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Mrs. May: I am happy to tell the hon. Lady that I have no knowledge of that particular comment of Baroness Thatcher. All I can say is that parties move on in their attitudes to some of these things.

I come now to the part of my speech in which I can respond to the intervention of the hon. Member for Wirral, West. I wish to speak about a proposal that I have made, together with my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire. I am pleased that my hon. Friend is present, as he has long been a champion of the cause of

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getting more women into Parliament—as, indeed, have a number of my hon. Friends who are sitting behind me.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham): And beside you.

Mrs. May: I am very pleased to confirm that they are also sitting next to me.

We propose a limited list that is more balanced between men and women, and which includes a proportion of candidates from ethnic minority communities. Such a balanced and limited list would enable associations to continue to have the freedom to select their own candidates, but from a candidates' list that is balanced between men and women. It has long been my contention that one of the measures that my party needs to take is to increase the number of women on our candidates' lists. A limited and balanced list would enable constituencies to choose from men and women in equal numbers.

Stephen Hesford: In reality, we know that Conservative associations can choose whoever they want. They do not have to choose candidates from the list. If they wanted to avoid the issue and choose whoever they wanted, they could do so.

Mrs. May: I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's comments. I suspect that he has never tried to stand as a Conservative candidate, as it is obvious that he does not know as much about the party's procedures as he thinks. There is a candidates' list and associations have the freedom to choose from people whose names are on that list, but they cannot choose from outside it. Limited and balanced lists would therefore help to resolve inequalities. I think that the introduction of such lists is a positive measure that could well be adopted.

Sandra Osborne (Ayr): Is the hon. Lady aware that, before the 1992 election, the Labour party had a policy of including at least one woman on every shortlist, but completely failed to succeed in selecting more women? Does she agree that a positive measure is required?

Mrs. May: I accept that view. I have spoken to a number of people about the sort of measures that parties have adopted in the past. The idea to which the hon. Lady refers, which has been debated in the Conservative party, does not always ensure the sort of positive results that we are seeking. As I said, however, my party is currently considering its selection procedure and concepts such as that of a limited and gender-balanced list from which associations can choose their candidates. The number of women on such a list would ensure that more women were selected to fight for seats.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford): The hon. Lady and I have had a number of conversations on this subject, and I well understand the support that she is expressing today. Do the proposals that she and the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) have been discussing include any targets regarding the number of years that it might take for the Conservative party to increase the number of women by, say, 20 per cent. or 25 per cent?

Mrs. May: The hon. Lady will know that it is always difficult to predict election results and to know which

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seats one will be able to win, so it is difficult to predict the number of years that it will take to reach a particular point.

Caroline Flint (Don Valley) rose

Joan Ryan rose

Mrs. May: I am answering the intervention that I have just taken. I hope that the two hon. Ladies who have just risen will forgive me for not giving way, as I am about to finish my speech. A lot of hon. Members want to make their own points in the debate and it is only fair to give them that opportunity. I shall complete my answer to the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock). If we had a limited list, we could have a target number of seats. For example, we could have 100 seats, which were divided 50:50, so that we might be looking at getting 50 women into Parliament. We could approach the issue in that way, rather than having a target number of years, which might be more difficult to work with.

I am grateful for the latitude that you have given me, Madam Deputy Speaker. I realise that we are not here to debate the internal procedures of any particular political party. However, I have raised those points because it is important to show that the Conservative party is examining the kinds of positive action that can be taken to get more women selected without going down the route of all-women shortlists—positive action that a party would have the freedom to pursue under the provisions of the Bill.

I repeat to the Government that we share their aim of seeing more women elected to Parliament, and we welcome the fact that the Bill will clarify the legal position on positive action in the selection of election candidates. We welcome the permissive principle in the Bill that individual political parties should have the freedom to determine their own selection procedures, and I hope that at the next election we shall all be able to see the life of Parliament enhanced by the election of more women as Members of Parliament.

Several hon. Members rose

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. May I remind hon. Members that Mr. Speaker has imposed a time limit of 10 minutes on Back-Bench speeches?

7.1 pm

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate): I shall begin by thanking my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench for introducing the Bill with such speed after the Queen's Speech. I also pay tribute to the present Minister for Women and her predecessors who, I have no doubt, worked long and hard to ensure that the House had the opportunity to debate this important issue. I say that with the slight cavil that there is something rather depressing about the fact that, here in the somewhat ironically named mother of Parliaments, in the second year of the 21st century, we are having to debate how to increase the equality of opportunity for women.

