Amos takes post as first black woman in Cabinet

Click to follow

Baroness Amos became the first black woman appointed to the Cabinet yesterday, 25 minutes after Clare Short resigned as Secretary of State for International Development.

Baroness Amos became the first black woman appointed to the Cabinet yesterday, 25 minutes after Clare Short resigned as Secretary of State for International Development.

The speed of the announcement suggests Tony Blair had earmarked her for elevation to his top table. It also completes a rapid rise through the ranks for a Blairite loyalist who is virtually unknown outside Westminster.

As a minister with little taste for personal publicity, she will strike a contrast with her outspoken predecessor. And Mr Blair will hope that she can take some of the political heat out of the sensitive issue of the reconstruction of Iraq.

Yesterday, however, she was unable to contain her joy over her promotion, performing an impromptu jig outside the Foreign Office. As the Foreign Office minister with responsibility for Africa, she had impressed the Prime Minister and Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, with the quiet efficiency of her diplomatic skills.

The fact that the position was handed to a non-elected politician will raise suspicions that it is being downgraded. There were also complaints that it would make the Government less accountable in the Commons on the subject.

Despite her distaste for publicity, Lady Amos will inevitably become a role model for black women.

Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, said: "I hope her appointment will be an inspiration to young black and Asian voters, many of whom currently feel disengaged from British politics."

Julie Mellor, chairwoman of the Equal Opportunities Commission, hailed an "historic day". She said: "I hope we will see many more black and ethnic-minority women following Valerie Amos into every level of politics. I am confident she will bring her understanding of gender issues to her new role at this crucial time for the reconstruction of Iraq."

Lady Amos has never attempted to steer clear of ethnic-minority issues, unlike Paul Boateng, the first black cabinet minister.

In a rare interview, she said: "It is always useful to know one's history. I also think that it is important to be clear about the values and principles which underpin one's life. And be clear about where you want to be and how to get there."

Lady Amos was born 49 years ago in Guyana. She recalled idyllic days "helping ourselves to wonderful fruit from all the trees around, picnics with plenty of food ... and of course the rituals at Easter with kite-flying and Christmas with masquerade."

Her parents emigrated to Kent when she was nine. She adapted quickly to her new home, passing the 11-plus examination to a girls' grammar school. From there she took a degree in sociology at Warwick University, followed by a masters degree at Birmingham University and doctoral research at the University of East Anglia.

After working in equal opportunities, training and management services in local government, she became the chief executive of the Equal Opportunities Commission from 1989 to 1994. She subsequently set up her own consultancy, with clients including the South African government.

She was made a life peer in 1997, taking the title Baroness Amos of Brondesbury, and became a whip in the Lords a year later.

After the post-election reshuffle of June 2001, Mr Blair plucked her from obscurity in the Lords, where she was seen as a solid but often uninspired debater. However, her considerable personal charm won her admirers on all sides of the House.

At the Foreign Office, she was given a portfolio that included Africa, the Caribbean and consular issues.

Much of her time was spent on Zimbabwe, with her colour making it harder for the Mugabe regime to accuse Britain of pursuing a post-colonial agenda. She was also called on to canvass African leaders in the run-up to the Iraq conflict, travelling to Cameroon, Angola and Guinea.

One of her colleagues said: "She is competent and relaxed and very much on top of her brief. Unlike some I could name, she didn't try to get a lot of publicity for herself. She has certainly earned her spurs."