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6.24 pm

Mrs. May: I shall be brief, as we have already heard many contributions.

I repeat that the official Opposition support the Bill's aim, which is to get more women elected to Parliament and to other elected bodies. We also support the fact that the Bill is permissive, and allows political parties to make their own judgments about the action that they should take to ensure that more women are selected, and then elected. In an earlier debate, the Minister rightly said that we were interested in more than the process of selection, and that the outcome of the Bill's enactment would be that more women would be elected to representative positions in elected bodies.

The Minister rightly said that all political parties must ask themselves why so few women become elected representatives. We in the Conservative party have been doing just that. We are very aware that there are very few women on the Conservative Benches, and that our party must act to improve that.

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Women must be encouraged to see election to this House as a career that is open for them to pursue. Showing that political parties are serious about enabling women to be elected to the House is an important part of the process of encouraging women to come forward for selection in the first place. If women outside do not see a significant number of women in the House, they will consider that the job is not for them, or that they will not succeed at it. If that is what they feel, they will ask why they should bother to go through the hassle and possibly even the trauma of a selection process that ends only in rejection.

I pay tribute to all the women in my party who put themselves forward for election and go through that selection process. Many of them would make excellent Members of Parliament if they could succeed in getting elected. We support the Bill and want there to be more women in the House, but not for any tokenistic reason. We support it because it will enable us to take the positive action of our choice to ensure that women of talent—who would make a good contribution to the House and represent their constituencies well—are able to strengthen Parliament and improve our debates and our discussion of legislation. It is important therefore that we ensure that the Bill is allowed to proceed.

The Minister said that many women feel discriminated against in the current selection processes. The MORI report on equal opportunities interviewed 400 female candidates, and four out of every 10 said that party selection committees favoured men over women. We want candidates in the future to be selected on their merits, and not because of their gender.

I was interested in what my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) said earlier, when he talked about the suitability of individuals for particular constituencies. I know that the actions of political parties are not a matter for the House, but I contend that my party—and I suspect others—needs to adopt a more professional approach to selecting candidates. Such an approach should take proper account of the skills needed by Members of Parliament, or by members of the other elected bodies to which the Bill applies. A more professional approach in that respect would also help constituencies.

The job of a Member of Parliament has changed over the years, and political parties should reflect that change in their selection processes. We must recognise the different abilities that hon. Members need today, compared to what was required in the 1950s, or in earlier centuries.

The Opposition support the Bill. It is important that women are given a proper opportunity to be selected to stand as candidates in the name of political parties and to gain election to the House. Women should not be debarred, effectively, from election to the House because the selection process discriminates against them.

The Bill will enable each party to make its own judgment about what positive action to take. The Bill is permissive, and I welcome that. I support the aim of the Bill, which is to ensure that more women are elected to this House and to other representative bodies.

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6.30 pm

Joan Ruddock: This is a night for real celebration, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister wholeheartedly on bringing forward the Bill and on having conducted our proceedings in such a helpful and consensual way.

I have a particular interest in this matter because I was once a Minister with responsibility for women. At the time, there was considerable controversy over all-women shortlists, which were defeated by the tribunal judgment. Sadly, without a challenge—although I had hoped for one—the decision went against such shortlists. I was certain that our political party would return to type.

There was also the difficulty of a possible challenge over twinning in Wales and Scotland in selecting candidates for the devolved Assembly and Parliament. Fortunately, with a great deal of pressure from Labour Members, particularly our colleagues in Scotland and Wales, those measures were passed. The all-women shortlists adopted by the Labour party for the 1997 elections and for the devolved Parliament and Assembly in the twinning procedure were hugely successful, not only in bringing greater numbers of women into our elected bodies but in bringing women's views and contributions to those legislatures in ways that had never been seen before.

Sadly, many people regarded the presence of a greater number of women in this House as a means by which to totally transform it. That was never possible, but perhaps some of the aspirations that were dashed led to people believing that female Labour Members had not made as big a contribution as had been expected. The fact is that the women who came through the all-women shortlists have proved themselves to be superb contributors to the House and very popular in their constituencies. It has been pointed out that, with one exception, they were all returned at the last election. There can be no doubt about the worth of bringing women into this Parliament through the mechanisms that we have adopted.

As I said, we were certain that the party would return to type. That is what happened in the selections that preceded the elections to this House in 2001. We must remember that, and accept that it can only mean that there is deep prejudice in the selection of candidates for elected office. That discrimination is against women and, of course, people from ethnic minorities. It is true of all parties. Only mechanisms such as those in the Bill will change that pattern of behaviour.

For those parties that have not had the courage of ours, the challenge, as my right hon. Friend the Minister has said, is to find mechanisms that can produce the appropriate outcomes. Nothing that we have heard so far in our debates has led me to believe that, in selections for local government and Westminster, other parties have in mind mechanisms that will deliver. If we fail to deliver in introducing mechanisms that lead to proper outcomes, we will continue to have an extreme democratic deficit in this place.

