Theresa May has been urged to review the gender balance of the government’s EU negotiating team in a letter signed by 56 female Labour MPs who say: “Brexit is now becoming just another job for the boys.”
The signatories – including Seema Malhotra, Yvette Cooper, Harriet Harman and Labour’s women and equalities minister, Sarah Champion – argue that leaving the EU will have a significant impact on the lives of the whole population, yet there is only one woman among the nine senior civil servants listed by the Department for Exiting the EU as members of the core team for the two years of talks.
“While women form 51% of the UK population, 32% of parliament, 50% of the shadow cabinet and 22% of your current cabinet, women form only 11% of the UK’s EU negotiating team – one out of nine. Our European counterparts, on the other hand, have women in nearly half of their team’s positions,” they write.
They argue that the process by which Britain will leave the EU will have major implications for the whole population, with a number of specific concerns for women. “Brexit negotiations will need women’s voices, on mainstream issues like the economy as well as on directly addressing, for example, how we maintain workplace rights – much of which are underpinned by EU legislation. A watering-down of workers’ rights would impact women the most, from maternity leave to discrimination in the workplace.”
Malhotra, the MP for Feltham and Heston, who is a member of parliament’s Brexit select committee, said May claimed to care about women and their rights but “this just isn’t reflected by her actions as prime minister”.
“It is staggering that she has allowed our negotiating team to have as low a level of women’s representation as parliament had 25 years ago. Her administration should be leading the way, not taking us backwards.” She said the danger was that women would emerge from Brexit with fewer rights.
Harman – who has long argued that the EU helped shore up women’s rights in the UK and that Brexit could pose a risk to hard-fought victories – said the lineup of the Department for Exiting the EU looked like “the Kremlin in the 1950s”.
“This is the old boys’ network at the top of the civil service laid bare – this is not a meritocracy, it is a boys’ club. No one should believe that the men are 80% better than the women … This a self-perpetuating oligarchy of men at the top of the civil service and it is out of touch with modern Britain,” she said.
The department put out the names of the nine key players in negotiations last month, starting with Oliver Robbins, the department’s permanent secretary, and his deputy, Philip Rycroft.
Others include director generals in key departments including Alex Ellis, Mark Bowman, Simon Case and Glyn Williams, the prime minister’s national security adviser, Mark Sedwill, and Sir Tim Barrow, who is effectively the UK’s ambassador to the EU.
The only woman on the list is Catherine Webb, who is director of market access and budget following several roles during 11 years at the Treasury and a senior position at the British embassy in Beijing.
A Conservative source said: “The prime minister is the person ultimately in charge of the Brexit negotiations and is a woman. I would also point out that Labour have never elected a female leader.”