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Chaos of women and equalities ministers made clear


‘This level of movement and fragmentation is unsatisfactory.’

At the request of the House of Commons, the Women and Equalities Committee has scrutinised the work of the Government Equalities Office (GEO) and the Minister for Women and Equalities, who is responsible for the Government Equalities Office.

The Committee’s ensuing report was published on 5 June.

The Government Equalities Office, the Committee pointed out, has been unusually itinerant for a Whitehall function throughout its history, and there has been a high level of turnover among the people holding ministerial responsibility for it.

And in the report’s summary the Committee concluded that:

Since 1997, the policy function for women and equalities issues has been located in eight different government departments.

In the last two years alone, four different Ministers based in three different departments have held the brief for Women and Equalities.

The most recent change in leadership has led to a situation where the ministerial team is split across two departments, with the civil servants supporting them in a third department.

Each move brings disruption and incurs costs.

Each change of leadership requires time for a new Minister to get to grips with the brief.

In each new department there will be beneficial policy synergies, but none of these departments has had an overwhelming claim to be the home of equalities in Whitehall, and the benefits have been incidental and short-lived rather than part of a planned strategy.

This level of movement and fragmentation is unsatisfactory and unsustainable if we want the the Government Equalities Office to be an effective engine of change towards a more equal society across government.

As well as stability, the Government Equalities Office needs resources, ministerial time, and authority for its cross-governmental role.

A Cabinet sub-committee for equalities should be established and a cross-government equalities strategy developed, both led by the Minister for Women and Equalities.

The Government Equalities Office should be represented separately and distinctly within the financial accounts and departmental plan of its current home department.

In the long term, the Government Equalities Office’s next move should be to the Cabinet Office.

There, it should co-ordinate and monitor work across Whitehall on all equalities strands, with a remit to hold individual departments’ feet to the fire on mainstreaming equalities in their own policy areas.

The part-time nature of the role of Minister for Women and Equalities contributes to instability, reduces its capacity and risks giving the impression that these issues are an afterthought rather than a thread that ought to run through all government policy-making.

The Minister should also find a long-term home in the Cabinet Office as a full-time role.

The Committee also pointed out that this is not just a matter of theoretical or bureaucratic interest to Whitehall insiders and people who follow politics. Policy challenges affect people’s daily lives throughout the country.

For example, the overall gender pay gap stands at 18.4 per cent and is particularly acute for women in their forties and fifties.

Women make up only six per cent of FTSE 100 Chief Executive Officers, 17.6 per cent of national newspaper editors and 32 per cent of Members of Parliament.

And women are more than twice as likely as men to experience sexual harassment in the workplace.

So the structures and leadership that the government puts in place to tackle these challenges matter.

To read the full report, click here.

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