If the Bill is designed to permit political parties to take positive action and the Labour party wants to pursue all-women shortlists, it runs the risk of legal challenge. Although I have not succeeded in tempting the Minister on this point, it would none the less be helpful if he were to tell us whether the Labour party wants to re-introduce all-women shortlists.
The Liberal Democrats debate whether or not they want such shortlists. The hon. Member for North Cornwall may be able to tell us a little more about that. He certainly seemed to imply that although the Liberal Democrats might be tempted in the direction of all-women shortlists, they were deterred by the possibility of legal challenge. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman, like Conservative Members, wonders whether a legal challenge would ensue and doubts that this is a sensible measure for a political party to pursue.
The purpose of the amendment is to remove uncertainty about a legal challenge. It is also intended to establish that there should be limitsnever mind the European legislationto the extent to which positive action is taken by political parties in order to secure greater equality.
Two wrongs do not make a right. In this case, the wrong that we want to remedythe lack of balance in representation in the Housewill not be appropriately remedied if we introduce another wrong by discriminating in such an overt and extreme fashion against men. That would occur in specific circumstancesfor example, where a man wanted to be selected as a candidate for the area in which he lived.
We are talking about only those circumstances in which somebody wants to be selected as a candidate for the area where they live and where that constituency offers them a unique opportunity for election.
Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford): Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that many people who seek selection are also able to do so in an adjoining area? Often, they are in a borough, county or area where there is some choice of seats. It is not always, or even usually, a specific and sole seat for which a person wants to be selected. Does he agree that many Membersof whom I am not onehave never lived in their own constituency?
Mr. Lansley: I am grateful to the hon. Lady, as she takes me to the points that I wanted to make, although I am not with her on her latter point. I live in my constituency and am happy to do so. However, I understand her first point: people who want to be elected to this place do not necessarily seek selection as a candidate in the place where they previously lived or currently live. Indeed, I did not live in South Cambridgeshire before I sought selection as a candidate for that constituency, but that fact does not remove the principle. For example the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor)he is no longer in his place, but he put a question at Prime Minister's questionssecured election as an Independent Member of Parliament. He secured election to the House on behalf of the place where he lives.
One might argue that the hon. Gentleman would not be affected by the measure because it deals with political parties, but is not the basis on which political parties select prospective Members of Parliament increasingly being influenced by the fact that they live in a particular place? In previous debates, the former Home Secretary, now the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, seemed to think that selection by political parties was all and that the merits of individual candidates were nothing, but that is not true of individuals. It was not true at the last election, and it will not be true in future, so it will be more important for political parties to select candidates who have links with the specific geographical area that they wish to represent.
Joan Ruddock: According to the hon. Gentleman's logic, if a seat has historically been held by one political party and all the evidence suggests that it will not change hands, a prospective Conservative candidate who lives in a traditionally Labour-held area could never become a Conservative candidate with any hope of success. Is he saying that those men should never consider becoming a Member of Parliament?
Mr. Lansley: No, I am not, but it is perfectly reasonable and entirely logical for people to seek selection as parliamentary candidates in the place where they live, and if they cannot do so they may well seek selection elsewhere.
Under what circumstances should we introduce a form of discriminationa bar on such people seeking selection as a candidate in the place where they live? If I were a Conservative living in a strong Labour constituency the
Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that for many years women have sought selection in their home areas but have not succeeded, as the composition of the House shows? Does he agree that, in effect, that has been a bar to women becoming Members of Parliament?
Mr. Lansley: I have no doubt that that is precisely why the experience of all political parties is that such discrimination has occurred. The amendment is not intended to dispute the fact that women of equivalent, or substantially equivalent, merit to men have not been selected when they should have been. The issue is that Labour Members want to use the Bill to disbar a man from being selected even where he has far greater merit as a candidate by virtue of his specific personal circumstances, his relationship with a constituency and on the grounds of any objective assessment. That is wholly undesirable. In fact, not only is that inequitable, but it runs the risk of bringing into disrepute the positive action that needs to be taken to redress the lack of representativeness in the Chamber.
It is clear that my party needs to take further action, and in my view some of our ideas will make a substantive difference. If we were to contemplate introducing women-only shortlists, the process of trying to secure greater representation by women would be brought into disrepute. That is one of the reasons why we did not succeed in the past. The Conservative party sought women-only shortlists, but the Labour party's actions in the early 1990s were seen as inequitable and discriminatory and they brought into disrepute the adoption of such measures by the Conservative party.
Joan Ruddock: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, when the Labour party introduced all-women shortlists, it took a regional approach, introduced the lists on the basis of consensus and applied them to only half its target seats? Contrary to his suggestion, our approach was not draconian. It applied to only a very few seats.
Mr. Lansley: The hon. Lady raises an interesting point. The issue is what the Bill should allow people to do. If the hon. Lady is saying that it should not be used to create all-women shortlists that apply in a specific constituency, I agree with her. Furthermore, if she is suggesting that the Labour party should be able to introduce all-women shortlists on a regional basis through some form of twinning, I point out that twinning would still be acceptable under my amendment.
Perhaps the hon. Lady and the Minister will support the amendment because it would allow twinning to take place. If a couple of constituencies worked together, they would assess the merits of a man for selection in a particular geographical areanamely either of those constituenciesbut they would select one woman and one man. That would be permissible under the amendment, as such an approach
Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent): The hon. Gentleman said that, under his amendment, twinning would be acceptable, but I am not sure that he understands how it worked in reality. I understand the process because I am from Wales. Two constituencies would be twinned with one another and they would agree to be represented by one man and one woman. Under the system, a man could have double or treble the votes of a woman and a woman could have double or treble the votes of a man, but that person still might not be selected. The right of individual constituencies to select who they wanted was taken away. A constituency might overwhelming vote for a man or for a woman but, because of the system of twinning, its choice could be thrown out and a person of the other sex brought in.
Mr. Lansley: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because his view balances those expressed by other Labour Members. However, I do not go as far as he does. It is possible to devise a system of twinning that is proportionate and that would be acceptable under the Bill as amended by amendment No. 4. He refers to the votes cast in an individual constituencythat is the determining factor in any system adopted in the Conservative partybut that is not the same as an assessment of the merits of the candidates and their specific personal circumstances.
Under my amendment, a court would not only have to consider the preferences of members of an associationthat is one factorbut assess whether a candidate who had a close relationship with an area and had substantially better merits than anyone else but who had been debarred from selection had had his merits objectively assessed.