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Stephen Hesford (Wirral, West): In that case, can the hon. Lady tell us what measures her party might take?

Mrs. May: If the hon. Gentleman will wait until I have got a little way into my speech, I will deal with that.

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[Interruption.] The speech is about our position on the Bill. I will outline some of the steps that the Conservative party has taken, and some of the steps that we might take.

In his intervention, the hon. Member for Wirral, West (Stephen Hesford) illustrated the point that I was about to make. It is sad and frustrating that the debate about the need to get more women into Parliament and how that can be achieved is so often side-tracked into a discussion about all-women shortlists. There are those who, when the subject is raised, leap to the conclusion that it means all-women shortlists. It does not.

There are those who—dare I say it?—are opposed to the overall aim of increasing female representation in the House, who use all-women shortlists in order to frighten the horses, if I may use that term. However, those who support the aim of increased female representation should also have a care not to jeopardise that aim by assuming that extreme measures are the only ones that will be successful.

The Secretary of State referred to the fact that prior to the 1997 election and the legal challenge to what the Labour party was doing, the Labour party used all-women shortlists, but that is not what the debate is about. The debate is about giving political parties the freedom to pursue the legitimate aim of getting more women into Parliament through whatever means suit their particular needs and circumstances. It is up to individual parties to assess the extent to which they have a problem and to find ways of resolving it.

The Bill gives us and other parties the freedom from the threat of legal action and the freedom to take whatever form of positive action we choose. It is important that the Bill is permissive, not prescriptive. It does not introduce all-women shortlists, but takes the selection of candidates for election out of that part of employment law relating to sex discrimination.

This issue often gives rise to highly emotive debate, and it is important that we lay some of the myths to rest. I am standing at the Dispatch Box not because I believe that Parliament should be rigidly statistically representative of the make-up of the population as a whole, or because I believe that without more women in Parliament, women's issues will never be properly represented. I am a firm believer that all MPs should represent the needs and interests of all their constituents. That means men getting involved in issues that particularly affect women, as well as women getting involved in issues that particularly affect men.

I shall be honest with the House. There was a time when I never thought that I would stand up in the Chamber and support such a Bill. I am standing here because I believe there are many women who are not being selected and elected who would make first-class Members of Parliament, and that Parliament as a whole, and my party in particular, is losing out on a pool of talent that would strengthen the House and enhance its public image.

The Bill is about more than strengthening the image of politics and the House. I fear that young women in particular are turned off politics because they do not see it as being for people like them. When I was thinking earlier today about what to say in the debate, I confess that my immediate thought was to make the point that many young women were put off Parliament because they see it as a sea of grey suits—although I suppose I am not in a position to make that comment today.

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Over the years, Labour and Conservatives alike have achieved significant milestones in the history of women in the House. The first woman to take her seat in the House, although not the first woman elected to the House, was a Conservative. The first woman Minister and later first woman member of the Cabinet was a Labour party member. Of course, the first woman Prime Minister was a Conservative. Both parties can claim to have had their successes in promoting women in Parliament.

As part of the move to involve more women in active politics after the introduction of female suffrage in 1918, the Conservative party agreed to reserve one third of all positions in the party hierarchy for women. Nowadays, I am pleased to say that women achieve positions in the party hierarchy without the need for such positive action. Notwithstanding the milestones that have been achieved, Westminster ranks 33rd in the world in terms of women's representation, with only 18 per cent. of Members of Parliament in this House being women, as the Secretary of State said.

Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough): The hon. Lady is making a very supportive speech. She has declared her backing of the Bill and her interest in it. However, does she not feel that the whole of her parliamentary party should be seen in the Lobby or should at least clearly show its support for the Bill throughout the debate? Is she sure that she has the support of the shadow Leader of the House, for example?

Mrs. May: I can happily assure the hon. Lady that the shadow Cabinet is of one mind on this matter.

As I said, I do not advocate a strict, statistically correct approach, but I believe that we need to ask whether selection procedures in political parties are currently ensuring that women who would make excellent Members of Parliament are overlooked simply because they are women or because the procedure operates against them.

The Labour party's use of all-women shortlists in 1997 led to a dramatic increase in the number of women in the House, although it was challenged in the European courts. [Interruption.] It was challenged in an industrial tribunal, but I think that an issue was raised later concerning European legislation with regard to all-women shortlists. European legislation has already been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley). The Secretary of State will be aware that we do not oppose the Bill, but those who understand that it is important for this legislation to be enacted believe that it behoves Ministers to be certain that it will not fall foul of European law. I trust that the winding-up speech will include a categorical assurance that that is the case.

I would like to pick up one of the issues raised by the Secretary of State in relation to local councils. The right hon. Gentleman made a very good point about their importance as a possible route into Westminster and a good training ground for Members of Parliament. Obviously, being a local councillor is a valuable thing to do in its own right. I have been a local councillor, as, indeed, has the Secretary of State, and I know from experience that many of the people who are elected to our local councils would also make good Members of Parliament and can see from working in a council that their ambition could go further. Personally, I have always felt that we should encourage councillors to look to Westminster and consider coming here.

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I have already emphasised that the Bill is about the principle of allowing political parties to take positive action to encourage the election of more women to Parliament. Thus, as the Secretary of State said, its timing is significant. It is important that it is introduced early in the current Parliament to enable political parties to make decisions about their selection procedures. That applies especially in respect of the next general election, although other elections are coming along, such as those for the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and so on.

A number of measures can be taken. Before the last election, the Conservative party had a policy of encouraging our constituency associations to interview at least the same proportion of women as applied for the seat. We are now in the process of reconsidering our selection procedures to see what further measures need to be taken to ensure that women are not discriminated against in the selection process.

Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands): Does the hon. Lady still hold the view that young women who are considering a parliamentary career should not do so until their families are in a position to be left?

Mrs. May: I have never held such a view or expressed such an opinion. I suspect that the hon. Lady has read an incorrect report that was featured on BBC Online some months ago. BBC Online made corrections as soon as I saw that the remarks that had supposedly been made were attributed to me, and the production was changed. I am sorry to say that a member of the Conservative party enunciated the views that were expressed, but they have never been mine and I would never make such remarks.

Virginia Bottomley (South-West Surrey): Will my hon. Friend confirm that Baroness Thatcher became a Member of Parliament when she had twin children aged six?

Mrs. May: I am very happy to confirm that. Those who have been through the Conservative party selection process consider that the election of Baroness Thatcher at a time when she was the mother of young children showed even more the remarkable nature of that particular lady.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate): Will the hon. Lady also confirm that Baroness Thatcher argued very strongly, on returning to this country after a visit to Moscow, against the provision of child care places? She did so because of the examples that she had seen in the then USSR of poor little children being taken to nurseries at 6 o'clock in the morning.

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