This woman has a tough job: spending pounds 90bn of your cash

Nicholas Timmins on a mandarin in the eye of a spending storm

IF SHE isn't already, Ann Botwell will soon be the most powerful woman in Whitehall.

Small, dark, direct, with an at times wickedly irreverent sense of humour, she is set to become Permanent Secretary at the Department of Social Security at the end of September, responsible for a pounds 90bn budget at a time when social security spending is the eye of the storm in the debate about the future of the welfare state.

The former Reading council estate girl will join Sir Robin Butler, the Cabinet Secretary, in weekly top mandarins' meetings - becoming, by far, the most senior of Whitehall's three female mainstream permanent secretaries. The others are Barbara Mills, the Director of Public Prosecutions, and Valerie Strachan at Customs and Excise.

Aged 57, Mrs Botwell's career started in the pre-DSS National Assistance Board in 1960, before moving to the Department of Health in 1990. In 1992 she became First Civil Service Commissioner. On the way, she has had four children.

Returning to head the Department of Social Security, she admits, feels "very much like coming home". Her first jobs were in South Shields and in inner London's St Marylebone back in the days when they sent the fast- stream high flyers out into the field to experience social security at the sharp end.

"It was a very good introduction to what it was all about," she says. In South Shields she worked the "order book bonking machine" - the contraption which stamped out the benefit books in the days before computers produced Giros. In Marylebone, she worked in the local office for four months.

"That was an eye-opener. I'd been brought up on a council estate, but I had been at the polite end of the market. I just hadn't seen poverty and deprivation of that sort, and it doesn't leave you, even if you only do it for a relatively short time."

Her talent was spotted from the start, and a Civil Service which had only just dropped the "marriage bar" as she joined - the requirement that women civil servants resign on marriage - found itself having to adapt to keep her.

Unusually for those days, she was allowed longish maternity leave and to work part-time for a decade, even persuading the Treasury to change its rules to allow her a year off unpaid when her husband, an advertising executive, took a job in the United States.

It produced moments of farce. As late as the early 1970s, part-timers couldn't be promoted. "So at one point I went full-time, got promoted and had another baby so I could go part-time again - it got quite ludicrous," she says.

Whitehall has, of course, had female permanent secretaries in big-spending departments before - most notably Dame Evelyn Sharp, head of housing in the 1950s and then of the Department of the Environment. Harold Macmillan called her "without exception the ablest woman I have ever known".

Although Mrs Botwell didn't know the Dame, she says: "I had a lot of female role models when I was young in a way I suspect people in other departments generally didn't."

There was an under-secretary and an assistant secretary in the National Assistance Board when she joined, and later there was Mildred Riddlesdell, who like Mrs Botwell was the social security permanent secretary at DHSS at the turn of the 1960s.

"It didn't occur to me that women couldn't get into senior positions - I just didn't notice that they were all single and childless, but they were."

The Civil Service unions, who dealt with Mrs Botwell when she handled personnel, first in social security and then in health, rate her, as does everyone else, as "quite a toughie". She's a woman of directly delivered opinions and the sort of organising ability you would expect from someone who has run a career and brought up four children.

A former colleague says: "She can be sardonic, acid, and very, very funny, but she is never arrogant. She was always reluctant to be promoted, almost distrustful of her own ability before making a roaring success of every job she did."

An unrepentant twang of south London remains in her voice despite Girton College, Cambridge, and years in the senior Civil Service.

Tough she may be. But she also inspires remarkable affection. Ministers who haven't worked with her for a decade still send her Christmas cards and two former permanent secretaries, knowing she was going to be interviewed, volunteered without affectation: "Do give her my love." Her battle honours include sorting out the Finer Committee on One-Parent Families which became so disastrously bogged down that after three years' work there was no sign of even a draft report. She was sent in to get them to write a final one, and did so.

She helped design child benefit in the mid-1970s, and in the mid-1980s she ran the key central co-ordinating unit for Norman Fowler's vast social security review.

As it started, she told him bluntly that she had two tests of whether he was serious: getting rid of the universal, and by then almost valueless, pounds 30 death grant, and abolishing the miserly 25p addition to the over-80s pension. He passed one and failed the other.

As First Civil Service Commissioner she banned a procedure where ministers had started interviewing permanent secretary-level candidates for agencies and expressing their preference before the Civil Service interview.

That row came to a head with Kenneth Clarke's controversial appointment of Derek Lewis to head the Prison Agency. She let her decision be known with the dry comment that the process "had not commanded confidence".

Michael Bett, her successor in a role given new independence and powers, "owes her a lot", according to one Whitehall insider. "She's a one-off," a former colleague said. "Almost uniquely these days, she knows the history of the benefits system but she isn't trapped by it. It is a formidable job. But she's a formidable lady."

Her own view of her own child-caring career was that it was hard, though she says,"it didn't feel hard at the time, because that was just the way it was".

She supports the saner dispensation which came in from the late 1970s onwards, but says it will take time for significant numbers of women to reach the top.

Despite this, she says "nothing can overcome the difficulty that it is actually quite hard to work with children. You still have the problem of what you do if they are ill and whether your partner will help - nothing makes that go away. Mine did, and it's another reason why I am here today."

If all goes well, she will become a Dame - the female equivalent of the Whitehall knight. "You can just hear her laughing at that," one friend said. " 'Me? A Dame'?"

News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Sport
Lewis Hamilton will start the Singapore Grand Prix from pole, with Nico Rosberg second and Daniel Ricciardo third
F1... for floodlit Singapore Grand Prix
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvHe is only remaining member of original cast
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
Fans hold up a scarf at West Ham vs Liverpool
footballAfter Arsenal's clear victory, focus turns to West Ham vs Liverpool
New Articles
i100... she's just started school
News
news
New Articles
i100
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
Sport
football
New Articles
i100... despite rising prices
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Qualified Primary Teaching Assistant

£64 - £73 per day + Competitive rates based on experience : Randstad Education...

Primary KS2 NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Primary NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Primary NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam