A LONG-SERVING Helensburgh and Lomond councillor has hit out after one of his colleagues asked why only men are members of a key local authority committee.

George Freeman, who serves on Argyll and Bute Council’s audit and scrutiny committee, said gender balance was “only an issue when it suits some councillors to raise it” – and said many of his colleagues “struggle to deal with and analyse numbers”.

The Lomond North councillor was responding after his Helensburgh and Lomond colleague Lorna Douglas asked why the committee’s membership was entirely male.

Cllr Douglas (SNP, Helensburgh Central) raised the issue after a presentation on the audit and scrutiny committee’s work by its chair, Martin Caldwell, at a full council meeting on November 28.

Mr Caldwell, who is not an elected councillor, replied: “That is a question which the council needs to ask. I do not choose the membership, but it is a very reasonable question.”

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Councillor Douglas then said afterwards: “I was taken aback when I realised that the council’s audit and scrutiny committee was made up of only male councillors.

“In today’s political culture, when we are trying to encourage more women into politics and indeed break the glass ceiling  in so many of our institutions, it is disappointing that this committee has no female representation.

“Nor would it seem that the committee even recognised the lack of gender balance.”

Alongside Cllr Freeman, the committee’s other elected members are Richard Trail (SNP, Helensburgh and Lomond South), Jim Findlay (SNP, Isle of Bute), Sir Jamie McGrigor (Conservative, Oban South and the Isles), Alan Reid (Liberal Democrat, Cowal), Sandy Taylor (SNP, Mid Argyll) and Andrew Vennard (Conservative, Oban North and Lorn).

Councillor Freeman said after the meeting: “I was concerned when Councillor Douglas raised this at the council meeting, as it sounded as if she was saying that female councillors were somehow being excluded from the audit and scrutiny committee. That is certainly not the case.

“It has always appeared to me that the audit and scrutiny committee is one of the committees that most councillors want to dodge.

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“Many councillors appear to struggle to deal with and analyse numbers, which I believe is a core requirement of the audit and scrutiny committee.

“If Councillor Douglas, or any other female councillor, was in the least bit interested in being appointed to the audit and scrutiny committee, then they would have been welcomed with open arms when councillors were being appointed to committees two years ago.

“If the SNP group had put her name forward for the audit and scrutiny committee in 2017, then there is no doubt in my mind that she would have been appointed.”

Cllr Freeman also insisted that the issue of gender balance in the council’s committees “works two ways” – and cited the authority's planning, protective services and licensing committee as an example.

“Of the 15 members of the PPSL, 11 are male and only four are female,” he said.

“It is therefore the male councillors within the council who are the ones that have to carry the burden of this very busy committee.

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“It appears to me that, as far as some councillors are concerned, gender balance is only an issue when it suits them to raise it – and clearly avoid raising the issue when it does not suit them to raise it.”

In direct response to Councillor Douglas’s observation, council leader Aileen Morton said: “I was on the audit committee when I was first elected as a councillor, but as leader I am now precluded from doing so.

“I will take on board Councillor Douglas’ comments, but the committee’s development has been really positive in relation to scrutiny of the council.”

Cllr Julie McKenzie (Oban North and Lorn) was appointed to the committee after the 2017 council election, but was replaced by Cllr Trail in June of last year.

A spokesperson for Argyll and Bute Council said: “When members of the audit and scrutiny committee were being appointed, regard was had to those who expressed interest and who were eligible to join.

“As was confirmed at Thursday’s council meeting, consideration will be given to the membership of committees when the council’s constitution is next reviewed.”

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