Page last updated at 10:31 GMT, Friday, 3 February 2006

Interview: Jackie Ballard

By Jackie Storer
BBC News

She may have thrown her hat into the ring in the last Liberal Democrat leadership battle, but Jackie Ballard says she is more than happy not to be taking part this time.

Jackie Ballard
AGE: 53
FAMILY: Divorced, one daughter
HOME: London
HOBBIES: Going to concerts, ballet, opera, cinema, good restaurants, travelling
MUSIC: Saw Doctors, Motown, Blues Brothers
PET: None
DO BIG BROTHER?: Certainly not - however much they paid the RSPCA

The 53-year-old has left Westminster politics behind, after losing her seat at the 2001 election. She has been director general of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) for the past four years.

After the recent rash of negative headlines about senior figures' personal lives, some might say a similar organisation is needed to prevent cruelty to Liberal Democrats.

But Ms Ballard, who finished fourth in the 1999 leadership contest, is quick to defend her former colleagues, saying she is angry that the focus has been on their human frailties rather than the cause they represent.

She argues that if the public and the media want high calibre politicians who are in touch with real people, they have to accept that some of them will have failings.

'Family suffers'

"When you are involved in politics, your personality and your personal life is seen to be as relevant as your political views, so it's very difficult not to answer questions on them. I really did not like that," she says.

"I mean I didn't have anything in particular to hide, but I didn't like that focus on me as a person. My family didn't like it either - and I think this has got worse.

In politics there were more personality and ego clashes that kept me awake at night - people forever threatening to resign or do something if they weren't getting their own way
Jackie Ballard

"My feeling has been Charles Kennedy has a wife, he has parents and he has a young child, who is too young to know what is going on, but might one day look at the cuttings.

"For his elderly parents, this I am certain, it is more painful for them than it is for Charles.

"To some extent, when you become a politician, especially if you have been around a long time and you are in a high profile role, you kind of build a wall around yourself and have a bit of resilience to it all.

"But your family are still normal people and they don't have that resilience.

"I felt the same way about seeing what Mark Oaten has been going through, that it must have been 100 times worse for his wife and kids."

Women candidates

Ms Ballard, who put much of the blame for losing her Taunton seat down to a campaign waged against her by supporters of hunting, knows what it is like to be under the spotlight.

She says her social life has taken a turn for the better since she exited frontline politics: "I have more free time now than I did when I was an MP... and yes, I am seeing someone, but I'm single - it's too early to say anything."

Ms Ballard, who like her 27-year-old daughter doesn't eat meat, says she is "troubled" that none of the candidates for either this Lib Dem leadership election or the recent Tory one have been women.

"I think that is such an indictment on British politics actually," she said.

She points out that the only other women to have stood for the leadership of a major party were Margaret Thatcher and Margaret Beckett.

'Unpopular appointment'

After her unexpected ousting from Parliament she took the opportunity to have a "middle-aged" gap year, by heading to Iran, the homeland of "an old love affair", to learn Farsi.

While there she was urged to apply to head up the 166-year-old RSPCA - a job which has not been without its own controversies.

Jackie Ballard and friends
The RSPCA is campaigning to outlaw animal circuses

By her own admission her appointment as director general "wasn't universally popular with trustees and a couple resigned as a result".

The animal welfare charity also faced financial problems, a structural budget deficit and losses of between 16m and 25m when the stock market crashed.

"When you come into a new job you are supposed to have a three months honeymoon," says Ms Ballard ruefully. "I didn't have any honeymoon.

"It was an irresistible challenge to apply for the job and then once I got it, it was another challenge to actually do it."

What I really cannot understand is people who plan an act of cruelty like kids tying a rocket to a guinea pig to see if it will go up in the sky
Jackie Ballard

But teething troubles aside, the former social worker says her current role gives her all the excitement, passion and sense of achievement that she felt in politics, but with one difference.

"In politics there were more personality and ego clashes that kept me awake at night," she says.

"People forever threatening to resign or do something if they weren't getting their own way or the direction wasn't the one they wanted.

"In the voluntary sector there is as much passion, but there certainly isn't as much ego."

Animal circus ban

She speaks out as a campaign championed by the RSPCA, in coalition with the Born Free Foundation and other charities, gathers pace to get a ban on wild animal circuses.

The groups want a ban included in the government's Animal Welfare Bill, which is currently going through Parliament.

You wouldn't get me in the Big Brother house
Jackie Ballard

Ms Ballard says she believes most families visiting circuses would be horrified if they knew about the cramped conditions animals are kept in and what has been done to them to make them perform.

"For us this is the biggie," she says. "This is the first major animal welfare legislation since 1911 and we would like the government, in our view, to get it right."

The legislation will impose harsher fines of up to 20,000 and jail terms of up to 51 weeks for animal cruelty.

Tail docking

It will also allow RSPCA inspectors to intervene earlier when an animal is reported as suffering, and give people clear instructions on how to look after their pets.

The charity is optimistic that it can get a ban on tail docking in the bill.

In the meantime, the RSPCA is undergoing a major image revamp. Instead of being seen as "old fashioned, safe and conservative", the organisation hopes to pull in more young people and embrace technology, with instant voting on big issues via texting or its website.

In a job which involves constant examples of cruelty to animals Ms Ballard says it is the ignorance of people that shocks her the most - "like someone who gets a pet hamster and leaves it in a cage in the conservatory in the summer without thinking about what will happen to it".

"What I really cannot understand is people who plan an act of cruelty, whether it's kids tying a rocket to a guinea pig to see if it will go up in the sky, or like a woman recently who put a cat into the washing machine on a boil wash and afterwards told people about it."

She says she is convinced - and has commissioned research to investigate whether - there is a link between cruelty to animals and those who are cruel or violent to people.

"If a child grows up thinking animals don't feel pain, or they are not terribly important, so it doesn't matter if I take pot shots at birds in the garden or kick the cat when I'm in a bad mood, that child is being dehumanised."

Hunt opponent to head RSPCA
21 Oct 02 |  Science/Nature
Ballard's unfinished business
21 Oct 02 |  Politics

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