On Monday 8 March 2021, Baroness Gale (Labour) is due to ask the Government, “what steps are they taking to increase the number of women holding elected office in the United Kingdom”.

Women in UK politics (as of 18 February 2021)

  • 34% (220) of MPs in the House of Commons are women.
  • 28% (226) of peers in the House of Lords are women (this does not include 5 female peers who are on a leave of absence).
  • 23% (5) of the current Cabinet are women.
  • 32% (33) of Government ministers are women.

In the devolved administrations:

  • 48% (29) of members of the Welsh Senedd are women.
  • 36% (47) of MSPs in the Scottish Parliament are women.
  • 34% (31) of MLAs in the Northern Irish assembly are women.

According to a publication by the House of Commons in February 2020, in local government:

  • About 36% of local authority councillors in England are women.
  • 26% of councillors in Northern Ireland are women.
  • 29% of councillors in Scotland are women.
  • 28% of councillors in Wales are women.
  • 40% of members of the London Assembly are women.

Barriers to women entering elected office

On 20 December 2018, the Gender-Sensitive Parliament Audit report was published. The audit was carried out by members and staff of both Houses. The report outlined four areas which may make it harder for women to become MPs or peers. These were:

  • The culture of Parliament, as highlighted in recent reports of bullying and harassment and sexual harassment;
  • Online threats and other threats to physical security, in particular gender-based intimidation, harassment and violence against female parliamentarians and female candidates;
  • The challenges that working in Parliament poses for family life, including the unpredictability of business and potentially long hours; and
  • The financial impact of standing for Parliament.

Following publication of the report, the Women and Equalities Committee launched an inquiry into how the House of Commons could address equality issues in July 2019. The committee held two oral evidence sessions in July 2019, from key staff in Parliament and from the chairs of key committees in the House of Commons. It also received a number of written submissions of evidence, published on its website. This inquiry was closed in November 2019 after Parliament was dissolved due to the general election in December 2019.

What has been done to overcome these barriers?

Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme

In July 2018, the House of Commons agreed to proposals outlined in the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme Delivery Report to implement a new Parliament-wide behaviour code. It also agreed to amend its code of conduct to include an expectation that members would follow the new behaviour code. The behaviour code outlines that “bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct are not tolerated”.

An 18-month review of the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme was published on 22 February 2021. The review was carried out by Alison Stanley CBE FCIP. She concluded that whilst the scheme has made progress, some of its elements “have become over complex” and it was viewed by some in Parliament as “a stressful, isolated and lengthy process”. Ms Stanley made a number of recommendations including:

  • The simplification of processes and procedures.
  • Increased support for complainants and respondents.
  • Ensuring diversity and inclusivity is considered at every stage.

Online Harms Bill

In April 2019, the Government published its Online Harms White Paper. The paper raised online abuse of public figures as a specific online harm. It stated that “those involved in public life in the UK experience regular and sustained abuse online” and that the abuse “dissuades good people from entering public life”. The Government said that it intended to establish a new statutory duty of care to make companies take more responsibility for the safety of their users, which would be overseen and enforced by an independent regulator.

In December 2020, the Government published its response to the consultation. It reaffirmed its commitment to establishing a duty of care, but said that it had been “refined” following consultation responses. In addition, it said that the Law Commission is undergoing further consultation on the line between illegal and legal behaviour in the context of online abuse. The Commission is expected to provide its recommendations in early 2021.

The Government has said its consultation response will be implemented by an Online Safety Bill, which it expects will be ready in 2021.

Proxy voting

Proxy voting for MPs on maternity, paternity or adoption leave was introduced as a pilot scheme in the House of Commons in January 2019. Under the scheme, an MP with a proxy vote nominates another MP to exercise a vote on their behalf. Between 28 January 2019 and 20 September 2020, 12 women and 16 men used proxy voting during their parental leave.

Following a debate on 23 September 2020, the House of Commons adopted the proxy voting scheme permanently from November 2020.

Ministerial and Other Maternity Allowances Bill 2019–21

On 11 February 2021, a bill to provide paid maternity leave to government ministers and certain Opposition office holders passed all stages in the House of Commons. It received second reading in the House of Lords on 22 February 2021.

The bill in its current form allows ministers to be designated as a ‘Minister on Leave’ during maternity absence, which allows the prime minister to appoint another minister to their previous position. Currently, in many cases, ministers must resign from government to take maternity leave, as statutory limits on the number of ministers does not allow a replacement to be allocated. The new designation will allow the member to remain in government during their maternity leave, but they may not necessarily return to their previous position when they return to work.

What have commentators said?

When considering how to increase female participation in politics in 2018, the World Economic Forum (WEF) noted that in Rwanda, the country with the greatest female representation in parliament, a strict quota system is outlined in law. However, the WEF said that statutory quotas “may be unnecessary” in many cases, as many political parties voluntarily implement their own. For example, in the UK, the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP operate some form of all-women shortlists.

The Institute for Policy Research at Bath University has published a report into the barriers to women’s participation in local and national government and has recommended actions to increase levels of participation. The report stated that gender quotas “are the most effective method for increasing numbers of women” elected; however, it says that “quotas do not tackle the gendered practices of political institutions”. It argued that quotas should be implemented alongside other measures, such as:

  • training and mentoring programmes that focus on helping women attain the knowledge, skills and confidence to stand for election; and
  • schemes run by external organisations which encourage women to consider running for elections.

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Cover image by UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor.