‘Complaints procedure over sexist behaviour not good enough’

Councillor Laura Murtagh told a meeting of Falkirk Council she had experienced sexist remarks from other members.

‘Complaints procedure over sexist behaviour not good enough’ iStock
Discrimination: Councillor Laura Murtagh said she had experienced sexist remarks from other members.

Telling women they can “go to the Standards Commission” to complain about sexist behaviour is not good enough, a councillor has said.

Councillor Laura Murtagh told a meeting of Falkirk Council she had experienced sexist remarks from other members and it should not be up to the person “on the receiving end” to challenge such behaviour.

The remarks were made at a special meeting of Falkirk Council after cllr Murtagh put forward a motion with actions that she hoped would encourage diversity, inclusion and equality in the council chamber.

As part of that, she called for ways to “address the tone of discourse”, saying: “I believe it makes this a less attractive atmosphere for under-represented groups – as many have actually told me – as well as just being downright rude at times, and I make no apology for saying they are sexist and misogynistic in tone too.”

She added to anyone who wanted to challenge what she was saying: “Please try not to address me as ‘young lady’ in your remarks.”

Ms Murtagh said her motion wanted councillors to acknowledge that there is an issue and to take whatever action they could to mitigate it.

However, the Labour group leader, Robert Bissett, said his group wanted officers to look more closely at the proposals to see what is already in place.

He said: “We do already have standards for councillors, we get a handbook at the beginning of term – with a lot of detail – and any of us can be referred to the Standards Commission.”

However, councillor Murtagh said that those words “made her heart sink”.

She said: “If the Standards Commission is the best we can hope for, that’s like saying ‘we can do whatever we want during council and as long as we’re not taken to Standards, that’s okay’.

“Well, that’s not good enough and that’s exactly the wrong message to be sending to the general public.

“If they are tuning in and seeing the language and discrimination that has been used at times, then that doesn’t make it a welcoming environment to them.”

Cllr Murtagh told members that having a more diverse council would help it make better decisions.

In particular, she referred to a Labour and Conservative decision not to back a new HQ and arts centre in Falkirk High Street – pointing out that among the eight Labour group members and seven Conservatives, there are just three women and no one under 40.

She said: “This was the most important decision the council faced in many years, but it was made without the voice of the generations it would affect most being considered front and centre.”

Cllr Murtagh said she felt the issue was too important to be party political, pointing out that the lack of diversity in Scotland as a whole was a priority for Cosla, which represents all local authorities nationally.

But she said she was “incredibly proud” of her group, which now has a majority of women, following Emma Russell’s recent by-election victory.

The Conservatives’ only female councillor, Lynn Munro, was unimpressed.

She said: “There is a strange irony that a political group – which is only listening to similar ideas to their own – should raise this topic, because a real study of the importance of diversity would demonstrate how important it is to understand our differences in pursuit of change.

“The SNP is as the experts say ‘an echo chamber’ where everyone espouses the same narrow view and votes accordingly.”

Conservative and Labour councillors supported cllr Bissett’s amendment, which called for a report to be made to council at the December meeting.

He said: “On diversity, we may already have some of the suggestions within council policy so this needs explored first of all and the majority of these changes are really operational in nature and should come forward if considered necessary by the chief governance officer.

“When these reports come to December council they will be fully debated.”

By local democracy reporter Kirsty Paterson