Lack of victim support led Tories' first black woman MP into politics
Published: 17 Feb 2013 08:00
Helen Grant is a solicitor and Conservative party politician. She is the MP for Maidstone and The Weald and became the first ever justice and victims' minister in November. Here, during an iofficial visit to Reading, she tells the Chronicle how her background helped shape her into the ideal candidate for the role.
"I'VE had a woman turn up on my doorstep with two bags full of clothes, three children and a black eye - she does not want to talk, she just wants to be looked after."
Helen Grant is more prepared than most to deal with situations that many would baulk at. Growing up on a council estate in Carlisle with her mother and grandmother, she suffered daily taunts from bullies who targeted her because she "looked different".
Today, she is the first black female Conservative MP and also the first justice and victims' minister - but childhood memories are never far from her thoughts, and her first encounter with domestic violence still stands out as a turning point.
She said: "I was about 10-years-old. My mother Gladys was inspired by Erin Pizzey and set up the first women's refuge in Carlisle.
"I remember going with her and sitting at this big brown table pretending I was doing my homework, but I couldn't help but notice and see how my surroundings were helping women and children in need.
"Perhaps it locked in from that point and rubbed off on me irreversibly."
For Helen, 51, the road out of Carlisle was law, and she did a degree at Hull University before studying at the College of Law in Guildford. After qualifying as a solicitor, she set up her own firm in 1996, Grants Solicitors, where she specialised in domestic violence and abuse.
She said: "I saw first hand the lack of victim support and it was predominantly women and children that would come to me needing help, so politics seemed like a natural progression after that."
Having had women knock on her door on Christmas Eve desperate for help, she turned to politics while husband Simon took over the family law firm. She joined the Labour party in 2004, offered them the use of her company telephones during the 2005 General Election, but says they showed little interest, and two years later she joined the Conservatives.
She won the Maidstone and The Weald seat in 2010, taking over from Ann Widdecombe, and admitted it was a "great feeling".
She added: "My two boys were no longer babies, so you get to the point where you are ready for the next step."
In Reading on Thursday, February 7 to visit the Elizabeth Fry hostel in Coley Avenue, and Alana House - which has just received a year's funding from the Probation Service - Helen has a clear idea of what she wants to achieve.
She said: "This is my first visit to Reading and it is the perfect opportunity to see the good work that is being done here. These centres work so hard to help with the rehabilitation of offenders and our purpose today is to listen, see the work in practice and thank those who work in this sector."
She added: "I am enjoying this role enormously - everyone works so hard and my background ties in excellently with my work now.
"Victims for years felt overlooked and unsupported by the criminal justice system. Centres like this provide a facility for female offenders to address their needs and it is often reassuring for the offenders to know help is out there.
"Ultimately, people need support - they know you are there to help and that is always what I have set out to do."