Harman heads team to put women's issues first

A new Cabinet sub-committee will put women's issues "at the heart of government", Britain's first Minister for Women announced yesterday.

Harriet Harman, who holds the post alongside her role as Secretary of State for Social Security, will chair the committee. Its members will include at least six other female ministers.

Ms Harman has also set up a Women's Unit, based in the Cabinet Office, which will promote women's issues across Whitehall. The unit will be headed by Pauline Barrett, who formerly worked with the International Labour Organisation in Geneva. Anna Coote, deputy director of the Institute for Public Policy Research, has been appointed as part-time specialist adviser on women.

Last night women's groups welcomed the announcement, but pointed out that the last government had both a Cabinet sub-committee on women and an equality unit. The success of the new government would depend on the depth of its commitment, they said.

Among the ministers who will sit on the Cabinet committee will be Clare Short, Secretary of State for International Development, Mo Mowlam, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Glenda Jackson, transport minister, Angela Eagle, environment minister, Helen Liddell, economic secretary to the Treasury, and Tessa Jowell, minister for public health.

Both the committee and the unit will try to ensure that government departments work together to address issues affecting women. Among those issues will be child care, family-friendly employment and domestic violence. The Government is determined to continue to attract support from women, who voted Labour in equal numbers to men for the first time at the general election.

Ms Harman has said that she will examine all economic and social papers going to Cabinet sub-committees to monitor their impact on women, and lead moves to set up a national child care strategy.

"Women have made great strides in recent years, but there is still much to do. I will ensure that for the first time women's issues are put firmly at the heart of government," she said.

Anna Coote said that under the Conservatives there had been confusion about what women's roles should be. "They didn't really know whether they wanted women to go back to the kitchen or whether women should go out to work. They didn't understand the need to improve the lives of poor women," she said.

A spokeswoman for the Fawcett Society, which campaigns on women's issues, welcomed the announcement. But said the only new measure taken by the Government was the promise to monitor economic and social papers going to Cabinet sub-committees. Any new measures needed resources.