Author: Janet Sillett, LGIU Associate
The under-representation of certain groups in politics – particularly MPs and councillors – is bad for democracy, equality and legitimacy. The slogan from the disability rights movement, ‘nothing about us without us’, is particularly apt in the context of participative democracy.
This publication focuses on the representation of ethnic minorities and disabled people in local government – of which these categories are not exclusive. The original objective was to consider the diversity of leadership at the local level, however, there is very little data available. What is clear, is that if groups are under-represented generally, they will be under-represented as leading members too – perhaps even more so.
There is an indisputable moral case for improving diversity in local government. There is also the, equally as important, case of effectiveness because a lack of diversity undermines effective representation and good governance. This is as true at the local level as it is at the national level.
Having councillors who represent the diversity of our communities is critical for the health of local democracy, yet, this is not always the case everywhere in the UK. There is no doubt that the more diverse a council, the more informed they can be about the important decisions they make.
Recently, a core area of concern has emerged in terms of inequalities as caused by discrepancies in public health during the Covid-19 pandemic (as covered in detail in this recent LGIU publication). Some groups have been disproportionately affected, especially some ethnic minority groups. The reasons for this are complex but it is not a stretch to assume that when groups are fully represented on a council, there is perhaps better communication with different communities, especially during these times of crisis when local government is relied on more heavily.
In addition, there seems to be a loss of trust in politics at all levels – though perhaps less so at the local level – which is another growing concern that has likely been exacerbated by a lack of diversity and inclusion resulting in fewer people feeling seen and represented in our democratic system, weakening its core function.
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Evidently, there have been many growing debates about diversity and representation, especially in relation to ethnic groups and to women, but there has not been swift progress to address it. While other groups have received even less attention, including people with disabilities.
In 2017, the Fawcett Society and LGIU formed the Local Government Commission on female participation and representation across local government, the final report highlighted that women councillors are not representative of women in England and Wales as a whole; and, that Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) women, disabled women, and younger women are under-represented and experience significant discrimination. Some of the recommendations in the Fawcett LGIU report could also apply to other groups – including disabled and BAME candidates and councillors – alongside the need to still strengthen the representation of women within local government, combined authorities and as elected mayors.
The poor data on representation is another area of concern. There is no systematic collection of information nationally about the numbers of people with protected characteristics standing as local candidates or being elected – this is particularly so for people with disabilities. We look here at a number of different surveys and research reports that address these issues to give an overview of the current position in the UK.
Even without systematic data, it is undeniable that for ethnic minorities and people with disabilities there are real problems. While disabilities are sometimes ‘hidden’, and people wanting to be candidates for elected office might be reluctant to disclose them, Elizabeth Evans and Stefanie Reher in their report, Disability and political representation: Analysing the obstacles to elected office in the UK, say that all available figures and estimates suggest that the proportion of disabled politicians vastly lags behind 20%, the approximate proportion of disabled people in Britain.
The barriers to participation will differ to some extent between different groups (and sometimes within them) but there are some common characteristics and barriers which we set out in this paper. The briefing structure is outlined below:
The paper is relevant to the UK as a whole and will be of interest to all councillors, particularly those that are currently under-represented but also to all councillors and officers concerned with equality and community issues, and to political parties.
The UK Equality Act 2010 harmonised discrimination law and strengthened the law to support progress on equality, providing protection for people discriminated against because they are perceived to have, or are associated with someone who has, a protected characteristic – such as disability or race.
In relation to disability, it requires political parties and local authorities to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ in anticipation of what disabled people might need to participate on an equal basis (Electoral and Human Rights Commission, 2018). It also permits parties to take positive action to encourage and facilitate the participation of disabled people in politics and their election to public office.
The UK Equality Act defines a person as disabled if they have ‘a physical or mental impairment [that] has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on the person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.’ It also permits parties to take positive action to encourage and facilitate the participation of disabled people in politics and their election to public office.
Section 106 of the Equality Act (2010) requires political parties to publish diversity data on candidates standing in elections to the House of Commons and devolved administrations. This information should include data on the protected characteristics of candidates and a statement about the proportion of candidates who provided this information.
However, this has not been enacted and, critically, it also does not cover local and regional government, such as combined authority mayoral elections.
Data for the UK
There are several sources for data about councillors and ethnicity and disability but there is no systematic collection nationally of the numbers involved. There is even less about councillors in leading positions in their authority.
