Chief Whip Cllr Jane Edbrooke blogs about the importance of baby leave for councillors…
18 months ago I spent the evening in a Cabinet meeting, arrived home and promptly went into labour. I sat in hospital texting hand over messages to people and sending my apologies to upcoming meetings. But I was reassured because I knew cover had been arranged for my cabinet post, my ward colleagues were really supportive and I’d had plenty of conversations with the Leader on how my maternity leave would be supported.
Fast forward a year and I was in the Local Government Association Next Generation Women’s annual conference and it was clear that my experience was not universal. Female Councillors had to deal with uncertainty and varying levels of support for their maternity leave. They felt there were unrealistic expectations put upon them, making juggling parenthood and being a Councillor difficult. So I’m thrilled that Cllr Lib Peck, the Leader of Lambeth Council, has spear-headed a Parental Leave policy for Councils and Labour Groups to adopt. If we really believe that Councillors should be representative of the communities they serve we need people to step up to be councillors who are parents or who want to be parents. As Chief Whip of Lambeth Labour I’ll be asking the Council and Labour Group to adopt formally the policies that we have implemented informally for the last few years.
I’m often asked how easy being a Councillor is with a baby. And the reality is I found it a lifeline for my mental health in the first 6-9 months. Being able to walk into the town hall with the buggy, chat to colleagues who would happily hold baby J so I could go to the toilet alone (bliss) and keep up a sense of being part of the adult world supported my sense of identity – something that took a real battering when I suddenly found myself no longer doing two jobs and instead I was transformed into a sleep deprived parent trying to just leave the house at least once a day! When it was really hot I decanted to the Council, where there was air-conditioning, with a play mat. And when I returned to cabinet after 6 months J frequently came to meetings with me where I’d chair meetings whilst breast feeding, never feeling anything other than supported. At what other ‘workplace’ could you do that?
But time flies and parenting challenges change, alas J will no longer sit happily in a meeting room entertained by playing with a scrunched up agenda or in the corner of a conference sitting happily with some cars! And there are numerous barriers to being a Councillor with children. In the same way Councillors do not have pensions because we aren’t employees, we are not entitled to childcare tax vouchers or the childcare tax free scheme. It was the cost of childcare that ultimately led me to stand down from cabinet and return to work. When council meetings take place varies greatly around the country, as does the level of ‘allowances’, making it virtually impossible in some areas for anyone other than the retired to be Councillors. So I really hope the LGA sees this as the start of a wider campaign create the conditions for better representation in Councillors, not just for those of us who are parents but also carers.