Government needs an overarching strategy for its 'levelling up' and equality agenda, former minister warns

Justine Greening served as a Conservative minister for women and equalities

Justine Greening
Justine Greening

The government is “not going to get anywhere” with its 'levelling up' or equality agenda without an overarching strategy, a former minister has warned.

Justine Greening, a former minister for women and equalities and who served as the Conservative MP for Putney between 2005 and 2019, made the comments during the House of Commons Women and Equalities Select Committee’s inquiry into the role of the Government Equalities Office in embedding equality across government.

The committee published its findings earlier today in a report that argues the government must create a new Cabinet Office-level secretary of state for equalities and 'levelling up'.

The report examines the GEO’s place in government, the establishment of the Equality Hub and the government’s approach to geographic inequality by “levelling up opportunity” across the country.

It highlights the promotion of Kemi Badenoch, the MP for Saffron Walden, to minister of state for 'levelling up' and equalities, in the rebranded the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.

But the committee says it was unable to establish “a clear picture of a closely functioning cross-departmental team” in a structure of ministers and civil servants that was “fragmented across several disparate departments”.

Its predecessor committee recommended the government establish a Cabinet Sub-Committee, chaired by the minister for women and equalities, to develop a formal cross-departmental equalities strategy and drive progress across government. But this recommendation has not been taken forward.

Tim Durrant, associate director at the Institute for Government, argued that it would only be effective if it were chaired by a committed minister who convened it regularly. He said that, with the drive of a committed cabinet minister as chair, it could “absolutely be a force for change”.

The committee also asked about 100 stakeholders how regularly and effectively the government engaged with them on the issues they cared about.

Of 41 respondents, only two, an equalities network and an organisation advocating for LGB rights, said the government engaged with them often.

Eleven organisations, whose interests ranged across age, sex equality, gender reassignment and broader transgender issues, pregnancy and maternity, race, and religion/belief, told the inquiry the government engagesd with them occasionally.

Meanwhile, more than 60 per cent of the organisations who took part in the survey told the inquiry the government did not engage directly with them at all, and more than 70 per cent said it was either not making any progress on the issues they cared about or contributing to making the situation worse.

Only two organisations, one advocating for LGB people and one women’s rights group, reported that the government was contributing to progress.

Tansy Hutchinson, head of policy at the charity Equally Ours, told the committee that the government’s engagement with stakeholder organisations had “fallen away” in recent years. She said the Equality Hub needed to establish “a more coherent and permanent system of engagement with civil society”.

Her concerns echo similar calls made by the think tank NPC earlier this week that called on the government to put social needs at the heart of its 'levelling up' agenda and called for the inclusion of charities in both the delivery and design of such projects.

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