I was extremely encouraged by the speech made by the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), leading for the official Opposition. I must be honest—I had expected to hear ferocious arguments emanating from those on the

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Conservative Benches. In the light of the expressions of a couple of female hon. Members sitting behind her, we might still hear some fierce opposition to what is being proposed. We have a side bet running on these Benches as to who will be the first to use the words "token" and "patronising". There is not a lot of money on it, however.

It is particularly important that the Bill does not attempt to prescribe the methods that political parties use to ensure a more honest reflection of the gender balance of this country. I was surprised to discover from the excellent briefing document produced by the Library that the gender division in the United Kingdom is not, as I had thought, 50:50, but 51 per cent. women. I was interested in the point made by the hon. Member for Maidenhead that there must be more women in the House—I realise that I am paraphrasing—to reflect those issues that are important to women. I have never argued, and I know that the hon. Lady was not arguing, that we need more women because—

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): She did not say that.

Glenda Jackson: If the hon. Gentleman would be rather more silent, he would realise that I was making the point that the hon. Lady was not saying that we need more women because only women can proselytise on issues important to women. I have never believed that there is something called a "women's issue". The issues that have made law in this and every other democratic assembly around the world affect, directly and indirectly, the women in those countries. Women are not an homogenous group. There are as many varied political opinions as there are women's views on how we should, dress, bring up our children, and treat or mistreat our male partners.

To ensure that the life of this Chamber makes a continuing and energising contribution to the democracy of this and other nation states, it is important that we begin to reflect more accurately how the lives of women have changed and continue to change. I do not accept that every woman who comes into this place must be a genius. We shall not have achieved what I desire if the make-up of this place is a conglomeration of human abilities and human moralities, which in the short term would mean that everyone sitting on these green Benches would be a saint or ready for sanctification. That is not what this Chamber should be about. This Chamber should be a reflection of the democratic life of this country—its prejudices as much as its liberalities. There should be a place here for a second-rate woman, as heaven only knows there are places for second-rate men, and have been for a considerable period of time during the history of this establishment.

The hon. Lady referred to grey suits. Young women—whether visiting the Chamber to listen to our debates, watching them on television or listening to them on the radio—regard the procedures and practices of this place as totally irrelevant to their lives. They cannot perceive anything in this place that is meaningful to their lives, or, more important, any contribution that they could make. That is why it is vital that political parties change the way in which we select our candidates. This is the central and essential issue.

If we are going to make our democratic processes in central and local government rather more exciting to the electorate, we must ensure that democracy can grow,

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develop and change. It will have to change. The world at the moment is attempting to come to terms with fundamental and basic changes. When ones reads or listens to exchanges arising, for example, out of the obscenities of 11 September, lip service is being paid to the drastic changes in the world, but there is very little change in our approach to these issues, either philosophically or morally. Certainly there are political changes, but it is one thing to say that we want change, and quite another to deliver it. That is why we have to attach and attract future generations, particularly women.

What is a political arena essentially about? Surely it is about individuals coming together to create a society in which the unique nature of every member of that society can be fostered and encouraged, and in which everyone can live in a structured way without impediment to discovery or dissent, and without going over the precipice into extremes of violence or refusing to listen to anyone else's point of view. A political arena is about how people construct those societies, and how they develop ways of living together and supporting each other across a wide range of realities.

Here, I have to make my only gender-biased point. It is that I believe that the lives of most women are infinitely entrenched in the realities of the exchanges between individual human beings, partly because we are expected to carry responsibility across a wide range of lives in our own countries. We are expected to be—nine times out of 10 we are—responsible for raising children and caring for elderly parents. We are expected to take the role of nurse, doctor, psychiatrist, business manager, chauffeur, gardener, plumber, electrician, window cleaner—you name it, that is what we are expected to do. We are equally expected to have an interest in and commitment to not only our immediate family but our wider community in the world.

It has been my pleasant experience always to have met and worked with women who are only too happy to accept those responsibilities. They regard them in many ways as a privilege, because the benefits of that day in, day out exchange with human beings can be immense and, indeed, intense. Such commitment—the rooted sense of what it is to be a human being, with all the accompanying frailties and strengths—is one of my main reasons for wanting 50 per cent. of these Benches to be filled by those of my gender.

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