Mon, 23 Sept 2019
WEST Berkshire councillors have unanimously supported a motion to introduce parental leave in the hope it will encourage more women and a broader diversity of candidates to get involved in local politics.
In July, a report from women’s rights campaign group the Fawcett Society named West Berkshire as one of the worst councils in the country for women’s representation.
Of the 43 elected councillors, just six are women.
One of them, council leader Lynne Doherty, told fellow members at a recent meeting that it “was something all of us need to address”.
She added: “When I first read the report it struck me that if we are ever to address this we will need to make three changes in three different areas – the council itself, but also in our own parties and as individuals.
“As a council we have a responsibility to address any potential barriers to anyone wishing to get involved in local politics.
“You only need to cast a glance across this chamber to see that we do need greater diversity within our ranks.”
She added that she was pleased that some of the recommendations in the Fawcett report were already being “embedded here in West Berkshire Council”.
These, she said, included the recommendation for support with members childcare costs and the member code of conduct against discrimination.
However, Mrs Doherty acknowledged: “There is always room for improvement.”
She said that introducing parental leave to enable members to take the necessary time to support dependant children “will assist with the removal of one more barrier”.
She also encouraged each party to “see what they could do to attract a greater diversity in their candidate selection at the next local elections”.
Mrs Doherty added: “Let us all look together at the barriers being put before women, and others, and actively work together over the next four years to address these so that West Berkshire Council is never again placed at the bottom of such a league table.”
Fellow Conservative councillor Claire Rowles said: “There are many barriers to women entering politics.
“Not just the issue of parental leave, but for example, abuse on social media, bullying and intimidation.”
She added: “I am proud that we’ve had a female Prime Minister, I am proud that we have got a female leader of our group and I am proud to represent Kintbury and Hungerford.
“One of the reasons I went into politics was to encourage more women to get involved and while we have made some progress, it is slightly depressing looking across this chamber.”
Green Party councillor David Marsh said he “strongly supported the proposal”.
However, he added: “It is long overdue, but I don’t think it goes far enough.
“Some of you will have met my seven-year-old son Freddie,” he said.
“The reason I take Freddie to meetings is not just for his political education, but because I can’t always get a babysitter and his mother works full-time so I’m his principal carer.”
He suggested the possibility of MPs and councillors job sharing to encourage more diverse applicants.
He added: “It might sound radical, but there is no reason at all if the law were changed why we couldn’t have job sharing councillors.
“The workload is higher than it has ever been and I certainly find it quite demanding, particularly with my parental responsibilities.
“By the time we finish tonight I would have been to three meetings today lasting about seven hours.
“For much of that time my son was at school and luckily his mum’s home from work tonight, so we've managed to manage it. Last night we had a babysitter.
“These things are hard for people to manage and it must be even harder still if you’re a single parent.”
The council’s deputy leader Graham Bridgman (Conservative) said: “Because members of council are not employees and are free to attend meetings or not without consequence unless they fall foul of the six-month rule, all we actually need to do is to agree that councilors can miss meetings if they are on parental leave.
“However, having a formal policy sends a message to our electorate and to prospective candidates and I support it.”