Valerie Amos appointed Leader of House of Lords
by Linda Rutherford
October 12, 2003
JUST when we were beginning to get used to her being Secretary of State for International Development, a post she assumed in mid-May when Clare Short demitted office and one that augured well for developing countries like Guyana, British Prime Minister Tony Blair makes her Leader of the House of Lords.
The announcement Tuesday that Guyanese-born Baroness Valerie Amos was now the new leader of government business in the British House of Parliament, which is essentially what her new role is and a first for a woman of colour, follows the sudden demise of an apparent heart attack late last month of the amiable Lord Gareth Williams of Mostyn.
Reputed to be a brilliant Welsh lawyer whose logic and radicalism were complemented by his sparkling wit and political understanding, Williams died at his home in Gloucestershire on September 20. He was 62.
According to last Tuesday's edition of the Guardian, that he was being replaced by Amos came as a surprise to many, as hers was seen "as a safe pair of hands to promote international development," and as such was expected to stay in that position for some time to come yet.
Blair, however, is said to have been torn between giving the job to her and another woman of colour, the equally talented Baroness Patricia Scotland, now Home Office Minister, whom she succeeded a while ago as Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister.
Speculation was also rife that it could well go to former leader of the civil service union, Baroness Symons, currently a trade and Foreign Office minister, since Lord Grocott, another likely candidate, was too recently made a peer, and Lord Whitty, a former Labour general secretary, was considered too leftwing.
Amos, who broke a centuries old tradition by being the first black woman in the British Cabinet when she took over the helm of the Department For International Development (DFID) - an agency Guyana knows only too well given its considerable assistance in the areas of education and forestry - brings to her new post a wealth of experience in the area of local government, having worked for many years with the inner-city London boroughs of Lambeth, Camden and Hackney.
A one-time adviser to former South African President, Mr. Nelson Mandela on issues pertaining to public service reform, human rights and employment equity, she is said to have initially risen to prominence as Chief Executive of the Equal Opportunities Commission, which organisation she served from 1989 - 1994.
Following her appointment to the House of Lords in 1997, she was made a life peer as Baroness of Brondesbury. In July 1998, she was appointed a Government Whip in the House of Lords, in which capacity she served as spokesperson on International Development, Social Security and Women's Issues. She was also tasked during that period with trying to convince African countries, albeit with little effect, to back Britain's case for going to war with Iraq.
The third woman to have been promoted to leader of the Lords - her predecessors being Lady Young in the 1980s, and Lady Jay, Lord Callaghan's daughter, in 1998 -, Baroness Amos, who migrated to Britain with her family when she was nine, holds a degree in sociology from Warwick University and a Ph.D from the University of East Anglia.
She also pursued studies at Birmingham University and was awarded an Honorary Professorship at Thames Valley University in 1995 in recognition of her work on equality and social justice.
Her successor as Secretary of State for International Development, meanwhile, is Labour Member of Parliament for Leeds Central, Mr. Hilary Benn, scion of former Labour Cabinet Minister, Mr. Tony Benn, and grandson of former wartime minister, Mr. William Benn.
Noted for being sympathetic to his father's left-wing labour ideals during his early political career, Hilary Benn is said to have signalled his shift to the political centre during the Leeds Central by-election in 1999 when he chose as his campaign slogan: 'A Benn but not a Bennite'.
A former junior minister in the Department for International Development under Clare Short, he also served for a year as Prisons Minister at the Home Office, before returning in May of this year to International Development as minister of state.
As deputy to then Secretary of State, Baroness Valerie Amos, he became the department's principal spokesman in the House of Commons. Now Secretary of State for International Development, he is a full member of the Cabinet.
Now 50, he reportedly pursued Russian and East European studies at Sussex University, has been a member of the Labour Party since the age of 16, and worked for the Manufacturing, Science, Finance (MSF) Union for 22 years, first as research officer and later as head of policy and communications.
Described by the press as "warm, thoughtful and charming, with a faintly clerical or professorial air," he is also noted for his similarity of voice and mannerisms to his father, and his deep commitment to education, and knowledge of political history.
He and his wife Sally have three sons and a daughter.