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Mrs. May: If the Bill is enacted as it stands and the Labour party adopts all-women shortlists that are successfully legally challenged, what will the hon. Lady say to Ministers in her Government?

Glenda Jackson: I can only say to the hon. Lady that I was selected from an all-women shortlist, before the idea of making that part and parcel of my party's structure was voted for overwhelmingly at two successive party conferences. There was no challenge. It was a decision for the individual constituency party.

In my experience, when I was privileged to campaign in seats where women had been selected under our all-women shortlist procedure, admittedly the individual constituency parties were somewhat chagrined in the first instance that they had been chosen for this ground- breaking development in equality for women, but their subsequent response, without exception, was that they had never seen candidates of such quality and their real difficulty was in selecting only one from four excellent women. With one exception, I believe, all the women selected to fight the election in 1997 were returned in 2001, because they are excellent.

It is interesting that the hon. Lady automatically presupposes that a legal challenge would win. I see no reason to suppose that, but if it did, presumably my party, along with others, would have to exercise a little more imagination. The basic issue is that the Bill was introduced specifically—with, up to now, the unanimous support of all political parties—to redress the gross inequities that still work against women who want to participate in the political life of this country, be it on local or central Government level. That is why, if the amendment is pressed to a vote, I shall certainly oppose it.

6 pm

Mr. Raynsford: We have had a long and somewhat convoluted debate on what has been almost universally recognised as a short and simple Bill. The danger is that we will lose touch with the fundamental issue and we would perhaps have run that risk but for the appropriate speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson) that concluded the debate, in which she rightly drew attention to the main reason for the introduction of the Bill—to remedy the chronic under-representation of women in all our elected bodies, including the House, local government, the European Parliament and, to a lesser extent, the devolved Assemblies and the Scottish Parliament.

The fact that the imbalance is less in the devolved bodies is an interesting reflection of the fact that when the parties were selecting candidates for those bodies, the issue of gender balance was on the agenda and specific positive measures were taken to try to ensure a more balanced outcome than happens at Westminster. In terms of the representation of the parties at Westminster, the fact that we have a significantly larger—but by no means adequate—representation of women on the Labour Benches is the result of the measures that were adopted by our party before the Jepson judgment. Those measures allowed a substantial increase in 1997 from the position of the early 1990s. As I commented in Committee, the fact that post-Jepson it was not possible for similar measures to be used by the Labour party when selecting candidates for the 2001 general election meant that the

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representation of women on the Government Benches was marginally less than before. The momentum had been lost.

The issue is crucial and one that we cannot avoid. It requires urgent action, and the Bill will achieve that. When the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) moved his amendment, he said that the Bill risked reintroducing the uncertainties caused by the Jepson judgment, but he is wrong on that point. The Bill is designed to remove the uncertainties caused by Jepson, which, as I have already conceded, led our party not to adopt similar measures—to those we had adopted before 1997—before the 2001 general election. It is precisely for that reason that we have framed the Bill so as to make it possible for political parties to adopt measures that will make it more likely that the outcome—in Committee, we focused on outcomes rather than on processes—would be a significant increase in the proportion of women candidates elected. The Bill would achieve that aim, and the amendment would not be helpful. Indeed, it would be disadvantageous in several ways.

Before I deal with the disadvantages of the amendment, I shall discuss the legal issues which rightly pre-occupied many of the hon. Members who have spoken in the debate. I am aware that the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire drew extensively on the Abrahamsson case in the way he presented his case and in the very wording of his amendment. I remind the House that that case was brought in relation to the appointment of a candidate to an academic post. Indeed, all the cases from the European Court that have been cited in the course of the debate have all been related to the appointment of candidates, not the selection of candidates for election. As I stated on Second Reading and in Committee, in our view there is a clear distinction, in terms of European law, between the appointment process and the selection of candidates for election. Our view is that the latter does not fall within the ambit of Community law.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) referred, appropriately, to the report, "Making It Happen", by Meg Russell from the constitution unit. The report, which relates to the Bill, makes a relevant and well expressed point that:

In the course of our considerations we have obviously referred to people expert in such matters, and those comments are apposite and should guide our judgments.

If we were to accept the amendment, we would introduce a limitation into the Bill that is unnecessary and which would limit political parties' freedom to decide for themselves how they wish to use the provisions of the Bill. We have stressed throughout that the Bill is

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permissive and the amendment strays away from that by seeking to dictate limits on the kind of measures that could be considered by political parties. It is not appropriate for the House to impose such specific restrictions on the way in which political parties order their selection criteria. It is right that the legislation should allow political parties to adopt measures that seek to meet the objective for which the Bill was introduced, but it is not right to prescribe in detail the measures that parties can adopt.

Mr. Lansley: The Minister has sought to reassure us about the application of European Union law, but he has not touched on the question of the application of the Human Rights Act 1998 and whether the argument about objective and reasonable justification for the measures, as a departure from what would otherwise be equal treatment, might apply.

Mr. Raynsford: As the hon. Gentleman knows well, we covered that ground on Second Reading and in Committee, but I shall present the issues once again. The first principle is that the concept of candidate selection differs from the concept of appointment of a candidate to a post of paid employment. I have already made that distinction. The second issue, which we have considered in some detail, is one of proportionality. Measures that seek to remedy a wrong must be proportionate to the wrong that they seek to redress. We have considered that principle and the Bill contains a sunset clause so that the impact of any measures that might be introduced under the Bill can be reviewed at a future date when the imbalance that exists in all elected bodies in this country will have been reduced, if not eliminated. I ask the hon. Gentleman to bear in mind that issue of proportionality when he considers the issue of human rights.

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, I have made it clear that I do not intend to be drawn into the respective merits of specific measures that political parties might take under the provisions of the Bill. Parties themselves must have their own discussions, and decide internally which measures, if any, they wish to use. It was a little rich of the hon. Gentleman to chide me on the fact that I would not suggest what measures the Labour party would introduce when he made it clear that he could not say what measures the Conservative party would introduce, even though he and the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) have been almost lone voices in their party in pressing for positive measures to further the cause of women's representation.

Mr. Lansley: The record will show that I was not chiding the Minister, but predicting that he would not be able to say what action the Labour party would take. Indeed, the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson) chided me for not being able to say what the Conservative party would do. My hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) and I have aired our views and if the chairman of the Labour party were here, we might chide him. As he often shares the Front Bench with the Minister, perhaps he will have something to offer us.

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