More than 80 per cent. of our Members are men. That cannot be effective representation. There are two ways in which groups can be represented—one is to have their own Members speaking for them, the other is to have Members speaking on their behalf. I know which option women would prefer, and I know which is most effective. If I can say that for my gender, I am quite sure that it is even more true for people of ethnic minority backgrounds.

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The time is right. This is the 21st century, and we have to produce a Parliament that better reflects our population. That can be done only if our political parties enthusiastically grasp what I hope will become an Act and thereby offer them, and us, the opportunity, once and for all, to begin positively on the road that will end the democratic deficit on gender. Furthermore, although there is no such provision in the Bill, we must also deal with the selection of people from ethnic minorities.

Again, I congratulate my right hon. Friend, who looks as though he might want to intervene. No, he is just encouraging me and listening with attention, for which I am grateful.

I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) who, along with a number of her female colleagues, has made serious attempts to change the culture in the Conservative party. That change is long overdue and difficult to make, and I congratulate her on her efforts.

This is an historic occasion. I hope that the Bill will be very speedy in its passage through the other place so that it becomes an Act in time for the new selections in our political parties.

6.37 pm

Mr. Tyler: I, too, congratulate Ministers on introducing the Bill. To echo the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock), the Bill also has a number of godmothers, including the hon. Lady herself, and we thank them.

Let me follow the hon. Lady by putting this in historical perspective. It has taken an awfully long time just to get this far. It is important to remember that women got the vote as long ago as 1918, when the first woman Member was elected to this House. It took until 1928, of course, for the restrictions that had previously been imposed to be removed. Until then, a woman had to be over 30, a householder, or wife of a householder—that must have stuck in the gullet—a university graduate, or rent property of a certain value.

The Minister and other members who served on the Committee may recall that my mother appeared briefly in our proceedings. She is celebrating her birthday today, and I am not there to assist. She had to wait until she was 27, in 1928, to involve herself fully in the political process. Before then, she drove cars at Cornish elections and got excited about them, but she could not take part. Therefore, it is important to bring a sense of humility to the legislation. We are taking a step forward but, my goodness, it has taken a long time.

We discussed outcomes on Second Reading and in Committee. We cannot be satisfied with the legislation if it does not produce results. That is why there is a responsibility not just on the parties to look at the legislation carefully but on the Government of the day and the House to monitor the success with which it is applied. I have frequently drawn the Government's attention to the fact that legal advice will undoubtedly be required by all parties. The Government owe it to the House, quite apart from individual parties, to ensure that the legislation is effective. That is why there is a role for Government legal advice.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mrs. Calton), who took part in proceedings on Second Reading and in Committee, is unable to be here because this debate

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coincides with our party meeting. I think that she would agree that women Members bring to the House an ability to be rather more succinct, sensitive and, occasionally, consensual than their male counterparts. I hope that the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) will not take offence when I say that his 40-minute contribution this afternoon was admirably summarised in about eight minutes by his hon. Friend the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) from the Front Bench. Therefore, I intend to be as brief as I can to show that we all have a feminine side.

The progress of the Bill in Committee has been a model of how best to exchange views in a consensual rather than a confrontational manner, and that is partly a result of the fact that the legislation is more permissive and less prescriptive. We need to study the way in which legislation is applied and it will stand the test of time better if it has that feature.

The Bill also contains a sunset clause, which Members on both sides of the Committee recognised as being of real value. It will concentrate the mind of Parliament to look again to see whether the outcomes have been achieved, rather than simply letting the legislation sit on the shelf gathering dust and saying, "Oh well, it doesn't really matter if we're not getting anywhere."

My leg has been pulled at various stages about the way in which the Liberal Democrat party conference approached this issue. Those who want to read the motion that was passed will find it in the Library guide to those proceedings; they will not then have to contribute to party funds by buying a conference report.

Clearly, my colleagues were apprehensive about going so far as to put in place a system before the legislation was enacted, but we do not rule out the need for action in our party. Goodness knows, we are not proud of the fact that we have not succeeded in getting a reasonable proportion of women Members of Parliament—only 10 per cent.

We have been much more successful in local government, and the Minister will recall that at the European elections we put in place positive action—zipping, as it was then called—with the triumphant conclusion that we elected five Liberal Democrat Members of the European Parliament of each sex. We achieved total equality. Since then, I am afraid, a number of other parties have lost Members to us and we have lost that equality, but that is the name of the game and I cannot complain. We recognise that this permissive legislation may well be required in our party and we welcome the fact that it has been left in a format that will enable us to make maximum use of it.

There was only one element of the contribution of the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford that I would not want to endorse. I would look at the matter from a slightly different angle. It is very important that we all recognise that the Bill is not intended to favour women or to help them; it is intended to favour Parliament and the nation. I do not say that all women want women to represent them, but if Parliament is not fully representative of the majority

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of the population and there are clear obstacles to effective representation of all parts of the community, that is a weakness.

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