A Finnish future for Scotland
‘No! I don’t believe in quotas for women, I believe in a meritocracy’ were the words of the SNP convenor the Scottish parliament’s justice committee last month.
Her exclamation came as she was chairing an evidence session on the police and fire reform bill.
Five councillors were giving evidence. They were all convenors on police boards. They were all male. They were all white. They were all on the older side of 50, with the exception of my Labour colleague Councillor Stephen Curran from Glasgow.
In the last gasp of questioning, I asked them all to tell me how many women sat on each the police boards they represented. This was the question that provoked the convenor’s reaction. Stephen Curran knew where the question was going, but the others looked a bit confused. Some of them weren’t sure of the answer. Nobody was able to say that women made up more than 25 per cent of the board. One answer was 10 per cent. One councillor couldn’t remember.
The hard evidence from later research was worse. Of the eleven members of Central Scotland’s police board, not one was a woman. Grampian police board had 15 members, three women; Northern Constabulary board 22 members, two women. And so it goes on.
Women make up 18.5 per cent of Scottish police boards which have a crucial job in holding police to account, scrutinising their chiefs, their policing plans and their handling of local situations. Given that officers are involved every day in policing domestic violence and prostitution, it is worrying that there are not more women scrutinising our public services.
‘But’, the naysayers would say, ‘women’s representation on police boards is low because they are drawn from councillors whose female representation is not much better’. Indeed, at the local government elections in May, Scotland only managed to better its gender representation by three per cent. 24 per cent of Scotland’s local councillors today are female.
So what to do? We can’t tackle local government gender representation for another five years, and moreover it is in the hands of each of the political parties. But what could be done is similar to what many other progressive countries have done. To recognise that there are systemic barriers to women being on decision making bodies. If there weren’t, women would represent 52 per cent of positions, equal to their proportion of the population. Other countries like Finland and Norway have put down gender quotas on public bodies, and some on the boards of public limited companies too.
I tabled an amendment to the police and fire bill that would require a 40/40/20 gender quota on the national and local police boards. The 40/40/ 20 model is lifted directly from the Finnish Equality Act. It allows flexibility for boards where there is an uneven number of members – like Central Scotland’s eleven police board members. It also allows a little flexibility where there is not enough of one gender to satisfy a 50/50 model. I thought it best to take a model that’s tried and tested. It turns out that Professor Ferdinand von Prondzynski, the principal of Robert Gordon University, has also recommended the 40/40/20 model for membership of university courts in his remit as chair of the Scottish government’s higher education governance review. I wonder if the SNP’s Mike Russell will go for it…? I look forward to that debate.
For those who are signed up to gender quotas and positive action I could finish here. But the final word must address the convenor’s first question: Quotas versus meritocracy. There are still a vast number of people who believe that quotas are not necessary, that representational balance will occur naturally. But it hasn’t. Lib Dem MSP Alison McInnes put it nicely last week when she explained that she was voting for my amendment because she had been a long time believer that women would come forward voluntarily, but the older she got, she realised that it wasn’t happening.
Like our convenor, I believe in a meritocracy. But we don’t live in one. When women make up 52 per cent of the population, have the primary responsibility for looking after children, caring for aging parents, carry the burden of most or all of the domestic work, are paid less, but have their voices drowned out when decisions are made in government about public services and issues that primarily affect them? No, that’s not right. Other countries know this and have taken action. More equal societies tend to be fairer societies, for everyone.
Scotland will be engaged over the next two years in a furious debate about our future. I would like the debate to engage in radical ideas about making our society better.
Jenny Marra is Labour member of the Scottish parliament for North-east Scotland and shadow minister for community safety and legal affairs.
Photo: Simo Tolvanen
crime and justice, gender equality, police, Scotland, SNP, Women