British Labour politician
Ruth Kelly is currently the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, and has been the Member of Parliament for Bolton West since 1997. She holds the record for being the youngest female cabinet minister in history and for giving birth to the most children by any sitting Member of Parliament.
Born Ruth Maria Kelly on the 9th May 1968 at Limavady, County Londonderry in Northern Ireland into an Ulster Catholic family, her mother Gertrude Anne was a teacher whilst her father, Bernard James was a pharmacist who ran the chemists shop in nearby Ballykelly(1). The youngest of three children, her family moved to Belfast when she was two but later moved to England because of the Troubles. Indeed during her life she led something of a nomadic existence, as her father moved from job to job. Eventually the Kellys settled in Surrey and Ruth took her O-levels at the Sutton High School for Girls in Surrey, a year earlier than normal at the age of fifteen (2). She then decided to move to Ireland in order to look after her sick grandmother, and although her grandmother died six weeks later, she remained in Ireland with her aunt and sat an A-level in French. After a year in Ireland she returned to Britain and joined the sixth form at Westminster School, followed by a place at Queen's College, Oxford to read medicine, although her medical ambitions only lasted two terms, and were abandoned in favour of the alternative attractions of Philosophy, Politics and Economics.
From Oxford she went to the London School of Economics where she gained an masters degree in Economics, after which she got herself a job on The Guardian by employing the simple expedient of writing to the economics editor Will Hutton and asking for one. She worked as Hutton's research assistant and later as an economics writer on the paper, subsequently establishing her reputation when she spotted that the Chancellor of Exchequer Norman Lamont had broken his self-imposed 'golden rule' in the 1992 Budget (3). She remained at The Guardian until 1994 when she was headhunted by Mervyn King, Deputy Governor of the Bank of England to become deputy editor of the quarterly inflation report.
Climbing the greasy pole
Having avoided the temptations of student politics, it was not until after graduation that she joined the Labour Party although it appears that she had no particular political convictions other than that she "cared deeply about social justice". Cynics might well argue that a vague commitment to "social justice" and a complete lack of political philosophy made her perfect New Labour material, and so it was to prove as she was selected as the Labour PPC for the marginal constituency of Bolton West, and captured the seat from her Conservative opponent at the 1997 General Election. As was widely reported at the time, she was heavily pregnant throughout the campaign and gave birth to her first child eleven days after the election.
As one of the more prominent of the Blair Babes (4) she served on the Treasury Select Committee from 1997 until 1998, when she became Parliamentary Private Secretary to Nick Brown at the Ministry for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, although the progress of her political career was necessarily somewhat slow since she was otherwise occupied in expanding her family. It was therefore not until after the 2001 General Election that she received her first ministerial post when she joined Gordon Brown's team as Economic Secretary to the Treasury, with specific responsibility for competition policy and small businesses. Just over a year later on the 29th May 2002 she was promoted to be Financial Secretary to the Treasury where she had responsibility for the regulation of the financial services industry. She took the next step up the ladder on the 9th September 2004, when she replaced Douglas Alexander as the Minister for the Cabinet Office, although she hardly had time to get settled in at the office before the resignation of David Blunkett on the 15th December 2004 forced Tony Blair into another reshuffle and Ruth found herself promoted to Cabinet status as the new Secretary of State for the Department of Education and Skills (DfES). (5)
Education, Education, Education
One of her first challenges at Education was the Tomlinson Report, issued in October 2004 and produced by Mike Tomlinson, the former chief inspector of schools, this report recommended replacing GCSEs, A-levels and vocational qualifications with a new single (but four-level) diploma in which both academic and vocational qualifications would have "parity of esteem". These proposal attracted wide support from the teaching unions and education experts and at one time it was believed that their implementation was likely to feature as a commitment in the the next Labour manifesto. However when the White Paper on 14 to 19 education finally appeared in February 2005, Ruth Kelly ignored the advice of her own officials, rejected the Tomlinson proposals, and decided to introduce a series of new vocational diplomas but leave the existing structure of academic qualifications alone.
