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Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order.

8.37 pm

Mrs. Patsy Calton (Cheadle): I stand before the House a little wiser than I was 30 years ago. Then I believed that discrimination would disappear as more women were

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educated and joined the professions and commerce. I believed that they would be able to do anything to which they committed themselves and that, gradually, the numbers of women in senior positions in all organisations would increase. I was wrong.

In some walks of life women have been able to reach the top, on a par with men, but that is all too rare. This place is the supreme example of the failure on the part of a parliamentary democracy to achieve true representation of the people.

The reasons are many and complex. We hear that not enough women put themselves forward and, indeed, they do not. Why could that be? The perception of this place is that it is a male club That perception results from its adversarial nature and from the laughter at people's trivial mistakes as well as from long speeches that are designed—to do what? Little is done to convince the public that anything worth while takes place here.

In the debate on international terrorism held during the first recall of Parliament on 14 September one woman was called to speak. What was the subliminal message to anyone switching on their television that day? It was that, on an important subject of national and international significance, women had little part to play.

Worse is the impediment here to getting anything done. Local councils have been instructed by law to modernise, and decision making takes place more swiftly there than it does here. Here joined-up thinking appears not to have even started. No thought is given to the costs of debate, as we all oscillate around decisions for month after month.

I do not have great experience of Select Committees, but I am aware that they pass "difficult" topics such as child care provision for Members around like hot potatoes. Even a decision to do something as obviously sensible as opening the Line of Route in the summer recess has taken hour after expensive hour of everyone's time. I emphasise that I do not criticise right hon. and hon. Members, who do their best in the circumstances. It is the system that is impenetrable, and the culture allows that to happen.

Then there is the language. A young man at a meeting recently told me that when his black friends switched on the Parliamentary Channel nothing they saw had anything to do with them. Very little of it has anything to do with me. This place is an anachronism, a series of archaic procedures. The words "modern legislature" do not ring true, do they? No wonder some of our young colleagues could not stand the thought of another term of office.

It is also true that not enough women get through the selection procedures. Why not? It is because there is a mixture of direct discrimination and an inability to select anything that did not have a shave that morning. The male-shaped space wins almost every time in a winnable seat. So why am I here? It is very simple: no one thought I could win.

I used not to think like this, but years of having "Mum" metaphorically stamped on my forehead have changed my mind. Given the statistics, the best candidate does not always win the selection in a winnable seat. The person who has had the time to build the party networks and can be flexible because someone else is looking after the children has an in-built advantage.

The playing field is not even. If it were, many more women would be achieving office already. The Bill gives political parties the opportunity to implement measures to

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give more women the chance of standing for Parliament and other political office. That process should not stop at elected office. Only a third of appointees to quangos are women.

The Bill is not without risk to political parties, a problem that was addressed by my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler).

Some European countries have taken positive measures to ensure more even representation by women. The most successful in terms of outcome have been those that combine proportional representation with a quota system. In the House, there is less than 18 per cent. representation by women. My party has nothing to crow about, with representation by women standing at less than 10 per cent. Women are under-represented in local government, as has been stated, and especially in senior local government positions, which are badly affected by the imbalance.

We need to stop blaming the victims for the problem and recognise that there will never be true representation in this country until we address the culture of our decision-making bodies. This policy is not about doing women a favour; it is about doing the country a favour.

It is wrong to regard the playing field as level. The country will continue to need, and should value, the caring role that is largely carried out by women. Most women's lives are not like most men's lives. We need to measure success by outcomes and not the processes used. This country will make no more significant decision this Parliament. We lag behind democracies across the world and action is needed now.

8.43 pm

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough): I support the Bill because the requirement to improve the way in which democracy functions in Great Britain is important. Our democracy is deformed by the fact that women are inadequately represented in Parliament. There is clear evidence that the only way to change that is to introduce either electoral reform, which I support, or positive action measures such as those permitted in the Bill.

The policy gives rise to many anxieties, one of which was eloquently expressed by the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), who I am sorry to see is no longer in the Chamber. She said that men will have to move over to create opportunities for women, but it is not a new phenomenon for one sex to have to give way to another. Men in politics have long built their careers on women—their secretaries, their wives, their agents and the party volunteers who have helped their careers. Many of those women have sacrificed their own ambitions in the process. Now it is time for men to return the favour to help the political system as a whole to do a better job.

