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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. The hon. Lady has had her 10 minutes.

8.16 pm

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): I am glad to follow the hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) but sorry that we did not have the opportunity to hear more of her comments. In a sense, my starting point for the support that I wish to give my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) in not opposing the Bill derives from the same origins as the intention of the hon. Member for Don Valley in relation to the Labour party. However we debate the principles of these matters, there is a woefully poor representation of women in Parliament. That is especially true of my Benches, but it is also true of the Labour Benches, and it is important that we change it.

I will come on to why I think that the Bill does not necessarily suffer from some of the problems to which my right hon. Friends the Members for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) and for South-West Surrey (Virginia Bottomley) referred. Perhaps I can go further than my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead in hoping that the Conservative party might use the opportunities available in the Bill.

We need to do something about the situation. I suspect that in 1975, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald said, there would have been an expectation that, using the exception provided in the legislation for political parties from the application of sex discrimination legislation, political parties would, if anything, have been more active in pursuing positive discrimination and more successful in achieving the entry of women into Parliament than was the case for some of the other professions.

When one thinks of Parliament as a profession, one thinks of other professions and the extent to which we, as a Parliament, reflect the nature of the society that we serve. That is why we have to allow the opportunity for more positive action. We do not represent the society that we wish to serve, and we have to do so if we are to be successful as a Parliament. If we consider some of the professions in which women have been increasing their representation, we have clearly failed. In the medical profession, 31 per cent. of doctors are women, but so are 46 per cent. of senior house officers and 50 per cent. of house officers, while 60 per cent. of general practice trainees are women. Although only 19 per cent. of chartered accountants are women—not so many—45 per cent. of chartered accountant students have been women this year.

The law is often thought of as the profession from which so many parliamentarians have been and continue to be drawn. Of the 6,056 entrants to the profession up to July this year, 51 per cent. were women.

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Something very serious is going on. For generations Parliament has been, broadly, a place to which people come from the law, medicine or other professions, but the composition of the House does not reflect the change that has occurred in society. We must do something about that. We have to allow positive action to be taken, but what sort of action?

The issue is whether we need this legislation to take such action. The problem—the Minister can no doubt explain this better than I—is that it is unclear whether positive action can be taken. We must make it clear. We should be able to take action to treat genders—and, for that matter, races and minorities—equally. The principles of equal treatment and positive action are not mutually exclusive.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald argued that positive discrimination is undesirable because it results in negative discrimination for others. I am through the gate, as it were, so I am perhaps less vulnerable, but men should not be chary of having to fight for reasonable representation on their merits while women do the same.

The issue is—my right hon. Friend raised this explicitly—whether, if a man regards himself as exceptionally well qualified to represent a particular constituency, given the nature of our electoral system, it would be grossly unfair for him not to be selected. That is why women-only shortlists are not the way to proceed. That is what my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead made clear from the Opposition Front Bench.

With all respect to the Secretary of State, when he answered my question, I think that he missed the point. The Labour party may wish to go down the path of women-only shortlists, but the question is not whether that is proportionate to the objective; the test will be whether, according to the European Court of Justice ruling on the Abrahamsson case, it will lead to a situation in which

There is a risk for the Labour party, but as political parties, we would do well to embrace this principle when using the powers under the Bill. We must ensure that where an objective assessment of the personal situation of candidates can be applied, there will always be an opportunity to override what might otherwise be giving priority of preference to remedying the gross under- representation overall.

I will confine my remaining remarks to the Conservative party. We should set out to arrive at a system that will rapidly amend the gross under- representation of women on our Benches, but which will allow individual constituencies to select candidates on the basis of their individual merits.

The sort of system that I advocate will operate on the basis that, until now, far too few women candidates who have been endorsed by Conservative central office have been on candidate lists. If we increase the proportion of women, broadly speaking, to 50 per cent., particularly for

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constituencies that we hold or are most likely to win, we stand a good chance of requiring those constituencies to ensure that we end up with more women representatives.

Miss Widdecombe: Is the small percentage of women on the list the result of the procedures or of the fact that not enough women come forward in the first place?

Mr. Lansley: It is the result of both, but I will not go into the matter at great length. We need to reform procedures and we need to recruit far more women. We will only be successful in recruiting more—there are many women of obvious talent and merit in the Conservative party—if we have put in place a system that makes it much more obvious that they will not be discriminated against and that their chances of selection are at least as good as those of any man.

Stephen Hesford: If a list that is 50 per cent. male and 50 per cent. female is issued by central office and local associations must choose their candidates from it, might not the following happen? Those associations that select first might take the 50 per cent. of candidates that are male because they could choose from either part of the list, and the rest would have to take the women who were left.

Mr. Lansley: I understand the hon. Gentleman's argument. I think that the Conservative party should have something akin to a twinning system, but on a much larger scale, and in biddable and winnable constituencies. Individual constituencies can select candidates who live in their area, subject to the consent of Conservative central office. It is a process that will have to be actively managed by the Conservative party to produce the necessary results.

No one should be under any illusions. Under such a system, there is no question of candidates being selected who do not have obvious merit. We will be setting out to create a list of candidates, for winnable seats in particular, made up of people who do have such merits. That is why the Conservative party can use this legislation without fear of its being overturned. I fear that the Labour party may go down the path of women-only shortlists, undermine the case for positive action, and put itself at risk of further legal challenge as the equal treatment directive is amended.

