Picture of the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh

On June 15, MSPs gathered to debate the Scottish Parliament Gender Sensitive Audit. They were considering the findings of the recent audit looking at barriers to women’s representation and participation in Holyrood, and the subsequent report by the audit’s cross-party board, A Parliament for All, which published its recommendations for change in March 2023. The resulting discussion was hailed as an example of what “consensual” and respectful politics could look like and held up as an example of “Parliament at its best”. This reflected the aspirations of what a gender sensitive parliament (GSP) could – and should – be in terms of engagement in the Chamber and beyond.

Rightly, there was celebration of the progress of women in the Parliament as it approaches its 25th anniversary in 2024, with representation currently at its highest, 45%, compared to 37% back in 1999, as well as positive shifts in terms of diversity of membership. But the debate also focused on the gendered and intersectional inequalities and barriers that still persist. As the audit highlights, there have been fluctuations over time in women’s participation and representation, showing this equality is not always guaranteed. Members reflected on data that showed that men are more likely to have their interventions accepted (both by other men and by women), focusing on the often intimidating and sexist comments and behaviour from male MSPs in the Chamber and Committees. Other discussion questioned whether the Parliament was “family friendly” – or indeed “life friendly”; the need for further progress on gender parity in committees; and sexist behaviour, ranging from day-to-day microaggressions to outright harassment and abuse. Members documented not just general examples but drew on their own experiences, outlining the impact of these behaviours on women’s health, wellbeing and confidence.

There has already been extensive research on gender-sensitive parliaments: indeed, the concept of a GSP is not a new one. For more than two decades, efforts in this vein have been supported and led by international and regional organisations, including the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the European Institute for Gender Equality, and UN Women. According to the IPU, a GSP is a political institution that responds to the ‘needs and interests’ of both women and men in terms of its ‘structures, operations, methods and work’ and has removed the ‘barriers to women’s full participation’ and offers ‘a positive example or model to society at large’.

The gender sensitive audit of the Scottish Parliament was initiated a year ago by the Presiding Officer (PO), the Rt Hon Alison Johnstone MSP, to follow other gender sensitising audits in countries such as Turkey, Uganda, Bangladesh, Argentina and the United Kingdom. The Board, chaired by the PO, comprised of representatives from the political parties, parliamentary officials and external experts. Eilidh Dickson, then of Engender, wrote for the John Smith Centre to outline the responsibility and opportunities that could result from undertaking such an audit in the Scottish context.

When I undertook the audit, the research focused on four main themes: women’s representation in Parliament, their participation in Parliament and Parliamentary business, the overall culture and the policies of the Parliament; and how gender is, and could be, mainstreamed into scrutiny and other Parliamentary work. This involved the analysis of various data including standing orders, reports and procedural guidance, documents, and collated information from the Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICe). This was coupled with 13 semi-structured interviews with current and former members exploring their experiences, attitudes and opinions of the Scottish Parliament, as well as informal discussions with other Parliamentary staff.

The data and analysis of this report acted as the basis from which the Board made its proposals for change, presented in the final report. This outlined 34 wide-reaching recommendations that target the aforementioned themes of participation, representation, parliamentary culture, and gender equality mainstreaming. Writing in their blog for the Centre on Constitutional Change, Board-members Professor Sarah Childs, Dr Meryl Kenny and Professor Fiona Mackay, of the University of Edinburgh, press that reform efforts need to work across all of the inter-dependent dimensions explored in the audit. And indeed, members acknowledged in the debate the ongoing and continued work that is required in this session, the next one, and beyond.

In the debate, MSPs also alluded to inequalities of wider scope, including in pipeline professions, such as local council; male dominance and sexism in the media; and the disproportionate and often sexualised forms of abuse women Members experience on social media. This points to not just the ongoing work of the Parliament within its own institutional realm, but also how it engages with parties, organisation and the wider public to promote gender equality and inclusivity for the next 25 years and beyond.

