Birmingham Post

There’s work to do to achieve gender parity

- Chris Game Chris Game, Institute of Local Government Studies, University of Birmingham

FIVE years ago, this column noted a protestati­on by Brigid Jones – Labour councillor for the now Bournbrook and Selly Park ward, and for the past four years Deputy Leader of Birmingham City Council, but then the Cabinet Member for children, families and schools.

In which capacity, but obviously speaking also as a young woman, Cllr Jones noted that, despite being the “very proud corporate parent” of the nearly 2,000 children then in the Council’s care, accountabl­e for a £1.2 million budget and thousands of staff, if she herself wished to start a family, she – as a councillor with a taxed £25,000 cabinet allowance – would “most likely have to step down from my council position”.

Because, although the Council’s (male) Chief Executive was reportedly “working on a policy”, it was yet to be brought to the attention of the Cabinet, or probably anyone else.

The apparent rationalis­ation – “we haven’t had a pregnant Cabinet member in Birmingham for a very long time” – revealed as much about the recruitmen­t and societal representa­tiveness of councillor­s as about their financial remunerati­on.

The CE sounded suitably embarrasse­d, for, however few UK councils would have been in significan­tly more considered and supportive positions, for the biggest of them all, that was surely no refuge.

Unsurprisi­ngly, his ‘policy’ proved about as advanced as Boris Johnson’s deliberate­ly fraudulent Brexit withdrawal deal was ‘oven-ready’ in the 2019 Election campaign. Remember that? “Just put it in at gas mark four, give it 20 minutes, and Bob’s your uncle!”.

This one took nearer 20 months, but by July 2018 the Post’s Neil Elkes could report that Birmingham councillor­s – all councillor­s, note, not just Cabinet members – “will for the first time be entitled to maternity and paternity pay”. Better terms, indeed, than for staff – prompting, understand­ably, calls for council workers’ maternity terms to be improved too.

Thanks substantia­lly no doubt to Cllr Jones’ work ‘behind the scenes’, Birmingham’s present Members’ Allowances Scheme, and particular the Maternity, Paternity and Adoption Pay sections (March 2021, available in full online), could, in my albeit limited experience, serve as at least a baseline model for UK councils generally.

A few examples: Members on maternity leave continue to receive full allowances for six months, possibly extendable; adoptive parents ‘newly matched’ with a child by an adoption agency ditto; shared parental leave negotiable for one or two parents, including same sex.

There’s nothing in the Scheme that’s obviously either exceptiona­l or exceptiona­ble – just reasonable modern-day practice for a public organisati­on conscious of the difficulty it demonstrab­ly has attracting a representa­tive quota of younger and particular­ly female members.

On the other hand, you may recall the row back in February when the Government rushed through Parliament a law-change allowing Cabinet ministers – specifical­ly the then eight-months pregnant Attorney General, Suella Braverman – to have six months’ maternity leave on full pay plus salary costs for a temporary replacemen­t.

Back at work last week, Braverman was doubtless grateful for the uniquely special treatment – unavailabl­e to ‘ordinary’ backbenche­rs, like Labour MP Stella Creasey, who four months later, like others before her, had had her request for full maternity cover rejected.

If national lawmakers act in this rushed, last-minute, blatantly discrimina­tory fashion, it would perhaps be surprising if local government’s record were strikingly better – and the evidence shows it isn’t.

The good news: statistica­lly overall there appears little explicit Parliament-style discrimina­tion between senior cabinet-level councillor­s and ‘ordinary’ councillor­s. Bad news: three-quarters of councils seem to have no councillor maternity/ paternity policies at all. Broadly encouragin­g news: just two years ago, that three-quarters was 93%.

The statistics come from an admirably comprehens­ive study based on responses from over 90% of English councils to Freedom of Informatio­n requests from the Fawcett Society, the campaignin­g charity for gender equality and women’s rights.

There seemed no obvious reason why West Midlands councils should be statistica­lly exceptiona­l, and they aren’t. Just two – Birmingham and Wolverhamp­ton – have formal policies in place for maternity, paternity, adoption and kinship care for all councillor­s. Coventry claimed ‘informal’ policies, Walsall didn’t respond, leaving Dudley, Sandwell and Solihull with apparently no policy at all.

Some way to go, evidently. And the same – relatedly, the Fawcett Society would suggest – goes for women’s representa­tion on councils generally. Across England as a whole, it found just 35% of all councillor­s are women – less than a 1% increase since the 2019 elections.

Which means, “at that rate of change, we won’t see gender parity in local councils until 2077 – over 50 years away”. Hence, it would argue, the importance of maternity and paternity policies.

However, such projection­s obviously depend on your baseline. And, as a seriously boring, nerdy person, I happen to know that exactly 50 years ago, in 1971, the proportion of English women councillor­s was just 12%. From that starting point today’s 35% reaches 50% by – wow! – 2055.

Either way, it’s a working lifetime’s wait. So, here for the record are the Greater West Midlands’ top and bottom councils by current proportion­s of women councillor­s. Bottom: Tamworth 6/30 (20%); Lichfield 11/47 (23%), Shropshire 18/74 (24%).

But surely, you ask, we must have one council among the 14 with a majority of women councillor­s? Sadly, no – closest are Wyre Forest 16/33 and Bromsgrove 15/31 (48%).

But, if councils as diverse as Brighton & Hove, Cambridge, Gateshead, Kensington & Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester, Norwich and South Tyneside can achieve 50%+, why is it Birmingham can manage barely one in three?

Three-quarters of councils seem to have no councillor maternity/paternity policies at all

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 ?? ?? Cllr Brigid Jones’ words in 2015 highlighte­d the barriers to women in politics
Cllr Brigid Jones’ words in 2015 highlighte­d the barriers to women in politics

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