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Hello, I'm Jane Hutcheon. Welcome to the program
where my guest is British Labour politician
Baroness Jean Corston. In 2005,
Jean Corston was made a life peer by former British Prime Minister
Tony Blair. She grew up in a working-class home
in northern England and was drawn, like her father,
to the values of socialism. Bareness Corston is best known
for her landmark report on women in the UK's
criminal justice system. She visited Australia as a guest
of the Sydney Community Foundation.

Baroness Jean Corston,
welcome to One Plus One. It's lovely to have you in Australia. It's lovely to be here. You are a mother,
you're a peer in the House of Lords. You're best known for a report
on women in the prison system that was done in the UK
some years ago, but the question
I really want to know is - what was it like walking into the
House of Lords for the first time? Well, I thought I knew the building because, of course,
the Houses of Parliament is the House of Lords
and the House of Commons and you can tell where you are
because of the colour of the carpet. If the carpet's green,
you're in the House of Commons and I knew all the green bit. And then I walked into the red bit and got lost,
which is very embarrassing 'cause I'd been
in the building 13 years. And I discovered that it's just
a very, very different place.

It's a place, by and large, full
of people who are beyond ambition, who have made life, who have achieved something and who just want to put
something back. So, it was a culture shock. Very different
from the House of Commons.

And it took me a while
to get into it, you know? There's no confrontation. I want to start off talking
a bit about your early life. You were born in Hull.
Yes. In Yorkshire.
Yes. In the middle of The Blitz,
during the Second World War. I was. What memories do you have
of that time? Well, we were bombed out
of one house and we... I don't remember that. And we went into another house and that was affected by bombing and we lost... The kitchen windows blew... ..blew out
and you couldn't get glass. And they had
this sort of thick paper, which they used to put over windows
that had been broken. And I can remember sitting
in this tiny kitchen, on the table, and I had a doll
and I had a box of spent matches. That's all I had. I mean,
we never had paper or anything. And I have a vivid memory of sitting
on the kitchen table with an imaginary friend
and dealing out the spent matches. "One for you and one for me.
And one for you and one for me." And always being put out
if there's one over 'cause I didn't know
what to do with it. I'm told that when I was very small, I got into the shed and I tipped
a whole tin of Cycle Black over me and my parents had to use
the entire weekly ration of butter to get it off. I slept in a air raid shelter
most nights of my infant life because Hull was the most
heavily bombed city. There were 86 bombing raids on Hull.

And I was quite close
to the city centre. So, there are those memories and also memories of there not
being a garden to play in 'cause everyone had to grow
vegetables. So, playing with kids in the street
'cause there was nowhere else. It's amazing, because you think
of that kind of life and you think of children
who are brought up in war zones and I wonder,
did that traumatise you? It must have an effect upon you, but you don't know
it's had an effect upon you. I think that's probably the most
honest thing to say. It's made me, I think,
throughout my life, conscious... ..conscious that I should never
take peace for granted. We have too many
generations of people who think that peace is given. And my life, never mind the lives
of my parents and my grandparents, have taught me that it's not true. What made you a socialist? Because I understand that you your socialist roots
were planted quite early. They were, yes. My dad was active
in the Labour Party. He left school at 13. He became an apprentice
glove-cutter, which is, you know,
a highly skilled trade. And from an early age,
I knew he was in the Labour Party. And there's one instance,
in particular, that I think formed my... First of all, it was his example. You know, an injury to one
is an injury to all. He taught us that, me and my sister. But on one occasion, when I was six, we went to our grandparents' house
in Derbyshire. Grandad had been a coalminer. And my sister fell and put her hand
out to save herself and put her hand
straight into the kitchen range, and had a very serious burn
on her hand. And my dad grabbed her up,
took her to the doctor and my granny sat me on her lap
in her rocking chair, looking at the clock. And Dad came back and said, "Oh, they've put a dressing on,
which is moist, so it won't stick, "and it's impregnated with a new
wonder drug called penicillin." And I was watching
my grandmother's face and it was like a cloud
was obscuring the sun.