The LGA carried out its eighth national census of councillors in 2018. All 17,770 councillors in England were emailed a questionnaire and 2,627 councillors responded (15%). This response was considerably down on previous census surveys.
The average age of councillors in 2018 was 59 years; 15% were aged under 45 and 43% were aged 65 or over. 96% described their ethnic background as white – a figure that has changed little since 2004. 16% had a long-term health problem or disability which limited their daily activities.
LGA national census
One in six councillors, 16.1%, had a long-term health problem or disability which limited their daily activities or the work that they do and which had lasted or was expected to last, for at least twelve months. Between 2004 and 2013 this proportion varied between 10.9% and 14.1%. In the population as a whole (aged 18+), 20.4% of people reported a long-term health problem.
Professor Maria Sobolewska and Dr Neema Begum (University of Manchester research with the financial help of the Economic and Social Research Council) have been researching ethnic minority representation in UK local government, collecting data on the ethnicity, gender and political party of every local councillor in the UK, which they claim is a first in this ‘under-researched’ area. They have also been conducting interviews with councillors for their views on ethnic diversity in local government.
They say that there is ‘a dearth of survey data on ethnic minority political attitudes’ and that in order to ensure equal participation in British democracy, ‘we first need to know who participates currently, who does not, at what levels and why’. At the national level, ethnic minority representation has been the object of close scrutiny. In contrast, ethnic diversity of councillors rarely comes to such attention. The only available data is a result of estimates based on small, non-random sample surveys or partial census.
- South Asians make up the highest number of ethnic minority councillors at around 5%, while only 1% of local councillors in the UK are of a Black background. There are fewer than 1% of councillors of other ethnic backgrounds. The proportion of ethnic minority councillors is lower than their share of the UK population (see Figure 1 below).
- Ethnic minorities are not evenly distributed in the four UK nations, with England the most diverse, and Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland having fewer non-white ethnic minorities.
- Unsurprisingly, ethnic diversity of local councillors tracks closely with the ethnic make-up of local authorities, with cities being the most diverse and metropolitan boroughs having more ethnic minority councillors.
- Although council areas with a higher ethnic minority population have higher ethnic minority representation in local government, there is some variation. In some places, the ethnic minority population is above 40% but some councils have just over 20% ethnic minority councillors. In contrast, some of the least diverse local authorities, where ethnic diversity is below 10%, have as many as 15% ethnic minority councillors.
- It is evident that while the diversity of local councils tracks closely with the local population, the geographical distribution of minorities is not a sufficient explanation for under-representation in local government. This mirrors national politics, which remains unrepresentative despite increases in minority-origin MPs in recent years. Also, unlike at the national level where the political parties frequently now select minority candidates into less diverse places, there are no signs of this happening at the local level: ‘this might be due to the lack of public scrutiny on parties’ diversity at the local level, or the fact that being from the local area is seen as more important at the local level’.
- To date, most ethnic minority elected politicians have been representatives of the Labour Party.
Evans and Reher in Disability and political representation: Analysing the obstacles to elected office in the UK conducted 51 semi-structured interviews with disabled elected politicians (Members of Parliament, former MPs and local politicians), candidates (at both the national and local level) and those who have thought about running for office.
Survey data shows that in the 2015 and 2017 general elections, 10% and 11% of candidates, respectively, indicated a disability. In the 2016 Scottish Parliament election the proportion of disabled candidates was 5%, in the 2017 Scottish local elections it was 10%, and in the 2017 Welsh local elections, 20%. In 2013, 13% of English local councillors indicated a disability, and 18% of Welsh local councillors did so in 2017 (Lamprinakou et al., 2019).
The authors stress that available figures need to be treated with some caution, as the surveys tend to have low response rates and rely on self-reporting. Given the stigma suffered by disabled people, with a lack of competence being a common stereotype, some disabled people seeking elected office might not identify as disabled (cf. Levesque, 2016; Schur, 1998). Nevertheless, the statistics strongly suggest that disabled people are generally, albeit with some variation, under-represented in politics.
Data for Scotland
The Improvement Service carried out a survey of councillors in July and August 2017. All councillors were asked to take part and 33.3% of Scottish councillors responded to the survey.
The average councillor who responded was a married white male, aged 50-59, who is a well-educated homeowner coming from a managerial or professional occupational background. The only difference between the average councillor in 2017 and the average councillor at the time of the 2013 survey, is that they are now younger.
The average age of councillors who responded is 53 years. 67% of councillors who responded were aged 50 or above. Less than 20% were aged below 40 years old.
