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Scrutinising the Scrutineers (again) …

12 Sep

I have to take up my pen again, for one more in my occasional series on the composition of membership of parliamentary Select Committees.  Select Committees in the House of Commons have become increasingly powerful bodies, charged with holding government to account.  Select Committees can produce reports based on inquiries into salient topics, and the government is obliged to respond to their recommendations.  So, it’s clear that who sits on these committees matters.

The divvying up of chairs and seats on Select Committees along party lines, indicates that representation of a range of views is crucial to their business.  But other forms of representation matter too.  We all know that Parliament is slouching only slowly towards gender equality, and that the number of MPs from minority ethnic backgrounds still lags diversity in the general population.  In previous blogs I’ve highlighted issues in the composition of the Women and Equalities Committee, and in the gendered nature of membership of Committees in ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ policy areas.  And I’ve blogged about the Science and Technology Committee’s previous work to identify barriers to women’s advancement in science.  And this particular Committee is why I have to blog again today, for this is the membership of the newly elected Science and Technology Committee:

Chair: Norman Lamb; Members: Bill Grant, Darren Jones, Clive Lewis, Stephen Metcalfe, Neil O’Brien, Graham Stringer, Martin Whitfield.

Notice anything?  Go to the top of the class if you said ‘why are there only 7 members, instead of 10 like in the last parliament?’  –  the answer to this I actually don’t know*; but it makes the thing you are more likely to have noticed, all the more perplexing: there are no women. Back in 2015, a collective eyebrow was raised at the Culture, Media and Sports Committee, which was entirely white and male; today twitter (including scientists) is questioning the maleness of the Science and Technology Committee.

Some might be tempted to argue that as Chairs and members are elected from within parliament, surely it’s a question of the best people being chosen by their peers.  But if expertise in the area is a criterion for membership, then this committee is a little thin, boasting only two science graduates.  Moreover, it’s well-established (some useful studies here) that credibility in science is gendered, with men consistently more highly rated for performance and promotion, due to baseline assumptions and unconscious bias around gender and scientific competence.  Representation really does matter.  In spite of increasing success in university entrance and degrees awarded, women are still under-represented in the higher ranks of science, even in majority-female disciplines like medicine.  And as for the shortage of women in fields like computing and engineering, a lot of effort is being put into raising the profile of senior female role models, and into challenging the culture of sectors, which have all too often got a poor record in promoting women and in wider diversity issues.

In the last parliament, the Science and Technology Committee (then boasting several female members) launched a programme to monitor diversity amongst the witnesses called to appear before the Committee in evidence sessions. This was a welcome recognition of the overwhelmingly white and male profile of the scientific elite, and the need to see beyond the familiar faces, into a more diverse reflection of science professions. Also during the last Parliament, the Good Parliament report, on diversity the House, was published.  It noted that membership of Select Committees was frequently unrepresentative of MPs, let alone the wider population, and suggested that single-sex membership should be prohibited, and that Committees should at least be ‘mindful’ of representativeness in their business.  The government has just failed to take up any of the recommendations made by the Women and Equalities Select Committee, for enhancing female representation in parliament.  It is hard to see today’s announcement of an all-male Science and Technology Committee as anything other than a further leap backward for womankind.

 

*Update: turns out 3 places remain to be filled, although Committee was described as ‘up and running’ this morning – watch this space …

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A Wonky Valentine

13 Feb

Inspired by the likes of #AcademicValentine I thought it might be time for a policy analyst’s version:

 

Labour is Red

Tories are blue

You should be briefing

And I should be too

 

Lib Dems are Amber

SNP Yellow

Let’s brief them all

Partisanship’s not mellow

 

Greens are self-evident

Purple is UKIP

If we brief the whole House

My heartbeat will skip *

 

 

*I know Welsh and NI

Come in many a shade

And Independents on charts

are usually greyed

And two seats are vacant-

Case yet to be made;

But I’m also aware

Some may find details boring

You could be a wonk’s Valentine

If not currently snoring ….

 

 

Does it matter what kind of man is on the Women and Equalities Select Committee?

