Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Bill

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Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North): Will my hon. Friend address a problem of mine? I have read the book, ``Shephard's Watch'', by her colleague, the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard), which addresses some of the problems that she has mentioned. I wonder whether there is an inherent genetic problem within her party, because one of its members recalls being asked, on attending a selection committee, whether she thought that she was too short to be an MP. A second lady was told that she would need to spend a lot of time in London and was asked whether she was up to that. A third member, a Conservative activist now representing her party in the House of Lords, was asked whether her husband knew that she was applying for the seat, to which she very quickly replied,

    ``Yes, and so do my Mummy and my Daddy.''

In her book, the right hon. Lady mentions the interview of the late MP, Judith Chaplin, who served for 10 months after the 1992 election, having been a local councillor and political adviser to two very prominent members of her party. The person introducing her to the selection committee said that she was divorced and was there with her second husband, who lived and worked in Norfolk, and that they had nine children between them. She was invited to address the assembled throng from behind a lectern so high that it obscured all but her eyes. As she said afterwards, ``I was not at my best.'' What would my hon. Friend do to eliminate such prejudice?

Mrs. May: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, as those quotations reinforce the point that I am about to make. The attitudes taken to women in the selection process are a problem. I note that he called me his hon. Friend. I am not sure whether that was simply for the purposes of the Bill, given the consensus among all parties. The results of the MORI poll complement his comments, to which I shall respond as they relate to my amendments.

Nearly four in five—78 per cent.—of people polled by MORI agreed that selection committee members should receive equal opportunities training. Half those polled strongly agreed with that, and four in 10 agreed that selection committees in their parties tended to look more favourably on male candidates.

10.45 am

Many have written about experiences of the Conservative party's selection process, but there are two examples from selection processes that I especially enjoy. One is about a candidate who was asked what her husband would do for sex when she became a Member of Parliament, and the other is about a candidate who was told that she could not be selected because people could not help thinking of her in her underwear when she stood up to make a speech. One of those examples was from the Conservative party and the other was from the Labour party, so such attitudes do not exist only in the Conservative party.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford): As I understand those examples, the Conservative one was made during the selection process, but the Labour one was an aside made after the selection process. In the hon. Lady's party, as in ours, is there not, during the selection conference, a party official whose task is to enforce equal opportunities practice during the interview process?

Mrs. May: The hon. Lady is correct—party officials are present at the selection process—but she has touched on an issue that women in my party have often considered. I have discussed with many of our female candidates the equal opportunities training of selectors and its impact on the selection process.

Questions on family—how a female Member of Parliament will cope with her children—might be more normal. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) will not object to my using her phrase; she described such questions as hot-button questions, and my party has made a clear ruling on them. If someone asked a hot-button question, such as how the candidate would cope with her children if she became a Member of Parliament, would it be better for her if party officials stepped in and said that the question could not be asked? They may have made it clear to selection committees in advance that such questions could not be asked, but someone might still ask them. Is it better for the candidate if someone effectively intervenes on her behalf to stop the question, or for her to answer it and show that she can cope? Many women on the candidates' list who have been through my party's selection procedures have said that, at that point, they would prefer to answer the question. That does not negate the fact that the subject of questions that can be asked should be raised with selection committees in advance.

Seats with a long-standing MP—perhaps someone who has held the seat for 15 years, 20 years or even longer—can be a problem in the Conservative party and, I imagine, in the Labour party. Many of those on the selection committee for such a seat will not have interviewed for it for a considerable time. Many may not have interviewed someone for employment recently and so may not be aware of some of the implications of legislation. My amendments are on precisely that point. The questions that women can be asked in the selection process are an important issue.

At the moment, as we have discussed, practice has not always measured up to theory. However, the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 is in force, and a party official or someone else can intervene and say that a question is not permitted. Training can be given to selection committees about what questions can legally be asked under equal opportunities legislation. However, under the Bill the selection process would no longer be affected by that aspect of legislation. I do not want the improvements that we make to women's lot to result, inadvertently, in reinforcing an existing problem in the selection process by treating selection in the way that is envisaged and by permitting positive action. That is why my amendment would reintroduce into the Bill the provisions of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, which would give women in the selection process the relevant support by not permitting

    ``questions to be asked of a woman of a discriminatory nature which otherwise would be unlawful''

under the Bill.

I describe the amendment as a probing amendment because I want to tease out to what extent the Government think that the problem that I have outlined could arise; perhaps they take the view that human rights legislation would enable the questions I am concerned about to be stopped and permit selection committees to be trained so that they would not ask them. The issue is important. We all laugh at the examples that are quoted. I was never asked any questions that I thought pertained only to me as a woman, but my colleagues have had different experiences. Many people, including, certainly, people on our candidates list who have not become Members of Parliament, have been asked inappropriate questions that would not be permitted in an employment interview.

Stephen Hesford (Wirral, West): Does the hon. Lady agree that all-women shortlists would make the amendment unnecessary?

Mrs. May: They might not, because even on an all-women shortlist one woman might have children while others did not, and the question about children could still be asked. I do not think that that approach would entirely avoid the problem. I know from Second Reading that the hon. Gentleman thinks that all-women shortlists are an important way forward, and his party may well, once the Bill is enacted, choose to follow that route, as it did before the legal challenge. We do not think that all-women shortlists are the only answer. Other positive action can be taken. However, even where they are used, it is important that the wrong questions, which might for example disadvantage women with children—that is one of the key contexts for inappropriate questions—are not asked.

As I discussed with the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), much has been written recently about questions asked in the selection process, including examples given by my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk in her book and other examples in recent articles. The MORI poll has clearly shown that women feel that discrimination takes place against them in selection processes. As I suggested, that is not a problem for the Conservative party alone; we should explore the whole issue. We want women and men to be treated on their merits in the selection process and without the stereotype of women that leads selection committees or general meetings to ask the questions that we have heard about.

I am worried that, in improving the lot of women in one respect, we might inadvertently increase their difficulties. Therefore we should explore how the Government think the Bill would affect the use of discriminatory questions, and I tabled the amendment in that context.

Mrs. Patsy Calton (Cheadle): You will forgive my inexperience in these matters, Mrs. Adams; I do not know when I am supposed to stand and when I am not. I have a problem with the amendment and I seek reassurance from the Minister. All parties have a problem with this issue, not just one of them. We can all score points off each other and we all know of circumstances in which inappropriate questions have been asked. Clearly, all parties have a job of education to do.

I seek reassurance. Other issues are involved, and to focus on this particular issue is to seize on what looks easy. There is a raft of much more complex issues, such as that of the boys' club, of how Parliament is perceived, and the fact that women do not put themselves forward because they believe that they are unlikely to get through the process. The Liberal Democrats seek assurance about whether the legislation is necessary, because we are not convinced that it is. We also believe that it focuses on a particular point of sex discrimination and should be broadened.

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