Fiona McKay is Lecturer of Journalism, Media and Communication at the University of Strathclyde. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Political Representation of Disabled People and People with Long-Term Health Conditions Across the United Kingdom 

Introduction 

Despite being the largest minority groups in the United Kingdom (one in five working-age adults), disabled people have been and continue to be under-represented at every level in our political system. Only 8 out of the current 650 Members of Parliament have identified as disabled (1.23%). At the local government level, representation is slightly higher, with 16.1% of elected representatives declaring themselves disabled. Even with this statistic in mind, it is approximately 700 councillors short of being proportionally representative of the general population in the United Kingdom.   

Findings from the Disability Policy Centre 

Earlier this year, the Disability Policy Centre launched our Breaking Down Barriers Report in the Houses of Parliament, which highlighted important findings from disabled people about representation in politics. Our main takeaways from the report show that out of our interviewees who are disabled or have long-term health conditions:  

  • 82% became initially engaged in politics as a direct result of their disability.  
  • 100% believe that political parties do not do enough to ensure people with disabilities or long-term health conditions have the same opportunities as those without. 
  • 100% believe that the government is not doing enough to plug the gap of extra financial implications that are burdened onto disabled people who wish to seek election at a local and/or national level. 
  • 72% engaged with and participating in politics as councillors, activists or Members of Parliament, state that they do not feel comfortable declaring their disability to their political organisation for fear of discrimination. 

What can we do to improve representation?  

From interviews, roundtables, and surveys, the Disability Policy Centre captured the experiences and views of disabled people. From these findings, the Disability Policy Centre put forward recommendations for the government as well as recommendations for political parties to identify specific challenges and barriers that limited the full potential of disabled people in politics. These are as follows: 

Recommendations for the UK government 

  1. Use the Houses of Parliament Restoration and Renewal Programme to conduct an extensive review into the accessibility of Parliament for disabled people. Implement any recommendations in full to ensure that Parliament is accessible for anyone who wishes to seek elected office, visit or be employed in any capacity. 
  2. Conduct an extensive review into the accessibility of Local Authority buildings across the United Kingdom. Work with Local Authorities to ensure that services are to a high standard and completely accessible for disabled people. 
  3. Reinstate a formal funding scheme for disabled candidates. 
  4. Political parties are required to report annually to the Minister for Disabled People, Health & Work on what measures are being put into place to break down barriers for disabled people within the organisation. 

Recommendations for political parties 

  1. Encourage party staff, elected representatives and local association leaders to undertake reviews into how to include and promote disabled party members within their structures. As part of this process, it is recommended that training is implemented for staff and volunteers to highlight how to break down barriers for disabled people in the organisation.  
  2. Widespread and sustained commitment to the Disability Confident Employer Scheme. 
  3. Political parties must acknowledge that current campaigning techniques are not viable for everyone, and actively promote accessible campaigning methods for their members. These techniques must not be viewed as being less credible than traditional campaigning methods. 
  4. Political parties must conduct immediate reviews into their candidate selection processes, for elected representatives at both a local and parliamentary level, ensuring that all barriers to engagement and participation have been removed where possible. 

Conclusion 

Representation is much more than a tick-box exercise. Our political system must accommodate disabled people and people with long-term health conditions to allow for full political representation and participation. We must act to dismantle the societal, attitudinal, and physical barriers which create inaccessible environments. By tackling these issues directly, disabled people as well as individuals with long-term health conditions have the choice to participate in and engage with politics.  

You can read the full report here: https://thedisabilitypolicycentre.org/representation  

Kirstie Stage is a Director of the Disability Policy Centre. She is a disabled researcher passionate about public policy, political engagement, and human rights.  

Glasgow University Gilbert Scott Building on a sunny Spring day

Studying at university does little to change our attitudes 

The link between educational attainment and socio-political values is well-established (1). In Britain today, university graduates, on average, have considerably more liberal cultural attitudes and somewhat less liberal economic attitudes than non-graduates (2). But does studying at university really cause graduates to develop distinctive attitudinal profiles?  

