Maria Miller after a cabinet meeting yesterday. She resigned from government this morning. Photo: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

What did Maria Miller actually do as minister for women?

Short answer: not a lot.

A national campaign against the negative portrayal of female bodies in the media. A cabinet minister speaking out against female genital mutilation. A community march celebrating local women, headed by their female MP. What do these three movements have in common? Maria Miller is responsible for none of them.

Much to the angst of late-rising journalists everywhere, Miller has finally waved her white flag and tendered her resignation from government . No longer will Miller, who has in recent days become an almost comedic villain, preside over the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. 

This also, means, of course, that she will no longer be Minister for Women and Equalities. Women across the nation mourn.

 "Maria is in her job because she is doing a good job as culture secretary,” said David Cameron, when asked if the only reason Miller hadn’t been sacked was because of her anomalous status in the government as a state-educated woman.

However, while she was doing a “good job” as culture secretary, other women seemed to be doing Miller’s job as Minister for Women for her.

This government has a problem with women. The cabinet now has only three women as full members.  A similarly tiny proportion of its parliamentary candidates, fewer than three in ten, for next year is female, according to Labour party data. This compares poorly to Labour’s announcement that over half of its candidates for next year are women. Figures published at the end of last year by the Office of National Statistics found that the gender pay gap has increased to just under 16 per cent. This government has a problem with women.

In Miller’s somewhat unapologetic resignation letter, she expressed pride at “putting women front and centre of every aspect of DCMS’s work”. Yet, just under two-thirds of her board appointments in the department went to men. For someone who proclaimed in 2012 that “women are at the heart of economic growth”, there seems to be a certain disjuncture.

Many women and equalities activists expressed dismay when Maria Miller was announced as the new Minister for Women and Equalities in 2012, replacing the hardly-more-popular Theresa May. Miller, who voted in 2008 to reduce the abortion limit to 20 weeks, had hardly been a champion for women’s rights. Maybe, however, this was the moment for her to turn her game around. Maybe Miller just hadn’t previously been given the platform she needed, to promote the women’s issues that really meant the most to her, the issues of childcare and domestic abuse and sexual harassment that women up and down the country face on a daily basis.

Maybe, or maybe not.

Upon her appointment in 2012, the government launched a £2 million scheme to help fund the opening of new nurseries and childcare services. In 2014, Miller attended a Commission on the Status of Women in New York, hosting a roundtable discussion on the challenges facing women in the workplace. Even this, Gloria de Piero, the shadow minister for women and equalities, contends, was hardly enough: “the cost of childcare has risen by 30% since the election whilst support has been cut,” she says. The Government is “out of touch with the reality of women’s lives and struggles”.

The office of Minister for Women and Equalities has existed in some form for over a decade and a half, since Harriet Harman became the first Minister for Women in 1997. Why, then, is the role still so secondary and vague? The existing structure doesn’t help. There is no explicit department for the role and only a relatively limited budget of £47 million. The government’s website doesn’t even let you search within it. Heck, even click through from the link on Miller’s own government blog and you get the message: “This item has been archived.” Broken links online mirror those in life, perhaps. Furthermore, the position is always held in conjunction with another demanding role – Theresa May was Home Secretary at the same time. A role designed to tackle the sidelining of women is itself routinely sidelined.

Nonetheless, other female politicians have managed to overcome this obstacle and have spearheaded initiatives for women, without even having access to that £47 million. In fact, former office-holder Theresa May recently launched the ‘This is abuse campaign’, encouraging teenagers to recognise abuse and #callitout, and understand the meaning of consent. Lynne Featherstone and Jo Swinson (Miller’s deputy) lead the Campaign for Body Confidence, and Justine Greening has been a vocal campaigner against FGM and early forced marriages.

None of these women, however, are Nicky Morgan, who has been named as Miller’s replacement as Minister for Women. The equalities role has been absorbed into the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, now led by Sajid Javid. This is perhaps unsurprising, considering that Morgan voted against equal marriage (even Miller changed her mind on that one). Morgan has a similar track record to Miller on abortion, and a similar void of activity on any other women’s campaigns. If David Cameron really wanted to prove wrong his feminist naysayers, he could start by appointing some women who will fight for the 51 per cent.

At a time when a Conservative councillor can be found tweeting a picture of half-naked underwear models with the witty quip, "actual photo of the hustings?", in response to Labour’s all-female shortlists, women need to fight harder than ever to be heard and respected in politics. As our Minister for Women, Maria Miller should have been leading the condemnation of irresponsible parliamentarians. Instead, she became their poster girl.

 

Amy Hawkins is a student at the University of Cambridge and deputy editor of Varsity, the student newspaper. Follow her on Twitter @DHawkins93.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

How a small tax rise exposed the SNP's anti-austerity talk for just that

The SNP refuse to use their extra powers to lessen austerity, says Kezia Dugdale.

"We will demand an alternative to slash and burn austerity."

With those few words, Nicola Sturgeon sought to reassure the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland last year that the SNP were a party opposed to public spending cuts. We all remember the general election TV debates, where the First Minister built her celebrity as the leader of the anti-austerity cause.

Last week, though, she was found out. When faced with the choice between using the powers of the Scottish Parliament to invest in the future or imposing cuts to our schools, Nicola Sturgeon chose cuts. Incredible as it sounds the SNP stood shoulder to shoulder with the Tories to vote for hundreds of millions of pounds worth of cuts to schools and other vital public services, rather than asking people to pay a little bit more to invest. That's not the choice of an anti-austerity pin-up. It's a sell-out.

People living outside of Scotland may not be fully aware of the significant shift that has taken place in politics north of the border in the last week. The days of grievance and blaming someone else for decisions made in Scotland appear to be coming to an end.

The SNP's budget is currently making its way through the Scottish Parliament. It will impose hundreds of millions of pounds of cuts to local public services - including our schools. We don't know what cuts the SNP are planning for future years because they are only presenting a one year budget to get them through the election, but we know from the experts that the biggest cuts are likely to come in 2017/18 and 2018/19. For unprotected budgets like education that could mean cuts of 16 per cent.

It doesn't have to be this way, though. The Scottish Parliament has the power to stop these cuts, if only we have the political will to act. Last week I did just that.

I set out a plan, using the new powers we have today, to set a Scottish rate of income tax 1p higher than that set by George Osborne. This would raise an extra half a billion pounds, giving us the chance to stop the cuts to education and other services. Labour would protect education funding in real terms over the next five years in Scotland. Faced with the choice of asking people to pay a little bit more to invest or carrying on with the SNP's cuts, the choice was pretty simple for me - I won't support cuts to our nation’s future prosperity.

Being told by commentators across the political spectrum that my plan is bold should normally set alarm bells ringing. Bold is usually code for saying something unpopular. In reality, it's pretty simple - how can I say I am against cuts but refuse to use the powers we have to stop them?

Experts - including Professors David Bell and David Eiser of the University of Stirling; the Resolution Foundation; and IPPR Scotland - have said our plan is fair because the wealthiest few would pay the most. Trade unions have backed our proposal, because they recognise the damage hundreds of millions of pounds of cuts will do to our schools and the jobs it will cost.

Council leaders have said our plan to pay £100 cashback to low income taxpayers - including pensioners - to ensure they benefit from this plan is workable.

The silliest of all the SNP's objections is that they won't back our plan because the poorest shouldn't have to pay the price of Tory austerity. The idea that imposing hundreds of millions of pounds of spending cuts on our schools and public services won't make the poorest pay is risible. It's not just the poorest who will lose out from cuts to education. Every single family and business in Scotland would benefit from having a world class education system that gives our young the skills they need to make their way in the world.

The next time we hear Nicola Sturgeon talk up her anti-austerity credentials, people should remember how she did nothing when she had the chance to end austerity. Until now it may have been acceptable to say you are opposed to spending cuts but doing nothing to stop them. Those days are rapidly coming to a close. It makes for the most important, and most interesting, election we’ve had in Scotland.

Kezia Dugdale is leader of Scottish Labour.