What would tempt more women to become councillors?

County Cllr Erica Lewis chaired a group exploring whether local government "works for women"
County Cllr Erica Lewis chaired a group exploring whether local government "works for women"

More generous allowances for childcare, reassurances about their personal safety and a strict code of conduct for their colleagues - just three of the ways which a group of councillors has concluded more women could be encouraged to join their number.

Lancashire County Council’s “Does Local Government Work for Women?” report found several areas where the authority was offering good support to female members, but concluded more needed to be done to attract "a more diverse range of councillors”.

Currently, only 25 out of the 84 elected representatives at County Hall are women.

“There are clearly a number of barriers to women [entering local politics],” chair of the cross-party task group, Erica Lewis, said.

“They take on 60 percent of the caring responsibilities, meaning they are already carrying a double burden in terms of work and [providing care]. If you add elected office to that list, it is often more than the number of hours in the day.”

The report suggested that the cost of childcare and care for other dependent relatives should be fully covered to give women time to discharge their duties as a councillor without being left out of pocket.

At the moment, county councillors in Lancashire can claim £7.19 an hour for care costs, capped at a maximum of £1,505 per year. Some other comparable authorities have more generous hourly rates, dictated by whether the care is for a child or adult - and no maximum limit.

The task group also recommended more work could be done with the police to advise female candidates how to protect their personal safety. Council officers confirmed that there was an option to keep a councillor’s address private if it were thought that they could be subjected to intimidation or violence.

The report concluded that the authority’s existing protocol on language and behaviour should be strengthened based on provisions made in national equalities legislation.

And some members of the internal scrutiny committee, where the document was presented, felt that there was one particular arena in which some councillors were falling short of the standards expected of them.

“It astounds me that we can have serious and respectful conversations in committees such as this, but when we get into the council chamber, it turns into an absolute farmyard,” Labour’s Steve Holgate said.

“It disinclines many people - not just women - from [putting themselves forward].”

Conservative committee chair, David O’Toole, said it was incumbent on all councillors “not to laugh, clap or egg on” bad behaviour - whichever side of the chamber it came from.

Liberal Democrat member, David Whipp, added that the tone in full council meetings was “set from the top”.

The county's political groups were also advised to keep gender balance on council committees "under review". At the moment, thirteen out of the nineteen committees which operate at County Hall have a gender balance lower than 30 percent, the level achieved by the full council.

There is a lone female voice on the council's 12-strong development control committee, which decides on planning applications - and only one woman in cabinet. When the current Conservative administration was formed in May 2017, there were two women at the authority's top table until the sudden death in September that year of County Cllr Viv Taylor, who had been the cabinet member for health and wellbeing.

"Research shows that if there are men and women in a room, women will speak less - and if you speak less you are less likely to be asked to lead," County Cllr Lewis said.

The task group found that maternity arrangements and opportunities for ‘remote attendance’ at informal meetings were areas of strength in the council’s current offering to female members. But it also suggested more engagement with ethnic minority communities to ensure women are not discouraged from putting themselves forward for office.

The report suggested holding a “be a councillor” event this summer to try to encourage women to find out more about the role of a local councillor.

A report by the Fawcett Society in 2017 found that 78 percent of council staff across the country are women, but only a third of councillors are female.