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Mr. Prescott: Yes, that is an important point. It is a matter of considerable concern that there are about 750,000 empty houses in the UK, very few of which are in the south-east or London. We have established a national empty house agency to work with local authorities, and I believe that £160,000 has been provided to help that process. We want to ensure that there is affordable housing, and using existing housing areas and converting existing properties have an important part to play in developing communities and achieving the balance of 60 per cent. of new houses on brownfield sites and 40 per cent. on greenfield sites.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest): The Deputy Prime Minister has announced his intention to impose a large number of new houses on my constituency. Will he confirm that, in answer to questions from my hon. Friends, he has not undertaken to provide funding for the schools, hospitals and roads that we will need once we have all those new houses and new people?

Mr. Prescott: The first point is that we have not imposed any figure on any local authority at this stage. We have made a judgment as to what the annual figure should be. The previous Administration set that figure for 20 years; we say that it should be set for five years. Discussions will take place between the Government and, in this case, Serplan, which represents the local authorities, about how that figure may be distributed. Serplan has suggested the number of houses that will be imposed on the hon. Lady's area. We have to agree to that. New houses will be built in all local authority areas; it is the proportion that must be decided.

Mrs. Laing: What about the funding?

Mr. Prescott: As to the finance, Governments have responsibility to provide the finance for education and infrastructure. We are putting billions of pounds into the infrastructure in the south-east. It might not be in the hon. Lady's constituency, but it is considerably more than under the previous Administration.

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Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): Central to the Government's hoped-for success of their policy must be the Secretary of State's enthusiasm for terraced housing, which in today's jargon is high-density, low-level development. Is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied that it is possible to build 165 homes per acre or 400 homes per hectare? If so, does he realise that that necessarily means gardens for only a few, communal hallways and on-street parking? Overarching all that, does he accept that the success of his policy must depend on pretty radical proposals being delivered by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in a fortnight?

Mr. Prescott: With regard to density, our emphasis is on high-quality design. I have pointed out that, although the average density is 24 houses per hectare, on the millennium site it is 80 houses per hectare. On Georgian terraces, there is high-density housing, but those are desirable properties. The Poundbury development, to which I referred, has a density of about 40 houses per hectare, but it has gardens and is highly desirable. That is the challenge to the designer.

I invite the hon. Gentleman to look at some of the designs being produced, varying from the high-level designs into which we put a great deal of money a long time ago, to low-level and medium density, perhaps two or three storeys. The required density can be achieved, provided that the quality of design is good. That is the key factor, which is why we are giving it so much attention.

Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester): Does the Secretary of State agree that the term "brownfield" cannot be used to describe sports fields, open spaces or landscaped gardens? Will he give an assurance that there will be no double standards in the Government, and that he will instruct the

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Ministry of Defence, the national health service and others selling off land to follow the brownfield criteria that he put forward?

Mr. Prescott: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, which we emphasise in policy planning guidance note 3. Land owned by local authorities, the Ministry of Defence or any public body should be in our national databank and should be taken into consideration.

Mr. Burns: Can the Secretary of State tell me unequivocally what the impact of his statement will be on a place such as West Chelmsford, which is expected to build 11,000 houses and where there are not enough brownfield sites for 60 per cent. build? Over the past week, we have seen proposals for 3,200 extra homes in villages such as Margaretting, for more than 1,500 homes on rural greenfield sites in the west of Chelmsford, and for others in the north on greenfield sites. What changes will there be?

Mr. Prescott: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The 60 per cent. brownfield site that we have agreed is a national figure and will vary from area to area. In London it could be as much as 80 per cent., but areas outside London, such as those mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, do not have that proportion of brownfield site available. That is why we have set a national figure. Through Serplan, we will consider how to distribute those homes. All Governments have had to face the fact that, in order to meet the need for affordable housing, some houses will have to be built on greenfield sites.

Several hon. Members rose--

Madam Speaker: Thank you, Mr. Prescott. We must move on.

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Speaker's Statement

4.29 pm

Madam Speaker: I have looked into the circumstances of the written answer that was given yesterday by the Home Office on arrangements for asylum seekers. The matter was raised last night by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) and by the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe).

Although I am satisfied that no formal breach of the rules relating to pursuant answers has occurred, it is important that the House is given proper notice of the tabling of questions. The Home Office could have met that criterion simply by answering other questions already standing on yesterday's Order Paper, and without resorting to providing a further answer to a question that was tabled some three months ago.

I regret the use that was made of the procedure yesterday. Had the Table Office had any indication of the scope and extent of the reply, I would have advised it that it was not the practice of the House to allow pursuant answers to be used in that way.

I look to Departments to ensure that answers pursuant to earlier questions are made only in limited circumstances to correct or add information, and are not used to make substantial written statements. To do otherwise is to avoid giving proper notice of important impending answers. I believe that I have made my views clear.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mrs. Barbara Roche): I accept your ruling completely, Madam Speaker. I wish to apologise to you and to the House for any inadvertent breach of the procedure.

Madam Speaker: I am grateful, Mrs. Roche. Thank you very much.

