Equal-Pay Spat Overshadows Cameron Move to Promote Women

A dispute over equal pay cast a shadow over U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron’s bid to promote women as he was forced to use Conservative Party funds to top up the salary of one of his female ministers.

Less than three hours after Bloomberg News reported yesterday that Tina Stowell, the new leader of the House of Lords, would be paid 22,147 pounds ($38,000) less than the man who did the job before her, Jonathan Hill, a party official said on condition of anonymity that the difference would be made up from Tory coffers.

Cameron’s office said the decision to downgrade Stowell’s job to below cabinet level had been forced by a cap on numbers. He’d earlier promoted two other women -- Liz Truss and Nicky Morgan -- to the top level of government in an effort to refresh his party’s image before next year’s election.

“This was supposed to be David Cameron’s ‘reshuffle for women,’ but as usual the words don’t match the actions,” Gloria De Piero, the opposition Labour Party’s spokeswoman on women and equalities, said in an interview. “One of the few women replacing a man finds herself paid less than her predecessor, with the post no longer deemed worthy of a seat at the cabinet table.”

The prime minister was taunted about the move today by Labour lawmaker Gareth Thomas, who asked whether other women who found themselves the victims of unequal pay would have it topped up by the Conservative Party.

Same Job

“I’m happy to confirm that she will do the same job as her predecessor, will sit in the same place around the table as her predecessor, and will receive the same money,” Cameron replied during his weekly questions session in the House of Commons.

His office earlier declined to comment on whether Stowell will have an employment contract with the Conservative Party, or what legal advice the government had taken on having a minister partly paid by a political party.

The reshuffle was the biggest Cameron has conducted since he took office in May 2010, and set the stage for the general election in May 2015. The prime minister was freed to change ministers across his government after Foreign Secretary William Hague agreed to take the more junior post of leader of the House of Commons before he retires from Parliament next year.

New Faces

While one theme was the removal of middle-aged men in favor of younger, sometimes female, faces, the other was a clearing of the political decks. Ministers who had seen problems in their departments were cleared out, while those who solved them stayed or were promoted.

Stowell, 47, will be able to draw the Lords’ minister of state salary of 78,891 pounds ($135,500) a year. Hill, as a full member of the 22-strong cabinet, was entitled to 101,038 pounds a year. Stowell will still be expected to organize government business in the unelected upper house in the same way.

Hill left the Lords post yesterday after being nominated to be the U.K.’s new European Union commissioner.

“There is a limit to the size of the cabinet, to the number of paid roles,” Cameron’s spokesman, Jean-Christophe Gray, told reporters in London when asked about the pay discrepancy. “Fundamentally, the question is around increasing representation of women at the most senior levels of government. We have seen the progress that’s being made today.”

Daisy Sands, head of policy at the Fawcett Society, which campaigns for women’s rights, said the plan to pay Stowell less was “worrying.”

‘Concrete Action’

“We would remind government that it is crucial that it takes concrete action to address the ongoing scandal of the U.K.’s gender pay gap for all in society, including for those within its own most senior ranks,” Sands said in an e-mailed statement.

Several high-profile ministers lost out in the cabinet overhaul. For Michael Gove, who has polled badly as education secretary, being a close friend and early supporter of Cameron wasn’t enough to save him from demotion to chief whip. Andrew Lansley, whose changes to the National Health Service required prime ministerial intervention, and Owen Paterson, in charge of the Environment Department during floods this year, were ejected from government completely.

Cameron made a point of replacing older male ministers with women in a reordering of his government to make it more representative of the British population 10 months before the election. Labour has tended to attract more support among women in opinion polls than Cameron’s Conservatives, illustrating a potential difficulty facing the prime minister as he seeks re-election.

Cameron Gaffes

Labour has highlighted gaffes by Cameron in references to women in the past. They included his telling one of its senior lawmakers, Angela Eagle, to “calm down, dear” in the House of Commons in April 2011, and giving in to laughter after saying Nadine Dorries, a critic from his own party, was “frustrated” during an exchange in his weekly question-and-answer session later the same year.

The downgrade in the status of Stowell’s job means there are five women members of the 22-strong cabinet, rather than six as initially indicated when Stowell was given the appointment early yesterday.

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