Some ministries are still more equal than others ….

2 May

It’s just past a year to the day since I wrote about the way in which some ministries of government are more equal than others.  This was in reference to the post of Minister for Women and Equalities. It is a jointly-held office, whose new incumbent in 2018, Penny Mordaunt, was only announced some time after the Prime Minister had named Amber Rudd’s successor in the Home Office, Sajid Javid.  Back to the present, and in the wake of yet another controversial departure from government, we find that Ms Mordaunt is to step up to replace Gavin Williamson at the Ministry of Defence.  This year, it has been immediately announced that she takes the joint brief of Women and Equalities with her, thus halting a regular churn of appointments in this post – at least for now. When it comes to establishing who is prioritising the burning injustices at the heart of the Women and Equalities office, it will prove tempting to ask ‘You and whose army?’ …


Penny Mordaunt makes history as the first woman to act as Defence Secretary, and it’s been interesting to see the response to her keeping Women and Equalities as well.  While last year’s attention focussed on the fact that the low priority of Women and Equalities was demonstrated by the late naming of the new official, this year there seems to be more concern about how two ministerial jobs can be done at once.  I’m guessing it’s not rocket science to work out why this comes up more in terms of Defence, than say, Education, Home Office or Culture… Defence, like the last bastion of male-only incumbents, the office of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, is still often viewed as a man’s world, and, often a macho one too.  And we all know that archetypal men’s jobs are all-consumingly full-time …


The truth is that Women and Equalities should be a freestanding post.  Many today are pointing to the fact that Theresa May mentioned her preference to see more women in senior government posts, while giving evidence at a select committee, just hours before the news of Williamson’s sacking and Mordaunt’s promotion were made public. But there hasn’t been much renewed call for the Women and Equalities brief to be re-allocated as a full-on Cabinet post.  Another year, another missed opportunity to do so.


However, since last year, all has not stood still in terms of Women and Equalities.  Following Penny Mordaunt’s appointment, the Women and Equalities Select Committee produced a report on the role of the Minister, and the place of the Government Equalities Office (GEO) in government.  This report spoke out against the continual movement between departments, which has been characteristic of the role in its current form as a jointly-held post.  New ministers have come along because of changes in Cabinet personnel, rather than due to the priorities of the post itself.  The report recommended that post should become full-time in the Cabinet Office, and that the supporting GEO should also permanently reside there.  In her response for the government, Ms Mordaunt agreed that ‘the GEO will need a permanent home in future, and we will look to do that at a suitable opportunity.’ Meanwhile, it remains camped at the Department of Education, and the GEO was reporting to leaders at the department for International Development while Penny Mordaunt was minister there. It remains to be seen if her shift to Defence might represent a ‘suitable opportunity’ to seek permanent residence elsewhere.


Given the general government paralysis as Brexit rumbles on, it seems unlikely that there will be much appetite to transform the equalities function in government. And Penny Mordaunt’s desire to maintain the brief is good for stability, while making any such transformation less immediately likely.  Women and Equalities therefore remains a Cinderella brief – like women’s unpaid work, a second shift while doing something else.




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