I have been chairing the WLGA’s working group on Diversity in Democracy since the previous chair, the formidable Cllr Debbie Wilcox, was elevated to the House of Lords in 2019.  Debbie was the first female leader of the WLGA council, a great advocate for equality, and she really set the tone for our work: “We know there is a problem, we need to put our resources into fixing the problem not measuring it.”

However, just for context, here is how unrepresentative councils are:

  Welsh Councillors Welsh population
Women 28% 51%
Black, Asian and minority ethnic 1.8% 7%
Disabled 11% 18%
Aged over 60 47% 22%

Our final report was presented today to a special meeting of the WLGA council.  As chair, I gave a presentation about why this is such an important issue – about why letting wealthy, older, white men run Wales is not working.

Women, people with disabilities, people who aren’t white and people under 35 all suffer more, in general, than the older, white men who run Wales.  They are more likely to face poverty; they have all been hit harder by welfare reform; and the first 3 groups have suffered far more from the pandemic.   Our public services are delivering better outcomes to the most powerful group in our society, and others are suffering.

Quotas are being used in 100 countries around the world to ensure greater representation of women in politics.  In 2003 Wales made history by having the first “gender-balanced” elected legislature in the world.  That didn’t happen by accident, but by specific efforts – in particular the Welsh Labour approach of “Twinning” – but Welsh Labour didn’t think it would be necessary to continue the practice.  Sadly, they were mistaken.  The current Welsh Parliament is less diverse than the last, and the next proposes to be less diverse still, with political parties failing to stand women in winnable seats.

The full report explains in detail what the group is recommending and why, but I will summarise it here.  In brief, the recommendations are that WLGA council:

1. Recognises the work of the WLGA’s Cross-Party Working Group on Diversity in Democracy
Much work is already underway to encourage a more diverse range of people to consider standing for election in May 2022

2. Agrees to encourage all political parties, through the WLGA Political Groups, to commit to proactive and coordinated activities such as those listed at paragraph 79 above to improve diversity in local government democracy
Independent councillors have a role to play, but political parties are in a strong position to support a more diverse range of candidates to come forward.

3. Adopts a formal position calling for the introduction of resettlement grants for senior salary holders
Senior salary holders have often had to give up any other employment to focus on their duties, and can be left with no livelihood overnight if they are not re-elected. This makes the choice to take a senior role a tough one, which many women refuse.

4. Agrees to encourage all councillors to claim any necessary allowances or expenses incurred
Claiming legitimate costs (mainly transport and childcare) is vital for councillors on lower incomes – yet they are discouraged from doing it. Wealthier councillors make grandiose gestures of refusing to claim; political opponents sling mud, suggesting those who claim are “on the take”.  This must end!

5. Agrees to encourage a declaration by July 2021 from councils in Wales, on becoming ‘Diverse Councils’; to:
–   Provide a clear, public commitment to improving diversity;
Demonstrate an open and welcoming culture to all;
Consider staggering council meeting times and agreeing recess periods to support councillors with other commitments; and
Set out an action plan of activity ahead of the 2022 local elections.
Each council can draw up their own pledge, including whatever actions and targets they like.  As long as they commit to something!

6. Provides views on the adoption of local or national diversity targets
This was not about getting a binding commitment from the council to adopt targets, but just inviting a discussion on whether they would be a good idea.

7. Provides views on the introduction of statutory or voluntary quotas for Welsh local elections.
Again – this wasn’t proposing a formal call for the introduction of quotas (which could only apply to women, not other under-represented groups, for legal reasons), but inviting a discussion.

The response to my presentation and the report was astonishing! Supportive remarks came from all the political groups – from councillors of all ages and both sexes.  Many commented that the dominance of older, white men in Welsh local politics had gone on for long enough.  It was amazing to hear so many different councillors from around Wales agree that a greater diversity of voices in councils is badly needed!

I share the role of WLGA Spokesperson for Equality with Cllr Susan Elsmore.  We both felt that the recommendations were fairly ambitious … so we were amazed when WLGA members opted to push them even further.

The Independent group pressed the point that it is not just senior salary holders in council who stand to lose their livelihood at election time – all councillors do.  And if women, who are more likely to be on low incomes, and to be single parents, are to become councillors, they need support if they lose their seat, whether they are senior salary holders or backbenchers on less than £14k.  With that, the 3rd recommendation was amended, in order to apply to all councillors.

Support for quotas came from all sides!  The conclusion was that WLGA would call for voluntary quotas to be adopted for the May ’22 local elections, with a commitment being made to review the situation then, and consider calling for mandatory quotas.

The cross-party working group has done a great job.  I am enormously grateful to my colleagues from all parties (and none) who participated in the group’s work, and the meeting today.  Cllr Rhys Lewis, RCT, commented: “I think that this meeting has brought out the best in the Wales local government family. Well done all.”

I couldn’t agree more. I’m just sorry that Baronness Wilcox of Newport wasn’t there to see it.