Female councillors have criticised the Local Government Association chair after he made a joke from the podium in which he described women as “birds”.
Lord Porter (Con), who is also the leader of South Holland DC in Lincolnshire, had said that in his rural area residents did not mind being woken by birds singing, but were more averse to being kept up by “birds” singing after a night out than residents of cities.
Later on Tuesday, Ruth Dombey (Lib Dem), leader of Sutton LBC, made what she later described as a “discreet” reference to Lord Porter’s joke in her remarks at a session on women in politics.
“We need to be honest and have an honest conversation about what are the real obstacles that are preventing people coming forward,” she said.
“Some of this is about language. There is a way of expressing oneself in politics. You need to look around the room and see who isn’t laughing when you make the crack.
“There was a joke made previously – I won’t say who by because I know him well enough to know that he’d be genuinely appalled for me to say this – but [among] the women round where I was sitting when he made that crack no-one was laughing.”
Cllr Dombey’s criticism came during a panel discussing barriers to women entering local politics, among them what some called the “macho” culture of politics, and particularly partisan displays.
The LGA also faced criticism from some audience members for the gender and ethnicity of its speakers, the speakers up until the women’s panel being mostly white men. However, the LGA insists its conference programme has equal numbers of male and female speakers.
Alison Butler (Lab), Croydon LBC’s deputy leader, told the women’s panel: “I think we’re being dramatically let down by this conference today. If people have been here all day they’ve seen the platforms. They’ve been absolutely dominated by males.
“Prior to this session coming on we only had one woman asking a question and then we had the one speaker prior to you [Suella Braverman, minister at the Department for Exiting the EU]. And as you’ve seen, the majority of people, both men and women, got up and left when it was an all-women’s panel.
“I think when the chair of an organisation thinks it’s appropriate to make a joke about women and call them ‘birds’ then that definitely is indicative, and this panel should be asking for an apology from him.”
Responding to this question, Cllr Dombey, called such language “unacceptable”, adding that it needed to be called out. “We need to talk very clearly about what is acceptable and what isn’t,” she said.
Summing up the session, Marianne Overton (Ind), vice-chair at LGA, said: “I do accept the challenge around this not being a very diverse panel here, absolutely, and I hope we will do better next year on that.”
The LGA did not respond to specific press questions about Lord Porter’s remarks.
Also on the panel session, Cllr Dombey said that to promote women’s participation in politics she would advocate stricter measures against online abuse.
“I would ensure that every threat, every abuse and every act of intimidation against women politicians on social media, in the press and in the council chamber is properly investigated, and its perpetrators charged and convicted of the crimes they have committed,” she said.
“The macho, combative nature and culture in British politics is holding back not just many women, but many good men from contributing. The death threats, the rape threats, the bullying and the intimidating behavior have to stop.”
An LGA spokesperson said the conference had a 50:50 gender balance, with 58 male and 58 women speakers.