14 Dec

Last year I wrote a blog which asked ‘Does it matter that there is only one man on the Women and Equalities Committee?’, and I concluded that it probably did.  While it is entirely appropriate that the majority of members of the committee are women, the absence of senior male MPs could be construed as indicating that powerful parliamentarians are not much interested in women and equalities issues.  And there could have been a danger that those on the committee might be left to get on with ‘their’ business, apart from issues widely considered to be more part of the political mainstream.

Since then, following the General Election, a second man joined the Committee. More recently, The Good Parliament report was published, looking at how to make parliament more representative, diverse and inclusive. Recommendations included making single gender committees prohibited, and that issues of representativeness be borne in mind in Select Committee membership. These recommendations make a useful counterbalance to the fact that the most prestigious committees tend to be overwhelmingly male, and, that at one point, the House of Commons ended up with a Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport which was entirely white and male.

Fast forward to the news that has just emerged that Philip Davies, an MP with a record as an ‘anti-feminist’, has been elected unopposed as a new member of the Women and Equalities Committee.  Is this a problem? It could be, as he pronounced on the Daily Politics today that he saw his position as similar to UKIP members sitting in the European Parliament – they disagree with everything the institution stands for, but are there to hold it to account.  For a Committee whose purpose is to hold government to account on issues concerning women and equality, it seems odd to join in order to challenge its raison d’etre.  Davies has asserted that it should be called the ‘Equalities Committee’, dropping the reference to women altogether.  This indicates he thinks that gender equality has been achieved, which, given the continuing lack of equal political representation or equal pay, and the continuing unequal share of unpaid and caring labour – to mention just a few persistent gender issues – is a view which flies in the face of everyday evidence. Perhaps even more bothersome, though, is the fact that no-one stood against him to fill the vacant place.  This would suggest that the Conservatives have attached little importance to membership of the Women and Equalities Committee, or to wider perceptions of such an unconventional candidacy.  You might have thought that they would have produced a candidate who believes that the Committee needs to exist, and that women’s voices should be heard. On the anniversary of the day women voted for the first time, and just when women have reached the 30% mark among MPs in parliament, you would have thought that what the politicos call the ‘optics’ would matter.

Representation, Parliament and Brexit

24 Jul

There’s been a kind of perfect storm of issues to do with representation in the last couple of months – what with the male-heavy campaigns for Leave and Remain in the EU referendum; the result which called it for Brexit, and the accompanying discussion around distance between political elites and ordinary people; and assessment of the impact of our new, second female Prime Minister.  Both major political parties have also been embroiled in leadership contests which have presented different approaches to the question of representation of party membership, and parliamentary representation of the electorate.

Into this maelstrom arrives a new report by Professor Sarah Childs, ‘The Good Parliament’, which addresses how the institution may become more diverse and inclusive.  It is an opportune moment to consider representation in Parliament: not only is it the centenary of the Acts which extended voting rights to working-class men and the first women, but the need to refurbish our Parliament buildings presents a rare chance to experiment with physical and procedural infrastructure. These factors, along with the support of the Speaker, who has founded a Commons Reference Group on Representation and Inclusion to carry ideas forward, mean that there is a unique opportunity to potentially transform Parliament into an institution which more closely represents the society it serves.  With only 29% of MPs currently female, and only 6% drawn from minority ethnic backgrounds, this is surely overdue; and the long decline in numbers of parliamentarians drawn from working-class backgrounds also needs to be addressed.  While the report does not deal with the EU referendum, it seems to me that it has added relevance because of it.  In the wake of evidence that the Brexit vote was carried by people living in former industrial heartlands of the UK, and in more deprived communities, working-class representation in politics could hardly be higher on the agenda.

The report looks at how diversity could be strengthened throughout Parliament’s work and practices. This includes measures to improve the family-friendliness of parliament – involving policies around maternity, paternity and parental leave, more flexibility in voting arrangements, and the headline-grabbing recommendation that breastfeeding should be better accommodated.  As Jo Swinson has already pointed out, the media focus on breastfeeding, which is a relatively minor recommendation in the report, says a lot about how far we have to go in discussions of diversity, especially as it applies to women in public life.

