My Lords, on International Women’s Day, I will open with congratulations to my noble friend; she has been a leader in local government for well over a decade now. As she knows, the Government are fully committed to equality for all. We continue to provide support to the local government sector to achieve this—for example, through our support of the Local Government Association’s work. Effective, representative leadership is at the heart of our democracy. As independent bodies, local authorities have a responsibility to ensure that this is the case for local government in the workforce, in political life and beyond.
My Lords, only 14.7% of local authorities are led by women. I do not think that is enough. We can compare that with the Government, where we have our second woman Conservative Prime Minister, whose Cabinet is 35% women. How can Her Majesty’s Government support local government with initiatives to increase the number of women in senior roles in local government, particularly with lessons learned not only by central government but by the private sector?
My Lords, my noble friend is certainly right with those statistics. The £20 million annual budget to deliver a range of programmes offering support and assistance to local government through the LGA includes specific measures accentuating opportunities for women. For example, in October 2016, a “Be a Councillor” event was geared particularly towards women and as a result we now have more women councillors.
My Lords, the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is “Be bold for change”. I would welcome the Minister’s commitment to be bold for change, not just by giving some money to the LGA to encourage more women to become councillors but by being proactive in encouraging more women to be council leaders. Until 50% of councils are led by women, we should not be satisfied. Does he agree?
My Lords, across the range I agree. All political parties have a part to play in this. If we look at representation in Parliament, the noble Baroness will be aware that in the general election the Liberal Democrats did not elect a single woman MP. That has now improved: they have one. We all have a part to play; certainly the Government do. Political parties have a part to play, as do private industries. All of us together need to improve the position in public life and private life.
My Lords, having more women in local government is essential. It is often a precursor to office in other fields, such as becoming a Member of Parliament. Does the Minister agree that women want to serve but there must be a responsibility, as he said, on all political parties to ensure that women are treated equally? Does he therefore agree that the Government should adopt the recommendation from the Women and Equalities Committee in another place that, to achieve parity among candidates, we need legislation that involves financial penalties for underperformance, and that this measure would increase the number of women councillors and women in all walks of elected positions? This happens in other countries. Will he comment on that and do his best to make sure it happens?
My Lords, I know the noble Baroness has done considerable work in Wales in relation to the National Assembly. She will be aware that there was a mandatory position on all-women shortlists, or twinning at one stage, although that has since been dropped. There are many ways that we can achieve success, and part of it is through action by political parties and part through action by government. She will perhaps be aware that today the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have announced £5 million to assist women returning to work. This is the sort of thing we need to look at. Action needs to be taken perhaps on indirect discrimination which has affected women and on the gender pay gap we have, but there are many different matters that can be addressed, and I do not think there is a silver bullet.
My Lords, the position in central government has been improving steadily. In local government, 25% of chief executives are women, while in my own department more than 50% of the workforce are women. The Permanent Secretary, Melanie Dawes, is the champion for women across government and has been doing things today for International Women’s Day and on a regular basis. Central government can set an example that we hope will be picked up in the private sector, although it has to be said that the private sector has improved significantly over the last five years.
My Lords, I am sure the whole House wants to see the proper and appropriate representation of women in local government, in central government and in the professions. But would the Minister accept that with the increasing drive to larger and larger local government units, pushed by the Treasury, the proportion of women drops off? Women are more highly represented in the smaller authorities than in the larger ones, let alone LEPs and combined authorities. That is because of the cost, particularly in rural areas, of transport, childcare and so on, which falls in practice disproportionately on women and makes them unable to stand. The Minister has talked about indirect discrimination, but could he also look at institutional discrimination, in which the structures bear down more heavily and inappropriately on women?
My Lords, I take issue with the noble Baroness in relation to some of that. I do not think there is anything inevitable about women not being encouraged or able to lead larger organisations. For example, we are looking in government at the FTSE 350 companies, where there has been considerable improvement on leadership over the last five years. I accept what she says about the challenges, which we have to address, but I do not think there is anything inevitable about women not leading larger organisations—although she perhaps did not mean to imply that. The Government need to look at some of the indirect measures that we can take.