Councillor Alex Phillips
This International Women’s Day will be my first as a mother. I have been a councillor for almost a decade but this year I have a newborn in tow too. I am neither disabled nor BAME and so have never experienced the inherent discrimination that women councillors pertaining to those two groups face, but I have found the last four months since my baby was born – and even prior to that whilst pregnant – a real challenge.
The Fawcett Society report published last year ‘Does Local Government Work for Women?’ is extremely comprehensive and timely. It not only covers women’s lack of representation, especially at the top of town halls, but also covers sexism and how these issues are compounded for women of colour and those with disabilities. This has been collated in time for this year of women, the centenary – 100 years since some women – mainly white, older and rich women – got the vote.
From my point of view however, I have experienced a real lack of understanding from mainly – but not exclusively – male councillor colleagues as well as some officers about just how difficult being a councillor is today when combined with pregnancy and caring responsibilities. There are a plethora of actions that need to be taken by both councils and political parties to ensure equal representation. Here I focus on just three areas which I think will make a huge difference.
1. There needs to be parental leave for councillors as standard across every council. At the moment councillors still have access to their allowance, which is positive – however without a formal parental leave in place, there is still the expectation that pregnant councillors as well as new mums and dads should carry on with their councillor work as before. This not only creates additional stress but is also unrealistic and dangerous. I was responding to council emails whilst still in hospital the day that my baby was born. I attended my first council meeting with my baby just thirteen days later.
2. The full cost of childcare for council meetings should be paid in full and directly by the council. At the moment, at least in Brighton and Hove, a proportion of childcare costs during council meetings (£7.65 per hour) is reimbursed and then capped at £1500 maximum spend per year per councillor. This is problematic because it doesn’t cover the actual hourly rate charged, which for evenings and for babies is more like £11 per hour. On top of this, councillors are having to front the costs themselves and can in some cases wait for well over a month to be reimbursed. With several council meetings each week covering training, working groups and more formal committee meetings, the actual childcare cost each week could easily run into hundreds of pounds. If we are ever to break down barriers of participation in public life, the full cost of this must be covered directly by the council and with no annual cap.
3. Ensuring meetings are at a range of times and not just in the afternoons and evenings; and making them accessible remotely by using technology to ‘dial in’ to meetings and even to vote from home. Harnessing technology in this way would remove barriers to attendance that are particularly prevalent for women with caring responsibilities, or those with accessibility needs.
Women make up just 33% of all Councillors in England. As we mark International Women’s Day and 100 years of Women’s Suffrage we must celebrate the achievements of women but also reflect on barriers to inclusion across our society. There is much to be done. Although often overlooked, in local government changes that enable greater participation in political life at the town hall level are essential. They will make a huge difference not only to representation – but also to the health of our democracy.
Alex Phillips is a Green Party Councillor in Regency ward, Brighton and Hove
Read the Green Party’s ‘Gender Equality Manifesto’ here. #PressforProgress