And she said,
"But how much did this cost?"

And my father said,
"Mother, last July, "the Labour government brought
in the National Health Service. "I didn't have to pay anything." And she looked down at me and,
in her lovely Midlands accent, said to me, "Fancy not having to pay
to send for the doctor, duck." And in that moment,
I knew my dad was Labour, that this was somehow a good thing and that that was what
I was going to do. You're getting emotional.
Oh, yes! Well, it is emotional
to think that... ..that that's what politics can do. You know, politics can make
a huge difference. People are very derisory
often about politics. They say, "Oh, well,
all politicians," you know? It's ever so easy to say, but actually,
when I think about my generation, I think about my parents' generation and I think about the way
my grandchildren are growing up, then, you know,
politics is a noble cause. And if I had wanted to be rich, I'd have carried on being
a barrister. We'll come to the later part
of your career in a moment, but you left school at the age of 16. Yeah.
Why was that? Um... Well, it was my family couldn't
afford for me to stay on at school. There was no money. I had to leave
and contribute to the family budget. That was quite common for,
you know, working-class girls. I'd had more education than anyone
in my family in living memory. Nobody had ever stayed at school
till 16 in my family anywhere. So, at the age of 16,
when you had to leave school... Yeah. ..what did you think
was going to be in your future? What did you imagine you would do? Well, I think, deep down I made assumptions about what
happened to working-class girls. 'Cause I left school in 1958...

Erm... there were quite a few women
who were my contemporaries who got pregnant, had babies
and had to give them up for adoption because you couldn't be
a single parent, you know, it wasn't possible. You were called an unmarried mother
and you were a pariah.

And it was made clear to me
right through my childhood that the best that a girl like me
could hope for was to make a good marriage. And my mother worried about me
in that respect for two reasons. One, I was a singularly
unattractive child. My grandmother used to say, "Don't worry, 'ugly in the cradle,
pretty at the table'." But when I was eight years old,
that had worn out a bit, you know. I was a long way past the cradle. So deep down my mother, I think,
used to think that "She's plain
and she's got too much lip...

" she won't make
a good marriage." And I suppose I thought
that was what I was supposed to do but I don't think I ever thought
in terms of having a career because I didn't feel
confident enough to think about having a career
and I became... When I left school
I became a civil servant. You did get married quite young. Very young, yeah. And your husband, Christopher,
worked with British Forces radio so that you ended up living overseas
for a time. I did. I met him, he worked for the
BBC. He was a recording engineer - a very good recording engineer -
and we went to live in Nairobi. And this was just as the Mau Mau
rebellion was ending. My father behaved as if
he'd never see me again. There had been terrible stories of
the slaughter of white settlers...

..and it frightened him. But going to live in Africa
as a young, white woman reinforced my politics. It made me realise
what my father meant about the worth
of every human being. Was it difficult living in Africa
as a young wife and a new mother? I loved the countryside.

I thought the people were wonderful.


I found the casual racism shocking.

I once heard one of my husband's
colleagues refer to black people as 'non-reflectors' 'cause they
didn't show up in your headlights.

Erm... My first child died there, which I don't want to say
too much about, but then my daughter was born there.

And she grew up, for 20 months, in a country
where children were welcomed.

And wherever we went... It was partly because, of course,
she had strawberry blonde hair and they all wanted to touch it. It was that children were tolerated. You know, they were welcome and I grew to love that country
very, very much. So I'm seeing this whole life
being shaped by everything
that's happening around you. When you came back to the UK,
you worked for the Labour Party. At another stage you studied law,
you became a barrister. In the 1980s, you had left
your first husband by then and you met a man named
Peter Townsend, who was quite a well-known
sociologist. Yes. He encouraged you
to stand for your boss' job when you were 38. Yes, he did. What did you think when he said that? I thought he was crazy. I think, deep down...'re defined by...
You're defined... Whether you like it or not,
you're defined by your life and so much of the wellspring of
that is your childhood experience. And for me it was always
a lack of confidence. And for a lot of women, it's... And, I think, it happens more
to women than to men. is a lack of confidence. And I just said to him,
"I couldn't do that." And he said, "But I know you can." He always maintained, throughout
his life till his dying moment, that I was cleverer than him. And because I thought
he was a genius, I thought he was crazy
but he just said, "You can do it." And I'd not known him long
but anyway, I got the job. Much to the horror of many
of my male colleagues who were saying, you know,
"She's only 38 and she's a woman." And it was a job in politics? Yes, it was being responsible
for the seven counties of the South West of England - which is 6,000 square miles - and...

