However, two good things came out of the announcement. Firstly that, despite the complete company law review not being mentioned in this autumn’s Queen’s speech, the placing of Smith in the role indicates to Whitehall watchers that the modernisation of company law is rather ironically going up on Tony Blair’s list of priorities. Though perhaps not fast enough for many in the accountancy profession.
And secondly, company law has a higher profile because it is being handled by Smith, a minister, instead of Melanie Johnson who was just under-secretary of state.
Despite sidelining company law for the moment, certain important aspects of the bill, such as the Operating Financial Review and some post-Enron/WorldCom legislation, are expected to receive parliamentary time this year.
Much of the previous work has now been split between two bills. The first, the companies and community bill, will deal with the post Enron/WorldCom agenda and strengthen powers to investigate companies, regulate auditors and for auditors to obtain information from company directors and employees, among others.
In the meantime, Smith seems to be making her mark already. In one of her first speeches, where she stood in for trade secretary Patricia Hewitt, she had to grapple with one of the most sensitive work-related topics – equal pay – at a TUC seminar this month.
Here, the newly-appointed minister made it quite clear that the battle was yet to be won. ‘Today, women make up almost half the workforce, double the number of 25 years ago. And projections show that in 10 years’ time there will be two million more jobs in the economy, 80% of which will be filled by women. That’s not to say we now have equality. Far from it.
Although women are playing an increasingly important part in our economy, they’re still losing out,’ she said.
Clearly she is tackling the subject head on. Apart from equal pay, she also tackled the proposed changes to boardrooms and the role of women – a highly emotive topic given the outcry over Derek Higgs’ review of corporate governance.
‘A recent report by Laura Tyson, building on the Higgs report on corporate governance, showed the problem of diversity in the boardroom is not one of supply, but of demand. There are plenty of able women out there, including women in the trade union movement,’ Smith told the conference.
This is her third ministerial appointment. Between 1999-2001 she was the parliamentary under-secretary of state in the Department of Education and Employment. Before taking up ministerial office, she was a member of the Treasury select committee (1998-99).
Aston Villa supporter Smith was elected to parliament in 1997 as MP for Redditch in the West Midlands, but started as a local councillor for Redditch (1991-97).
Maybe her apparent boldness of broaching topics others would shy away from has its origins in her years as a schoolteacher. Anyone with experience of teaching youths will know how character-building it is to stand before a bunch of raucous kids and try to educate them.
If she continues in this vein, she will do well in an area that faces huge upheaval.
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