This decision was widely criticised by education experts as demonstrating a craven failure of nerve and that a golden opportunity to give the country a truly modern examination system had been squandered. It was however just as widely praised by those who believe that education experts have done enough damage already without compounding the problem.
In any event Ruth remained at Education after the 2005 General Election where she soon had to deal with the issues raised by the White Paper entitled Higher Standards, Better Schools for All — More Choice for Parents and Pupils which appeared in October 2005, and formed the basis of what later became the Education and Inspections Bill. This White Paper introduced the concept of Trust Schools, essentially creating independent schools operating within the state sector, and generally proposed giving schools greater freedom from local authority control. One of Tony Blair's most cherished reforms, these proposals faced a considerable degree of opposition largely from within the Labour Party, principally led by the former (and failed) Education Secretary Estelle Morris and the former (and failed) party leader Neil Kinnock both of whom are now safely locked away in the House of Lords.
Despite Ruth Kelly's best efforts at placating the rebels, a total of fifty-two Labour MPs voted against the government and a further twenty-five abstained at the bill's second reading, and bill only passed thanks to the support of the Conservative Party. Subsequently a number of concessions were made in order to placate the Bill's opponents, and it is believed that Tony Blair was somewhat disappointed to see his cherished proposals watered down in this manner. This was however only the beginning, and her real problems began with what might be called the Sex offenders in schools scandal.
Sex offenders in schools
The genesis of this small storm in a teacup lay with one Paul Reeve, arrested as part of Operation Ore and thus identified as someone who had been accessing child pornography (6). In Mr Reeve's case he was simply cautioned and placed on the Sex Offenders' Register, whilst the officials at the DfES decided that it would be perfectly acceptable for Mr Reeve to be employed as a physical education teacher at a school in Norwich on the basis that he had not been convicted of an offence and did not pose a danger to children. The Norfolk police force however chose to disagree with this assessment, and the chief constable of Norfolk Carole Howlett duly wrote to the Home Office in December 2005 to make her views known. The story, which broke in The Observer on the 8th January 2006, brought forth a tidal wave of criticism down upon Ms Kelly's head, since of course the British public naturally object to any suggestion that their children might be taught by individuals with any propensity towards paedophilia.
Some of the heat was taken off Ms Kelly personally when Kim Howells came forward on the 13th January to confess that he had signed off on the decision to employ Paul Reeve. However Ruth Kelly was soon forced to admit that she had no idea how many other similar cases there might be, whilst an ever helpful press soon dug out further examples of sex offenders being employed at schools up and down the country. As it soon became clear, whereas the Home Office maintained its won Sex Offenders' Register, the Department of Education had its own 'List 99' of those individuals it regarded as unsuitable for employment as teachers, whilst the Department of Health had its 'POCA list' of individuals prohibited from employment as child care workers. It also became apparent that the arrangements put in place for synchronising the information on these various list were notable by their absence. Michael Bichard, who headed the Soham inquiry, came forward to point out that he had already suggested to the government that there should only be one register, and expressed his surprise that to date they appeared to have taken no notice of this recommendation.
On the 19th January Ruth issued a statement in which she "deeply regretted the worry and concern" caused and promised, amongst other things that nobody convicted or cautioned for child sex offences will be allowed to teach in schools, and that in future decisions on such cases would be left to an expert independent panel. Downing Street was forced into issuing a statement that "Reports suggesting Ruth Kelly's job was in jeopardy are simply wrong." and in the end a further announcement on the 1st March of new legislation to 'close the loopholes' and a promise to do better appeared to be sufficient to ensure her survival for the time being.
In defence of Ms Kelly it must be noted that the problems were historic and not of her making, and that she simply had the misfortune of being in charge when the proverbial effluent hit the fan. However, if we are to believe the usual unnamed Downing Street sources, the Prime Minister is said to have reprimanded her at a meeting on the 9th January and was generally unhappy with the way she had given the impression of someone being driven by events. To no one's surprise therefore, at the emergency reshuffle of the 5th May 2006, she was replaced as Secretary of State for Education and Skills by Alan Johnson, and effectively demoted to the position of Secretary of State for the newly created Department for Communities and Local Government, the successor department to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.
