The role of Minister for Women and Equalities and the place of GEO in government Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

24.We welcome the Secretary of State for International Development to her new role as Minister for Women and Equalities. We wish her well in the role and look forward to holding her to account on progress towards a more equal society.

25.The rate of change in the positions of the Minister for Women and Equalities and the Government Equalities Office is unsatisfactory and unsustainable. It is a source of disruption and confusion, both within the Civil Service and among stakeholders. It also risks giving the impression that equality is a low priority for the Government, as does the part-time nature of the Minister’s role. As long as the function is tacked on to an existing portfolio, there is a danger that the policy priorities of that department will either overshadow or dominate the work of the GEO. Meanwhile, the relevance of equalities issues to all government departments, even those that would likely never be considered a suitable base for GEO, is diminished by this arrangement.

26.Further upheaval in the short term is not desirable. The Secretary of State for International Development already faces considerable practical challenges in her new role, with civil servants still located in the Department for Education and junior ministers and budgets based in the Home Office. Whatever arrangements are made in the short term to rationalise or cope with this situation, GEO should be represented separately and distinctly within the financial accounts and departmental plan of its home department to enable effective scrutiny of its expenditure and activity to take place.

27.A long-term solution is needed, however. The Government Equalities Office must be allowed to bed down in an arrangement that promotes stability and continuity, but that also gives it a platform to build capacity for exerting influence across Whitehall. A place at the heart of government, in the Cabinet Office, is the natural solution. Plans should be put in place now for the GEO’s next move, when it comes, to be to the Cabinet Office. The next Minister for Women and Equalities should have the job on a full-time basis and be part of the Cabinet Office team, with the right to attend Cabinet. Junior ministerial roles should also be based in the Cabinet Office, but could be jointly held with departments whose remits reflect the Government’s top equalities priorities at the time, such as the Home Office, Department for Work and Pensions or the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

28.Alongside this change, the role of the Minister for Women and Equalities and the GEO in relation to all protected characteristics, including race, age, disability and religion and belief, should be clarified. This should be a co-ordination, strategy and monitoring role, with a remit to hold individual departments’ feet to the fire on mainstreaming equalities in their own policy areas. GEO should be a critical friend, impossible to ignore and bolstered by the personal authority of the Prime Minister. It could continue to deliver specific projects, but its personnel and budgetary capacity to drive change on a broader scale should be enhanced.

29.Machinery of government changes are not the only way to achieve an increase in influence, and other structures should be put in place in the medium term to help to secure continuity and a high profile for equalities work, insulating it to some degree from political vicissitudes and the risk of being subsumed into or overshadowed by another department. A Cabinet sub-committee for equalities should be established, chaired by the Minister for Women and Equalities. GEO should assume responsibility for developing a formal, written Government equalities strategy to which individual departments must contribute.

30.Ultimately, while continuity and status are ends worth pursuing, the most important thing is that the equalities function within government, wherever it sits, is adequately supported to make an impact within Whitehall and therefore within the lives of people in the UK. For this it needs resources, ministerial time, and authority for its cross-governmental role—a structure that will provide support for the overall aim of reducing inequality, regardless of reshuffles and machinery of government moves. We look forward to hearing from the new Minister for Women and Equalities how this will be achieved.

Published: 5 June 2018