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7.10 pm

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson) because I very much agree with the points that she made. I shall return to them in a moment. First, however, I must dispel some of the illusions about the Bill. Its scope has been criticised—admittedly not in the House tonight, but outside. Some have said, "Why aren't we dealing with other under-represented groups?" Of course, there is a central difference between women and, for example, those ethnic groups that might think that we should do something for them. Women are a majority in this country and in our view that demands a separate approach and a separate priority.

It is only right to refer to minorities, however, if only because we are missing the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), who has an

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interesting view about their representation. He was quoted speaking at a No Turning Back Group dinner, whatever that may mean:

I do not subscribe to that view, but there may be people on the Conservative Benches who do.

I am delighted with the support given to the Bill by the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), who made a good speech. I hope that all parties find it in their hearts to examine carefully what they will do under the legislation, even though it is only permissive. That is an extremely important point that she made, and one to which I shall return—but first the context.

The Secretary of State made a lot of claims about the great improvements made by the Government, but I draw his attention to the fact that, since 1997 and despite all his efforts and those of the Government to improve the representation of women in public bodies generally, there has been only a 1.8 per cent. increase in the number of women appointees to public bodies. The Department of Social Security, the Treasury, what was the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Office of Telecommunications, the Inland Revenue, the Scotland Office and the Northern Ireland Office all have a smaller percentage of women on their public bodies than in 1997. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) for extracting those figures from the Government.

On current trends, the Cabinet Office and the Department of Health will reach 50 per cent. in time for a general election in 2005. The Department for Education and Skills may make it within two Parliaments and the Home Office within three. However, we cannot make predictions for the Lord Chancellor's Department, which makes some extremely important appointments, because it has exactly the same percentage as in 1997. The time taken to reach the target in that example could be infinite.

We approach the debate in that context, to which attention has already been drawn by no less a person than the Commissioner for Public Appointments, Dame Rennie Fritchie. She described the 1 per cent. drop in the overall representation of women between 1999 and 2000 as "disappointing" and warned of the inadequacies of the present legal situation. She added that those responsible for appointments

We entirely endorse the Government's view that the legislation is necessary, but the debate involves more than how the parties respond to it. Getting more women to stand and getting more women elected is all very well—it is urgently necessary—but it is not enough. It is essential that, once we attract more women to this place, we make it a better place for them to work in. That is not enough in itself either, because, of course, that is not a gender issue. We must make the House a better place for everybody to work in, especially the parents of young children, and it is extremely important to re-emphasise that point in the context of the legislation.

I have had the privilege to serve on the Modernisation Committee during the previous and present Parliaments. We have been concerned not with spending less time here,

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but with making our time more productive. That must surely apply to all Members of the House, whatever their gender, age or background. Similarly, it is extremely important to refer to a point made by the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate in her eloquent speech: we cannot merely make minor adjustments to working hours and conditions—we must consider the culture of this place.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mrs. Calton), who is recently elected and obviously able to consider the matter from a woman's point of view, is able to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, and expand the point. Having been around this place for a long time, it is clear to me that, all too often, women find themselves marginalised and even belittled.

During the speech of the hon. Member for Maidenhead, there were moments when some male Members on the other side of the House treated her in a way that they would not treat a male Front-Bench spokesperson. We must address that, because it does no credit to the House and it certainly does no good when it is seen on television or heard on radio.

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald): I never noticed such treatment.

Mr. Tyler: The right hon. Lady is a law unto herself and I would not attempt to categorise her in any way, gender or otherwise.

The real problem is the culture of this place, which is a Chamber in which loud male voices tend to predominate. Let us consider what happens at Prime Minister's questions. Those loud male voices lack respect and courtesy. Okay, we understand that there are moments of high tension and high passion, but not many women want to bellow into the microphone or from a sedentary position.

I understand that there are always exceptions, but it is not enough to say, "Wasn't it wonderful? We happen to have had our first woman Prime Minister in this country." Her husband was able to provide the facilities for personal child care. I do not think that he personally provided that care, but the funds were there to make child care available. That is not enough, however, and it is clearly not an acceptable focus for the issue.

I simply underline the general points made by the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate about the culture of this place. Furthermore, the political parties must change. Members from all three major parties will have witnessed those occasions when women candidates are asked questions that would not be asked of a man in a comparable position. We all need to examine that. My own party has sought to deal with it by training and example, but I am the first to admit that we have not been wholly successful.

Similarly, it is not enough simply to deal with the exclusion of women from the political process. We must try to retain them. Labour Members will remember the high-profile exodus from the House of a Member who simply did not feel that her place was here. There may be particular reasons behind that case, but I believe that it represents a critical analysis of the way we operate and it is extremely important that we address it. Even if it applies only to a minority of women who want to become Members of Parliament, it is a perfectly valid point that we must take into account.

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In the end, the whole exercise is not about favouritism or doing women a good turn. It is about ensuring that we all, and parliamentary democracy itself, benefit from improving the quality of our work, tapping the talents of more than half the population and taking full advantage of the particular skills of those who could bring to the job something that we desperately need. I accept the point that the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate made in that connection.

I am bound to say that there are differing views in my party about the necessity for the legislation. I for one am not an optimist. Like Mr. Gladstone, I am an old man in a hurry, so I am not prepared to wait for the results of an attempt at encouragement from some of my colleagues. That is why we made a commitment in our manifesto to deal with the need for

At our spring conference this year, we reinforced that point.

My right hon. and hon. Friends and I believe we need to kick-start the process, and that protective legislation is essential to ensure that it is effective. That applies equally to local government.

I was slightly disappointed that the Secretary of State gave the impression that it was important to help women to enter local authority work because it was a useful kindergarten for this place. Local government needs the legislation for its own sake as much as we do. In comparative terms our local government figure—33 per cent.—is rather good, but it is not good enough. Our target is 40 per cent., and I hope that the other parties will take the point too.

As I said earlier, we accept the permissive nature of the Bill. We believe that the Government had two options, and took the right one. They could have been prescriptive, which we think would have been inappropriate. Permissiveness gives the political parties an opportunity to respond to the challenge within the terms of their own party democracy and their own objectives. In making the Bill permissive, however, the Government have taken on a responsibility that they must openly acknowledge. If we take advantage of these measures, there are still likely to be considerable costs. The Government have made no regulatory impact assessment—a phrase used by them—but there is an impact on the parties, and they should assess it.

The Government's attitude is patent nonsense. Political parties are businesses or charities, or they are both. To say that there will be no impact and no likely regulatory cost is simply wrong. We ask the Government to consider the issue again, perhaps in Committee. I assure them that, if they do not, my noble Friend Lord Lester—who I think is the world expert on this subject—will want to deal with it in the other place. In his view, the Bill as drafted does not fully protect parties against an expensive legal challenge, although such a challenge might not succeed. There is a precedent, in the Neill recommendations on the funding and registration of political parties, for the Government to accept that this is a perfectly legitimate use of public funds.

The Minister who will reply may wish to contemplate the fact that his party is likely to be first in the dock. I think that the Government should come clean. They will

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have to assess the cost of the legal advice that may be necessary. Legal uncertainty has bedevilled this issue for many years in the case of both Labour and my party, and it is extremely important that progress towards equal representation is not delayed again because the necessary funding has not been available.

There should be no doubt about the fact that the permissive agenda is absolutely right, but there may be real doubts about whether we shall make progress if the parties are left to themselves to defend themselves against aggrieved applicants at either parliamentary or local government level. That has already been mentioned.

My colleagues and I are certain that these measures are necessary now. As the Secretary of State has said, other electoral systems facilitate equal representation in a way that ours currently does not. The balance of male and female members of other Parliaments and assemblies is affected not just by selection procedures but by electoral systems. In the Swedish Parliament, 43 per cent. of members—elected through proportional representation—are women. The percentages are 36.4 in the Norwegian Parliament, and 31 per cent. in the German Parliament. My figures for the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly are not quite the same as the Secretary of State's: according to my figures, 36.4 per cent. of those elected to the Scottish Parliament under PR were women, as were 38.3 per cent. of those elected to the Welsh Assembly. I suspect that that may be because there have subsequently been changes in the composition of those bodies. In any event, the percentages are far higher than those in the Westminster Parliament.

Incidentally, the Secretary of State did not mention that 40 per cent. of members of the Greater London Assembly are women—again, elected according to a fairer system. According to my figures, 17.9 per cent. of Members of the House of Commons are women, whereas in the last Parliament the percentage was 18.2.

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