Family and Religion
Ruth Kelly is of course famous for combining the roles of wife, mother and politician, even Boris Johnson has gone on record to express his admiration for the "way she has managed to be a real person as well as succeeding in politics. She must be identical twins."
She married her husband Derek Gadd, a local government officer, in 1996, and they now have four children, Eamonn, Sinead, Roisin and Niamh. When Ruth was elected to Parliament in 1997, husband Derek resigned as a councillor in order to ensure that at least one parent was at home in the evening, although of course they employ a nanny to look after the children during the day. She has nevertheless been keen on maintaining what is commonly referred to as a work-life balance and Whilst she was employed at the Treasury she made herself unpopular in certain quarters with her insistence on leaving the office at a quarter past six each evening, and her refusal to both take any red boxes home or to work more than two or three hours at the weekends.
As one of her children suffers from "particular and substantial learning difficulties" she and her husband made the decision to remove the child from state education and place them in a £15,000-a-year private school. When news of this decision became public knowledge on the 8th January 2007, it led to the usual internal row within the Labour Party whenever one of its own forsakes state provision for the private sector.
As we have said, Ruth Kelly is from an Ulster Catholic family, she is a practising Roman Catholic, whilst she may or may not be a member of Opus Dei. Her brother Ronan Kelly is known to be a member, but although The Times has stated that "Ruth Kelly is a member of Opus Dei" and The Independent once quoted "a senior Catholic source" as saying that "There is no doubt whatsoever that Ruth Kelly is a fully paid-up member", Ruth Kelly herself will only confirm only that she has received "spiritual support" from Opus Dei and has refused to confirm or deny that she is a member. Some people are unhappy with this position,
regarding Opus Dei as something akin to a religious cult.
She takes her religion seriously and has apparently made it clear that she would refuse to accept positions at either the Department of Health or the Department for International Development due to moral objections to contraception and abortion. Although apparently such moral strictures do not apply to the Department of Education despite the fact that schools routinely provide sex education lessons at which condoms are handed out to pupils. She also shares much the same views on stem cell research as George Bush Jnr and is regarded as being somewhat "equivocal" on the issue of her attitudes to homosexuality. (She apparently deals with the issue by simply absenting herself from the House of Commons whenever there is a vote touching on the issue.)
Since her current responsibilities at the Department for Communities and Local Government include the promotion of 'equality', this has led to demands for resignation from both Peter Tatchell and Lorely Burt, who is the Liberal Democrat spokesperson on Women and Equality. They broadly argue that she can't be trusted to promote 'gay rights' given that she is a Roman Catholic and therefore believes that homosexuality is a sin. Tatchell complained that "Tony Blair would never appoint someone to a race-equality post who had a lukewarm record of opposing racism." For her part Ruth Kelly has insisted that she is "committed to the equality agenda and to fighting discrimination of any kind", Downing Street issued a statement on the 10th May 2006 denying that there was any problem, whilst the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster was sufficiently moved to write to The Times to complain that Catholicism should not be a criterion for judging anyone's suitability for office.
The issue however resurfaced again in November 2006 when the government announced a delay in implementing the Sexual Orientation (Provision of Goods and Services) Regulations (which were intended to preventing discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation). Due to be introduced at the end of October, they will now not appear until April 2007. Officially the line is that the delay has been caused by the volume of responses and representations made during the consultation period, others however put the blame at Ruth Kelly's door, claiming that she was supporting the arguments of some faith-based organisations who believed that they should be exempt from certain of the provisions. Once again the Liberal Democrats again called for her resignation, and once again such calls were largely ignored.
Kelly's problems in this regard simply reflect the modern trend to deem anyone who holds any kind of religious belief as being not of sound mind, whilst many of Kelly's opponents appear to desire nothing less than the repeal of the Catholic Emancipation Act 1853 and the reimposition of the Test Acts, as they seem to regard anyone who accepts the teaching of the Roman Catholic church as unsuitable to hold public office.
