Councillors are working without basic legal protections such as the right to paid maternity and family leave – even though the Scottish Government promised to resolve the issue years ago.
Those elected to local government are not guaranteed paid leave if they fall pregnant, their partner falls pregnant, or if they adopt a child under current legislation.
While other council employees are allowed paid leave, under a loophole in the law, councillors miss out. They are not considered to be employees as they are appointed to their role by the public.
In some cases, it meant councillors had no choice but to leave their roles when they are expecting a child because they cannot afford to continue in their job.
The Ministerial and other Maternity Allowances Bill allows MPs and MSPs to take paid maternity leave while remaining in government. Employees who are pregnant are entitled to 52 weeks of maternity leave (26 weeks of ordinary leave and 26 weeks of additional leave). Salaried members of the opposition can also take six months’ paid maternity leave under the law.
Aberdeenshire councillor Gwyneth Petrie hit the headlines in 2020 when a meeting to decide the length of her maternity leave was scheduled for after the birth of her son, James. She felt forced to walk away from her job.
The Scottish Government, which is responsible for the law which sets how much councillors are paid and rights to employment protections like maternity leave, said it was “absolutely determined to resolve the issue” following Petrie’s case.
But since that date, no legislation has been tabled to ensure that more expectant parents are affected.
Later on that year, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla) developed voluntary guidance for councils on how to provide family leave protections for councillors. Two years on, it is still up to an individual council to decide if they will introduce leave for expectant mothers, fathers and adoptive parents.
In 2020, Lynsey Hamilton became the first councillor in South Lanarkshire to be given maternity leave.
Hamilton, who represents Clydesdale West, said she “couldn’t believe” maternity pay “just wasn’t a thing” until she took on the role.
“I am the first female councillor in my council to have a child in 25 years because there just hasn’t been any female who has served the council at the age they would have children,” she told The Ferret.
“It is just crazy to think as it just wasn’t a thing before I came along.”
Hamilton’s maternity pay package varied significantly compared with other workplaces.
“When I say maternity leave, I got six months leave, not eight, and I still had to attend some meetings in that time,” she added.
“I would have had to cast my vote if there was a close vote on council matters, and I don’t get a proxy vote in South Lanarkshire, so I had to turn up.
“The standing orders (written rules which regulate a council’s proceedings) don’t allow for close votes.
“On top of council meetings during the day, nights and at weekends, the job just doesn’t fit around family life and childcare.”
“Adopting family leave indicates to councillors that it’s okay to have family responsibilities,” she said.
“These responsibilities also bring councillors into contact with their local communities as well, which is beneficial for everyone.”
Jessie Duncan, who works to improve the number of women represented in politics for feminist advocacy charity Engender, said maternity pay “should be expected as standard in a modern workplace”.
“Some councils have adopted Cosla’s voluntary guidance on family leave, however this is not compulsory and provision is inconsistent. This is just not compatible with a desire to see more women in councils,” she added.
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The recent local government elections saw a six per cent increase in the number of women elected.
“However, we want to continue to increase the diversity of councillors in Scotland. It is vital that we encourage a wider range of people to seek election, including more women, ethnic minorities and younger people, so that councils can better reflect the society we live in.
“The Scottish Government and Cosla have committed to an independent review of councillor pay and we are working at pace following the recent local elections to ensure that terms and conditions truly reflect the responsibilities of the 21st century councillor.”
Are Councils Working? is an investigation by The Ferret, co-published with The Herald, exploring local issues, services, communities and more.
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