Monday, 8 September 2014

Summer 2014 - How was it for you?

Cameron's Cabinet, July 2014. Source: BBC news 

Due to a brief sojourn in Croatia on my part, and a fairly large parliamentary recess, I’ve rolled July and August in to one great big mega Summer Westminster round-up. Contrary to popular wisdom, quite a lot actually does happen whilst the MPs and peers are on their ‘holidays’. So don’t expect a wash-out.

Perhaps the most notable event during the last two months was the reshuffle in mid-July. Just in case you are thinking of stopping reading here, possibly the best bit of comment to come out of it was the Guardian’s satirical take on the type of scrutiny under which female politicians find themselves during events like this: Enjoy the piece here.

Anyway, billed to be the entrance of THE WOMEN into a largely male Cabinet, the reshuffle took a rather different form to that which had been expected. The shock announcement that William Hague was to step down as Foreign Secretary and not contest next year’s General Election, along with Ken Clarke’s final departure, instantly sent Twitter into meltdown, with speculation rife as to what would follow in the coming hours. It was widely thought that the biggest shock had already been announced, only for jubilation to spread across the internet, and almost certainly the vast majority of the education sector, in reaction to the news that Michael Gove had been moved away from his position as Education Secretary.

The following instalment did see good news for two women, who were promoted into Secretary of State posts that had previously been held by men; Nicky Morgan moving to head up education and Liz Truss to Defra. Despite being tipped for a move, Esther McVey (DWP) and Anna Soubry (MoD) both stayed put, with a pass to attend Cabinet for McVey and a promotion up the ministerial ladder for Soubry. A shame, as Soubry could have been made the first ever female Defence Secretary, diversifying a still incredibly male dominated part of Whitehall, but it was not to be.

The day also saw some of the rising female stars of the Tory party promoted to their first ministerial positions. Claire Perry went to transport, Penny Mordaunt to DCLG, Amber Rudd to energy and Priti Patel to the Treasury, increasing the percentage of female ministers, but still leaving it languishing just under 24% (the full list of UK government ministers can be found here).

So the ‘women’s reshuffle’ left the proportion of both female ministers and Cabinet attendees at less than a quarter; a bit of a disappointment, despite some small progress, all in all after what it was set up to be.

This was compounded by the question marks that initially arose over the new Leader of the House of Lords' Cabinet attendance and ministerial pay. Traditionally an important link between the Prime Minister and the House of Lords, a number of peers, including former Speaker of the House of Commons Baroness Boothroyd, railed against the suggestion that Baroness Stowell might not sit at the Cabinet table. After much conjecture from the press and the realm of social media, her attendance was confirmed, though she would still not have full Cabinet status. The story, however, continued to rumble, as it emerged that she would receive lower pay than her male predecessor (see this Bloomberg article for more details). After widespread criticism, David Cameron was forced to top up this diminished salary with Conservative party funds. However, it was already too late to salvage the ‘women’s reshuffle’, the gloss of which had long since faded.

Outside of the ministerial realm there have been a number of positive developments. Revenge pornography has emerged from its status as a much neglected topic to be considered by a full government led consultation, via an Early Day Motion primarily sponsored by Lib Dem MP Julian Huppert. The result of said consultation should at least be a better appreciation of the scale of the issue and understanding of what the term entails, though any change to the law is unlikely before the next election.

The fight against domestic abuse also made some headway, as the government began to consult on widening the definition, particularly to include more emotional kinds of abuse. Tentatively the outcome may be considered to push forward as part of the government’s legislative agenda. However, it is unlikely that they will push for any changes that they don’t think will put them in the best possible light in an election year. So it may be that the difficulty in judging how far they are able to go, versus what they think will be supported by their own backbenchers, pushes this agenda back to post-May 2015. Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper made a strong point on Twitter that though the law does need strengthening, the current law also needs to be better enforced, with prosecutions dropping by 5% in the last 3 years, despite reported crime levels increasing. Hopefully measures can be put in place in this vein, if legislation must be delayed.

Continuing from these developments to the Home Office agenda, in late August, Labour MP Seema Malhotra became the first ever Shadow Minister for Preventing Violence against Women and Girls. The role encompasses the home agenda, as well as the international agenda that has been one of the major focuses of William Hague in this Parliament. With Hague’s commitment to continue his advocacy in this area beyond the termination of his parliamentary career and the possibility of Malhotra’s role being included in a new government, the profile of this important worldwide problem looks to be solidifying, which is frankly excellent news.

Before the Foreign Office upheaval, Hague’s successor Philip Hammond announced a review into the exclusion of women from close combat roles in the military. The review is to include consideration of physiological ability, attitudes of current military personnel and the role which women have taken in recent operations. One hopes that the attitudes found within the military are more progressive than they used to be, but should other considerations find no bar to women taking on the challenge of becoming Marines or similar, it does seem concerning that subjective thoughts of those already part of the establishment might halt future changes.

In the business world, Vince Cable continued his crusade to see more women appointed to boards of top companies, commendably not resting on his laurels following the inclusion of a woman on to the board of the last FTSE 100 company without one. He launched an enhanced code of conduct for executive search firms (recruitment companies that specialise in recruiting executive personnel), the efficacy of which is yet to be proven, but it’s another step in the right direction.

The summer also saw the General Synod’s long-awaited approval of women bishops. Welcomed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, it seemed that the Church had finally caught up with the rest of society. How many this drawn out process may have alienated is hard to say, but the inclusion of women in this part of the House of Lords is an important development, providing an extra bit of equal representation for as long as Bishops remain a part of our Parliament. Whether or not said Bishops should be there in the first place is a contentious subject, but the main point is that this will hopefully empower and enable women in the Church to represent those women in their faith at the highest echelons of power.

Finally, following the Education Committee’s inquiry in to PHSE and SRE, including whether it should be made statutory for all schools, the Liberal Democrats joined Labour in announcing a manifesto commitment to just that. The Conservatives are yet to join in the party, but with the parties’ Autumn conferences getting into full swing during September there will be a large number of policies and commitments to discuss by the end of the month. See you then.

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