8.26 pm

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North): Thank you for calling me to speak in this important debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am delighted to be here on this occasion.

On 2 March 1998, during my first year as a Member of this House, I moved an amendment to the Government of Wales Bill that would have exempted political parties from the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. Obviously, that amendment was not accepted by the Government. Information for the speech that I made then was provided by Val Feld, then director of the Equal Opportunities Commission for Wales, who until recently was the Assembly Member for Swansea East. Tragically, she died in July and I pay tribute to her for the endless work that she did for equal opportunities in Wales. She would have been delighted that this Bill is before the House today with the support of the Government and all the other parties.

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I congratulate the Government on producing this Bill so swiftly in the new Parliament. The need for it is self-evident. As the Secretary of State said, the general election was the last straw. The failure to increase the number of women Members of Parliament firmly demonstrated that some mechanism is needed.

In Wales there has always been a problem in getting women selected as parliamentary candidates for any of the political parties. At present, women MPs—all Labour—represent only four of the 40 Welsh constituencies. The other political parties in Wales have no women MPs; indeed, the Tories hold no Welsh seats at all. Since women obtained the vote, only seven women have held Welsh seats, and six of them have been Labour Members.

Since I have been involved in politics in Wales, however, women have always been ready, willing and able to stand for parliamentary seats; they have simply not been selected. It is argued that women do not put themselves forward, but that is not true. In Wales, women have constantly sought selection for parliamentary seats, but they have not been chosen.

Women are not put off by the hours worked in the House or by its male image. They are not put off by the problems of caring for children or elderly relatives. They have constantly put themselves forward as candidates. Women have experience of juggling jobs and child care; they set up after-school clubs and run voluntary bodies. We women are used to doing myriad things as we juggle our various priorities.

Why have women not been selected in Wales, even though they always stand? I have no doubt that it is due to a bias against women at selection conferences, even though in many cases it may be an unconscious bias. In Wales, we overcame that bias by adopting the twinning mechanism for the Assembly elections. That resulted in a Labour group of 16 women and 12 men—a unique situation. Overall, 42 per cent. of Assembly Members are women. Thus, the Assembly has the best gender balance of all the UK bodies, followed closely by the Scottish Parliament where twinning was also used. That contrasts with the 17.9 per cent. of women MPs at Westminster—a drop since the previous general election.

The adoption of the twinning mechanism was extremely controversial. Argument raged while the procedure was being considered by the party. There was daily debate as to whether it was fair or right or whether it should be implemented. Pro and anti-twinners held demonstrations outside Labour's Cardiff headquarters. Those of us who supported twinning even had a song. It might have been rather banal, but we sang "We shall twin to win". The campaign lasted for several months, but it had the desired result.

After the excellent result achieved for women in the National Assembly, the general election was a huge disappointment in Wales. No more women were elected for Welsh seats. In my party all the seven seats held by retiring Members went to male candidates, despite all the advantages women had gained in the Assembly where they are highly visible and hold prominent positions. Women are in the majority in the Assembly's Cabinet, but as soon as the general election came along everything reverted to type and women did not get a look in.

Two years after that highly successful twinning campaign to get women into the National Assembly, all that effort came to nothing and we reverted to all-male

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candidates. That makes the strongest possible case for a mechanism to ensure fair play in Westminster selections. That failure to make progress, or even to protect the progress that has been made, shows that equality in selecting candidates for the Westminster Parliament will not occur naturally.

Some of my hon. Friends have talked about the different mechanisms that have been used. Many methods have been tried in my party. We started off by saying that there should be a woman on every shortlist. At that time, there was certainly one woman on all the shortlists in Wales—sometimes more than one—but no progress was made. At the last general election, there were 50:50 shortlists, yet the result in Wales was that no women were selected for those seven seats, even though no one could claim that there were not able and committed women who could easily have come to the House and played a major role—women were simply not selected. It was not even that men won four or five of those seven selections; they got seven out of seven. That makes the case for the Bill. A mechanism is needed.

It is only through all-women shortlists that progress has actually been made. That mechanism contributed to the influx of Labour women MPs in 1997. Three of the four women who represent Welsh constituencies were selected from all-women shortlists.

I am proud to have been selected from an all-women shortlist. When I think of the selection process, I recall the other women who were on the shortlist, what they had to contribute and the range of skills that they had. They represented different sections of the Labour party and, as has been said, women are not a homogenous group. Party members were able to choose between different political positions. I completely reject the suggestion made by Conservative Members that there are two types of woman MP. That is a dangerous way to talk.

Proportional representation has been mentioned and I strongly support a fairer system of representation. The Equal Opportunities Commission research document on women in Parliament found that women are twice as likely to be elected under proportional representation as under the first-past-the-post system. However, PR will advance the position of women only if the political parties select women for winnable seats. Although PR under a list system may make it easier and may remove much of the stress and difficulty of choosing candidates, the parties must first have the political will to encourage the greater representation of women.

Twinning was a one-off and it will be difficult to repeat it, especially as there are many sitting incumbents. It is important to know the Bill's timetable and when it is likely to receive Royal Assent. I fear that that might be too late to influence the process of selection for the next round of National Assembly elections, but the fact that the Bill is going through Parliament may affect the way in which selection takes place.

If the Bill is passed, the Labour party—

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