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Dr. Evan Harris: I am not entirely sure what point the hon. Gentleman is making, and I am not entirely sure that he knows either. We have recognised that we have a problem, particularly with winnable seats. It is somewhat easier to put up women candidates in non-winnable seats. We focus on the winnable seats, and we have a numerical problem with that, given the electoral system. We recognise our problem and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that we bring that recognition to our support of the Bill.

Stephen Hesford: I hope that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will forgive me if I simply move on.

In the 2001 election, 15 per cent. of the Conservative party's female candidates were successful—14 out of 92, its lowest successful proportion ever. So Conservatives cannot, come to the debate claiming that up-to-date statistics are glad tidings.

Mrs. May: We have said nothing of the sort. If the hon. Gentleman had listened to my speech, he would have heard me say that my party needs to ensure that we, in particular, increase the representation of women on our Benches.

Stephen Hesford: I hear what the hon. Lady says. When the Labour party, struggling with this difficult issue

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before the 1997 general election, moved to all-women shortlists, there was almost unanimous derision from the Conservatives.

Mrs. Spelman indicated dissent.

Stephen Hesford: The hon. Lady shakes her head, but it is true. There was complete derision.

Mrs. May: I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is trying to pick a fight, but I do not think that the need for a fight exists. Although I recognise that one or two speeches in the debate have taken a different course, it has been interesting to note the degree of agreement about the need to do something to increase the number of women in Parliament. It is right that members of my party have challenged the concept of all-women shortlists; indeed, I did so tonight. The important point about the Bill is that it will enable parties to do what they believe is right in terms of taking positive action—positive action of all kinds—and my party will take the action that we believe is necessary, which may well not involve all-women shortlists.

Stephen Hesford: We have heard the comments from the Conservatives. I have to say that the contribution of the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Virginia Bottomley) was somewhat schizophrenic. She began by speaking in favour of the Bill, then seemed to argue herself out of that view by the end of her speech. The hon. Member for Maidenhead made the same kind of argument in a less obvious way. I submit that this is and remains a party political issue. The courage shown by the Government in introducing the Bill forces the issue, and I commend the ministerial team for that. I hope that the Bill receives a Second Reading.

Two arguments are put to me as a male Labour Member. One is that the legislation is not a doorstep issue. People ask, "Why are you bothering to bring the Bill before the House?" Introducing it is a point of principle, which is important in itself. If we cannot legislate on important points of principle, what good are we in this place?

The second argument is that the legislation is a doorstep issue for all those constituencies that are more than adequately represented by my female colleagues who were elected in 1997 on all-women shortlists. I am absolutely honoured—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I call Mr. Walter.

9.11 pm

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset): I am delighted that there are two women on our Front Bench to represent the Opposition view—not two token women but two of the most effective women in Parliament. As well as speaking on women's issues, they hold key shadow Cabinet portfolios.

The Bill marks another milestone in the slow progress in western democracies towards political equality between men and women. The measure should be unnecessary, but alas the inbuilt prejudices that have existed throughout the battle for women's representation persist today. That

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battle extends back to the 19th century and even before, and I am reminded of it every morning. Hanging on the wall outside my bathroom is an item from the collection of political memorabilia owned by my wife, Barbara Gorna. She has campaigned for political equality for many years, as have many women Members, and she inspired me in that cause. She also stood for election to the House in 1997, albeit unsuccessfully.

I am reminded of the battle for women's representation by the bloodstained scarf worn by Emily Davison when she fell in front of the King's horse at the 1913 Derby. Hon. Members will remember that Emily Davison died in Epsom hospital on 8 June, but my wife has the telegram sent from Buckingham palace to the jockey on 7 June:

Queen Alexandra would be at home on many parliamentary selection committees today.

Progress in the House began with the Reform Act 1832, which massively extended the franchise, although alas not to women. In 1867, the franchise was further extended and by 1869 a small group of female ratepayers gained the vote in municipal elections. At the time, a remark of particular relevance to today's debate was made. Benjamin Disraeli said:

I do not have to remind hon. Members that it was not until 1918 that the House managed to extend the franchise to women over 30. In October that year, it gave women the right to sit in the House of Commons. The opposition then, and in 1928 when the franchise was finally extended to give women equality, was deep-seated, bigoted and misplaced. The hon. Member for Enfield, Colonel Applin, said:

Colonel Applin calculated that there would be 2.2 million more women than men on the register. He went on:

Then—in a fashion that might find some support among selection committees—he went on:

Colonel Applin was interrupted by at least one woman Member at that stage, but he ploughed on:

he obviously had some foresight about pagers—

He concluded:

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And so, today, we come to this Bill. Britain currently has one of the lowest levels of political representation of women in Europe. It has been argued that the best way in which to counter the trend is for parties to use positive action mechanisms. Encouragement, coercion and shame do not work; where positive action has been used, it has dramatically increased women's representation.

The last election saw 118 women elected to Parliament—less than in 1997. That represents progress at a rate of about 1.5 women per year in the 82 years since women have been eligible to sit here. Now we have gone into reverse: in the European Union, only Ireland and France have lower female representations.

Positive action, is needed not because women are not able to succeed on merit but because discrimination in the selection process means that they are rarely given an opportunity to try. Experience from across Europe has demonstrated that the use of positive action is a key factor in the determination of whether a country has high levels of female representation. Better training and support for potential female candidates are of course necessary, but they have not made a significant difference.

Today we have an opportunity to amend the Act that outlawed Labour's all-women shortlists. There are those who argue that candidates should be selected simply on merit—that the best candidate for the job should be selected, regardless of gender. In an ideal world, of course, those candidates should be selected on merit, but at present that does not happen. Opaque discrimination is inherent in the selection processes of all political parties. If a selection committee is determined to choose a male candidate, the woman candidate will not be selected no matter how good she is.

The predominantly elderly selectors tend to have a clear vision of their ideal candidate. In the Tory party he is married, 40-something, with a reasonable career in the City, the law or the Army. A bit of experience in local government helps, but the real clincher is the attractive wife, two smashing kids and a labrador.

Positive action is needed not because women cannot succeed on the basis of merit, but because discrimination means that all too often women are not given the opportunity to stand. There are those who say that discrimination should not be countered with more discrimination—discrimination against men. They say that two wrongs do not make a right. My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) made that point. But positive action is not designed to discriminate against men as revenge for the discrimination suffered by women; it is designed to level the playing field, to allow women to compete for parliamentary selection on the same basis as men.

I have heard female colleagues suggest that it is patronising to women to suggest that they need this kind of help. There are clever party functionaries who say that the problem is not that women are being discriminated against but that not enough women are putting themselves forward. They would say, "Why bother?" But every political party contains talented women who have been trying for years to be selected to fight a safe or marginal parliamentary seat. Even in the Labour party, and I speak as no expert, half the aspiring candidates shortlisted for safe Labour party seats were women, yet only just over 10 per cent. of those seats went to women.

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I have heard successful male candidates argue that women are coming forward but that they are not good women and that with positive action we end up with low-quality Members of Parliament—obviously, those without smashing kids, jam-making spouses and pedigree labradors. They suggest that women elected under Labour's all-women shortlists in 1997 are a prime example of that. I could make a cheap party point, but in all honesty there is no evidence to suggest that the women selected under all-women shortlists are any better or worse than the rest of their parliamentary colleagues.

The Bill is permissive. Political parties may take advantage of it if they wish. It will not force any political party to adopt positive action mechanisms. It is a desperate measure, but it is temporary. It is essential and it is timely.

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