I am writing this a bit bleary eyed after last night’s full council meeting. It didn’t finish until just after 11pm, after which I was buzzing so didn’t sleep. I will give a more detailed update on the meeting last night in a subsequent post, but wanted to take this opportunity to discuss one of the agenda items – the equalities motion.
This was my first motion to council since I’ve been elected, and given that I’m still learning the ropes, I was a bit nervous. If you’ve ever been in that council chamber, you’ll understand why. It’s quite an intimidating place.
The rules on motions are that they can only be submitted after the previous meeting has ended, and then they are debated and voted on in order of submission. Each motion has a maximum of 30 minutes to be debated upon and the full council meeting has a maximum length (10:30pm, but with agreement from the chamber can be extended to 11pm), with motions being the last items on the agenda. In other words, if you get to 11pm and a motion hasn’t been debated, it doesn’t get heard. However, the motion doesn’t automatically go to the next meeting. It has to be resubmitted to be considered. And not all full council meetings has a place for motions in the agenda (such as the first meeting of the municipal year), so not that many motions have the opportunity to be debated and voted on.
The motion I presented to council last night was the following:
“Local Authorities have a statutory requirement to demonstrate their compliance with the Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED) of the Equalities Act 2010. This act requires Local Authorities to consider how their work affects people of different ages, disability, sex, sexual orientation, religion or beliefs, marital status, pregnancy and maternity and gender identity. Everyone that lives in, works and visits Wokingham Borough needs to have confidence that this is being done throughout the Borough. This Council will evidence its compliance with the PSED through undertaking Equality Impact Assessments (EqIA’s) when required, and ensure they are included in public reports and are easily accessible on the Council’s website. In addition, all newly elected Members will have PSED and EqIA training as part of their induction. Executive Members will also have to undertake PSED and EqIA training.”
This motion is printed in the agenda and what then happens is, the Mayor asks who is the proposer and seconder. In this case the proposer was myself and the seconder was John Halsall the leader of the council. I sent the motion to the other parties and the independent councillors several weeks ago to let them know about it and give us the chance to discuss (and tweak if necessary), to increase the chances of it gaining cross party support. For this to pass, I needed the Conservatives to vote for it as they have the majority. When John said he was happy with it, I asked him to second it to demonstrate that commitment. Both he and I had spent time with officers at the council to ensure that what I was proposing could be acted upon – motions cannot be just words; they have to be practical as well.
Once it’s been established who is proposing and seconding a motion, the proposer gets to speak for 5 minutes. The below is my speech:
“I got involved in politics as a result of what happened at Grenfell Tower. Innocent people lost their lives due to poor political decisions. This ignited a desire in me to want to stand up for people in our community who are often overlooked by our political class. People who are often seen as the minority.
I am fortunate to have my Grandad. My Grandad is 96 years young and fit and healthy, except for his poor eyesight. He is registered visually impaired. Every Tuesday I take my Grandad out to Morrisons in Woking where he lives to get lunch and do his shopping. As such, I know the visual and physical cues he uses to navigate safely.
When the Wokingham Town marketplace reopened last year, it was immediately obvious to me that something was wrong due to the experience I have with my Grandad. This led me to investigate and I discovered that people with visual impairment had not been fully considered throughout all stages of the process when designing the marketplace. In fact, not all stages of the process were fully documented from an equalities perspective, and as such, there have been a number of issues raised regarding safety for people with protected characteristics. These concerns are being investigated by the council, and I welcome improvements that address these concerns, but we should not be retrospectively considering the impact on vulnerable residents.
The Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED) contained in section 149 of the Equality Act 2010, requires public authorities to have due regard to a number of equality considerations when exercising their functions.
As part of the PSED, Local Authorities must evidence their compliance with the Equalities Act. An Equality Impact Assessment (EqIA) is an analysis of a proposed organisational policy, or a change to an existing one, which assesses whether the policy has a disparate impact on persons with protected characteristics. Assessing the impact on equality is not just something the law requires, it is a positive opportunity for public authorities to ensure they make better decisions based on robust evidence and are transparent in the process. If records are not kept it may make it more difficult, evidentially, for a public authority to persuade a court that it has fulfilled it’s duty.
The marketplace regeneration is just one example of where this council is not fully complying. There needs to be a shift in culture at Wokingham Borough Council. Considering equalities is not something we should be doing because the law tells us to. We should and must be doing this because we are here to serve ALL of our residents. Just because the majority are catered for, does not make it acceptable to ignore the minority. And in order to change this culture, it must start from the top. That is every single one of us in this room. We are the faces of this council, and we have to lead by example and be the change.
