The new education secretary, Ruth Kelly, yesterday admitted that she received “spiritual support” from the controversial Roman Catholic Opus Dei movement, while insisting that her faith would not stand in the way of her taking up further government jobs.
There had been speculation that the newest member of the cabinet had ruled out a move to the departments of health or international development because of her opposition to abortion and contraception.
But in an interview on BBC1’s Breakfast with Frost programme, the 36-year-old mother of four said publicly for the first time that her religious beliefs would not be an obstacle to such a move.
In her first television interview since taking up her first cabinet job in December – replacing Charles Clarke in the reshuffle triggered by the home secretary David Blunkett’s resignation – she confirmed that she does receive spiritual support from the Opus Dei group, an ultra-conservative Roman Catholic organisation.
Ms Kelly’s links with Opus Dei (Work of God in Latin) have been under scrutiny since her appointment. But yesterday, insisting it was a private matter, Ms Kelly refused to say whether she was a member of the group.
“I, along with any other politician, am entitled to a degree of privacy in my private life,” she said. “I do have a private spiritual life and I am completely open about that. People know that I am a Catholic and that I take it seriously.
“I do have spiritual support from Opus Dei and I think that’s right. These are private spiritual matters. Politicians are entitled to a private life.”
Ms Kelly denied reports that her beliefs on issues such as contraception would make her refuse to serve as a health or international development minister. Her collective responsibility as a cabinet minister meant she also took responsibility for policies in those areas, she insisted.
“I am absolutely clear that as a member of this government I have collective responsibility for government policy, so as a member of the cabinet responsible for education, I also have responsibility for those policies developed in the health department and in the international development department and so forth, and I stand by those,” she said.
“These are policies after all which are not only developed by this Labour government but are approved by parliament.
“While there are issues of conscience, which of course I’ll express my view on in the lobby in the usual way – because most of these are ques tions of free votes – as a member of the government I have responsibility for those policies and for implementing them in my own department.”
Ms Kelly also hinted that headteachers could receive stronger powers to remove unruly pupils from classes, with both teachers and parents concerned about “lower level disruption” in the classroom.
“It is really important to support headteachers and teachers in tackling disruption in the classroom,” she said.
“We have made huge progress on the really difficult cases, the pupils who have severely disruptive behaviour. But quite rightly what teachers are concerned about and what parents are concerned about is that this lower level disruption that goes on in the classroom now is tackled.
“I would like to see the teacher being able to remove disruptive children from the classroom completely and have either alternative provision within the school or indeed off the school and maybe working together with other schools in a particular area to provide that provision.”