This is a question that has preoccupied social scientists for decades and is notoriously difficult to answer, because the relationship between educational attainment and socio-political attitudes is extremely complex. While it is certainly plausible that graduates might develop distinctively (il)liberal attitudes as a direct effect of their experiences of studying at university, it may simply seem this way because graduates, or those who will later go on to become graduates, are disproportionately exposed to other kinds of experiences which stimulate the development of these attitudes. One obvious example of such confounding is the fact that British graduates typically earn considerably more than non-graduates over their life courses (3), and that income is an important determinant of attitudes (4). 

Only by accounting for all alternative pre- and post-university explanations of individuals’ socio-political values (illustrated by the black lines in Figure 1) in statistical analysis can we identify the independent causal effect of university study in determining these attitudes (see the orange line in Figure 1). This is problematic because most existing data do not contain sufficient information on these kinds of confounding variables.  

My recent study, “Demystifying the link between higher education and liberal values: A within-sibship analysis of British individuals’ attitudes from 1994–2020”(5), published in the British Journal of Sociology, leverages the unique household structure of the British Household Panel study and Understanding Society data (6) to better identify the causal effect of university study on British individuals’ attitudes, in the period 1994-2020. It does so by estimating this effect only within groups of siblings who grew up in the same household, so that all unmeasured family-invariant pre-adult experiences can be controlled, in addition to the measured sources of confounding which have been accounted for in most existing studies of this association. 

I estimate the effects of university study on British individuals’ cultural and economic attitudes – using gender egalitarianism and environmentalism as indicators of the former and left-right orientation to measure the latter.   

My study shows that, initially, university study has a strong effect on British individuals’ attitudes. Before controlling for any confounding variables, those who have studied at university were indeed considerably more culturally liberal and more economically conservative than their less educated counterparts. Clearly then, there is a strong educational divide in attitudes in Britain today. Yet, my study also shows that once we control for all measured pre- and post-university confounders of the education-attitudes association, as existing studies have done, estimates of this university effect shrink substantially in size. After doing so, the effect of university study on economic attitudes ceases to be statistically significant, and while estimates of university study’s effect on cultural attitudes are reduced by at least 60%, they remain fairly large and highly statistically significant. It still appears that graduates are considerably more culturally liberal than non-graduates. 

However, once I use my within-sibling design to control for additional unmeasured confounding, I find these estimates of university study’s effect on British individuals’ cultural attitudes not only get even smaller but also cease to be statistically significant. Under this more robust statistical test, the estimated effect of university study on British individuals’ cultural attitudes was so small that I found there to be a considerable chance that this effect could indeed be zero (once we account for the statistical uncertainty around estimation). It therefore seemed most accurate to conclude, on the basis of my findings, that university study is only likely to have a very modest direct causal effect on British individuals’ cultural attitudes, and that this effect is not always liberalising. 

My study provides evidence to suggest, contrary to the claims of many right-leaning commentators (7), that studying at university actually does little to make graduates more liberal and can also have the opposite effect. Rather, the association of educational attainment with attitudes is largely spurious. It materialises predominantly because liberal young people disproportionately choose to enrol at universities in Britain today.

Elizabeth Simon was formerly a PhD candidate in the Social Statistics and Demography department at the University of Southampton. She is currently a Postdoctoral Researcher in British Politics within the Mile End Institute at Queen Mary, University of London. Her research focuses on how educational attainment shapes public opinion, electoral behaviour and wider society.

 

Diversity in Elected Office  –  Why it Matters 

There are decisions being made daily in councils across Scotland which will directly impact the lives of individuals and communities. Some of these decisions, bluntly, will be about helping people to both heat and eat.  

As the resources available to councils are becoming increasingly scarce, it is imperative that they are targeted most effectively.  To do this, we must ensure that we really understand need, both that which is apparent and that which is hidden.    