Ruth Kelly cites her own interests as walking, swimming and watching Bolton Wanderers. Although she was once talked off as a future leader of the Labour party and Labour's first woman Prime Minister, her less than stellar performance at Education has no doubt blighted her future career prospects. Of more pressing concern however is her position at Bolton West. As noted above her constituency is a marginal seat; she won it from the Conservatives in 1997 with a majority of 7,072 and has watched it shrink ever since. It was down to 2,064 at the last election, and any half decent swing to the Conservative Party at the next General Election will see her join the ranks of the unemployed. Hence she is rumoured to have her eyes on the neighbouring seat of Bolton South East, which is a solidly safe Labour constituency where the incumbent Brian Iddon has recently announced his intention to stand down at the next election.
For some reason (probably related to her reputation as a parliamentary mother) she is unpopular with the protest group Fathers 4 Justice (7). They broke into her Bolton West constituency office during the General Election campaign in May 2005, superglued the locks shut, wrote slogans on the wall and stuck posters over the windows. According to a spokesman this was because they thought that "maybe she would like to know how it feels to be denied access to her most beloved". She was later accosted at an election meeting by one Simon Wilmot-Coverdale, who threw an egg at her and tried to handcuff her. He later appeared before Salford Magistrates where he received a two months suspended jail sentence and was ordered to pay £250 compensation. Kelly was required to give evidence at the hearing, but as she was leaving she was egged again, this time by one Mike Downs, a member of Real Fathers For Justice, which is apparently a militant splinter group of the aforementioned Fathers 4 Justice.
(1) Ruth Kelly’s paternal grandfather Francis Kelly was a primary schoolteacher who taught at Altishane Primary School near Strabane in County Tyrone, in the 1930s. According to The Sunday World her maternal grandfather Phil Murphy was not only a railway porter, but also the quartermaster of the West Fermanagh IRA battalion who was interned by the British government from 23rd May 1922 and the 24th June 1924. The official line was that Ms Kelly "declined to comment on family matters", which means that it is probably true.
(2) She also won a scholarship to Edgarley Hall, the preparatory school of Millfield School, but doesn't appear to have attended that particular establishment.
(3) The 'golden rule' being that government should only borrow to fund investment and that current expenditure should be met by current taxation.
(4) The Blair Babes, a semi-disparaging term for the cohort of young (and not so young) female Labour MPs first elected to the House of Commons in 1997.
(5) Where she succeeded David Miliband who was allegedly one of her ex-boyfriends.
(6) Operation Ore was launched after the FBI passed details to the British authorities of UK credit cards used to access indecent images of children from US websites. Amongst those identified in this manner include Pete Townshend, formerly of The Who, as well as two Labour MPs who have yet to be named.
(7) Fathers 4 Justice is a group campaigning against the alleged bias against fathers in the British judicial system particularly as regards questions of custody.
- Decca Aitkenhead, The real zeal, The Guardian September 24, 2005
- Sean O’Neill, Laura Peek and Tony Halpin, Ruth Kelly - a private woman who puts faith into her work, The Times December 17, 2004
- The Rt Hon Ruth Kelly
- Profile: Ruth Kelly,8 January 2007
- Profile: Ruth Kelly, 5 May 2006, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/4100061.stm
- Ruth Kelly, 21 October, 2002,
- 'Economics genius' gets education brief, 17/12/2004
- Colin Brown, Ruth Kelly's seat 'at risk' over private school row, the Independent 10 January 2007
Sex Offenders in Schools
- Key points: the Tomlinson report Guardian Unlimited October 18, 2004
- Polly Curtis, Key points of education white paper, Guardian Unlimited October 25, 2005
- Francis Gilbert Kelly gives Labour its best day this term 27/02/2005
James Kirkup and Gerri Peev How many sex offenders in schools? No idea, 12-Jan-06
- Jamie Doward, Anushka Asthana and Gaby Hinsliff, Kelly told of schools sex crisis last year The Observer January 15, 2006
- Toby Helm, Kelly keeps her counsel over sin and upsets gay rights campaigners 10/05/2006
- Toby Helm, Kelly 'must resign over delay to gay rights law' 16/10/2006
- Guy Patrick and James Clench, They're morons 4 justice
- Doug Boucher, Grandfather of British minister Kelly was an IRA hunger striker