UPDATE! 12/O9: The Department of Communities and Local Government confirmed today that Don Foster has responsibility for race equality and integration. That suggests that the Government Equalities Office will stay put at the DCLG. The Lib Dems now have two ministers for equality (including Jo Swinson at BIS), and the Conservatives have two (Maria Miller at Culture and Helen Grant at Justice). Equality is now split over four different departments not including the Home Office’s responsibility for the Equality and Human Rights Commission, unless that is moved!
UPDATE! 11/09: An email from Nick Clegg to party members today announces Jo Swinson as “our new equalities minister.” Swinson is a newly appointed minister in the Department for Business Innovation and Skills. She shares the equality brief with Helen Grant and presumably also answers to Maria Miller, the culture secretary who has ultimate responsibility for this area.
Swinson’s appointment means that the equalities brief is now split over at least three Whitehall departments (Culture Media & Sport, Justice, and Business Innovation and Skills). Responsibility for the Equality and Human Rights Commission rested with the Home Office but it remains to be seen whether this will transfer to Culture Media & Sport, and whether the Government Equalities Office will similarly transfer from the Communities and Local Government department.
UPDATE! 06/09: There are now four BAME ministers after David Cameron appointed Sam Gyimah as his PPS.
Equalities is on the move again following the Government reshuffle. Since 2010 the equalities brief was handled by Lynne Featherstone at the Home Office while, bizarrely, race equality was separated and syphoned off to Andrew Stunell at Communities and Local Government (DCLG).
Now Featherstone is at the Department for International Development while Stunell has been shoved overboard. Meanwhile the equalities brief appears to have been reunited in a new department, Justice, and given to Helen Grant (pictured).
The lead minister for equalities is not Grant, however, but the new culture secretary Maria Miller. How the ‘equalities brief’ will be split between them will doubtless unfold with time. I would be extremely surprised if Grant did not have responsibility for race.
Unless responsibility for the Equality and Human Rights Commission is transferred from the Home Office that will mean equalities is split across three different Whitehall departments not including the one department that actually had a race equality team, the DCLG.
Some in my party, the Lib Dems, may regret that Featherstone is no longer responsible for this area. I have no idea what Miller is about, but on race equality Grant can only be an improvement on what has gone before.
I have long bemoaned how little the Coalition have achieved in tackling race inequality. The only announcements worth mentioning are name-blind job applications (beyond the initial press coverage there is no evidence this is being promoted let alone implemented), and encouraging banks to lend to BAME businesses (a DCLG report is due out next month). Aside from that, Stunnel talked about name-blind exam marking (not a policy, just an idea at this stage).
So, after two years of having a Lib Dem as race equality minister the Government has yet to actually implement an initiative specifically designed to address race inequality that likely to make a real difference.
Now it’s over to Conservative ministers. And I, for one, am hopeful that Helen Grant will make greater progress in this area.
My impression of Grant is that she has an appreciation and grasp of the issues of race equality, which is a start. She certain strikes me as pleasant, level-headed, humble and bright.
She will be judged on her record in office of course, as all ministers are, but the portents are encouraging.
The former solicitor is an admirer of Operation Black Vote who she credits with helping inspire her political journey. And she is comfortable engaging with campaigners and the black press, which cannot be said of all her black and Asian colleagues on the Conservative benches. Hardly any, to be honest.
What she brings to her new role in policy terms remains to be seen. Grant will have to make choices about whether she uses the job for good or plays it safe.
Should she choose the latter her background is unlikely to save her from criticism, however I am more hopeful than at any time since the general election that we can now get serious about assessing the scale of racial disadvantage and proposing real action to tackle it.
Grant will do well to remember that David Cameron promised to “change black Britain” and he will be judged on this too. The Conservatives have already made significant progress on BAME representation. Should they add a raft of policies aimed at addressing racial disadvantage they could head into the general election with a real story to tell black voters.
What story the Lib Dems have to tell is still to play for. Jeremy Browne moves from the Foreign Office to the Home Office and presumably inherits Featherstone’s brief. That will meaning dealing with cuts to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which I heavily criticised in The Guardian recently. Many will be looking to see whether Browne delivers a change of direction or not.
The same is true of Featherstone now responsible for international development, an area that has suffered enormously under the previous DfID secretary Andrew Mitchell. He has already brought about a massive shift away from ‘traditional’ aid towards using the aid budget as inducements for British businesses.
Building schools, hospitals and water-pumps is out of fashion, slush funds for private investment to expatriate profits back to Britain is in. A Liberal change of direction is badly needed at DfID. Again, we will have to wait and see whether there is any change.
The reshuffle also brought about a tripling of BAME representation in Government. However that statement is slightly less impressive when you consider that it only went from one to three.
Baroness Sayeeda Warsi lost her role as Conservative Party chairman but, after a good deal of kerfuffle behind closed doors, she later emerged as a “senior minister of state” at the Foreign Office with an ex-officio seat at cabinet. Meanwhile Sajid Javid was promoted to Government as a treasury minister.
Whether these promotions were influenced by OBV’s Simon Woolley taking to BBC News – amid rumours of Warsi getting the chop – to lament a regression in BAME representation or they were already planned, we will never know.
Even though many political commentators on the Left interpret the reshuffle as a distinct rightward shift on the Conservative side there are yet reasons to believe that promotions like that of Helen Grant herald something positive. We will wait and see…
By Lester Holloway @suttongoingon