Women’s and equal opportunities committees became a feature of local government from the early 1980s. In Scotland, following the inspiration of the Greater London Council (GLC) and London boroughs such as Islington, committees began being established from 1984 onwards, with Stirling creating the first one in that year. By the mid-1990s a substantial proportion of the Scottish population lived in authorities with Women’s or Equal Opportunities committees, and initiatives such as public campaigns against domestic violence, for example Edinburgh’s Zero Tolerance campaign, had achieved a high profile. In addition fora for consultation and discussion with various equality constituencies were developing, and grant and officer support given to voluntary organisations in the field. In Wales, progress had been slower, but the equal opportunities agenda was also expanding.
The prospect of reorganisation of local government in Scotland and Wales in 1996 led to a successful research application from a group at Edinburgh University – Alice Brown, Fiona Mackay, Jan Webb and myself. The reorganisation was imposed by a Conservative government which aimed to undermine the power of Labour run authorities, such as the GLC and metropolitan authorities in England, and the large regional authorities in Scotland, for example, Strathclyde, which was specifically named by John Major as a target. It replaced the two-tier structures of local government with unitary authorities, varying a great deal in population size. Not only was reorganisation generally opposed by local government bodies, but it also took place in a context of budget cuts, pressure to outsource via Compulsory Competitive Tendering (CCT) and other modes of externalisation, and pressure to decentralise. The reorganisation entailed a reduction in the number of councillors and in the number of jobs available.
A key question for our project was whether reorganisation would prove an opportunity or a threat to women’s committees and other equal opportunities structures in local government. As the process was taking place simultaneously in Scotland and Wales, this favoured a comparison (but not with England, as the system of local government differed in structure and in its processes of reorganisation). We wanted to ask questions about committee structures and political commitment, about dedicated equal opportunities staff, about the position of women employees during and after reorganisation had taken place, about the scope of equal opportunities policies across human resources and service provision, and about the groups/constituencies included within local authorities’ equality strategies.
We found that, generally, promotion of equal opportunities remained a part of local government practice, although there was some unevenness arising from reorganisation, and sometimes a perception that work on equal opportunities had been set back by the process. There was a move away from separate committees for Women, Race Equality, etc, towards generic Equal Opportunities Committees, with only Edinburgh retaining a Women’s Committee at this point. In some cases equalities expertise was lost in the process of reorganisation, but in other cases new authorities gained from attracting experienced staff. There was thus some continuity, but not much in the way of a coherent infrastructure across local government. Where there were specialist committees and staff there was a more thoroughgoing approach to policies. We also noted that there was considerable variation in the scope of policies, with some authorities restricting them to employment matters, while others had developed policies across a range of service areas, such as education, social work/services, and housing.
It was clear that historically employment issues were addressed first, and subsequently service provision. The groups deemed to benefit from equal opportunities policies extended beyond women and ethnic minorities, with disability issues having a salient profile, no doubt due to the passage of the Disability Discrimination Act (1995). The profile of LGBT groups was also getting higher, though this was still in the era of Section 28/Section 2A, when grant support given to LGBT organisations could attract controversy. Age also featured, with some authorities indicating a consciousness of disadvantage faced by young people and older people. Religion was also quite salient at this time, while some authorities were particularly concerned about social class and poverty. Not all of the groups mentioned were covered by anti-discrimination legislation.
Local authorities were among the largest employers of women in their areas, encompassing large numbers of professional, administrative and manual workers, and my comments here reflect on what our research indicated about the position of women as employees. The process of reorganisation was experienced as very stressful by many employees, leading to low morale, although in some cases the transfer process was perceived to have been smooth. A key problem was the merging of predecessor bodies into unitary authorities, which meant a loss of staff overall. Some of this came about through early retirement and voluntary redundancies; some authorities took pride in avoiding any compulsory redundancies. However, some employees had to effectively reapply for the jobs they had been doing already, and at senior levels, in particular, there was fierce competition for a smaller number of posts. This transfer process had more impact on some departments, such as central finance or specialist services which previously bigger authorities could support, than on service departments such as education where teachers, for example, continued working in the same schools even though they were now under a different authority. In some cases manual workers also experienced a smooth transfer, but in others there was anxiety about the position of women on temporary contracts and about the impact of CCT on equalities provisions. A further aspect of reorganisation for employees was the need to harmonise working conditions, where there were some differences between authorities, for example, in the length of the working week, or in provision for flexible hours, and so on. Regrettably, it was the case that monitoring systems were seldom in place; thus it was not possible to make a detailed comparison of the position of women employees before and after reorganisation, but only to offer data on women in senior positions. At this time, computerised systems of data management, whether on employees or in other areas, were still being introduced and developed, and not all authorities had this in place. Furthermore, where they did exist different systems might be used by different authorities.
