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9.36 pm

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden): Tonight's debate may have come as a surprise to some hon. Members, and it is possible that more than one speech anticipating opposition to the Bill from Conservative Front-Bench Members has had to be scrapped. I am delighted that some Labour Members have recognised the important change in my party's approach to this matter, which in fact was made just before the last general election. The turnaround is perhaps not as sudden as has been made out.

There is simple recognition among hon. Members of all parties that not enough progress has been made in getting women elected to Parliament. No one is against getting more women into Parliament and, although hon. Members differ about how to achieve it, that is the common point from which the debate begins. In that sense, the debate has not been party political. Those who have tried to make it so may have misjudged the mood of the House.

I hope that the Conservative party has demonstrated its lead on this issue by fielding a woman to open the debate and another to wind it up. We were also joined for much of the time by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait). For the record, 50 per cent. of female Conservative MPs sit on the Front Bench. That shows that those who get here get on.

I am sorry that the Secretary of State has not returned to his place, but he referred at the outset of his remarks to various initiatives that he has taken to help women in the workplace. He mentioned improved maternity benefits, support for low-paid women and better child care arrangements, but unfortunately, such measures are not likely to help in the context of Westminster, where there is no official maternity leave and no child care facilities, and where we MPs are not remotely able to describe ourselves as low paid.

I am glad to see that the Secretary of State has now returned, so I hope that one of his colleagues can advise him of the point that I have just made. My description of the House is not what puts women off. Women are put off by a strong and true perception that it is very difficult to get selected, and that, once here, the experience is not especially easy. No one aspiring to Parliament would expect an easy life, but good candidates are lost, or never get started, because of the poor perception of the House.

That perception is based on hard fact: 82 per cent. of MPs are male and, as several hon. Members have noted, that compares unfavourably with other Parliaments in Europe. Closer to home, greater progress has been made with the devolved Assemblies. My hon. Friends and I are especially keen to support the remarks made by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson), and we, too, are keen for more female representation in the Northern Ireland Assembly. What is even more embarrassing for the mother of Parliaments is that many Parliaments in the developing world have achieved better female representation than we have.

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We support the principle enshrined in the Bill which will allow political parties the freedom to choose from a range of measures to help increase the number of female Members of Parliament and return them to this place. As my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) said, we should not get hooked up on women-only shortlists, as they are only one of the measures that could be used. A range of measures are possible under the Bill, such as the additional training of candidates and selectors, or the scheme proposed by my hon. Friends the Members for Cambridgeshire, South (Mr. Lansley) and for Maidenhead. We believe that it should be for individual parties to decide on the best mechanism for selecting their candidates.

Not surprisingly, the hon. Member for Wirral, West (Stephen Hesford) showed a hazy understanding of Conservative party selection procedure. We have massively enfranchised our grass roots, with each member of a local association having an equal say in choosing the candidate. It is highly democratic, but with those rights come responsibilities to choose the best candidate. Understanding what "best" means requires training, but as the law stands, that could be illegal. The change in the law would make it legal in the future.

I understand the sensitivity of women who claim that they feel patronised by the Bill. At the Liberal Democrat conference we saw the clash of views between the leadership advocating women-only shortlists and their candidates wearing T-shirts bearing the slogan, "I don't want to be a token woman". None of us wants to be a token woman, and I am grateful that my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) does not regard me or my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead as a token woman in any way. The correct form of positive action should be chosen to suit a party's culture, and it need not imply tokenism.

I received good advice from some Labour women MPs who told me that women-only shortlists have created a backlash at local level. We intend to learn from that. It is one of the reasons why I am not in favour of that measure. However, there is much we can do to improve the situation by changing our selection procedure, and several recommendations have already been made in our party to achieve that.

Dr. Evan Harris: Does the hon. Lady recognise that if the Conservative party rejects all-women shortlists, which it is perfectly entitled to do, and when the Tories eventually reject first past the post—as they will—new options under a more proportional system will be proposed, such as pooling or zipping?

