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 Government Equalities Office (GEO) to be an effective engine of change towards a more equal society across government. As well as stability, GEO 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. GEO should be represented separately and distinctly within the financial accounts and departmental plan of its current home department.
In the long term, the GEO’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.
Published: 5 June 2018