Nicky Morgan leaves 10 Downing Street after being appointed as Financial Secretary to the Treasury and minister for women. Photograph: Getty Images.
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What should the new minister for women do?

Nicky Morgan won’t have a magic wand, but a fresh minister could make a real difference on equal pay, vulnerable women and gender segregation in the workplace.  

Four years after the 2010 election and the government’s track record on equality is patchy at best. For women’s equality, in particular, years of slow but steady progress has begun to unravel. A staggering 80 per cent of the money saved through changes to the welfare system is coming from women’s pockets, while what money is going back into the system is disproportionately benefitting men. (1)

Our standing in the labour market has also come under threat, with public sector jobs cuts hitting women hardest. Most damningly of all, the pay gap has widened for the first time in five years: more than 40 years after the Equal Pay Act, women now earn an average 16 per cent less than men. (2)

At the same time, some of the most vulnerable women in the UK have nowhere to turn as councils around the country slash funding for vital programmes, such as violence against women support services. (3) Some positives – notably the introduction of equal marriage, increased support for childcare costs and the extending of the right to request flexible working – are being undermined by an economic programme that is forcing women to act as shock absorbers for the cuts.

The appointment of a new minister for women is an opportunity to re-focus, and push women’s equality to the front of the government’s agenda.

While Nicky Morgan won’t have a magic wand, a fresh minister could make a real difference. Her position as Financial Secretary to the Treasury should also prove useful when it comes to mitigating some of the worse effects of austerity.

Fawcett’s to-do list includes:

  • Thinking again about paying down the deficit primarily through public spending cuts. The current 80:20 ratio straightaway hits women hardest as we rely more heavily on the state for financial support due to being poorer and having greater caring responsibilities – benefits typically make up a fifth of women’s incomes as opposed to a tenth of men’s. (4)

 

  • Widening government investment to beyond those industries where men dominate the workforce (such as infrastructure) – and doing more to challenge gender segregation in the workplace.  

 

  • Taking urgent action to protect the most vulnerable women by protecting violence against women services from local authority cuts.

 

  • Ensuring that all spending decisions are consider in light of what they will mean for equality between different groups, including men and women  so conducting thorough "impact assessments".

 

  • Effectively tackling the shame that is a widening pay gap by enacting the Equality Act requirement that big business monitor and publicise their own gaps and by taking action to improve low pay

 

These are just a top five to be going on with, and Nicky Morgan’s in-tray will no doubt be bulging, but capitalising on the energy a new appointment brings could deliver real progress.

  1. House of Commons research quoted in the Independent 8 March 2014 found tax and benefit changes brought in under the coalition government  have raised a net £3.047bn (21 per cent) from men and £11.628bn (79 per cent) from women.
  2. Pay gap: ONS figures published in November 2013 found that:  Men’s mean gross hourly earnings (excluding overtime) were £16.91 in April 2013, up 2.3 per cent from £16.52 in 2012. Women’s mean hourly earnings increased by 1.3 per cent to £14.25 compared with £14.07 in 2012. This means that the gender pay difference for full-time employees widened to 15.7 per cent from 14.8 per cent in 2012.
  3. Thirty-one percent of the funding to the domestic violence and sexual abuse sector from local authorities was cut between 2010/11 to 2011/12, ‘Measuring the impact of cuts in public expenditure on the provision of services to prevent violence against women and girls’,  Professor Sylvia Walby,  January 2012
  4.  The Fawcett Society, Who Benefits?: A gender analysis of the UK benefits and tax credits system, April 2006.

Daisy Sands is head of policy and campaigns at the Fawcett Society  

Daisy Sands is head of policy and campaigns at the Fawcett Society 

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Why Philip Green's fall should bring down the honours system – but won't

Sir Shifty may fall in disgrace, but our ridiculous system will endure. No matter what's happening in the rest of politics.

Sir Philip Green’s Efficiency Review (2010) is his Das Kapital and it is still, happily, online. You can, if you wish, smirk at his recommendations to the government, which were solicited by David Cameron, I imagine, because when he stood next to Green he looked not like a 17th-century woodcut but like a tall, handsome semi-aristocrat.