We found that, although there were some high profile cases where women did not get the posts they (and others) had anticipated, in general women were neither winners nor losers at senior level and may have gained stronger presence in middle management. This probably represented some improvement, but women’s under-representation in senior positions remained an issue. While women were over 50% of workforce in local government, they were less than 12% of Chief Officers in Scotland and less than 5% in Wales. In some cases, it was alleged that the process had been discriminatory or had not adhered to equal opportunities procedures, with political patronage being cited as a factor in appointments; councillors were usually involved in appointments of Chief Executives and Heads of Services. Equal opportunities training may have been offered to political representatives, depending on the authority, but was not necessarily obligatory. Notwithstanding dissatisfactions with the process voiced by some senior women and equalities staff, there were very few tribunal cases taken as a result of the reorganisation process; indeed there were fewer than the Equal Opportunities Commission had expected. Concerns about the position of women manual workers focused on the impact of CCT and other forms of externalisation, where outside contractors were not committed to equal opportunities in employment. For employees still directly employed by the council the Single Status Agreement negotiated between unions and employers was seen as a major tool in re-evaluating jobs in order to raise women’s pay in comparison to men’s. At the time of our research, however, there was much uncertainty about what the impact of this would be, as councils were slow to implement the Agreement, and there was also more discretion than in the past in the location of posts in the grading structure.
Questionnaires were circulated to all the new unitary authorities in Scotland and Wales, and respondents to the questionnaire were also asked to send copies of relevant policy documents. While only a minority did so, this provided useful material, indicating the range of approaches to equal opportunities. We defined as a minimalist approach a general Equal Opportunities statement relating to employment, and a maximalist approach as detailed policies in both personnel and service provision, including monitoring and consultation. To be fair to the new authorities, not all had yet found the capacity to produce equal opportunities policies and have them endorsed by the relevant council committee. Clearly the presence of dedicated and experienced equalities staff was a crucial element in the production of policies at an early stage. Also some authorities were effectively carrying forward policies from predecessor authorities, who already had a well elaborated programme of policies.
Documents on employment provided a snapshot of the state of policy development on gender equality (and other anti-discriminatory) policies in the mid-1990s. Where there were detailed gender equality policies relating to women employees, they tended to cover the following areas:
- Recruitment and selection: the need to avoid discrimination, and the need to train those involved in appointments.
- Promotion: training, mentoring, networking for women, particularly in relation to women moving into management posts.
- Sexual harassment.
- Childcare, flexible working, career breaks, job-shares: this included some workplace nursery provision and/or sponsored nursery places, flexitime schemes where employees worked core hours with flexibility over start and finish times, and various arrangements for working hours and types of leave.
A key point to stress is that policies did not only aim to ensure that there was no discrimination, in line with legislation, but went beyond this to challenge other dimensions of systemic gender disadvantage, such as the impact on women’s work trajectories of the gender division of labour in caring, in particular childcare. Policies on sexual and other forms of harassment were fairly widespread, and this included racial harassment and harassment of disabled people. It was also commented in interviews that tackling harassment had sometimes uncovered cultures of bullying that would not specifically come under the heading of, for example, sexual or racial harassment. Policies on flexible working were also widespread, but had also encountered resistance in getting endorsed. Furthermore, the numbers of employees taking up job-share or career break schemes were probably very small.
It was not possible to assess the impact of such policies, but it was clear that their development had taken a great deal of effort over a number of years. They required commitment at the political level, the development of relevant expertise among staff, both in human resources and dedicated equal opportunities officers in policy or service departments, and often networking, both formal and informal among politicians and staff. Where successful, pressures to promote equality of opportunity came from the political leadership, from internal staff resources and trade union representatives, and from the wider community of women’s and other equality groups.
In this sense local government possibly stands out, even from other public sector employers, where management was not directly controlled by political representatives. On the one hand, we might expect public authorities to be well aware of the need to adhere to the law, but the structure of local government arguably made it more permeable to feminist influence, which could be channelled through political representation, through the role of women professionals in local government services, through union organisation, and through voluntary and community organisations. Of course, experience was variable across authorities, with large urban authorities tending to have the widest scope and most developed of equal opportunities policies, and rural authorities tending to have more minimalist approaches. However, there could be pockets of good practice relating to specific issues or service departments. More generally, within both Scottish and Welsh contexts the work of local government committees and staff played an important role in the growth of an equal opportunities policy community. This fed into the devolution process and equality strategies adopted by the devolved administrations.
 Publications resulting from the research included: Esther Breitenbach, Alice Brown, Fiona Mackay, Janette Webb, Equal Opportunities in Local Government in Scotland and Wales (Unit for the Study of Government in Scotland, University of Edinburgh, 1999); Janette Webb, ‘Gender, Work and Transitions in the Local State’, in Work, Employment and Society, 15:4 (2001), pp. 825-844; Esther Breitenbach, Alice Brown, Fiona Mackay and Janette Webb (eds) The Changing Politics of Gender Equality (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002).