Southend Council discussion of gender-neutral language erupts into row

What started as a discussion over a new council policy that will remove gender-specific titles in Southend Council erupted into a furious exchange over allegations of sexism.

Members of the council’s Policy and Resources Scrutiny Committee met on Thursday night to discuss a policy that aims to allow councillors to be addressed in the way they want, with terms such as ‘Mr Mayor’ and ‘Mrs Mayor’ being reduced to just ‘Mayor’.

But when members of the Conservative group raised questions over the need for the change the meeting descended into anarchy, with Tory leader Councillor Tony Cox accusing a female Liberal Democrat councillor of sexism, before being accused of violence by a member of Labour.

Addressing the Tories, who had raised a number of questions on the topic, Lib Dem councillor Beth Hooper said: “This is what we expect in a normal grown up society in the 21st century. This isn’t a big issue.

“I don’t know why we are having such an in-depth discussion as it won’t bother you long-term, but it does bother people like me and Councillor Helen McDonald, and there is only two of us on this committee.

“May I ask why you don’t have a single woman talking on this subject?”
Cllr Cox angrily hit back at the question, which he branded an “utter disgrace” and claimed it implies he does not have the right to ask questions about the policy due to his gender.

He said: “What a quite frankly sexist comment to make. How can you have the blatant audacity to say that that only you as a female have the right to comment on a certain item?

“We are talking about gender equality and you make one of the most blatantly sexist comment that you could make imaginable. How dare you.”

He went on to say that if a man said the comment they would have been “Shanghaied out of here” and “hung drawn and quartered at the end of the pier”.

Ms Hooper urged meeting chair Cllr David Garston to take control of the meeting as the angry exchange was making her feel “really uncomfortable” but Mr Cox was allowed to continue.

During a later discussion which centred on the council’s support of White Ribbon, a campaign that focuses on ending male violence against women, Labour Councillor Daniel Cowan said councillors had seen “an act of violence against a woman” during the meeting.

Mr Garston said he “disassociated” himself from Mr Cowan’s comment.

The issue, which members of the Conservative group said risks “censoring” language has been referred to the next full council meeting for further debate.

Steve Shaw

Local Democracy Reporter