The theory behind local government is a good one: local people, representative of the local population, represent the area.
In reality, ‘representative’ is not a word that can be applied to most local councils, in terms of demography. As we all know, councils are overwhelmingly populated by white, older men. Statistics published in the LGA’s ‘National census of local authority councillors 2018’ revealed that just 10 per cent of councillors were under 40, just 36 per cent were women and only 36 per cent had caring responsibilities.
People might ask why this matters. It matters because councils make decisions that impact on people’s lives and inevitably councillors make their decisions – whether deliberately or not – through unconscious bias.
It is also vital that councils reflect their communities and have experiences that mirror those of the people in the area.
“Councils are missing out on people with first-hand knowledge and experience of a lot of services”
But – probably because of the nature of those who currently serve on them – councils are organised in a way that makes it difficult for people who are in work or have caring responsibilities to fulfil the role.
Then, for those on borough councils like myself who work and have childcare responsibilities, it’s constant juggling.
But worse than that are the comments of disapproval that I’ve often received or witnessed – about how mums should not be asking for maternity leave, breastfeeding through meetings, bringing children to events, or even having children in the background on Zoom meetings.
It’s no wonder so many people with family and work responsibilities decide not to stand for election.
As a result, councils are missing out on a wealth of skills and expertise and, significantly, on people with first-hand knowledge and experience of a lot of services. After all, it is those with children who use services such as nurseries, libraries, schools, youth clubs, parks and special education needs services.
Suggesting changes seems to be controversial in councils. Tradition seems to win out over anything else and so meetings and procedures are little changed from generations ago. Even bringing in policies like maternity leave has been difficult in many councils. In 2019, just 20 councils (8 per cent) had a maternity policy in place for their senior, cabinet-level councillors and only 7 per cent had one covering ordinary councillor roles.
Help with costs is patchy and some councils provide no support at all.
Meanwhile, a third of female councillors have experienced sexist comments from their colleagues, including about their roles as mothers.
Councils and party groups need to ensure that a culture is developed where having caring responsibilities is not seen as a negative or a liability and is actually seen as an asset.
This is partly about bringing in changes such as maternity leave and childcare policies, but it is also about the words we use and gestures – for instance, having changing mats and colouring books in offices for councillors’ children.
And it’s about us going and making the case to potential councillors about why mums are needed in the chamber – primarily because we need people advocating for the services they use.