Of those councillors who responded to the survey, 65.7% were male, 32.6% were female, and 1% described their gender in another way. The remaining 0.7% of respondents preferred not to state their gender.
98% of councillors responding to the survey selected ‘White’ as their ethnic group. This is a little overrepresented compared to the Scottish population (96%).
Only 0.2% of councillors that responded to the survey are Asian, which is an under-representation compared to 2.3% of the Scottish population.
Table 5 – Ethnicity of Councillors
White councillors are over-represented in the survey (98%), compared with 96% in the Scottish population. Not all ‘White’ ethnicities are over-represented however, as there were no ‘White Polish’ responses despite making up 1.8% of the Scottish population. It should be noted that 1.5% of councillors refused to respond to the question.
Table 14 below shows the self-related health of councillors responding to the survey compared with the Scottish population. On average, the councillors responding were more likely to rate their health as good or very good, 85%, compared with the Scottish population, 73% (The Scottish Health Survey 2016).
The proportion of councillors who had a physical or mental health condition or illness lasting or expected to last 12 months or more was comparable with the Scottish population: 28.3% Survey responses, 30.4% Scottish population (Scotland’s People Annual Report: Results from the 2016 Scottish Household Survey). Of those councillors who did have such a condition: 2.7% stated that this condition reduced their ability to carry out day to day activities; 53.1% felt it reduced their abilities a little, and; 44.2% felt it did not have an impact.
Equality and Human Rights Commission research
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has published two research reports covering prospective and elected officials and diversity:
The research report on the UK position, published in March 2019, looked at the quality of the available data on the diversity of candidates and elected officials at the UK, national and local election levels, bringing together the best current data on the protected characteristics of candidates standing in the 2016 and 2017 elections in Great Britain.
The EHRC, like others, stresses that there is a lack of systematically collected data available on candidates and councillors in England. For the analysis of the diversity of elected English councillors, only observational data on sex were available. All available data were compiled and analysed. The EHRC states that ‘serious limitations and deficiencies were identified relating to the availability and quality of the data, the collection processes and the coverage of the various protected characteristics’.
It is clear that disabled people are under-represented even though there were not enough data to systematically compare the representation of disabled people at all levels of elected office. The percentage of disabled candidates who were selected to run for UK parliament in 2017 by all parties, and elected MPs, was below the percentage in the population. The same applies to disabled candidates and elected representatives at the national and local level elections (where data are available for the latter).
The report into representation in Scotland concludes that, despite improvements over time, politics in Scotland and across Britain remains far from a representative by protected characteristics (as defined by the Equality Act 2010) against the wider population in Scotland.
The EHRC highlights the lack of accurate and publicly available data on the protected characteristics and background of elected representatives, candidates and party members but where it is accessible it has shown many individuals and groups to be consistently under-represented. This is true across Britain, ‘and Scotland is no exception’.
Evans and Reher identify barriers to elected office faced by disabled people. Their report points out that disabled people experience some similar obstacles to women and ethnic minority candidates but that they also face a distinct set of additional barriers which they categorise as related to accessibility, resourcing and ableism.
While the specific impact of the barriers varies, dependent on the nature of the impairment(s), all interviewees encountered difficulties that are generally not experienced by non-disabled people, and many barriers were experienced by people with all kinds of impairments.
For people with physical impairments that influence their mobility, ‘inaccessible buildings and infrastructure often represent major barriers to their participation in society’. Individuals with impairments affecting hearing, speech or vision often require adjustments in order to access information or for communication.
Accessibility issues prevented some interviewees, for example, from attending local party meetings and campaign events. Meetings were frequently reported to be held in buildings without ramps or lifts. Other times, meeting rooms were too small or there were no accessible toilets. One local election candidate was told that a campaign social event was taking place in a restaurant that was inaccessible for wheelchair users because it was cheap and, therefore, accessible for people on low incomes.
Many of the interviewees found that financial constraints were often used to explain and/or justify why adjustments to improve accessibility were not made: ‘in response, disabled candidates had to either rely heavily upon informal networks to enable them to participate or, in some instances, were forced to opt-out of a certain event’.
Many of the interviewees, especially those who had decided not to stand for office, thought the culture of politics was ableist, and ‘indeed this underpins attitudes to both accessibility and resourcing’. Not only was politics itself seen as ableist ‘but the idealised candidate was perceived to be able-bodied and able-minded’.
