Southend Council to adopt gender neutral language after further rows

Southend Council is to begin using ‘gender neutral’ language after the policy faced accusations of censorship and comparisons to controlling language in a totalitarian state.

The policy has been under discussion for more than two months and become so controversial that one female councillor has been accused of sexism, a male councillor accused of ‘violence’, and two others have faced formal complaints.

The rows continued during a meeting on Tuesday night when councillors spent an hour arguing over what a gender-specific term is and why neutral terms are needed.

Others made extreme comparisons to the totalitarian state described in George Orwell’s novel 1984.

Councillor Helen McDonald, who initially proposed the idea, said: “Gender neutral language is commonplace in the public and private sector and is a simple way of demonstrating inclusiveness.

“It is one very small step of what I am hoping will be a longer journey to achieving gender parity amongst councillors and greater gender equality across the council as a whole.”

She added: “I think we need to consider what the cost of not using inclusive language is.

“It may not be financial, but it will be significant if we continue to potentially alienate whole sectors of our community who wish to engage with local politics. This is about removing barriers.”

Labour council leader Councillor Ian Gilbert also explained that it would not come at any cost to the council as policies would be updated over time when broader updates are needed.

He explained it simply meant changing the council’s “default position and councillors would have the right to be addressed using gender-specific terms if they wished.

But when he could not confirm any formal complaints had been made about language used in the council, Conservative group leader Cllr Tony Cox said it was “demonising people for saying something other people haven’t found offensive”.

He said: “You could argue this is people finding offence on someone else’s behalf when the other person hasn’t found it offensive.”

The policy makes no reference to restricting or censoring language, only favouring more neutral terms such as referring to ‘chair’ rather than ‘chairman’ but Tory Councillor Alex Bright compared it to an attempt to control language.

Something that he said, “must be resisted”.

He said: “Strong parallels with George Orwell’s 1984 come to mind, whereby the engineered language of newspeak is enforced in Orwell’s fictional totalitarian state. Through controlling language is to curb personal identity and freedom of thought.

“All attempt to control language and therefore our freedoms must be resisted no matter how minor or major those freedoms appear.”

Despite the strong Tory opposition and a vote on whether the policy should be reviewed for a third time by council leaders, the majority voted in favour of it going ahead.

Steve Shaw

Local Democracy Reporter