There’s work to do to achieve gender parity
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