Jacqui Smith: 10 facts about the new skills, FE and HE minister

Roles have not been officially announced, but Smith confirmed her brief in a recent podcast ahead of a college visit

Roles have not been officially announced, but Smith confirmed her brief in a recent podcast ahead of a college visit

10 Jul 2024, 10:42

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Jacqui Smith has been appointed as the Department for Education’s new minister for skills, further and higher education by prime minister Sir Keir Starmer.

The former teacher returns to government 16 years after her time as a no-nonsense home secretary ended amid the expenses scandal, and 25 years after her first ministerial role at the then-Department for Education and Employment.

Since losing her Redditch seat in the 2010 general election, Smith has split her time between the serious job of chairing large, under-pressure NHS hospital trusts and more good-humoured media appearances as a commentator, podcaster and Strictly Come Dancing contestant.

Here are ten things we know about the returning minister:

  1. An unelected minister – Smith has not been an MP for 14 years, but will be made a junior minister with responsibility for skills, further and higher education (her exact title is yet to be confirmed by DfE) through an appointment to the House of Lords. This is not unusual, according to the House of Commons Library, about a fifth of government ministers (20-25) have been peers in every government since 1979.
  2. An “old hand” – Smith was elected in the New Labour landslide in 1997. Between 1999 to 2009 she had a series of stints as a minister in education, health, trade and industry, education again, the treasury, and famously as the first female Home Secretary. But education was “the best department” to work in, the former teacher said.
  3. A “Whole of government” role – Smith told fellow podcast presenter Iain Dale skills is seen as “a central thing” for Labour’s growth strategy, so she’ll be “trotting off” knocking on various people’s doors. She has previously praised the role of a minister of state, which is not in cabinet and junior to the Education Secretary. She told the Institute for Government: “You really get to work on the detail of it and the policy development.”
  4. Oxbridge educated… – Born 1961 to parents who were both Labour councillors, Smith grew up in Worcestershire, where she attended school and sixth form. Smith studied politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford University, at the same college her new boss, education secretary Bridget Phillipson, graduated from 20 years later. After university, she worked for a Labour MP.
  5. With college credentials – In the 1980s, the former home secretary moved back to Worcestershire and trained to be a teacher at Worcester College of Higher Education (now a university). She taught business and economics at Worcester Sixth Form and then Haybridge High School, Hagley, while also serving as a Labour councillor. Her former boss at both schools, headteacher Melvyn Kershaw, said he was “delighted by her teaching and commitment to the school and its students”.
  6. Facing terrorism – Within days of starting at the Home Office in 2007, Smith dealt with attempted car bombings in London and Glasgow. She soon pushed for controversial 42-day detention rules for terrorism suspects and compulsory identity cards. The former was later dropped by Gordon Brown and the latter scrapped by the Conservatives in 2010. She also pushed for more neighbourhood policing, tried to improve the Home Office and reclassified cannabis from a class C to class B drug, despite admitting smoking it herself at university.
  7. Expenses scandal – Smith’s time as home secretary, and in government, came to an end in 2009 after the expenses scandal. She later apologised for using her MP’s second home allowance to pay for her main home in Redditch and for claiming the cost of pornographic films her husband had watched on expenses. In 2007-08, she claimed £157,631 on top of her regular earnings, the third highest MP’s claim that year. This included £40,000 a year on her ex-husband Stephen Timney’s salary for being her assistant. Speaking about the scandal this week, she said: “I think, after 14 years, I perhaps have done my time, and therefore I don’t have any guilt about it.”
  8. Merging hospitals under the Tories – For the last decade, Smith has chaired the boards of some of England’s largest NHS hospital trusts, first in Birmingham and later in east London. She successfully merged trusts in Birmingham, although concerns have since emerged about patient safety, culture and leadership during her time there. In 2021, she was appointed ‘chair-in-common’ of two trusts serving east London, with a view to merging them into one ‘group’, but this was shelved in January.
  9. Part-time NHS chair, part-time celeb – Since leaving government Smith has frequently appeared in the media, including presenting a documentary on pornography, co-presenting a podcast, reviewing the news on Good Morning Britain and competing in Strictly Come Dancing (being voted out in the first round) while chairing an NHS trust. She faced a backlash for appearing on the dance show in late 2020, while University Hospitals Birmingham NHS foundation trust faced extreme pressures during the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.
  10. Missed calls from the prime minister – Speaking on the final episode of her podcast, Smith said she was on a “special weekend” away with her family in Wales when she missed several calls from Sir Keir Starmer’s office. The next day, after England had beat Switzerland in a penalty shootout, she took a call from the prime minister and accepted a role as minister of state for education, overseeing further, higher education and skills.

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