..seats that we needed to win if
we were going to form a government. Before I go into
your illustrious political career, I want to talk a little bit more
about your husband. I mean, it shocks me when you say
that you lacked confidence and he was always kind of
challenging you to do better. It's like he's almost reflecting
a different mirror of you back to you. Is that how you saw your relationship
with him? Yes, that's a very good description. I haven't heard it put better. And he did it
for lots of other people. When he died, the London School of Economics
opened a tribute page. There were hundreds of posts
from people all over the world who'd been his students and said,
"He showed me I could be better." And I used to think to myself, "Well, that's what he used to do
for me." I mean, he'd say to me, "Of course you can do that,
you're very clever," or whatever. "Of course you can do that." Who was the person in British
politics who did that to you? Did the Labour Party see
that you had talent? Oh, I think that the Labour Party
could see that I could organise and that I had a brain. I mean, I remember once
Neil Kinnock was our party leader and he came to Bristol
and I put on...

..a sort of public meeting but I did it unlike any public
meeting we'd ever had before. I had a stage set made and I booked probably the most
expensive venue in Bristol, which everyone said was crazy
'cause we'd lose money and we couldn't possibly have
all those hundreds of people. Well, we had all those hundreds
of people and Neil said to me there and then, "Please will you come
and work for us in London?" So, yeah, that kind of thing
did happen. When you were elected
as a member of Parliament, you had been a barrister and you gave that up
to work in politics. What surprised you that you learnt
about your constituents and your constituency? What I thought was wonderful
was the resilience of people. The things that they had endured
and triumphed over. I mean, they were always
the moaners, obviously. But by and large, I found that for most
of my constituents, a deep well of affection. You know, people would say,
"I'm going to vote for Jean." They never bothered
with my other name, I was just Jean. And they'd say,
"Well, you're our Jean." And that's what I was, I was theirs. And, I felt,
when I had to give it up, in a way, I felt as if I was
giving up a child for adoption. You know, you can,
if you care about it, become very, very,
very close to the people. You feel a great responsibility,
actually, for their welfare. What took you into
the women's prisons when you were an MP? I became a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee
of the House Of Commons in 1995, when I'd been a member
for three years. And we visited Holloway, which was the women's prison
in North London. And so, I just went round talking
to prisoners and to the staff and I realised most of them was in there for offences
that represented a social nuisance rather than anything criminal, that they were people
who didn't have any life skills.

And the thing that shocked me most
was seeing a baby. This woman had given a birth
while she was in prison and at that time,
under that government, women were shackled during labour...

..if they were prisoners. And a prison governor
was in the room to watch the birth. Can you imagine giving birth
in a room with a total stranger wearing a uniform? That doesn't happen now, of course. But just seeing that baby
and talking to this woman and realising
that she had led a life which would have defeated
most people. And this woman was a survivor, she wasn't a victim,
she was a survivor. And her crime was a social nuisance, that was all about
her living environment, it was nothing about criminal
behaviour, it made me very angry. I thought, you know,
"This is done in my name, "this is outrageous." So, that was the first time
I went into a women's prison, I've become quite good
at it since then. Is it hard?
What? Going into a women's prison? It is, actually, yeah.
When I used to... When I was doing my report,
of course, that was in '06, I went into a lot. And I spoke to a lot of women
who had been in prison and because I was married to an extraordinary emotionally
intelligent man, I could go home and offload.
You know what I mean? I could go home
and talk to him about them and in that way,
they were no longer in here. And now I don't go, now I'm a widow,
I don't go in prisons very often, because there is no opportunity
to offload. It's a very difficult business, going into a women's prison
if you think about who they are and where they've been
and what's happened to them. In the mid 2000s, you produced a landmark report on
women in the criminal justice system. Huge report.
Hm-mm. 41 out of 43 recommendations,
given the tick by the government. Hm-mm. What do you think
was the most important thing out of that that was achieved? I think there were three things,
really. Prison staff began to realise that you had to treat
men and women differently. The numbers of women went down. And the thing of which
I'm most proud of in my entire life is that I abolished routine
strip searching in women's prisons, having been told
by the director general of the prison service that I would
never do it on his watch and I thought,
"Right, you just watch me." Because it's a pretty terrible thing
to do to women who have been abused, which most of them have. One of my grandson's said, "Is it true you abolished
routine strip searching "in women's prisons, Granny?" And I said, "Yes." He said,
"Can we put it on your headstone?" I said, "No, darling,
there won't be room." And also, of course, courts
are harder on women than on men. There is still the notion
that women shouldn't commit crime and that they are more severely
sentenced for similar crimes.

So, I remember once a woman
who died in Britain... in prison in Britain, had... was serving a life sentence
for a first offence of wounding with intent. And when I told one
of our very senior judges that women
were disproportionately treated, he told me that
I must be quite wrong, so I gave him this instance. I said, "Tell me how many men
would be given life "for a first offence
of wounding with intent?" And instead of dealing
with the question, he patted my hand and said
"You must be mistaken, my dear."

I was a Peer of the Realm, I was a reasonably
intelligent human being and he refused to accept a truth. One of the recommendations, because women were being sent back
to prison after one stay there, was that you should have
smaller centres. Yeah. You didn't feel prison
was the right place for women to get their lives
back together and move on. Yes. Hm. Did that work eventually - having smaller centres instead of
incarcerating women in big prisons? Yes. And instead of saying, "Go there
to sort out social services, "go there to sort out your housing, "go there to sort out debt, "go there to sort out
your mental health," all under one roof, there was
that whole woman treatment. And part of it
was those life skills. It was - what is your responsibility
for being here? What's your responsibility
for being in this position? You see, you and I are very lucky and most people watching us
are very lucky in that they have learnt
life skills. They know how to cooperate
with other people, they know how to hold
a persuasive conversation or a phone call,
they know how to keep to time. These women have been dragged up,
as my granny would have said, and many of them
don't have any of these skills. And these women centres
don't just say, "Oh, you're here to do six months." They say,
"Well, what's your responsibility "for being in this situation?" And, "Let's work together." And I have lost count of the number
of life-affirming stories of women who have been through the revolving
door of prison countless times, but are now living with their
children, working. Many of them come back as volunteers
into the women's centres, because of the effect
it had on their own lives and they're wonderful mentors, 'cause they can say to these women,
"I've done it, so can you." There were three women's centres,
there are now 51. Quite a lot of them are called
'Corston centres'.

And women can be referred
by the courts. They can be referred
by their family doctor. They can self-refer,
cos women know, you know? If you're poor
and you're mentally ill and you've been a victim
of domestic violence and you're drug-addicted
for some reason, if all these things
are happening in your life, then that's an open door to prison, and if you can go somewhere and you're dealt with in the round,
as it were, as a person... I have seen time and again
how life-affirming it is. It's truly wonderful to see how... And to talk to them! You know, I go to women's centres
and women will come up to me and say, "I know who you are, "and because of you,
I am now somebody," or... And I've met women who've said,
"Because of you, I'm alive." You must find your work
extremely fulfilling and moving. I do, it's very moving
and it is fulfilling and you can't do it unless
you feel passionately about them. You know, it's very easy
to just say women in prison, 'cause if you see
a television program about them, they seem to be boisterous
and nerve...and... Tough.
Tough and, yeah, boisterous. It masks a terrible vulnerability.