Mrs. Spelman: With respect, I think that the real question tonight for the hon. Gentleman's party is to decide what it will do under the Bill.

There is no denying the fact that the use of women-only shortlists in the Labour party had a dramatic effect in the 1997 election. However, some of the euphoria of the system's proponents was deflated by the outcome of the successful challenge by a male candidate—the so-called Jepson case. At the time there was much debate about whether a change to the laws on sex discrimination would be compatible with European law. Those of us who

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support this change in British law make a strong plea to the Government not to get egg on their face a second time if there is a legal challenge regarding its compatibility with European law. That is the Government's job—they have the necessary resources and lawyers at their disposal. It is our job, as an Opposition, to ask whether European Union compliance has been exhaustively checked. I should be very grateful for the Minister's reassurance on that point tonight.

Conservative Front Benchers welcome the Bill's permissive nature and we will support this change in the law. However, I warn the Government that we may vote on the timetable motion on a point of principle. The Bill enables the parties to choose what will work for them. No country has significantly increased the representation of women in its Parliament without some form of positive action. There is no reason why the United Kingdom should be any different.

We should put tonight's decision in the context of falling electoral turnout and the female voters who tell us that they are turned off by the style of politics in this place, to which they cannot relate. We need to think how to make British politics more attractive and accessible, and tonight offers the opportunity to show our willingness to try something new which can make a difference.

9.45 pm

The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Nick Raynsford): We have had a good debate with an encouragingly large number of speakers—20 in total, of whom, significantly, 17 were in favour of the legislation. I appreciate the support that we received from those on the Opposition and the Liberal Democrat Front Benches and from Plaid Cymru. We certainly intend to proceed on the basis of consensus to achieve an important change that will make a real difference in the representation of women, not only in Parliament but in democratic institutions throughout the United Kingdom.

The hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) supported the Bill and pointed out, fairly and forcefully, that the Conservative party in particular was losing out on opportunities from the reservoir of talent because of the way in which the selection processes operate. She showed some reluctance to answer the question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock)—whether the Conservative party would set a target for increasing the representation of women in the party. I hope that the hon. Lady will think further about that.

The hon. Lady also asked about compatibility with European law, which is an important point. I must make it absolutely clear that the Government would not want any amendments to domestic law to be found to be in breach of Community law. I am confident that the Bill is compatible with EU treaty law and does not contravene the United Kingdom's international obligations. The Government's view is that the selection of candidates does not fall within the ambit of Community law, in particular the equal treatment directive. I hope that the hon. Lady finds that reassuring.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson) made a powerful speech in favour of increasing the representation of women in this House, but not because specific women's issues required the attention of women—she made a strong case against

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there being specific gender issues. She made the sound and sensible observation that Parliament should reflect the full range of talents and variety in our society and that it should be more representative of women in particular.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), speaking for the Liberal Democrats, tried to widen the debate to cover appointments to public bodies. I suspect that the motive might have been to draw attention away from his party's difficulties at its recent conference with affirmative measures to assist women's representation. His review of appointments to public bodies was a little selective.

We are the first to admit that there is an enormous way to go, but it does not do the House any service to paint an unduly gloomy picture. Looking at the record of our Department in government, I am pleased to be able to tell the hon. Gentleman of the real advances that have been made in the past four years.

I have three examples. In 1997, the Audit Commission comprised 38 per cent. women; now, 56 per cent. of its members are women. In 1997, only 18 per cent. of the board of the Housing Corporation were women; now it is 38 per cent., with a woman in the chair. When we came to office, the advisory panel on standards in the Planning Inspectorate had no women members. Now, four of the seven members are women—a majority. So there are good examples of cases where affirmative action has been taken and the position is improving.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall compared himself to Gladstone, as "an old man in a hurry."

The difference is that William Ewart Gladstone carried his party with him on most issues. The hon. Gentleman has not been able to carry his with him. His experience at the party conference must have been galling. How can he have felt when Jenny Willott, a representative of the Liberal Democrat party, said that Labour had won most of the female vote at the 1997 general election because it had women candidates in winnable seats? She said:

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