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22 September 2018

Dawn Butler kicks off conference with one good policy and one pointless one

Oppositions love announcing the creation of new departments, but the value of this one is unclear.

By Stephen Bush

Labour have kicked off their conference with a series of announcements from Dawn Butler, the shadow secretary of state for women and equalities.

The first is a very worthy policy announcement: 10 days paid leave (on top of their additional holiday allocation) for anyone escaping an abusive partner. The United Kingdom would become only the third country, after the Philippines and New Zealand, to introduce the requirement. According to Women’s Aid, one additional problem that women face escaping abusive partners is that in the disruption of moving they often have to take absences that cost their jobs, putting further barriers between survivors and walking out of dangerous situations. So that’s an open-and-shut thumbs up.

Unfortunately, the benefits of Butler’s second announcement – the creation of a free-standing department for equalities – are less clear. Oppositions tend to have a fondness for flirting with creating new departments – when they were last out of office, the Conservatives mooted creating a department for homeland security – but they are often less clear as to why.

There was a very well-thought-out and worthwhile proposal from the Liberal Democrats at their conference to effectively remove the Home Office’s role in managing immigration and hive that responsibility off to the Business Department and the various public sector departments (health, education and so on) to manage their own immigration requirements that way. The thinking there was clear: there are institutional problems at the Home Office and the inevitable consequence of making migrants the business of a department that otherwise deals with terrorists and criminals is that it treats people seeking to come to or remain in the United Kingdom as terrorists and criminals.

But it’s less clear what the benefits either of Labour’s proposed Ministry of Labour (the exact functions of which, and what it would take from Work and Pensions and Business, are still not firmed up) or this new Equalities Department would be. Butler is correct to say that under successive Conservative governments since 2010, the role has passed around from minister to minister (to put it in perspective, Tony Blair had four in ten years, and Gordon Brown just one in three – Cameron had six in six, while Theresa May has had three in two years) and that those years have not been particularly great ones for the cause of equality either.

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However, why would a separate department carry any more weight? It’s not like, say, the Treasury, which enjoys a great deal of power regardless of who is in charge because it controls decisions about how much departments get to spend.  In practice, you end up with the same problem that the Department for Exiting the European Union has – a weird appendix which no-one is quite sure whether to treat as a Whitehall-wide refugee or an overlord – and in both the case of Dexeu and Equalities, they work better if they are simply part of the Cabinet Office and have an enthusiastic Downing Street behind them.

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Ultimately what the equalities brief needs is a politically powerful minister in it and a Prime Minister who cares about the agenda: where it sits in the architecture of Whitehall is a wholly secondary concern.