In a publication clearly timed to coincide with this weekend’s International Women’s Day the Intelligence and Security Committee has published a report on Women in the UK Intelligence Community. The report reveals somewhat disappointing, if not entirely surprising, information about the status of women in the intelligence and security agencies, particularly in comparison to the rest of the civil service, including, for example, that 37% of intelligence agency staff are women, compared to 53% of civil servants. The headline figures also tell a familiar story about career progression for women, with only 19% of senior staff being women, compared to 38% in the civil service as a whole. The report includes some important recommendations for improving the recruitment and retention of women within the agencies.
This report is not only interesting because of its content. Although it is made clear that the report has the backing of all members of the committee, this is the first time that an ISC inquiry has been so clearly led by someone who is not the Chair of the committee. The report is introduced by Hazel Blears, who was clearly responsible for initiating the inquiry. It was launched at a press conference held by Blears, although that may also be a reflection of the fact that at present the committee has no Chair. The report even looks somewhat different to previous ISC reports with a more commercial layout including a large number of photographs and no redactions.
However, the publication of the report naturally raises the questions about the role of women on the Intelligence and Security Committee. That the issue of gender has hardly featured in any of the ISC’s previous reports is perhaps a result of the fact that this has been, and remains, a committee which is dominated by men.
The Intelligence and Security Committee was established as a statutory committee in 1994. It has nine members, who come from both Houses of Parliament. Members were selected by the Prime Minister after consultation with Opposition leaders. Following changes introduced in the Justice and Security Act 2013, the ISC became a committee of parliament with members chosen by Parliament from a list of nominations provided by the Prime Minister. The Chair is selected from the committee by its members. The committee is reconvened after each general election with a combination of new and existing members. While it is clearly not an attractive option for all parliamentarians our research indicates that there is considerable competition to be considered for membership of the committee.
There were no women on the first ISC which sat from 1994 to 1997, and which was Chaired by the Conservative MP, Tom King. Following the 1997 general election one woman was appointed to the committee, the newly elected Labour MP, Yvette Cooper. Following Cooper’s appointment as a junior health Minister in 1999 she was replaced by the Labour MP, Rosie Winterton. After the 2001 general election, Tom King was replaced as Chair by the former Labour Chief Whip, Ann Taylor, and a second woman, Joyce Quin, was also appointed. Taylor’s appointment was criticised at the time by some who claimed that she did not have the necessary experience and expertise to undertake the role. This was echoed in confidential interviews with former committee members conducted as part of our research, although she is by no means the only Chair who was subject to that criticism.
There was considerable turnover in the membership of the committee which sat from 2005 to 2010. The committee had three Chairs, one of whom was a woman, the former Labour Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett. Her period as Chair from January to October 2008 was short and came to an end when she was appointed as Minister for Housing. Two other women served on the committee during the 2005 parliament, the Labour MP, Dari Taylor, and the Labour Peer and former MI6 officer, Baroness Meta Ramsey. The committee which was appointed in 2010 had only one woman member, Hazel Blears. A second woman, the Labour MP, Fiona Mactaggart, was appointed following the death of ISC member, Paul Goggins, in January 2014. Mactaggart was the first member to be appointed using the new arrangements.
There have never been more than two women on the ISC at any one time, and for almost half of the time since the committee was established in 1994 there has never been more than one woman member. All of the women on the committee have been Labour members. Of the thirty-eight parliamentarians who have served on the ISC since 1994, nine (23.6%) have been women. Although two of the six Chairs have been women, as a result of the truncated leadership of Margaret Beckett, the committee has had a woman Chair for only four and a half years since 1994.
The reasons for the paucity of women on the ISC are not clear and, like the under-representation of women in other areas, complex. The most obvious explanation is the under-representation of women in parliament as a whole. Less than one in ten MPs were women in the 1992 to 1997 parliament, and the absence of women on a committee of nine was therefore perhaps not surprising. There was, of course, a large influx of women into the House of Commons in 1997, which also saw the first woman appointed to the committee. The overall proportion of ISC members who have been women since 1997 (27%) is actually slightly higher than that for women in parliament as a whole, which has risen from 18% of MPs in 1997 to 22% in 2010.
