Five years to make local government work for women

This week saw the publication of LGiU’s report with the Fawcett Society on whether English and Welsh local government is working for women – the end result of a year-long Commission. As our research has shown, Scotland is behind the curve when it comes to female representation at a local level. The recommendations this report makes are well worth a read, including:

  • Targets for women’s political representation
  • Maternity, paternity and parental leave entitlements for councillors
  • Legalising remote attendance at council meetings, including voting rights
  • More powerful Standards Committees and clearer standards and training
  • Term limits for councillors
  • Requirements for gender balanced Cabinets and formal shadowing opportunities through the creation of ‘deputy Cabinet Member’ roles

Surveys of councillors undertaken across the UK show that many councillors – both male and female – have experienced abusive comments and behaviour from local parties, other councillors and the electorate. Our research showed that this is particularly true in Scotland. The Commission calls on local authorities to work with police to tackle this abuse – whether online or offline.

Travel distance, time commitments and a lack of support from the party bar both men and women from entering political life – but people with caring responsibilities are still more likely to be women. The Commission recommends bringing a greater degree of flexibility to council life. Provision of maternity, paternity, parental and other caring leave are patchy at best.

BAME women, disabled women and younger women are also underrepresented in public life. After the 2017 local elections, there were just 15 BAME councillors – total – in Scotland.

Female representation at Holyrood is on the up and, of course, the leaders of the three largest parties are all female. However, female under-representation remains a significant issue at a local level. The 2017 local elections saw the percentage of female councillors creep up from 25% to 29% of all councillors. In England, 17% of council leaders are female; in Scotland, the story is much the same – now around 22%.

The Commission critiques the lack of women’s voices when it comes to devolution in England – all six metro mayors elected in May are male. In Scotland, will local democracy legislation such as the Islands Bill seek to include women in public life? If local government undergoes further change, will that change lead to better female representation? Now is the time to make sure it does.

Unlike England, where local elections operate on a rolling schedule – and so elections take place somewhere every year – our next local elections will not be until 2022. That means we have an opportunity: we have 5 full years to tackle this problem.

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