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Agenda item

Demographic profile of councillors and senior officers


The Chair explained that the report had been produced in response to a topic suggestion received from the Muslim Women of Merton who had expressed concerns about the lack of representation of Muslim women in local politics and senior leadership at the council. He reminded the Commission that members had agreed to expand the scope to include the wider BAME group and other protected characteristics.


The Chair invited Dr Emma Wiley to speak on behalf of the Muslim Women of Merton. Dr Wiley said that the Muslim Women of Merton was a voluntary organisation, established in 2015 in order to give Muslim women a voice and a “seat at the table”. Dr Wiley said that more needed to be done to create inclusive political environments that would enable people from all backgrounds to get involved and to feel able to speak freely. She welcomed the election of Merton’s first female Muslim councillor in May 2018 but drew the Commission’s attention to the Citizens UK report “Missing Muslims”, published in 2017, which reported an under involvement of Muslim people in public life, due largely to a combination of discrimination and lack of awareness.


Dr Wiley welcomed the Commission’s report as a good start to addressing the issues, despite the gaps in the data. She reminded members that the council’s equality strategy includes an objective to “encourage recruitment from all sections of the community, actively promote staff development and career progression opportunities and embed equalities across the organisation”. She challenged the council to address and action the under-representation identified by the data, to produce such data more frequently and to work with community groups to improve engagement in public life.


The Cabinet Member for Women and Equalities, Councillor Laxmi Attawar, thanked the Muslim Women of Merton for raising the issue and said that she welcomed the opportunity to look at this more closely. She expressed disappointment with the low response from councillors, resulting in data from just 39 of the 60, and said that in future this data would be collected immediately following local elections. She highlighted the under-representation of women and BAME staff in senior roles at the council, drew attention to the importance of training and mentoring in addition to recruitment action and undertook to review the situation on a regular basis.


In discussion, members of the Commission commented that the political parties had a larger role than the council in encouraging a more diverse group of candidates to come forward. Dr Wiley suggested that a diversity shadowing scheme, to include young people, would help them to get a more diverse range of people involved in council meetings.


Members welcomed the suggestion that demographic profile data should be collected as part of the induction process for new councillors and that this should include an explanation as to why this information is required. Dr Wiley added that the General Medical Council and the British Medical Association had found a lower response rate for information on sexuality, disability and faith due to anxiety about stigma. She therefore agreed that explanatory text would be beneficial.


A member suggested that the council should hold an event to demystify local government as part of the drive to attract under-represented groups to become councillors and to work for the council. The Director of Corporate Services, Caroline Holland, said that school student work experience placements and apprenticeships contributed to encouraging local people from all backgrounds to consider working for the council.


In response to a question about what work was being done on career pathways with a view to increasing the diversity of senior managers, the Interim Head of HR, Liz Hammond, said that work was at an early stage to identify career pathways for each specialism, with information on what would be required for career progression. In response to a specific question, she assured members that a career break, for example to care for young children, would not be a barrier to employment with the council if the person was the most suitable candidate. Caroline Holland added that term time working was an option for some staff.


A member suggested that a BAME candidate should be interviewed for every senior position. Caroline Holland undertook to look at whether this might be possible within existing recruitment procedures. ACTION: Director of Corporate Services/Head of HR


The Commission RESOLVED to receive an update report in 12 months’ time. The Commission requested that officers investigate the approach being taken by the Civil Service to collect data on family background, wealth and class with a view to applying this to Merton data if possible.


The Chair thanked Dr Wiley for taking the time to contribute to the Commission’s discussion.


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