One year ago, the Local Government Association’s Labour group launched a parental leave policy for councillors. In that time, 25 councils (some of which are Tory-led) have adopted the council parental leave policy, and over 30 Labour groups have adopted the Labour group parental leave policy. A further nine councils have their own parental leave policy in place.
This represents a small but significant step in changing the culture that keeps many potentially excellent councillors out of the chamber and sees others deciding not to stand for re-election when they have more to give. Currently, councillors who give birth, adopt or whose partners give birth may take time off only at the discretion of their group leader.
The parental leave policy is recognition that councils need to adapt in order to be representative of the people they seek to serve, and at present council cultures makes that unrealistic. Latest data reveals that only 37% of councillors are women, a statistic that has barely moved in decades. The average age for a councillor in the UK is 60 and only 15% of councillors are under 45 years old.
The reasons for this are not complex – the cultures and structures on councils are not conducive to the lifestyles of those with dependants or who have yet to settle down: meetings are generally in the evenings, councillors spend an average of 25 hours per week on duties ranging from casework to committees and from litter picking to lobbying.
The allowance councillors receive (rather than a wage ) varies. My own is just over £5,000 per year, so most younger councillors are pursuing careers outside the chamber at the same time. We need to make the chamber work for people of all ages, and particularly for parents. Presently, lots of men and women with children, or plans to have them, feel their lives are incompatible with standing for elected office.
Whilst not solving all problems, parental leave policy gives certainty to councillors and councils alike that when a councillor needs to take time off after the birth or adoption of a child, support is there. It would not be acceptable in a job for parental leave to be down to the discretion of an individual leader, and it should not be acceptable for councillors.
We know that councils are at their best when they reflect their community. People of different ages, genders, ethnicities and backgrounds have different experiences. It’s not that any one of better, just different.
I am a mum of two boys aged ten and 13. I work 30 hours a week, and I have a very supportive husband. Being a councillor and a mum is difficult but representing my community is what I always wanted. However, I waited until I was certain I did not want any more children before I put myself forward for election, because doing otherwise did not feel possible.
The lack of diversity within councils means they are not representative of the people they seek to serve – and this must be bad for democracy. I think my lived experience as a mother is an asset to me as a councillor. But I am also aware that my experience of local baby groups, maternity services, breastfeeding support services, nursery schools and primary school applications are already completely out of date. Having other councillors at hand who are currently involved with using those services, gives everyone else useful insight, which is sadly absent when a council consists of people from the same or similar demographics and at the same life point.
The idea that sitting councillors should not have dependent children is plainly ridiculous, and yet the flexibility which now exists in many workplaces is lacking from the chamber, with women seeking to book C-sections in around committee dates, being back moving motions while still suffering from postpartum bleeding and scrutinising policy whilst establishing lactation.
As the Labour Party, our values surely decree that we support councillors to spend time with their children and to attract the very best councillors we can. Parental leave is part of that.
See the full policy and model motions here.