COMMONS

Witness gender diversity: next steps for select committees

11 June 2018

In its published report, the Liaison Committee – the Committee of all the Chairs - sets out the latest statistics for gender diversity of select committee witnesses and outlines three steps to ensure greater diversity by the end of this Parliament.

Increasing witness diversity

So far during this Parliament, 33% of witnesses have been women. This compares with 29% in 2016-17, and 28% in 2015-16.

The report distinguishes between individuals that committees invite to come before them (discretionary witnesses) and people who appear because they hold a particular position, such as Ministers, senior officials and heads of public bodies (non discretionary witnesses).  In the current Parliament, 27% of non-discretionary and 37% of discretionary witnesses have been women, compared with 24% and 32% in 2016-17.

Committees have adopted different approaches to increasing witness diversity. Examples include:

  • using broader outreach events, social media and web fora to draw in a wider range of evidence and as a way of identifying potential oral evidence witnesses from broader backgrounds;
  • identifying witnesses just below top management level (eg Finance or Operations Directors) and inviting them rather than the Chief Executive;
  • asking organisations to bear diversity in mind when choosing a representative to give evidence.

Improvement in diversity of non-discretionary witnesses also relies on the Government’s commitment to diversity in public appointments.

Chairs' comments

Women and Equalities Committee Chair Maria Miller, who is a member of the Liaison Committee, said:

"Select Committee Inquiries rely on top quality evidence that brings together a range of views-that includes women's views. Important progress is being made but whilst all male panels are almost a thing of the past still only 1 in 3 witnesses giving oral evidence is female. We need organisations to think more about the diversity of the witnesses they send to give evidence."

Sarah Wollaston, Chair of the Liaison Committee said:

"Just as it is important to aim for a gender balanced Parliament so too that needs to be reflected in the diversity of the witnesses invited to give evidence at Select Committees. By focusing on this issue we hope that all committees will make further progress towards equal representation on both sides of Select Committee tables."

Report conclusions

The report concludes that:

  • For Committees represented on the Liaison Committee, other than in circumstances where there are compelling reasons for an all male panel, a panel of three or more witnesses should normally include at least one woman, when the witnesses are not specific office-holders such as Ministers or heads of key public sector organisations falling within the remit of the Department the Committee is scrutinising.
  • Select Committees aim to ensure that by the end of this Parliament at least 40% of discretionary witnesses should be female.
  • Updated stats will be published on the website periodically to show progress. The next update will be in December 2018.

Several committees are already monitoring the wider diversity of their witnesses through short surveys. These are completed voluntarily after evidence sessions and ask witnesses for information on their gender identity, age, disability, ethnic background, religion or belief, and sexual orientation. A pilot exercise has been concluded and an evaluation is currently underway working with the House’s diversity and inclusion team.

Witness diversity data

Information on witness gender diversity has been collected and published in various forms since 2013 but was included in the House’s Sessional Returns for the first time in July 2017 (for the 2016-17 Session). Information on the gender of witnesses by Committee and in total was published, categorised by "discretionary" and "non-discretionary" (nondiscretionary witnesses being office holders such as Ministers, senior civil servants and chief executives of public bodies within the Committee’s remit).

The statistics for 2015-16 and 2016-17 (along with the latest data) are set out in Chapter 2, with Committee by Committee tables in the Annex.

The Good Parliament Report objectives

Attention has focussed more closely on witness diversity in recent years, drawing parallels with wider social media movements calling out all-male speaking panels. Our work was drawn into sharper focus in 2016 when the Good Parliament Report, written by Professor Sarah Childs, was published.

That report asked us, the Liaison Committee, to "require the House Service to provide comprehensive and systematic diversity data in respect of select committee witnesses at the end of each session, and establish annual rolling targets for witness representativeness". It concluded that "A rule change should be sought whereby any select committee witness panel of three or more must be sex/gender diverse if, by the end of the 2015 Parliament, select committees are not reaching a 40 percent sex/gender threshold amongst witnesses". The House service has continued to supply us with that data. The previous Liaison Committee discussed progress made during the 2015-2017 Parliament and we returned to it when we were established after the 2017 general election.

Efforts to increase gender diversity

Following our first meeting in November 2017, at which both witness and Committee member diversity was discussed, our Chair, Dr Sarah Wollaston MP, wrote to the Speaker asking for the membership of select committees to be included as part of a forthcoming gender-sensitive parliament audit which will be conducted in association with the Inter-Parliamentary Union. The Speaker confirmed this, and reiterated his support for efforts to increase witness diversity in the widest sense, while agreeing that gender was the best place to start.

Further information

Image: iStockphoto

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