The chair of parliament’s Women and Equalities Select Committee has accused ministers of failing to recognise the significance of the equalities brief and its centrality to the much-vaunted levelling-up agenda.
Caroline Nokes said current arrangements, which bolt on ministerial responsibility for the Government Equalities Office to other roles, effectively made the equalities brief a “side hustle” that left its holder with no time to properly address inequalities.
She said it was “obvious” that equalities secretary Liz Truss – promoted to the role of foreign secretary in last week’s reshuffle – had no time to focus on her secondary role and called for a dedicated cabinet minister to be appointed to the brief.
Earlier this year, the former chair of the government’s disbanded LGBT+ advisory panel accused Truss and junior equalities minister Kemi Badenoch of creating a “hostile environment” and said Truss had exuded a sense of only meeting with the group because she “had to”.
Marking the publication of the select committee’s new report Levelling up and equality: a new framework for change, Nokes said inequality related to race, gender or sexual orientation should not be viewed separately from economic inequality and a stand-alone cabinet level minister was required.
"The government's levelling-up agenda must not be at the expense of tackling wider inequality, and the new role should address longstanding issues such as race and sexual orientation with the same importance it affords to geographical inequality,” she said.
“The government must recognise the inequalities laid bare by the pandemic, and see this as a turning point to demonstrate its willingness to tackle them.”
Nokes said that just this week, Truss had been unable to attend women and equalities questions in the House of Commons because of conflicting commitments as the new foreign secretary, which took her to New York.
“It is obvious that the current setup of cabinet leaves no space or time to really address inequality in the UK,” Nokes said.
“By effectively treating the role of women and equalities minister as a side hustle, the government is demonstrating its lack of willingness to invest energy in creating change. It's 2021, and high time that the role is given the heft and resource needed to address important, long-established equality issues.”
Truss’ predecessor as equalities minister, Amber Rudd, held the brief at the same time she served as work and pensions secretary. Penny Mordaunt was equalities minister in tandem with being international development secretary and subsequently defence secretary. Harriet Harman was the UK’s first minister for women, a role she was appointed to in 1997 and which she undertook at the same time as serving as secretary of state for social security.
A government spokesperson said it was important to note that there were now five ministers working on the equalities brief.
“This government is committed to levelling up all parts of our country, working to tackle inequality and promoting equal opportunity so everyone can thrive,” they said.
“In recent years we have continued to make progress on equality issues introducing same-sex marriage across the whole of the UK, publishing a ground-breaking report into ethnic disparities, introducing our National Disability Strategy and are seeing record low gender pay gap rates.”
The spokesperson said the government would respond to the detail in the committee’s report “in due course”.