Currently, senior officers undergo mandatory training on this subject. There is an online training course on the council intranet which is available for elected members to partake, and I strongly urge all of us sitting in this room to do it please. This training will also be available to all new members once they are elected. In addition to this, training must also be given in the new councillor induction session, and at the first Executive Briefing of the municipal year. Currently, the attendance record of elected members is available on the council’s website. Any training undertaken by elected members will be published in the same way.
Transparency is crucial for anything the council undertakes, but particularly when it comes to equalities. All EqIAs will be made publicly available on the council website. In order to determine whether an EqIA is required, an initial impact review is done, and where an EqIA is deemed not required, the initial impact review will also be made publicly available on the council website. In addition to this, when policy papers are presented to us, currently there is an emphasis on the financial implications of the recommendation listed. The measure of success of this or any council cannot rest on its finances. We are dealing with people – our residents, and every policy paper put before us, also needs to include the impact on them as well, including those with protected characteristics. We must give confidence to everyone that lives, visits and works in Wokingham Borough that we are considering everyone’s needs. What I am proposing is a very simple and effective way of doing this. I strongly urge this council to demonstrate it’s support to ensure that Wokingham Borough is a great place to live and an even better place to do business for everyone.”
The seconder is then given the opportunity to talk, although they can reserve comment until other members of the council have spoken. John chose to speak in support of the motion and indicated that this is something we already do. This frustrated me somewhat as you will see later on.
Now the other members of the council get to speak and debate, although John tried to take this motion straight to the vote. You might think that given it was clear this motion was going to pass, so what, go straight to the vote. However, one of the big problems we have is that many members of that council chamber don’t get how serious an issue this is, and debating a motion in council, is an opportunity to speak to the public. Full council is a public forum and a mouthpiece for the council, and this needed the air time to show that we’re taking resident’s concerns seriously. The labour leader Andy Croy requested the debate continue (quite rightly) and the Mayor agreed.
What was notable is that the only speakers on the motion came from Labour and the Lib Dems. They highlighted a number of points, some talking from personal experience, and all discussing the negative impacts on the public many decisions have had. One of the great comments made was by Imogen Shepherd-Dubey who said:
“Do we truly understand what it is to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes? As an Autistic woman who is married to another woman, I can’t think that many of you have the same perspective as me, but I don’t know what it is like to be you either – so I think we are even.”
And Caroline Smith also said:
“Discrimination of the elderly is not often up for public debate, but one thing I am sure of, is that this is something that can affect us all and cane be affecting a member of our families today, so let’s make sure they are treated equal at all times.”
One everybody has had the chance to speak, the proposer gets a right of reply and can speak for up to 3 minutes before it goes to the vote. This is an opportunity to address anything that has been raised in the debate and to sum up. I made a few notes as others were speaking and addressed those, and then read the following:
“Thank you for all your comments and the debate and I’m pleased that this council appears to be behind this motion. It’s not exactly a controversial issue. What I am concerned about though is the reasons for this council backing the motion. This organisation has to be more than just words and promises – it has to deliver on those as well. My concern is that this motion will pass (and believe me, I hope it does pass), but without fully grasping why this motion is here in the first place. So let me try and change that.
In yesterday’s Bracknell and Wokingham news, in an article about this motion, a senior member of this chamber was quoted as saying “it is the sort of thing we are already doing anyway – we already do what the motion says so it is just reaffirming what we do.” Rubbish! Why would I be wasting time on something that’s not necessary. If this council was doing this kind of thing, we wouldn’t have the problems that have been highlighted here tonight. And it goes much deeper than this.
Look at the diverse society out there that we represent. And now look around this council chamber. Why are we not reflecting that diversity? There are too many barriers in the way. I can say this from personal experience. In my time so far at this council, I have on more than one occasion been spoken to in an unacceptable manner including had comments made that would not have been made to my male counterparts. These comments only serve to belittle me. And the thing is, we’ve heard this before in this council chamber when an outgoing leader of this council commented on the old boys network. It feels like some of us in this council chamber are seen as a tick in the diversity box. Believe me, we add a hell of a lot more value than that.
This isn’t about me or the other few people in this council chamber that represent protected characteristics though. The point I make is to demonstrate that the problems we have of equality in this council are engrained to the point that not everyone can see it. This is a very real issue and the attitude and culture has to change to address this. This is not about saying the right things for the press – enough of the words – do something! I appreciate I won’t succeed in changing everyone’s minds. But what I will have done is to bring the problem to the forefront, raise awareness and start to do something about it. Are you with me?”
I was shaking as I read this – a combination of nerves and in some respects anger. The vote was unanimous, and now the Head of Governance at the council has the mandate to insist the words of this motion happens. There is a long way to go still, but we have taken a massive step in the right direction. The final statement below is my party’s mission statement:
“The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.”