“There is no motivation to save money or to treat cash ‘as your own’,” Green grumbles, before complaining, “There are inconsistent commercial skills across departments.” I am weeping with laughter at the whole report. But I’m not one of those BHS employees watching their pension ­vanish as the hideous cushions, throws and bedspreads pile up on the Green family yacht Lionheart. I instantly rename the yacht 14-Day Return Policy No More.

The days when Green could write efficiency reviews for people to ignore are gone. It is said that he could lose his knighthood, because that would be exciting and pointless. If so, I hope the ceremony features the formal rending of a garment from the BHS sale bin – perhaps a torn sock will be flung at his head? The Queen will not be happy, because de-knighting makes the ancient system of patronage look as ridiculous as it really is. Do intercessors between man and God make mistakes? Would they raise a man the Daily Mail now calls “Sir Shifty”? (I checked whether there was a Sir Shifty among the knights of the Round Table who flogged the Holy Grail to a passing tinker. There was not.)

Lord Melbourne advised Queen Victoria not to attempt to make her husband, Albert, a king, for if the people knew that they could make kings, they might unmake them. Green will discover this in his tiny way. But the elites should not hide their baubles. One fallen knight will not destroy the system (and I cannot think that Green will take £571m from his Lionheart cushion budget to save his knighthood by replenishing the BHS pension fund, because a knighthood is, in essence, just a tiny Bentley Continental that you wear over your nipple). One fallen knight should destroy the system but it won’t, because human conceit and docility are without end. Green will be shunned. Nothing will change.

One might have hoped that the Brexit vote would have alerted Cameron to the abyss between the electorate and the elected. (Even Alastair Campbell, chomping against Brexit, seemed to forget that he was as complicit in the alienation of voters as anyone else: government by sofa, teeth and war.) The response was glib, even for Cameron, a man so glib that I sometimes think he is a reflection in a pond. Brexit hit him like someone caught in a mild shower without an umbrella. He hummed at the lesson that history dealt him; he hummed as he left his page. It was the hum of the alpha Etonian caught out in a mistake, yes, but it was still a bloody hum.

His next act was to increase pay-offs to favoured courtiers against civil service advice and at public expense; then, it was reported, he nominated his spin doctor Craig Oliver and his former spin doctor Gabby Bertin for peerages, because the upper house needs more PRs. He has learned nothing. I wish him a relaxed retirement in which he will, apparently, write his four-page memoir, David Cameron: My Struggle (sub-subtitle: Eton Mess?). I hope he does not attempt to deny “the prosciutto affair”, because there is no need. It was not true. It was too pure a metaphor.

So the honours system, an essential part of our alienating politics, alongside dodgy donors, duck houses and George Galloway, endures in its worst form as conventional politics fails. It is a donkey sanctuary for political friends and Bruce Forsyth. I am not suggesting that everyone who has been honoured is dreadful – some lollipop ladies deserve to be patronised with an OBE (when there is no E any more), I am sure, and the lords, some of whom are excellent, are the functional opposition now – but the system can no longer be defended by the mirth potential of watching politicians ponder what light-entertainment celebrities might swing a marginal before being posthumously accused of rape. We must find something better before the house burns down. Perhaps a robust parliamentary democracy?

The problem is best expressed by the existence of a specialist consultancy called Awards Intelligence, which engages in “VIP brand-building” by soliciting awards. It sells “awards plans” from £795, which I could well imagine Philip Green perusing as he bobs about aboard Lionheart, were it not too late. The Awards Intelligence website tells us so much, though obliviously, about the narcissism of modern politics that I am tempted to reproduce it in full. But I will merely report that it asks:

"Did you know that you can join the House of Lords on a part-time basis as an Independent Crossbench Peer or a political peer affiliated to one of the main politial parties – even if you have ongoing work, family or community commitments!"

The message from Awards Intelligence, which boasts of a 50 per cent success rate, is clear: the legislature is part-time, it exists to “instil trust, add credibility and provide a platform for you to have your say” – and it can’t always spell “political”.

Sir Shifty and Awards Intelligence do not constitute the worst crisis in the history of honours, dreadful though they are. During the First World War the royal German cousins were stripped of their garters, so that British soldiers would not have to kill men of higher rank. But it is time for the Queen to stop pinning toys on nipples. They are part of a political system sweeping us, swiftly, towards the night.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue