Equality in councils hampered by funding crisis

With women’s representation in the council chamber flatlining at 30 per cent over the last 20 years, International Women’s Day is an apt time to ask why, writes Jennifer Glover.

As supporters of local democracy, we all know how important it is that our political representatives and advocates reflect that diversity of the communities they serve in order to make decisions that work for everyone. As it stands, local government is failing in this regard – women, BAME groups and disabled people are under-represented at the local level.

Last year LGiU and the Fawcett Society published the findings of a year-long Commission investigating the causes of this disparity from selection and election through to leadership. The final report, Does Local Government Work for Women?, contains our recommendations for the future backed by the first-hand testimony of women across the country.

However, one of the major stumbling blocks in implementing many of these changes is the precarious financial situation facing the sector, and here’s why:

Expenses

This was highlighted by many women as a key issue preventing them carrying out their role effectively, or at all. As budgets have been squeezed and public scrutiny of council expenditure has increased, councillor expenses has often been seen as an area for savings to be made and has become a key campaign issue for opposition councillors. Although cuts in councillor expenses may be justified in some circumstances, they are a lifeline to many people with caring commitments. As it stands, policies on childcare expenses are patchy and inadequate at best, and non-existent at worst. Many women said they feared political backlash for claiming expenses for childcare and decided against it, footing the bill themselves. Others said the amount paid for childcare did not come close to covering the costs, particularly for evening meetings when nurseries are shut.

We called for independent remuneration committees to be set up and for caring expenses to be listed separately from general expenses to prevent a negative impact on those claiming.

Remuneration

Similar, but slightly separate, is the issue of remuneration. The age profile of councillors is overwhelmingly 60+ and this is largely because those who are retired have time to dedicate to council business without impacting upon their ability to pay their bills. For younger candidates, forgoing paid employment in order to become a councillor is simply not an option. This is particularly problematic for women, who are more likely to take on caring roles which present unpredictable and non-negotiable demands on their time. The current government view that local councillors should be essentially volunteers is at odds with the vision for true local democratic accountability. In rolling back on councillors’ access to a pension for their work, councillors who take on more senior roles that amount to a full-time job are unable to access a pension for that period of time, putting them on a precarious financial footing which prevents a wider range of candidates from coming forward for leadership roles.

Political attention

The scope of the challenge presented by the current financial situation has meant that this takes up the vast majority of councillor’s time in chambers, leaving little room for discussions about strengthening their local democratic institutions. Things like implementing robust parental leave policies (the study found that only four per cent of councils have a formal maternity, paternity, or adoption policy in place for councillors), trialling new remote/digital solutions to facilitate flexible working practices, adjusting council meeting times to be mutually convenient for all councillors, or recording council meetings to improve accountability, have largely failed to receive adequate airtime.

Lack of investment

Inevitably some measures to improve diversity within the council chamber cost money, and often councillors find it hard to justify such costs in light of other budgetary pressures. However, lack of investment in training on councillor conduct, training for new councillors, mentoring schemes and accessibility have all contributed to the serious issue of incumbency facing local government. If women are not supported in their roles, and other councillors face no penalty for poor behaviour, it is not surprising that many women choose to stand down after one term.

We’ll be watching the upcoming local elections in May with great interest to see whether there will be a much-needed shift in the numbers of women putting themselves forward for local political office, and most crucially, in winnable seats. We can’t afford to put our democracy on the back burner – as the difficult decisions are made about where to cut services, we need a diverse group of voices around the table.

Jennifer Glover is an LGiU policy researcher.