambers she looked set to become a High Court judge until Tony Blair made her a Labour peer, Baroness Scotland of Asthal, after the Oxfordshire village where she has a home. Two years later she made history as the first black woman to serve as a government minister. She served at the Foreign Office and the now defunct Lord Chancellor's Office followed by a stint as a Home Office minister before Gordon Brown made her Attorney General in 2007.

But despite coming from a not particularly privileged background she is far from being an outsider. She has been a barrister for more than 30 years and is deeply immersed in New Labour politics.

She is married to Richard Mawhinney, a barrister. The couple have two sons.

Scotland is a no dry lawyer. With a warm and talkative nature, animated gestures and bold dress sense she has been popular with those who have worked with her.

She is also admired for her professional restraint, coming after Lord Goldsmith whose approach was regarded as overbearing and intrusive by some prosecutors.

She hopes to soon be able to put the housekeeper scandal behind her and get back to championing the issues close to her heart. For her that is domestic violence – an issue that she has worked tirelessly on throughout her time in government, in each post making sure that she continued to work on the issue.

March is domestic violence awareness month and Baroness Scotland, believes that reducing domestic violence is one of the proudest achievements of her career.

"Halving domestic violence is one of my proudest achievements. I'm very proud of the reduction in the level of domestic violence and the very concrete reduction in the number of deaths. We have the lowest number of domestic homicides for 10 years."

When Labour came to power in 1997, 120 women were being killed by their partners every year with one in four women affected by domestic violence at some stage of their lives.

Scotland says she has felt passionately about the issue ever since she dealt with her first domestic violence case as a 21-year-old trainee barrister.

"I remember the first time I read a domestic violence case I was so shocked. I was 21 I had not seen domestic violence I believed that all husbands treat their wives tenderly."

When she became a minister she was determined to tackle the issue.

She said: "When I said I wanted to change this I was told I was being bold and I was told I was being brave. Now we understand what bold and brave means. It means you're nuts. And the reason why people validly thought this couldn't change was that this is not just a phenomenon for the United Kingdom, it's a global phenomenon."

Domestic violence reaches every corner of our society, she says. It does not respect class, race, religion, culture or wealth. A professional woman is just as likely to be abused as a working-class mother on a run-down estate.

An economic analysis in 2004 by Professor Sylvia Walby showed that domestic violence was costing the country £23bn a year. Last November an update showed the Government's drive had cut this by £7.5bn to £15.5bn.

Scotland cannily used this analysis to get ministerial colleagues to realise how much their departments were already spending on the issue and commit to being part of the solution.

She credits the Government's multi-agency approach for its success. Specialist domestic violence advisers have helped victims as soon as they come forward and supported them as their cases came to court and into the future.

Scotland also thanks her parents for her zeal for helping others.

"I grew up with a very strong understanding that God had given us each a gift and it was our job to find it and use it to help other people," she said.

"I'm not afraid of failing and I'm just not ready to not try. I was brought up to believe there was no such word as can't unless you have tried and tried again. So I just didn't want to hear it when people said you couldn't change things."

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