Is the UK’s new equality minister a wolf in sheep’s clothing?

Activist Bisi Alimi questions whether Maria Miller’s voting record on equalities should have ruled her out for her new job

Is the UK’s new equality minister a wolf in sheep’s clothing?
12 September 2012

If the selection of ministers to a particular position is based on their track records and qualifications, then Maria Miller is surely in the wrong job.

A reshuffle of the British cabinet saw Member of Parliament (MP) Miller given a new role as Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

But this government department has also been given the job of overseeing equality, making her the UK’s senior Minister for Women and Equality. (She’s assisted in this role by her junior, Helen Grant MP.)

The problem is she has voted against adoption for gay couples, fertility treatment for lesbians and stated she supports defining homophobia as a freedom of speech.

Should only pro-equality politicians be given this role? Well, you might argue that would leave Conservative leader, Prime Minister David Cameron, with slim pickings, given the attitudes of many of his fellow Tory MPs.

So Miller’s appointment has sparked some anger and concern.

There have been signs under the UK’s current Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government that the Tories have moved on as a party and become more progressive on social issues.

Leading Conservatives like London Mayor Boris Johnson and Theresa May, the former equalities minister, did take part in the Out4Marriage video promotion to support gay marriage equality. I say welcome to the Britain of the 21st century! And let’s not be too quick to forget the history of these two when it comes to same sex policy.

Like Miller, May was also criticized when she took over responsibility for equality for her previous stance on LGBT issues.

On assuming office in 2010, May stated in an interview told Pink News: ‘Certainly there were some votes I wasn’t present for. But what we intend to do in government is taking forward an agenda on equalities across the whole range of equalities.’

Finding herself in this very difficult position, she wanted to be seen as a ‘new era Conservative’. A Conservative who believes in equal marriages and social justice.

And ax Home Secretary May has announced that the criminal records of men charged with homosexual act in the past will be removed. This is a big stride for a woman who voted against gay civil partnership and many other equality bills.

So should we see the Conservative party’s new stance as a result of being in a coalition government with the historically more pro-LGBT Liberal Democrats. Or is it a re-born party that wants to right the wrong of the past?

The appointment of Miller reminded me of a saying ‘If you want to safeguard your fried fish, keep it in care of the act’ (an adage from the Yoruba people in West Africa). With the appointment of Tory MPs to such positions, can we afford to sit back and relax, thinking our equality is in safe hands?

Or since we have been warned never to trust a Tory, are we to see them as a bunch of wolves in sheep clothing playing to the tune of the moment in order to appear relevant?

Reacting to the backlash that followed her appointment, Miller said: ‘I can say very clearly that I have worked for many years in the area of disability and also women’s equality and I am absolutely committed to making Britain a more equal society.’

This in a way is worrying. Why must Tory MPs wait until they are made minister – or, in the case of Boris Johnson, elected to a leading job like London’s mayor – before they come to their senses?

At the moment I would hardly be surprised if Adrian Burley (the MP who attended a Hitler themed party and described the Olympics opening ceremony as ‘multicultural crap’) one day became minister for ‘equality’ and suddenly went all holy.

The Conservatives can continue to showcase themselves as the party of the 21st century. The reality is that many human rights activists will only see them for what they are.

Miller has begged us not to judge her by her record (as if there is any other basis to judge her) but to give her the chance to serve.

And she has pledged her support for same-sex marriage equality.

But to my mind, whatever Miller accomplished in her tenure as the new Minister for Women and Equality, her record from the past will continue to overshadow her work.

We will all be here watching her every step and any misguided decision will put us on alert again.

Bisi Alimi is a human rights campaigner who started his work in Nigeria in the late 90s before fleeing to the UK where he was granted asylum in 2008. He is a co-founder of the LGBT Kaleidoscope Trust where he serves as the director for Africa. He is also the convener of the Migrant African MSM Sexual Health Project, and project seeking to work with the African MSM community in the UK and Europe.

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