Marie Curie once said she was taught “the way of progress was neither swift nor easy”. This could just as easily be applied to the pace of progress in improving representation across all our democratic institutions.
The Chair of the Senedd’s Local Government and Housing Committee, John Griffiths MS, described progress in improving the diversity of local councillors in Wales as “stubbornly slow” following the Committee’s inquiry into this issue.
This is supported by the latest data from the 2022 local government election which shows that of all candidates standing, 60% were male, while 40% were female. The 2021 Census recorded that women made up 51.1% of the overall Welsh population.
However, with stakeholders, including the local government sector itself noting how “patchy” the evidence base is, assessing progress is difficult.
Data, data, and more data!
In a world where data is all around us, and key to understanding everything from our shopping habits to what we like on social media, some may be a surprised that data on the characteristics of our decision-makers is limited. The Electoral Reform Society (ERS) Cymru told the inquiry that there is a lack of “proper mechanisms for the collation and publication of diversity data” in Wales and across the UK.
Back in 2011, the Welsh Government introduced legislation which sought to rectify some of the gaps in our knowledge about who represents electors in council chambers. Since then, local authorities are legally required to undertake a Local Government Candidates Survey of unsuccessful candidates and elected councillors in their area after each election. The surveys seek to build a picture of the characteristics of those who run for office, from their sex, race, age, educational background and more.
While undertaking the survey is mandatory for local authorities, completing it is not. Since the first survey in 2012, the proportion of candidates responding to the survey has fallen by 23 percentage points. In 2012, 35% of candidates completed the survey, while the 2022 candidates survey attracted a response from just 12% of candidates.
While the Committee heard little in the form of agreement about the way forward, the Minister for Finance and Local Government, Rebecca Evans MS, acknowledged changes were needed, and noted the intention to adapt how the survey operates.
Commitment and leadership
Despite concerns around data, there are some pockets of progress to be seen in certain areas of Wales. Most notably, perhaps, is the case of Monmouthshire County Council. Back in June 2021, the then Conservative leader of the council, Cllr. Richard John put forward a motion calling on all political groups to aim for gender parity among elected representatives. The motion was passed unanimously.
Without delving into the minutiae of internal party politics, each political group had their own method of encouraging and supporting more women to stand for party selection and ultimately run for elected office. Monmouthshire was the first council in Wales to have a 50:50 gender balance, following the 2022 elections. Then, after a by-election in October 2022, Monmouthshire became Wales' first ever female majority council.
ERS Cymru, reflecting on Monmouthshire’s positive action told the Committee:
In the last elections, that really good commitment that was cross-party, that worked really well. It was technically more of a voluntary quota, I guess, if you want to categorise it, but it worked much more like a legislative gender quota, because everyone was so committed to it, and they have 50:50; they’ve now gone beyond 50:50.
While circumstances were different in the Vale of Glamorgan, the council also achieved gender balance among its councillors. ERS Cymru reflected on the positive action taken within the local Labour Party, where 72% of the party’s elected councillors are female.
Putting politics to one side, the Committee were keen to emphasise the “commitment and leadership” required in driving such progress forward.
Promoting the Access to Elected Office Fund
One significant policy development in this area over the last few years is the establishment of the Access to Elected Office Fund. The predecessor Committee had called for such a fund to be established to assist disabled candidates to run for elected office. In 2021, the Welsh Government set up a pilot scheme to be administered by Disability Wales on its behalf.
An evaluation of the fund found candidates were “overwhelmingly positive about the application process”. However, it also identified improvements. Disability Wales reflected on this during the Committee’s inquiry, noting the need to promote the fund better and ensure the fund is available to applicants at an earlier stage.
The Welsh Government has committed to make the fund a statutory requirement. The Elections and Elected Bodies (Wales) Bill makes provision for the Welsh Ministers to provide a financial assistance scheme to assist disabled candidates in Welsh elections. The Bill stops short of extending the duty to provide financial assistance to other protected characteristics, something called for by some stakeholders. However, it does enable Welsh Ministers in the future to establish “schemes to help candidates in Welsh elections that have specific characteristics or specified circumstances overcome barriers to participation”.
What the future holds
The Minister told the Committee there had been an “awful lot of progress in recent years” to increase diversity in local government, but also acknowledged there is “an awful lot more that we need to be doing”.
While many are frustrated with the pace of change, there are some signs that the dial is slowly shifting. However, it is clear that accurately measuring change is made that much harder in the absence of comprehensive evidence.
Article by Osian Bowyer, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament