Claire Perry, the determined MP for Devizes, is very, very determined not to be set up as a 21st century Mary Whitehouse. Her job title, as the Prime Minister’s adviser on preventing the sexualisation and commercialisation of childhood, might suggest the Tory MP is yearning for a more innocent bygone era. But she’s insistent that she isn’t anti-porn, or even a mother who snoops on her children:
‘I’m in no way the Mary Whitehouse of this,’ she tells me as she sits under a washing line in her office decorated with children’s artwork.
‘I am in no way old-fashioned, this is not some kind of anti-porn crusade. Amongst consenting adults, it’s fine, it’s just that it’s not porn as we know it. Children are very curious, it’s very easy, there’s this great phrase that the whole history of sexual perversion is just two clicks away on the internet and you know what, if you’re a 14-year-old boy and you’ve got the freedom to look at that, you’re going to look at that! And that is going to change your views about sex, and girls, and what girls should look like, whether they should have pubic hair, and I just think – and so many parents think – that’s just damaging.’
Perry caused a storm earlier this week when she suggested in an interview with the Daily Mail that parents should be able to monitor their children’s text messages. Every teenage girl in the country wondered whether the MP was also suggesting mothers read their daughters’ diaries to make sure they weren’t up to anything untoward. Perry has teenagers herself: what did they think?
The MP says she wasn’t proposing that parents snoop on their children:
‘The horror of thinking your mother might be able to find and open your lockable five year diary, that would be terrible. So this is absolutely a fine line, and I’ve had this conversation with my children, my 16-year-old said you must think you’re mad if you think I’m going to let you read my texts. And I said, well, there might be some conditions under which I’d quite like to see some of your emails.
‘I like everyone feel very uncomfortable because I absolutely think children should have their private space. But equally, if my child started behaving in a strange way, or there were all the signs that you might have if they’re doing drugs or something, I’d sort of feel like I ought to be able to go on and look at that.’
Perry thinks parents should know the password to their child’s phone, pointing out that they are the ones paying the bills. But she also favours even more robust behaviour: parents should be able to switch off a child’s phone remotely when they start their school lessons. She has held talks with a developer of software which means a parent can turn their child’s phone off from their own laptop, and decide when the phone can access the internet too.
‘I think we need to start saying to parents, you know what, it’s OK to do that, it’s not OK for children to be on their mobile phones in the classroom, teachers find it impossible to take phones off children, you know, kids are putting them down their bras or whatever.’
One of Perry’s big themes is empowering parents to be able to take back control of a space she feels adults have largely ‘ceded to our children’. It’s clear that she sees leaving a child to their own devices in the online world as akin to leaving a child to wander through a city alone at night, and it’s time for parents to take back control:
‘People say it’s so difficult to keep our kids off the laptop. There is a router. You control the wifi. So put it in your bedroom, for example, and switch it off when you go to bed, and then the household is internet free all night.
‘It’s common sense, people are like, wow, somehow they just don’t think. It’s like locking the doors, it’s like making sure the blind cords aren’t hanging into your child’s cot. This, I think, if it’s a problem for you, you’ve got the power to change it.’
Beyond reminding parents of their own responsibilities, Perry is working on a filter to keep children safe online. The plan is for a filter that checks the age of the child browsing, rather than her original call for all users to opt-in to accessing adult content on their computer, which a government consultation rejected. All public wifi will have an automatic block on adult material. She is also trying to persuade mobile phone companies and internet service providers to pool all the money they currently spend on education about online safety and parental controls into one pot to create a hub for all parents on online safety, and where they can report abuse.
Some of this work has attracted criticism, but she’s proud that the government is pushing ahead with these plans, even though they aren’t really a big vote-winning issue. While the Labour government ‘did a lot of good work’, she says, ‘it wasn’t kind of joined-up and it was partly reflective of this sort of angst I think the last government had over rights and responsibilities. It sort of wanted to tell everybody what to do but there were certain areas where it didn’t feel it could, so I think there was a big vacuum of common sense.’
Similarly on childcare, she says Labour’s good intentions led to a ‘massive increase in the cost’, while the role of this government should be ‘recognising these choices that we’re meant to have and just trying to facilitate the choice’. She adds:
‘It’s really difficult to hold down a full-time job and be a good mother because I bet no male lobby journalist at Christmas was thinking about what presents to buy their school kids’ teachers. I would guarantee that no man in this place spent a second of time thinking about end-of-term presents for teachers. I’ll bet you almost every mother did. Even if it was a box of Celebrations from the local service station, but it’s part of the stuff that you take on, this is the sort of agony and ecstasy of motherhood.
‘It’s all the gubbins, and the dentist appointments and growing out of rugby boots and there are lots of dads that do this too, but it’s the constant scrolling, news ticker of things that a mother has to pay attention to.’
Perry took seven years out of her former career in banking – she worked for Bank of America, McKinsey and Company, and Credit Suisse First Boston – to bring up her children. ‘I loved it,’ she says. ‘I unashamedly had the most lovely time being a mummy.’
After joining the Conservative party as a result of David Cameron’s modernisation project, she worked for George Osborne, who then suggested she stand for Parliament in 2010. She clearly loves her job, and the Conservative party, operating as she does with a gale force loyalty, even in the darker times. When we meet, the Prime Minister has just wowed the party with his Europe speech. ‘We’re so happy!’ she exclaims, adding that she hopes the speech has united the party for the long-term.
But though it’s impossible to find even a dent in Perry’s enthusiasm for her job, she’s a little less complimentary about the way some backbenchers conduct themselves. ‘We are all representatives of a thing called Conservative Inc. I just think we’re a brand, and I have a private sector background. We all got elected as Conservatives, I have no way of polling all of my constituents on very particular issues. I mean, some things, are very difficult: gay marriage is difficult for example.’
Ah yes, gay marriage. The Bill was published today, and a large contingent of the Tory party plans to vote against it. Perry hasn’t yet decided where she stands.
‘I passionately support the idea of people being allowed to marry. I’m worried whether that represents the majority view of my constituents… I believe in commitment, the problem is not two people of the same gender wanting to be committed, the problem Britain has is feckless heterosexuals having lots of children and, you know, dads not being involved in their lives, I think that is the problem.’
Regardless of which lobby she eventually troops through in the free vote on the same sex marriage legislation, Perry will remain loyal to the party leadership. She is far more uncomfortable with the way her backbench colleagues conduct themselves at meetings of the 1922 Committee, and argues that it should be reformed to be a parliamentary party meeting instead:
‘I think it has a place, it’s a fine institution, there are some fantastic debates and discussions there. It’s far too leaky, many of the other forums that we have, they don’t leak… I think the time is right for what I’d like to see, which is a sort of ’22 doing its thing, but a full parliamentary party meeting.’
But won’t that diminish the power of the Tory backbencher?
‘Our backbenchers are hardly low-profile. People seem to be able to command attention. The issue you’ve got is most backbenchers don’t speak at the ’22 because they know backbenchers who disagree with the dissenting voices – as I have done – that they will face being pilloried in an inaccurate way by their colleagues.’
That will make for an interesting debate at the next 1922 meeting, at least, but Perry doesn’t give the impression she buckles easily under criticism from colleagues. She may be no Mary Whitehouse, but she’s just as fierce about her own causes, whether they be Brand Conservative, or childhood innocence.