Childs highlights the importance of better representativeness in Select Committees, the parliamentary bodies which hold government to account.  She says that in 2016 it is ‘undesirable’ that some Committees are highly skewed in terms of gender in their membership.  This matters, because many of the Committees considered most important or prestigious, e.g. Foreign Affairs, are disproportionately male.  Meanwhile, the Women and Equalities Committee initially contained only one man, and now has two male MPs among its members.  The report mentions the blog I wrote last year, which remarked that this committee is also novice-heavy and that it would be good to think that ‘women and equalities really matter to the big beasts in politics – most of whom are still middle-aged men’.  The Good Parliament recommends that single gender Select Committees are prohibited, and that parties become more ‘mindful of wider representativeness’ in electing committee members.  This awareness of representativeness extends to committee witnesses as well – the experts invited to contribute should also be more diverse.

During the referendum debate, Michael Gove made the now notorious comment that we’ve ‘had enough of experts’; there’s been a strong suggestion that this view may have gained traction because ‘experts’ are so often the ‘usual suspects’: white, older men.  By looking beyond this group, the valuable work of many female and non-white professionals and academics would be recognised and reflected back to us all.

Representativeness also matters in media – the lens through which we receive information about politics and Parliament.  Lobby journalism remains even more male-dominated than other areas, and Childs advocates that Parliament works towards a situation where monitoring ensures that neither men nor women drop below 40% of lobby pass recipients.  This move would potentially encourage more diverse reportage, and help insure against any tendency towards ‘groupthink’ in political coverage.

As the dust begins to settle on the turbulent last month in British politics, Childs’ report should be part of the landscape in which we discuss post-referendum Britain. The ministers appointed to the Department for Exiting the European Union (DEEU) and Department for International Trade (DIT) – the new departments central to implementing  Brexit – are exclusively male. As we gear up to make the best of post-Brexit Britain we should ensure that diverse voices are heard.  There is a Select Committee for every government department – hopefully the ones for DEEU and DIT will not hear exclusively from white men of a certain class.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Does it matter that there is only one man on the Women and Equalities Select Committee?

5 Jul

A fair few column inches have been devoted to the fact that the House of Commons Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport has ended up being entirely male and white. In our era this does look like a failure of representation, especially considering that representation in arts, media and sports could reasonably fall under the remit of that Committee. No wonder New Statesman’s Media Mole declared themselves too depressed to be funny….

Meanwhile, eyelids have not apparently batted at the make-up of the Women and Equalities Select Committee, which contains only one male MP – a newly-elected member of the House. Does this matter? Given the subject of this Committee’s business it is entirely appropriate for women to be in a majority. It would be crazy otherwise – but I can’t help feeling a little disappointed that only one man will be present – and that with the exception of Chair Maria Miller, all of the members are newly elected. I’m sure their credentials are admirable, but it does seem unusual that more seasoned MPs will not sit around this particular table. In the criticised Culture Committee, at least half of members were elected before 2015, and the Women and Equalities Committee is the only one I can find with members drawn exclusively from the latest intake.

The reason why this may be of concern is fear of what one might term ‘pinkbusification’. During the election the Labour Party decided to reconnect with female voters by taking a pink bus around the country to discuss women’s issue. As I wrote at the time, this strategy runs the danger of saying that there is a ‘politics for her’ – somehow separate from the mainstream of hard, manly issues. While the motivation may come from a place of respecting women’s views and experiences, the consequence of having a separate strategy for women may be to sideline their concerns all the more.

As for the Women and Equalities Committee, it would be great to think that it augurs a new commitment to bringing gender and equalities issues to the fore in Parliament. The case for this is made eloquently here by Prof. Sarah Childs, who sees it as an important part of a move towards a more gender-sensitive and publicly-responsive parliament. It is important to remember that the ‘Equalities’ element of the Committee’s work would include areas such as disability, race, sexuality and class inequalities, all of which affect men as well as women.