The gender balance within the parliamentary parties may also be a factor. Although the ISC is a cross-party committee, as with other parliamentary committees the balance of parties reflects the balance of parties in the House of Commons. The Conservatives have consistently had a smaller proportion of women MPs than Labour which may help to explain why there have been less women on the committee when the Conservatives have held the majority of seats, prior to 1997 and since 2010. Similarly, the increase in the proportion of women on the ISC after 1997 may be seen as the result of the large number of women elected as Labour MPs. However, despite a tripling of the number of Conservative MPs who are women in the 2010 general election, it is disappointing that there has yet to be a Conservative woman on the committee.
Another possible explanation lies in the kind of MPs appointed to the ISC. There has been a tendency towards seniority in appointments to the ISC. Of the thirty-eight members of the committee since 1994, twenty-three have previously held Ministerial office. Moreover, there has been a clear preference for those with experience in departments which may have brought them into contact with the intelligence agencies: the Home Office, the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Northern Ireland Office. The lack of women on the ISC may therefore reflect a shortage of women with what is perceived as the necessary experience.
Nineteen women served as Ministers under the Conservative governments from 1979 to 1997, six served in one of the four departments mentioned above and none above the level of Minister of State. The situation improved considerably under Labour. Sixty-seven women served as Ministers between 1997 and 2010. Of these eleven served in the Home Office, six in the Foreign Office, four in the NIO and one as a Defence Minister. Labour also made the first appointments of women as Foreign Secretary, Home Secretary and Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, although the MoD remained, in a number of respects, a male preserve. These changes are also reflected in the women appointed to the ISC. The two women who have Chaired the ISC have both held Cabinet posts, Ann Taylor as Leader of the House of Commons and Chief Whip, while Margaret Beckett was the first, and so far the only, woman to have served as Foreign Secretary. Joyce Quin, Hazel Blears and Fiona Mactaggart were all Home Office Ministers. Four women members of the ISC had no Ministerial experience prior to their appointment, although Baroness Meta Ramsey, who is a former member of the intelligence service, clearly had a background in the field.
The lack of women on this committee also raises a wider question as to whether some policy areas are considered to be particularly gendered. Those who work on gender and politics have long identified a functional division of labour between men and women, with women more likely to specialise in ‘soft’ policy areas such as education, health and social security, while areas such as foreign affairs, security and defence, have traditionally been dominated by men. It is not clear what causes this division of labour, although it clearly has its roots in traditional ideas about gender roles. However, its continuation cannot simply be attributed to the exclusion of women from particular policy areas on the part of men. It is also apparent that in some cases women have chosen to specialise in those fields where they feel they are more likely to be able to make a difference. Nevertheless, there is evidence for such a division within parliamentary committees. A quick survey of current select committee membership reveals that the Work and Pensions select committee has six members who are women, the health select committee has five, and the education committee has three, while the Home Affairs Committee also has three women, the defence and foreign affairs committees both have two female members. The Joint Committee on National Security which has members from both Houses including the Chairs of related select committees, including the ISC, has a total of twenty-two members, but only two of them are women, the Chair Margaret Beckett, and Baroness Neville-Jones.
The ISC report on women in the intelligence services is an important example of how having women on parliamentary committees can affect it’s work. It is hard to imagine this report being produced in the early years of the committee, and it is intriguing to wonder how hard Hazel Blears had to push to include it as part of the work of this committee. In producing this report the committee has made some important recommendations for improving diversity within the agencies which, unless men are inherently better at spying, can only improve the quality of appointments to, and the prospects for women within, the agencies. The report also commits the ISC to monitor these developments in the future. However, this is not just an issue for the intelligence and security agencies and it would be welcome if, when the new ISC is appointed following the general election, some consideration could also be given to the gender balance of those responsible for overseeing them.
Women members of the Intelligence and Security Committee
Yvette Cooper, MP 1997 – 1999
Rosie Winterton, MP 1999 – 2001
Rt. Hon. Ann Taylor, MP 2001 – 2005 (Chair)
Rt. Hon. Joyce Quin, MP 2001 – 2005
Rt. Hon. Margaret Beckett, MP January 2008 – October 2008 (Chair)
Dari Taylor, MP 2005 – 2010
Baroness Meta Ramsey, 2005 – 2007
Rt. Hon. Hazel Blears, MP 2010 –
Fiona Mactaggart, MP 2014 –