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FactCheck: an all-white cabinet?

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 20 October 2009

Are there really as many women and people from ethnic minorities in the cabinet as Gordon Brown suggests?

Prime Minister Gordon Brown (credit: Reuters)

"There are seven women sitting around cabinet table, we have the first Asian cabinet minister sitting at the table representing the issues of transport, and at the same time we have the [first black] attorney general."
Gordon Brown, Speaker's Conference session, 20 October 2009

The background

The main party leaders were questioned today by a Commons committee set up to look at ways of getting more women, ethnic minorities and disabled people in parliament.

The prime minister was taken to task by Labour backbencher Parmjit Dhanda.

Dhanda pointed out that, before Gordon Brown came to power, there were two cabinet ministers from an ethnic minority; now there are none, but four white Scottish men.

Brown stumbled slightly over his answer, saying that it was important to look also at those non-cabinet ministers who are able to attend meetings - or as he puts it, "people who sit at the cabinet table who don't necessarily hold a full departmental responsibility but are equally important to running of the government".

On this basis, he claimed there were "seven women sitting around the cabinet table" as well as the "first Asian cabinet minister... representing transport" and the first black attorney general.

The analysis

All of the 23 cabinet ministers proper are, as Dhanda said, white. Four of the 23 are women.

In addition to the official cabinet, nine ministers are able to attend, although four of these attend only when their ministerial responsibilities are on the agenda.

All of the five with a permanent chair drawn up are white men.

Of the four sometime-attendees, three are female - the Attorney General Baroness Scotland, children's minister Dawn Primarolo, and regions minister Rosie Winterton. Two are from an ethnic minority - Baroness Scotland, and transport minister Sadiq Khan, described by Brown as an Asian "cabinet minister".

So if all of the possible attenders showed up in one go, the cabinet would be more diverse than inner circle (admittedly, not that hard). But does it happen?

Downing Street refused to comment on who had attended cabinet when, or how many times.

Khan's office told us he had attended five cabinet meetings since taking up his transport post in early June, and was due to attend the next cabinet meeting, too. Winterton's office said she had been to four.

That's certainly more than the single meeting which Caroline Flint claimed to have been invited to attend when she resigned as Europe minister earlier this year - but how does it compare to the complete cabinet schedule? Cabinet meetings are usually held weekly, on Tuesdays, during "term-time"; there are also political cabinet meetings and some away days when the cabinet meets around the country - most recently at the Olympics site on Thursday 3 September and in Cardiff on Thursday 23 July.

By our reckoning, cross-checked with summaries of official press briefings, there've been at least 12 cabinet meetings since Khan and Winterton took up their posts, including two regional meetings and an extra meeting in the week post-reshuffle.

We think it likely that 12 is an underestimate - we haven't included, for example a political cabinet meeting our political editor blogged about on 14 September, but in the absence of an official figure, are erring on the side of caution.

The verdict

The current cabinet is, as a Labour backbencher pointed out today, completely white and predominantly male (with a decent sprinkling of Scots to boot).

Brown described the cabinet as a more diverse bunch by including four ministers (three female, two from ethnic minorities) who are not actually cabinet ministers, but attend cabinet meetings when their policy areas come up on the agenda.

Technically, there could be the seven women, Asian minister and black attorney general he listed sitting around the cabinet table. But it's just not the case that this complete line-up is the norm.

For example, transport minister Sadiq Khan has attended five cabinet meetings; regions minister Rosie Winterton has attended four. That's less that half of the cabinet sessions.

FactCheck rating: 3.5

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The lower end of the scale indicates that the claim in question largerly checks out, while the upper end of the scale suggests misrepresentation, exaggeration, a massaging of statistics and/or language.

In the unlikely event that we award a 5 out of 5, our factcheckers have concluded that the claim under examination has absolutely no basis in fact.

The sources

Cabinet list
Downing Street news archive

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