There is appreciation that the inequalities which existed before Covid, were exacerbated during the pandemic and that under-represented communities are suffering the greatest poverties, economically, socially and in terms of well-being. Moreover, the differences between rural and urban poverty are now being unpicked. As a result of all this, there is an increasing sense that things must be done differently. 

We have had some notable sparks of change and insights into what could be when, for example, some of the third of Scottish councillors who are women have worked to promote issues around family leave, gender budgeting and period dignity, thereby helping to empower women in the workplace and so enable their skills and experiences to contribute to achieving better outcomes.    

However, we haven’t learned from this – collectively we still haven’t placed enough priority on addressing the overall lack of diversity at our council decision making tables. We haven’t managed to attract additional voices of lived experience who could better reflect the needs of our communities as policies are set. Too often, councillors are still making strategic decisions for people rather than with people, and scrutinising outcomes for the organisation, without considering a person-centred approach.    

Councils have set up numerous forums of lived experience and consult on particular issues which they select and for which they control the agenda. Those in positions of power are deciding the matters on which people from our communities can express a view. However, it is within the democratic structures of Local Government themselves that those voices of lived experience would be best, most widely and most consistently heard. Here they would be voted in, representative and accountable to their communities.  

There is an urgent need to fully overhaul political participation in council policy making across Scotland. This work fundamentally includes ensuring that councillors are properly remunerated for the work they do, and that terms and conditions better reflect the role of a 2020s councillor.  A COSLA survey of councillors published in January 2021 found that a councillor works on average 38.5 hours per week but receives less than the Real Living Wage in return [1]. This is not going to encourage people from currently under-represented groups to step forward for election. By remunerating councillors as we do, we are preserving a system whereby those of independent means can more easily contemplate standing for election – this is damaging to our local democracy. The Scottish Government and COSLA made a commitment in March 2022 to work at pace on councillor remuneration and this remains key [2]. We need to be confident that remuneration won’t still be a barrier to people considering standing in the next Local Government elections.   

In addition, there are councils which still do not have policies for Family Leave for councillors, which makes the role very difficult for younger people or for those with wider caring responsibilities. There is no consistency across Scottish councils about the level of support which all councillors, but particularly disabled councillors, might expect to receive. Assumptions are made about the digital literacy of councillors and about their access to safe spaces for home working.  We are only just developing awareness that councillors do much lone working and can face abusive and hostile situations in person and on-line. Only very recently has partnership work with Police Scotland been initiated to give more support to our councillors and there is more work to be done on this. And in many areas, we have not started to address the culture which creates barriers to potential representatives from ethnic minorities.  

All this matters. The role of a councillor has evolved considerably since I was first elected in 2012. Councils remain the sphere of government closest to our communities, but the experience of the pandemic and the ever-deepening cost of living crisis has underlined the importance of making decisions as close as possible to the communities impacted. Councillors now have to engage more locally and to better represent all parts of their communities. More people are becoming dependent on the essential services of the council just as resources are becoming ever scarcer and there is a responsibility to maximise their impact locally.   

Yet achieving all this remains aspiration unless we hasten our continuing journey to local democracy, giving meaningful voice to people from right across our communities. We cannot afford not to act.  

[1] Councillor Remuneration Survey Results Public Documents | COSLA

[2] Increasing the Diversity of Local Councillors Public Documents | COSLA

Cllr Alison Evison was President of COSLA 2017-22, leading a diverse organisation and developing partnerships across the Public and Third Sectors, representing Local Government in the formulation of the Covid response and recovery strategies at a national level and working to achieve support across the Scottish Parliament for the European Charter for Local Self Government. Chair of the Improvement Service 2017-22 during a time of organisational change.  Recognised for supporting diversity in office and for encouraging inclusion for all.  Appointed by care experienced young people in Aberdeenshire as their champion 2015.  Previously Co-Leader of Aberdeenshire Council. A local councillor, engaging regularly with people across the communities of the Mearns and focusing on community planning with local partners. Honorary Lecturer, University of Aberdeen. Recently appointed Chair of NHS Grampian.