More action needed to increase diversity among Scotland’s councillors, Equality and Human Rights Commission reports

Written by Jenni Davidson on 8 March 2019 in News

The first major study of the experiences of those standing to be a councillor found a number of potential barriers for certain candidates

A ballot box - Image credit: PA Images

More needs to be done to increase the diversity of councillors in Scotland, a report from the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has concluded.

The research, which is the first major study into the experiences of candidates for local elections in Scotland, found a lack of gender balance in elected politicians was particularly acute in local government, with women making up only 29 per cent of councillors and being underrepresented in leadership roles.

Released on International Women’s Day, the report also highlights a lack of diversity in terms of age, ethnicity and of people with disabilities, with a recent push to improve representation of women neglecting other minority groups.

The cross-party survey of councillors, candidates at the last election and other party members, some of whom had put themselves forward for selection as candidates and some of whom who had not, also found that 48 per cent of women and 12 per cent of the men had experienced some form of behaviour they had found to be humiliating, offensive or intimidating.

Among the barriers to underrepresented groups being selected were a sense of having to ‘earn your stripes’ through, for example, carrying out a certain amount of campaigning, which might be a barrier to women with caring responsibilities in particular.

Other issues included meetings being held in pubs or inaccessible venues, which could be a barrier to those with disabilities and certain religious groups, the timing of some events in the evening and the financial cost of campaigning.

It was also suggested that in some cases at party events men were given more front of house roles, which facilitated networking, while women might be left doing more behind the scenes jobs such as making tea or cleaning up afterwards, that didn’t offer the same visibility.

However, because of a lack of data being collected by government or by political parties, the EHRC said it was not possible to understand whether other protected characteristic groups were under-represented compared with the general population or to understand at what stage the barriers to elected office were most prevalent.

As a result of the findings, the commission has set out a number of recommendations for improvement, which includes better data.

It recommends that the UK Government should bring into force section 106 of the Equality Act 2010, which requires political parties to publish information on the protected characteristics of candidates for UK, European and Scottish Parliament elections, and to extend this to local government elections.

The EHRC also calls for the Scottish Parliament, COSLA and councils to keep a record of the protected characteristics of elected representatives and for political parties to publish diversity data ahead of the next election.

In addition, it says political parties should publish an action plan for how they are going to increase the diversity of candidates, which should include “commitments to use positive action measures in their selection process to address the disproportionate under-representation of specific groups”.

And to address problems with resources, it recommends Extending the Access to Elected Office Fund, which supports people with disabilities to get elected, to earlier stages of the election process and to other protected characteristic groups, for example to cover additional childcare and other caring costs that disproportionately affect women.

EHRC Scotland commissioner Lesley Sawers said: “While we have seen some progress in greater diversity among elected politicians, with representation among women, disabled people, ethnic minorities and young people, across all levels of government, across Scotland, poor compared to the general population.

“It’s really worrying that almost half of all women surveyed say they have experienced harassment and a smaller number of ethnic minority candidates have experienced racial harassment.

“The diversity of elected local politicians is clearly important, with key decisions undertaken at local government level.

“However, it is also important, given local politicians form a crucial part of the pool of potential candidates for selection at other levels of government, including Holyrood and Westminster.

“Without improving diversity among elected officials at the local level, it may be more difficult to make progress across elected politics.”

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