Personal finances were one of the barriers mentioned most often, with many seeing a lack of financial resources making it more difficult to stand. This has clear implications for diversity, given income disparities by protected characteristic groups, but particularly those with additional costs, for example, those with childcare responsibilities, and some disabled people.
The research showed that some people with protected characteristics experienced ‘unwanted behaviour’ which they had found humiliating, offensive or humiliating.
Racism was reported by a number of their research participants but they also say they heard barriers from within ethnic minority groups, ‘with pressure felt to vote as a block or hold similar views and concerns about negative consequences for those that do not do so’.
The research suggests that some political parties may be failing to recognise that they may have a diversity problem at all, ‘and even if they do, at what stage of the election ‘pipeline’ or among which protected characteristic groups’. None of the research participants knew of systemic efforts by parties to collect and monitor data on diversity.
Even when they do recognise it, they do not necessarily know the details, such as which protected characteristic groups are concerned. Participants reported confusion as to lines of responsibility and points of accountability when it came to equality and diversity.
The Fawcett and LGIU Commission into women councillors found that women that are elected to councils, as a whole, are not representative of the England and Wales adult population.
Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) women are under-represented, making up only 5.5% of women councillors when BAME people are 14% of the population. Disabled women make up 19% of the councillor population, which is lower than expected given the age profile of councillors.
Their survey data found that disabled women experience significant multiple discrimination, with 55% saying they experienced other discrimination beyond gender discrimination, compared with a little over a quarter of men. Half of the BAME women respondents also experienced multiple discrimination.
“Disabled women have a really rough time. Getting involved in politics is doubly difficult because of things like inaccessible meeting rooms but it’s more than that because being taken seriously as a woman can be difficult, being taken seriously as a disabled woman (on anything apart from welfare benefits) is extremely rare. Then people wonder how could you be a councillor when you can’t campaign (i.e. you can’t knock on doors). Then they wonder: how can you be a councillor when you can’t get into all the rooms in the town hall. How can you be a councillor when you can’t go to all those community events in halls which are upstairs? How can you be a councillor when you can’t go and visit the local primary school in its Victorian building? How can you be a councillor when you can’t get into the pub after the meetings?”
White British Labour Councillor, 55-64 years
Women with different types of disabilities experienced different types of discrimination: for a number of women with chronic or fluctuating conditions such as Crohn’s disease or myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) the inflexibility of meeting times was an issue, whereas for councillors with mobility impairments inaccessible buildings were a barrier.
During the commission evidence sessions, a disabled woman councillor told the commissioners that the provision of policies outlining how councils will make ‘reasonable adjustments’ for disabled councillors, which are a requirement under the Equality Act 2010, is limited. Most councils have a policy in place for staff and customers, but this does not apply to councillors, for whom a different test for ‘reasonableness’ might apply:
‘We heard that in the absence of policies in many councils, access to the adjustments disabled women require can depend on the power held by a councillor’s party, representing an unacceptably precarious situation for disabled people.’
What can be done to increase diversity?
The quality, frequency and consistency of data covering the diversity of elected politicians at the local level need to be radically improved.
As the UK government has never enacted Section 106 of the Equality Act 2010, protected characteristics of elected politicians are not tracked by law. Elected politicians were also not covered by the Government’s Race Disparity Audit in 2017, in contrast to public sector employment.
Section 106 should be enacted and amended to include a statutory requirement to collect data on local election candidates.
There needs to be much more systematic information collected about the diversity of councillors. Systems should be developed by the UK local government associations to gather and publish data about the protected characteristics of elected representatives just after they have been elected.
The use of censuses to find out how councillors with protected characteristics are experiencing their role should be encouraged across local government.
There should also be data available on how many councillors from groups such as black and ethnic minorities and people with disabilities are in senior positions, such as leaders or executive members.
The Fawcett LGIU report points out that there is a clear need for equalities data to be collected as part of the process of applying to be a candidate in local elections. Section 106 of the Equality Act 2010 makes provision for political parties to collect equalities data for their candidates, but not at local government level (and it has been pointed out this provision has not yet been enacted by the government at any level).
The report also highlights that this provision would not ensure that data was collected for the many independent candidates who are elected to local councils each year. They proposed, therefore, that councils should have responsibility for collecting this data. Equalities monitoring forms should be included with council candidate nomination papers. A judgement on how to publish characteristics without disclosing individuals’ sensitive data needs to be determined through consultation with the public, councillors and relevant civil society organisations.
Role of councils
Councils should be setting out how they will make reasonable adjustments to meet the needs of disabled councillors.
