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LG gender inclusion ‘going backwards’ as counties won’t be equal until 2065

Local government has been sharply criticised for its poor record for gender inclusion, as a report released today has found that only 4% of authorities have a maternity leave policy in place for councillors.

This is one of a number of shocking discoveries revealed in the final report of the Fawcett Society’s Local Government Commission, which has warned that local government is ‘not fit for the future’ due to engrained and outdated practices and attitudes that are holding back inclusion.

Though the Fawcett Society found that some councils had informal arrangements in place for councillors taking maternity, paternity or parental leave, three-quarters of councils responding to an FoI request said there was nothing in place in this area at all.

In addition, the findings, which come as part of a year-long study asking ‘Does Local Government Work for Women?’, stated that the rate of change was so slow that county councils would not see equality until 2065.

In local government generally, only one in three councillors are women, and since 1997 there has only been a 5% improvement in the gender balance

As reported in PSE, combined authorities also have a dreadful track record for diversity and inclusion. All six of the mayors elected to office are men, and just over one in 10 (12%) of combined authority representatives are women.

“Local government is increasingly important for all our lives, but particularly for women,” said Sam Smethers, the Fawcett Society chief executive. “Yet significant barriers remain preventing their participation.

“This was the picture across all political parties. But many of the changes that are needed, such as a maternity policy for councillors, are relatively easy to introduce.”

Smethers added that as we move towards next year’s centenary of women being given the vote, local government had to ask itself how it managed to create new devolved institutions that are even more male dominated than local authorities.

“We are going backwards and that is fundamentally unacceptable in 21st century,” Smethers stated.

Today’s report also found other large problems with local government representation. Help with child care costs for councillor was “patchy” and due to there being no way for councillors to attend meetings remotely, women with care responsibilities again had barriers in their way to being fully included in authorities.

It also reiterated findings in an April report that found that sexism was common place across local government, as four in 10 female councillors reported experiencing sexist comments whilst one in 10 had been sexually harassed in the workplace.

Dame Margaret Hodge MP, co-chair of the Commission, commented: “I led a council 25 years ago and I have been shocked during the course of this review to find how little has changed and how few improvements have been made towards equality in local government.

“The way councils do business is still designed by, and for, men,” she argued. “This needs to change, and fast. Currently local government is not fit for purpose and does not work for women.”

A number of recommendations were made in the report to increase diversity and make local government a more inclusive, welcoming place for everybody.

It recommended that political parties should set targets for getting more female councillors in for the first time, and make it a legal requirement to get 45% women candidates if they do not make progress.

Co-chair of the Commission Gillian Keegan said that being a councillor was rewarding and offered great opportunities to learn new skills, and that more women needed to come in to make the most of this.

“We need to get out there and sell the merits of the role to women across the country,” she said. “However, if we want them to take an interest, we have to make the role more flexible and promote the use of technology.”

Other key recommendations include introducing a statutory England-wide maternity, paternity and parental leave policy, and ensuring childcare and caring costs were covered.

It also suggested legalising remote attendance, collecting and reporting diversity monitoring data, as well as encouraging councils to adopt a requirement for at least 50% of cabinet members and chairs of committees to be women, as well as considering flexible and part-time working for senior roles to allow for those with children and other care commitments.

The study was carried out in partnership with the Local Government Information Unit (LGiU). Its head of projects, Lauren Lucas also said that councils needed to better at representing all of its residents.

“Local authorities employ a staff that is three-quarters female and deliver services which have a major impact on women’s lives,” she explained. “So, when only 17% of their elected leaders are women, it’s clear that there are important questions to be asked.

“Local government has a long way to go before women are represented equally at a political level, but there are already examples of good practice out there and by working together we will meet this challenge. Local government will be the richer for it.”

The vice chair of the LGA Cllr Marianne Overton also said that it was important that local government reflected the communities it represents.

“Local government must be at the forefront of driving change, but it will be important to get the balance right between changing culture and imposing structures," she said. "Change will also require all political parties, no matter the colour of their rosette, to fully engage and support a wide range of aspiring councillors. 

“Among other things, the LGA is also supporting the Women’s Local Government Society’s project to identify 100 pioneers in women’s suffrage, who went on to use the vote to bring tangible benefits to their communities.

"The project celebrates the 2018 centenary of women getting the vote and aims to inspire a new generation of women councillors and civic activists.”

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