Do we need more women in our councils? Report says there are not enough.

Women in Councils graphic.

Women in Councils graphic. - Credit: Archant

Concerns about a lack of women holding elected office in parliament hit the headlines again this week. But analysis by the Eastern Daily Press shows it is not just Westminster where women are under-represented. Political Editor Annabelle Dickson reports

Almost 100 years since Constance Markievicz and Nancy Astor became the first female MPs to take their seats in the House of Commons there have only ever been as many women MPs as there are men sitting in the House of Commons today.

A report from the Women and Equalities Committee this week highlighted the lack of female representation in Westminster politics. But within its pages, it also said there were too few women in local government.

MPs on the cross-party committee have called for plans to be put forward by political parties to reach 45pc representation of women in parliament and local government by 2030. If things don't change they suggest that in general elections parties which don't field enough female candidates could be fined.

None of the councils in our region currently reach the 45pc threshold, and a majority of Norfolk authorities fall well below the English average in 2013, when 32pc of local authority councillors in England were women.

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In Great Yarmouth, where 41pc of councillors are female across the authority, five out of 12 of the UK Independence Party councillors are women.

Sue Hacon said that they did not do badly – but would encourage more. She said women in the community often knew more about what was going on than the men.

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She suggested change was 'gradual' as women saw they could make a difference.

'A lot fear they don't know what is happening. You don't until you join the club. Once they have done that they realise their voice matters and is heard and it give a big impetus to the structure of the council.'

In North Norfolk, one of the better faring authorities where 38pc of councillors are women, Conservative Angie Fitch-Tillett, said she thought the higher age profile in North Norfolk meant people had more time, and with a few exceptions, most of the female councillors were in the retirement bracket.

But the cabinet member for coastal management and environment, whose career was in the male-dominated world of logistics, said she was not in favour of fines and targets.

'It smacks of positive discrimination. I don't like that. I never have. People, whatever sex they be, stand or fall on their own talents.'

Conservative Norfolk County Council deputy leader and South Norfolk councillor Alison Thomas agreed that people should be judged by their ability not their gender.

'You have got to have people who are able and willing to do the job and give it the commitment it requires whether they are male or female. I wouldn't want to be the token female.'

She said it did matter if there were too few women because they needed to represent the public which is gender balanced.

Councillors are unpaid, but they can claim expenses. In 2009 she was the first councillor to claim for childcare – and had to ask for a rule change at County Hall to avoid having to pay for a routine childminder. The mother-of-three said the longevity of her council career was partly down to the support of her husband.

'Without him being supportive of what I do and stepping in when I need him to sort supper or take my daughter to where she is going it would have made it much more difficult.'

She encouraged others to do the 'really interesting fulfilling role'.

South Norfolk Council leader John Fuller, whose council chamber is just 20pc female, said that they did try to recruit women, but said it was about more than gender.

'It is more than just men versus women, the age profile, the background, disabled. It is more complex than man versus women. We need a full cross-section.'

He also pointed out that many senior officer positions were held by women, including in South Norfolk where Sandra Dinneen is chief executive and Norfolk County Council where Wendy Thomson has the top job.

Labour councillor helped into politics by union

Norfolk county councillor Emma Corlett was elected with help from her trade union which helped increase her confidence and taught her how to have influence.

Even though just 23pc of councillors on Norfolk County Council are women, Ms Corlett said in the Labour group six out of 14 were female.

She was elected when her daughter was seven years old and her NHS employer allowed her to be released for 18 days a year to be a councillor. She welcomed the support which she said allowed her to do it and otherwise it tended to be older retired people who go for the roles because they

have more time on their hands. 'When I sit in the council chamber at Norfolk County Council and I look around the chamber, I don't think it is representative of Norfolk or my community. When I look at my ward the two thing don't marry.'

She said people from a broad range of backgrounds and experience were needed to make informed decisions.

She also pointed to her battle to be described as the vice-chair of a committee, not a vice-chairman, which she said was a small thing which set the culture of the organisation.

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