The needs of specific groups should be taken into account in induction programmes for new councillors, with, if necessary, focused sessions and peer support programmes.
There should be a follow up to induction training after a period where new councillors are settling into their new roles to see if they have encountered any barriers to being able to fulfil the range of roles effectively.
Mentoring has been very successful in many councils – all councils should build on what is happening or establish them if they don’t already exist.
Councils, parties and groups within the council should consider whether there are barriers faced by some groups in taking on the most senior roles, such as on the council’s executive. The LGA does provide support for prospective leaders but more could be done locally to identify and support potential leaders from under presented groups.
Role of political parties
Political parties are clearly crucial in improving diversity in local government. They should be taking positive action to increase the numbers of under-represented groups becoming candidates and councillors. A local party could, for example, set non mandatory targets for the numbers of such groups becoming candidates.
The EHRC report on barriers to participation in local government in Scotland made a number of proposals about the role of local government in overcoming them. These are also applicable to parties standing in England and Wales.
They point out that there are positive examples of parties taking action to address concerns, such as running equality training, but there are also examples where party processes or behaviours need be improved to prevent discrimination and harassment.
The recommendations include:
- Political parties should consider publishing an action plan that demonstrates how they are going to increase the diversity of candidates, including commitments to use positive action measures in their selection process to address the disproportionate under-representation of specific groups.
- The parties should ensure that they are fulfilling their duties under the Equality Act 2010 which applies to political parties and their relationship with their members and potential members, including how they select their candidates. The EHRC suggests that senior party officials should be appointed who are responsible and accountable for taking action to address under-representation. The Equality Act 2010 prohibits discrimination and harassment in relation to a protected characteristic and victimisation. It also creates legal duties on political parties to prevent discrimination and harassment of their members, people who want to become members and associates of the party. This includes an anticipatory duty in relation to making reasonable adjustments for disabled members and potential members.
- Providing mechanisms to support candidates from under-represented groups, including networks, training, mentoring and advice and support resources in the run-up to, and during, elections to build confidence in and awareness of the party’s commitment to ensure harassment and discrimination is not tolerated. All party members should have the opportunity to undertake equality training.
The report doesn’t distinguish between the roles of national parties and those locally. It would make sense, though, for the national party to provide the framework for action and support for local parties, such as through meeting additional costs or providing training nationally but that the implementation of the national strategy would be undertaken by local parties.
The UK government’s Access to Elected Office for Disabled People Fund provided grants of between £250 and £40,000 for people who are disabled and standing for election to, or selection as a candidate in, the UK parliament, English local government, the GLA, mayoral elections, police and crime commissioners, and English parish and town councils. The fund was for disability-related costs paid as part of standing for election – it did not cover general campaigning costs (like leaflets) or living costs.
The fund was closed in 2018 and replaced by an interim fund, The EnAble Fund which ran until 2020. The UK government said, in its National Disability Strategy, that it would launch a new scheme in April 2022. The UK government must keep to this pledge.
The LGIU published a briefing in 1996 covering the report of the First All Party Convention of Black, Asian, and Ethnic Minority Councillors.
In 1996, Black and ethnic minority (BME) councillors (male and female) represented 4.1% of the total number of councillors, while 9.5% of the population come from an ethnic minority background. The briefing commented on the barriers some people face in becoming candidates, such as, people from BME communities may be disproportionately affected by barriers related to deprivation and social exclusion.
How much progress has been made in the last 25 years? Society has itself changed and issues around diversity in politics are now much more prominent, but without up to date comprehensive data it isn’t always easy to know exactly what progress is being made on the ground.
The Fawcett LGIU report on women in local government reminds us of the increasingly complex role councillors play in their communities and we have had Covid-19 since the report was written – where we saw how crucial all councillors were to responding to the pandemic in every community and every city, town and village.
‘The work that local councillors do is changing. In their ‘21st Century Councillor’ report, researchers at the University of Birmingham’s INLOGOV describe the new and increasingly relational roles councillors have to play in the changing world of local government – such as brokering new relationships, helping residents make sense of changing public services, and working to enable citizens to do things for themselves. There is a clear need for councillors to have the skills to open conversations with all parts of the community, and a more diverse body of councillors, along gender but also other identity lines, is vital to achieving that change.'”
Final report of the Local Government Commission July 2017
Advice and support
Supporting Disabled Councillors London Councils
Barriers to elected office for disabled people Government Equalities Office