Changes to the law may be needed to boost local government diversity

(Title Image: Women’s Equality Network Wales)

Communities Committee
Diversity in Local Government (pdf)
Published: 4th April 2019

“….women, black and minority ethnic communities, individuals with disabilities, LGBT people, the young and those with lower incomes are markedly under-represented (in local government) meaning their particular experience, views and concerns have too weak a voice.

 

“Later this year we expect the Local Government Bill to be introduced to the Assembly, providing an opportunity to address these issues.”
– Committee Chair, John Griffiths AM (Lab, Newport East)

1. There’s a lack of awareness about the role of councillors


A survey undertaken by the Committee found a general lack of understanding of what local councillors actually do; 20% said further information would be beneficial to them. Some witnesses suggested a national-level campaign to explain what councillors did, while others spoke of a preference for measures targeted at particularly under-represented groups.

Since 2011, local authorities have had to offer training and induction sessions for councillors and some new councillors said the amount of work involved was a “real learning curve” – the commitment to which ought to be properly explained beforehand.

Every councillor makes a commitment to be contactable 24 hours a day with their home addresses published (unlike MPs and AMs). One WLGA witness said they were contacted at all times and were expected to answer inquiries immediately – a problem made worse by social media. There was an agreement this needed to change and being available 24/7 didn’t necessarily make someone a good councillor.

2. Councillors routinely experience bullying and harassment

A quarter of councillors who responded to the Committee’s survey said they’ve experienced some form of abuse or harassment, with just under 20% saying they experienced it within the council and 12% saying they’ve been abused by members of the public.

Social media was said to have been a positive and negative in this regard, particularly for women in the case of the latter. The WLGA has produced guidance on how to deal with social media abuse but the Leader of Newport Council, Cllr. Debbie Wilcox, believes the law has to catch up. The WLGA agreed and wanted social media companies to do more to dispell the idea that elected representatives were “fair game” for often highly personalised abuse.

There was some support from witnesses for an independent adjudicator to be appointed to deal with cases of abuse and harassment between party members. However, the Committee instead believed local authority monitoring officers should be given an enhanced role in dealing with such cases and refreshed guidance on the enforcement of Code of Conduct should be issued by the Welsh Government.

3. There are a number of potential practical solutions to boost diversity

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The Committee heard a number of potential ways to solve the problem of lack of diversity in councils including:

  • Using technology to allow remote attendance at council meetings for people working full or part-time jobs or those living in isolated rural areas.
  • Changing the timing of some council meetings (i.e. evenings) so they’re more convenient for people with work or caring responsibilities.
  • Job sharing for local government cabinet members to boost the number of women (in particular) in leadership roles in local government; Swansea Council was cited as an example of good practice here. However, a number of witnesses said there were practical challenges when it comes to job-sharing for councillors generally.
  • Introducing an “Access to Elected Office Fund” – as in Scotland and England – to cover additional costs disabled candidates face when running for office.
  • Quotas for women candidates and all-women shortlists – though Labour and Plaid Cymru have already changed their internal rules to boost the number of women candidates; the Lib Dems and Conservatives disagree with all-women shortlists.

Some of these measures would require changes to the law.

One other suggestion was electing full-time councillors on a full-time salary, with a subsequent decrease in the number of councillors overall. There was some support for the idea from the Electoral Reform Society, WLGA, Conwy Council and Plaid Cymru, but Chwarae Teg said a full-time role might put off marginalised groups and people with professional experience from standing for office.

The Committee was also unconvinced on the need for four-term limits for councillors, while the value of mentoring schemes for women and minority groups was questioned as only a small number of people who’ve gone through them have successfully won council seats.

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