The Times

December 17 2000

A more equal future: Baroness Jay and Tessa Jowell
Photograph: Gill Allen

Women's unit to shut down

Michael Prescott, Political Editor
The Sunday Times

THE government's oft-criticised women's unit is in its death throes. Downing Street advisers and female ministers want it junked and replaced with a new outfit to combat discrimination against men and women.

"The women's unit is past its sell-by date," said a prominent female minister yesterday. "There is a strong case for dealing with the problems it is supposed to tackle in a different way."

Top of the list of options being circulated by female ministers is that of replacing the women's unit with a citizens' unit or an equal opportunities unit.

Its job would be to bring ministers together from across Whitehall departments to draw up plans for combating a range of gender-specific social problems. The new unit would be as likely to produce a green paper on the under-achievement of boys in state schools as low pay for women.

The existing women's unit is headed by Baroness Jay, leader of the Lords, and Tessa Jowell, a minister at the Department for Education and Employment. It is supposed to check each department's policies in case they unwittingly discriminate against females, and bring together different departments to address women's problems.

Before Tony Blair took over, the Labour party had been committed to setting up a separate women's ministry, replete with a dedicated cabinet minister.

Even MPs who used to support that idea now speak of the debate about sexism and feminism having "moved on". Another nail in the coffin of the existing women's unit came when it organised a "body image summit" intended to address the growing problem of anorexia among younger women.

Its achievements in publicising shocking figures about anorexia and bulimia were overshadowed when Jowell spoke of setting up an industry forum to count the number of fat and thin models used by the media.

The ensuing row irritated the prime minister, who had previously been annoyed by the public relations disaster of his failed speech to the Women's Institute. That, too, had been arranged by Jowell.

Copyright 2000, Times Newspapers Ltd.