One cause of anxiety is that a system that provides direct assistance to women produces second-rate MPs. The leader of the Conservative party recently expressed that view, saying:

He produced no evidence to support that breath-taking observation, and I concluded that he probably did not know which Government Members had been selected from all-women shortlists. I do, so I decided to carry out some research and find the evidence about our performance.

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That evidence shows that we are at least as good as our colleagues and above average in many respects. We are active participants in the Commons: more than 70 per cent. of the 35 MPs selected from all-women shortlists were in the top 50 per cent. in terms of participation in Commons Divisions during the 2000-01 Session. They ask an average number of questions and contribute powerfully in Select Committees. Two have successfully introduced private Members' Bills: my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Ms Shipley) promoted the Protection of Children Act 1999; and the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) led directly to the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Act 2000. Only 18 private Members' Bills became law in the last Parliament.

Women MPs are persistent and, as the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions acknowledged, they have helped to ensure that Government policy reflects women's concerns. A parliamentary answer I received on 13 March stated that Budgets set during the last Parliament had improved the incomes of women on average by £440, and of men by £225—showing that we are doing our bit as a Government to ease the income gap between men and women.

Many MPs who were selected from all-women shortlists have been promoted since 1997, so clearly someone thinks we are doing a good job. Eight have been invited to become Ministers and seven have accepted the promotion; 16 have been Parliamentary Private Secretaries. A comparison with other Members elected at the same time reveals that the same proportion of both groups have become Ministers, and a rather larger proportion of MPs selected from women-only shortlists have become Parliamentary Private Secretaries.

Something close to the heart of every single Member of Parliament is elections. We have done especially well in that respect. Women selected from women-only shortlists have performed better than other Labour candidates. About a third of us increased our share of the vote, in common with about a third of Labour candidates; but candidates who had been selected from women-only shortlists achieved a higher than average share of the vote for Labour.

Why is all that relevant? MORI reported that only half of the female population expresses any interest in politics, compared with two thirds of men. Figures that are clearly connected to that suggest that 3 per cent. fewer women than men voted in the general election. Compelling research supports the assertion that women think that women politicians are more in touch with what they care about, their lives and their concerns. I think that a strong argument can be made that women in Parliament will help to re-engage women with politics.

There is compelling evidence that unless we take direct action—and take the brickbats of those who say that because we were selected from women-only shortlists we must be second-class MPs—we will not have more women in Parliament. We can disagree about the specific tactics required in individual parties, but we all know that the good intentions expressed by every party so far have failed. We need more than good intentions and half-hearted measures.

I think that we will pass the Bill tonight, but for many of us its enactment will mark only the start of our work. The next challenge will be to win support within our

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parties for the action that the Bill permits. It is unusual for politicians to stress the things that they have in common, but women in every party face the same problems. I have talked to women in other parties who, if the selection system was fair, would be in the House. I think of Jean Lucas, the formidable Tory agent in Wandsworth, and my sister who, I am quite glad, is not a Liberal Democrat MP. Women who read reports by the Bow Group or the Centre for Policy Studies about the struggles of women in the Conservative party to be selected, or who listen to accounts of what went on at the recent Liberal Democrat conference, will have twinges of painful recognition.

We have all been present when someone arrives in the middle of debate, not having heard what was said, and starts muttering critical remarks in a corner. That happens in our party meetings as well as the Chamber. Members on both sides of the House must discuss how they are going to achieve whatever system is right for the culture of their party and how they are going to get more women in Parliament. Unless we take positive action we will not be able to repair the fault in our democracy; at the moment, we have a men's democracy, not a people's democracy. The only way to repair that fault is for every party to design a system that will guarantee to increase the proportion of women standing on its behalf in elections. Frankly, we all know that if we do not, a phenomenon which I suspect worries everyone equally in the Chamber and was obvious in the poor participation in the last election, when only a small number of people bothered to vote, will become more serious. Democracy is democracy only when Members of Parliament genuinely represent their constituencies; we can represent them fully only if our constituents participate in the business of putting us here.

The Bill is about who the parties offer our constituents. We are equal as MPs because we are all chosen by the people who live in our constituencies, and we should all be proud of representing them. No one here is second-class, but until we get politics in the House of Commons that make sense to our constituents, we will fail the principle of democracy.

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