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Sex Discrimination (Amendment) (No. 2)

4.31 pm

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford): I beg to move,

I am promoting the Bill because in 1996 the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 was used, contrary to its purpose, to prevent positive action in the selection of Labour women parliamentary candidates. The Bill is necessary for the future avoidance of doubt. In 1993, the Labour party adopted a new selection procedure whereby candidates for winnable seats would be selected from all-women shortlists. Although the policy was controversial, it was highly successful until two disgruntled male would-be candidates challenged it at an industrial tribunal.

Although political parties were exempted from parts of the SDA, the tribunal maintained that selection as a parliamentary candidate led to employment, and that that breached the vital employment provisions of the Act. Industrial tribunal decisions are specific to the case on which they are made. The judgment was not binding on others and did not make all-women shortlists illegal. However, only an appeal could have confirmed or overturned the decision. Such an appeal was never made.

Consequently, many politicians and commentators have held that all positive action is potentially illegal. Indeed, I can testify to the constant challenges that I, as Minister for Women, and my colleagues faced in pressing for positive action under the twinning arrangements that were adopted for selecting equal numbers of Labour women and men for the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly.

While it remains my view, and that of leading barristers, that the SDA's employment provisions do not apply to the selection of parliamentary candidates, the Bill will remove any doubt. It provides for the specific exemption of political parties from the employment provisions of the SDA only when they are selecting candidates for parliamentary or local government elections, and are trying to redress the unequal treatment of women and men. The Bill prescribes nothing, but I am confident that it would remove any ambiguity from future positive action by a political party. It would also stop the Conservative party from hiding behind the smokescreen of illegality.

Why does this matter? If women cannot get selected by political parties, they cannot be elected. The result is a profound democratic deficit. Women make up 51 per cent. of our population, but more than 80 per cent. of Members of Parliament are men. In a democracy, the elected Parliament should mirror the society it represents. That view is not universal--certainly not in the House. However, I ask hon. Members to consider carefully their understanding of political representation.

There are two possible ways in which a group's interest can be represented: by the presence of its members in the decision-making process, or by having its interests simply taken into account in that process. I know which way most women would prefer; however, it is for men to answer.

No one denies that there are men, not least in the House, who have championed women's causes and campaigned on women's issues--I am pleased to have

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several as sponsors of my Bill. Indeed, the SDA was introduced by a male Home Secretary in Harold Wilson's Government. However, by definition, men cannot bring a woman's perspective to the whole range of political concerns. Most women Members contribute to the House through different life experiences and perspectives. Women electors agree that recent research shows that women still think that women politicians are more in touch with their lives than men. Women want more women MPs because they think that we are more likely to understand the problems that they face. I am proud that my party has recognised that fact. The presence of 101 Labour women, including 34 Ministers, has ensured delivery of policies on women's priorities--child care, family friendly working, the minimum wage, increased child benefit, improved maternity rights and financial help for the less well off through the working families tax credit.

Under the direction of my right hon. Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), the women's unit was established to maintain a focus on delivery for women across all Departments. More recently, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Equal Opportunities has exposed the startling pay inequalities still faced by women in Britain today. The contributions of Labour women Back Benchers are too numerous to catalogue, but they have been well documented in a Fabian Society pamphlet by my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart).

The challenge is how to maintain the momentum. Over the past 80 years, close on 4,500 Members have served in the House. Only 239 have been women. It is significant that two out of every three of those women were Labour women. The position is even more marked today--women MPs make up 24 per cent. of the parliamentary Labour party, but only 9 per cent. of Conservatives and 7 per cent. of Liberal Democrats. It would be easy for my party to rest on its laurels and wait for the opposition parties to catch up, but that would be neither fair nor just, and it would be out of step with modernisation. Our policy of 50:50 shortlists and the aim of equal representation in Parliament remain.

We are not alone. Women all over the world are campaigning for positive action to ensure more equal representation of women--not because women are less able and need special treatment, but because the pace of cultural change is too slow to remove the structural and institutional barriers to proper political power sharing. Where positive action has been applied over the years in other European countries, Governments have not become ineffective nor their Parliaments dysfunctional. The Inter-Parliamentary Union's world league for women's parliamentary representation is topped by seven European countries: Sweden leads with more than 40 per cent. and Germany is seventh with more than 30 per cent.--but the United Kingdom, with 18 per cent., comes in 31st.

My Bill lays down no prescription, but it would remove any excuses. Labour Members know that positive action works and we need more of it. Tory spokesmen oppose such actions, calling them patronising and likely to produce second-rate candidates. I wonder how many Tory hon. Gentlemen feel that they were patronised or are second-rate Members because they were shielded from

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female competition by all-male shortlists. True equality would mean having women as well as men with the whole range of talents, from brilliance to mediocrity, as Members of Parliament.

Others hold that it is impossible for women with children to cope in this place. I ask, what about the men with children? The nonsense of last Tuesday's all-night sitting is an argument for timetabling all legislation, not for excluding women Members.

Finally, there is the argument that society is changing, and progress will come naturally. I am happy to concede that that can happen, but in 1979 the Tory party returned eight women MPs; 18 years later, it returned 13. Some progress there! Seriously, how long do women have to wait? Even if the rate of increase achieved on the back of Labour's all-woman shortlist was maintained, it would take another 30 years to bring about parity in the House. At the Tory rate, it would take more than a century.

Tomorrow, we will join women throughout the world to celebrate international women's day. I believe that it is the responsibility of this Parliament to acknowledge our democratic deficit and to remove any obstacles to the achievement of equal representation.

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