Michelle Donelan’s announcement that she will be taking maternity leave is a welcome marker of progress in government, but Tim Durrant says Rishi Sunak should avoid appointing someone as cover who has to start from scratch in the role
Digital and culture secretary Michelle Donelan has announced that she would be taking “a short maternity leave” in 2023 as she is expecting a baby. 4 Michelle Donelan MP, via Twitter, https://twitter.com/michelledonelan/status/1602987352351248385?s=20&t=jmugAQxqd_PX0YUkmSINpA She will be one of only a few ministers who have taken maternity leave since the Maternity Allowances Act became law in 2021, and her decision to do so is a welcome sign of government progress. An interim digital and culture secretary will be needed, and when Rishi Sunak decides who will cover for Donelan he should bear in mind who has relevant expertise and experience.
Formal maternity leave for ministers is beneficial
The Act was passed to allow the then-attorney general, Suella Braverman, to take leave – before that point, ministers had to take informal leave, effectively leaving their government post. While the Act does not guarantee that a minister who takes maternity leave will return to the same role, it does at least mean that she and the person who covers the role can be paid.
Previously, as there are limits on the number of ministerial salaries that can be paid, either the minister on leave or the minister who covered for her would not be able to take a salary. The Act was a sensible solution to this problem and it is good that ministers are making use of it.
Sunak should aim to avoid disruption when appointing Donelan’s maternity cover
Once Donelan goes on leave, the prime minister will appoint someone to cover her role as secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport (DCMS). There has been an unprecedented degree of turnover of ministerial posts in the last year – including, of course, Donelan herself, who served as education secretary for a day and a half during the collapse of Boris Johnson’s government. It is therefore even more important than usual for Sunak to try to reduce the disruption caused by ministers changing roles. He should appoint a current junior minister at DCMS to cover for the secretary of state while she is on leave, rather than moving several people around departments. Choosing people for their experience and knowledge of a topic, rather than because of particular political loyalties, should be a higher priority for prime ministers when appointing their cabinets.
This is the approach taken previously when Braverman went on leave – the then-solicitor general, Michael Ellis, was promoted to attorney general to cover for the six months she was away. Promoting someone from inside the department is an established route for maintaining stability when leaders leave, whether they go on temporary leave or depart for good. In 2003 Tony Blair promoted Baroness Amos to secretary of state for international development from her position as a Lords spokesperson on the issue, following the resignation of the then-secretary of state Clare Short (who resigned due to the Iraq war, not for maternity leave).
DCMS has seen a lot of churn
Choosing a minister who is familiar with at least some of the topics that the secretary of state is responsible for, and has existing relationships with people in relevant fields, will help the department manage with yet another change of leadership. Donelan is DCMS’s eleventh secretary of state since May 2010 – appointing a temporary successor who knows the department already will mean they are not starting from scratch when dealing with key business like the Online Safety and Data Protection bills. Rishi Sunak’s first cabinet saw him reach out to people across all wings of the party, to rebuild unity after the Truss premiership. His focus now should be on identifying the necessary experience and the skills for a particular job – which is even more the case for an appointment which will almost certainly be a temporary one.