Terrible vulnerability. You sit in a room with them
and talk to them and you scratch that surface,
and they are frightened women. And some of them... I'll never forget a young woman
I met, and she had been... I think she had been raped
by her stepfather, and that's what started her dissent
into a life of crime - in and out,
in and out of prison. And she looked at me with... Her eyes were full of tears,
she was about 23, and she said, "I shouldn't be in here,
I should be at college." And she was right. She was right. And actually, the door from opening
her prison cell to college is not a long journey. I want to talk to you a little bit
about the concept of a life peer, which we would probably find
quite strange... Yes, it is strange. in Australia. A couple of years ago, our former Prime Minister Tony Abbott
handed out an award to the Duke of Edinburgh. Well, we all thought
that was a bit odd. (LAUGHS) To be truthful. Well,
I suppose when we think of peers, we think of honour systems and, if this isn't too rude, you know, people who get awarded with things
who possibly don't deserve them. Deserve them, yeah. How do you view
the life peers system? How do you explain
the life peer system? Well, I didn't want to leave
the House of Commons. I did because I had a terrible fall
which wrecked my feet. And at the time, I was chair of
the Parliamentary Labour Party. I was the first woman elected to chair
the Parliamentary Labour Party. And if you speak to most Labour MPs
and ask who their leader is, it is the chair of
the Parliamentary Labour Party, 'cause at the time, they would have never said
Tony Blair was their leader, they would have said I was. And so I did that job. And when I realised I didn't have the stamina
to do that job, because you do need
a lot of stamina... I remember telling him,
Tony Blair, and I said, "I don't think I can stay." And he was absolutely horrified,
and he said, "But you've been so good." He said, "You got
the Parliamentary Labour Party "through the Iraq War." And I said, "I know I did." And he said, "But, you know,
you've got a big majority, "take it easy." And I said, "My self-respect
won't let me do that." I said, "I've got to give up." And he said, "Well, don't think
you're walking off into the sunset, "I'm going to send you
down the other end, " 'cause I know you'll do
some good work down there." So my focus was that I would go down there
to do something, and I didn't know at the time
it was going to be to write a report
on women in prison. And I don't suppose I thought
very much about the House of Lords. And when I did think about it, it just seemed like
a stuffy organisation which occasionally, and annoyingly,
frustrated are legislation because they wouldn't agree
to what we wanted them to do, 'cause, you know, we did have
13 years of Labour government. And then I went down there and found that it was
for the people who actually would have never stood
for election but who were remarkable. I mean, one of the greatest
fertility experts in the world, for example, the astronomer Royal...

..the most brilliant lawyer
of our generation, people who had run
a huge cities as leaders. I began to... You know,
there were no young people. I began to realise
that these were people who would not have stood
for election but who had nothing to prove. They didn't want anything
from anybody. They were beyond ambition. And any question put to them
was considered on its merits. Now, most elected senates,
you do have parties.

And they'll take the party line. The House of Lords doesn't do that. So I've now found myself in an institution
which I do respect, which is not party political, which is not confrontational. And the first time I made a speech
in there about identity cards, I made a really important part about women
in our ethnic minority populations, and as the House rose
and we were leaving, a conservative peer
came across to me and said, "That was a really important point,
I had never thought about that," and I nearly fell over
because in the House of Commons, my colleagues would have thought,
"Oh, I wish I had thought of that!" And people on the other side
would have said, "Well, we don't agree with that
because you said it. "And anyway,
if you say today is Wednesday, "we still wouldn't believe you." And so I realised that it was
a very, very different place.

And governments can fear it. Before I let you go,
let's strip away the ermine... Yeah. ..for Jean the person. Yeah. What's the biggest challenge
facing you? Apart from the domestic things
like loving my God and trying very, very hard
to be the best granny that I can to my six grandchildren - I suppose they are
the greatest focus - the biggest challenge to me
is to try to be an advocate for those without a voice. We really appreciate you coming in. Thank you so much for speaking
with me on One Plus One. It's been a pleasure. One Plus One is available on: You can browse the archive
or contact us through the website: Stay in touch and leave comments via Facebook: You can also follow me on Twitter: I look forward to your company next time. From me, goodbye. Captions by Ericsson Access Services Copyright Australian
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