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Mr. Byers: I have been trying to avoid the issue of councillors' allowances and pensions for the last two
To return to the serious point about the number of women serving as locally elected councillors, in England, women councillors account for 27 per cent. of local councillors. In Wales, only 20 per cent. of unitary councillors are women. In Scotland, a survey conducted after local government reorganisation found that just over 22 per cent. of councillors were female. Clearly, therefore, there is a major issue of under-representation. Representation in political parties at local government level is low, for reasons of which people will be acutely aware. About 26 per cent. of both Conservative and Labour councillors are women. The Liberal Democrats do better; just over 33 per cent. of their councillors are women, but most people would agree that that figure is still far too low. Some councils do well; 50 per cent. of the councillors on Islington council, for example, are women. The Bill is drafted so that political parties can introduce positive measures to ensure that more women can stand for election as local councillors, and it is important that we recognise that.
After First Reading, I was asked what was the point of introducing a Bill when only the Labour party would use its provisions to introduce positive measures. It will quite rightly be for political parties to make their own decision, and positive measures will be introduced in different ways. However, it is important that the Bill is being introduced in this parliamentary Session because it will be next September or October that many political parties will determine at conference the method by which candidates for the next general election are selected. If we fail to enact the Bill in this Session, political parties will be unable to introduce election procedures allowing the use of positive measures. I am therefore personally grateful that the Government have been able to find time for the Bill.
Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley): On the point about whether it would be only the Labour party that would adopt the measures, will my right hon. Friend comment on the fact that, in my constituency at the last election, we had an all-female list of candidates for the Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour parties? That was probably only because we had the encouragement of measures for positive action, and it meant that there was a woman MP. Does my right hon. Friend agree that once having women candidates and MPs is seen to be valuable, there will be pressures on all political parties to seek to use those positive measures to get more women candidates?
Mr. Byers: My hon. Friend has made an important point. People and political parties should be able to see that the priorities of, for example, the governing party reflect the number of women Members of Parliament, as I believe the policies that we adopted between 1997 and 2001 did. The relevance of those priorities to many people, particularly women, ensures that they reflect the priorities of the country's population. One reason why we were successful at the last election is that our programme
If we look at our own experience, we can see that positive measures are the only practical means by which we can increase women's representation. I know that there is an argument that we should give support by encouraging people and providing lots of training, as of course, we should. However, the only way to achieve genuine improvement in the representation of women is for political parties to adopt positive measures.
Joan Ryan (Enfield, North): Does my right hon. Friend agree that if success in selection and election to national and local bodies was based entirely on merit, there would be many more women in the House and our local councils? The Bill is about removing the barriers that stop women having the opportunities to succeed on merit, which is important. Opposition Members often diminish the significance of such measures to diminish women who want to put themselves forward but face huge barriers.
Mr. Byers: My hon. Friend is right. The Bill will give political parties that freedom and break down the barriers that exist. We must be honest enough in the debate to recognise that, whether we like it or not, those barriers are present in political parties. We must take on the arguments. The Bill will allow parties to have a debate about the positive measures that should be taken. Some political parties will resist positive measures. That will be their decision, but because we are removing the effect of the Jepson decision, there will be no hiding place for political parties. They will have to account to the electorate for any continuing under-representation of women on their Benches. That will be reflected in the way in which people vote in the general election.
Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): Will the Secretary of State give way?
Mr. Byers: Yes, of course. I know that the hon. Gentleman has some interesting ideas on the subject.
Mr. Lansley: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I hope that I have some interesting ideas, and that I will have the opportunity to catch Madam Deputy Speaker's eye in order to explain them a little more. At this point, I am interested in the right hon. Gentleman's ideas. There are different methods of positive action. Parties may choose whether or not to introduce positive action, and they may choose different forms of positive action. To what extent might the Secretary of State contemplate the Labour party taking positive action? Is he advocating a return to the system of 199396 and women-only shortlists? More to the point, if he were advocating such a thing, does he think that, notwithstanding the Bill, it would be liable to challenge under the equal treatment directive?
Mr. Byers: Clearly, it will be a matter for individual political parties to decide on any measures that they want
To understand why positive measures are necessary, we need only look at the level of women's representation in the House: 23 per cent. of Labour Members of Parliament are women. For the Conservatives, the figure is just over 8 per cent., and for the Liberal Democrats, just over 9 per cent. The Liberal Democrat conference was told last month that if just 4,149 votes had gone the other way, the Liberal Democrats would have had no women Members of Parliament at all. That shows how fragile women's representation is on the Liberal Democrat Benches.
Mr. Peter Duncan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale) rose
Mr. Byers: I am about to conclude, as I know that many hon. Members want to contribute to the debate.
The Bill will allow political parties to take positive action. The Government believe that it is right to give political parties that freedom. I hope that the Bill will be supported in all parts of the House, and that we can send out a clear signal that the status quo is simply not an option, that action must be taken, and that the issue of women's under-representation must be addressed as a priority. That is what the Bill will achieve. I commend it to the House.
Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead): It is a pleasure to speak on the Bill. I listened with great interest to the opening speech by the Secretary of State, including the long list of measures that he read out which the Government have taken to help women into the workplace. No one in the House is in any doubt of his personal commitment to keeping women in the workplace.
The Bill is an enabling Bill designed to allow political parties the freedom to take positive action to try to secure a greater representation of women as Members of the House. I make it clear from the start that the official Opposition will not oppose the Bill. That is a position that we struck as a party when the Bill was first mooted before the election, and I am pleased to confirm that position today. We support both the aim and the principle that underlie the legislationthe aim to get more women into Parliament, and the principle that political parties should have the freedom to decide how to achieve that and to determine their own selection procedures.
It may be helpful if, at this early stage of the debate, I make it clear that our support for the principle of the Bill does not mean that my party or I support the concept of women-only shortlists.