But by having no established male MPs on the committee it could be read that inequalities are not a big concern for the most powerful group in the land – the stale, male, pale majority of Parliament itself. That could potentially be an excuse to say ‘they’ have a Committee to address their concerns, rather than seeing the inequalities of life chances all around us as a crucial and central concern of those in power.

Of course as a scrutiny body the Women and Equalities Committee will have the same potential to influence as any other Committee – and there is no reason why its members will not do an excellent job. But the gender make-up of these Committees does say something of how individual political issues are viewed in Westminster and beyond. Of seven Committees (apart from Culture) where full membership has been announced, women are in the majority in Education and Women and Equalities, while Defence, Justice, Scottish Affairs, Northern Ireland, Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs are all predominantly male- although the last has a female Chair. Women make up 22% of Select Committee Chairs, a little lower than female representation in Parliament which now stands at 29%. We are not yet in a world where gender goes unnoticed, or where the hierarchy of importance given to different issues is gender neutral. In the meantime it would be good to think that women and equalities really matter to the big beasts in politics – most of whom are still middle-aged men.

 

 

 

 

 

Shredded Wheat? I thought he said Cheerio ….

24 Mar

The Prime Minister has made what commentators might call an ‘unexpected intervention’ in his own election campaign, by saying that he would soon be off to let ‘fresh eyes’ take over at the top of the Conservative party. He declared that terms in office were ‘like Shredded Wheat’ in that 2 were just right, but 3 excessive. Therefore he would seek his second term, and if (quite a big if in the circumstances of the tightest election in years) elected, would pass on the reins of power to a. n. other come 2020.

Except, of course, by showing his hand just now, David Cameron seems to have opened, not shut, the succession question. This question will likely rear its head throughout the next parliament, IF the conservatives are returned to power. If true to his word, there would need to be a leadership contest in advance of the 2020 election, so that protestations about Cameron serving a ‘full second term’ are already so much spilt milk. So, now that the PM has shown that his cereal of choice is apparently ‘Cheerios’, with a prospective second term a long goodbye to the British public, it is perhaps timely to look in the Variety pack of possible successors and see where they fit on the breakfast bar of leadership choice:

George Osborne – Frosties – cool on the outside but watch out for the Tiger underneath. Is he really Grrreat?

Boris Johnson – The Honey Monster – eternally popular – but he might destroy the set

Theresa May – Weetabix – sensible, hi-fibre choice but will the other ‘titchy breakfast cereals’ stand in her way?

I guess they’ll all be hoping that David Cameron hasn’t made their prospects toast ……

Giving Parliament and parenthood full attention

24 Feb

When Tory MP Andrew Rosindell remarked that Rachel Reeves’ maternity leave might rule her out of giving ‘full attention’ to her job, he walked into a minefield of gendered assumptions about working parenthood. Ms Reeves already holds high office in opposition with a young daughter, without apparent difficulty; would Mr Rosindell suggest that the Prime Minister’s children prove too much of a distraction from running the country? Thought not.   Presumably he thinks that is what David Cameron’s wife is for – conveniently forgetting that she also works, and that the couple may have other support in caring for their children.   And working men are parents too. The Reeves and the Camerons do not seem to be struggling particularly with work-life balance; indeed relatively high pay and (in Reeves case) access to informal care provided by family members make their arrangements more straightforward than those in many families. In case Mr Rosindell hasn’t noticed, the world is full of working women who happen to be parents.

His outmoded views of how professional women cope with having jobs and children simultaneously, is given added piquancy by the discussion sparked by the Straw/Rifkind sting. A whole debate has now grown around the extent to which it is possible to carry on with other commitments whilst being an MP – to what extent is public office a full-time job? Whilst paid lobbying is out of the question, is it ok to be a doctor or lawyer, a journalist, a consultant on boards, etc.? Does outside experience enhance the House, or is total commitment to the role the only way? Among the questions not being asked are, can men do two things at once? Does fatherhood interfere with public office? Perhaps to help resolve these issues, parliamentarians should ask a busy woman. She’ll make the time and have the skills to sort things out. And then go home and tell the kids about another full day at work.

 

 

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