Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Bill

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Julie Morgan: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the methods to which he referred have already been tried by other political parties, and that in the Labour party at the last election, although every shortlist was balanced equally between men and women, an overwhelming number of men was still chosen? Does not the hon. Gentleman think that what he is saying has been disproved by what has happened in my party, and that other methods are needed?

Mrs. May rose—

Mr. Lansley: Let me respond to the question put by the hon. Member for Cardiff, North and then I will give way to my hon. Friend. I cannot answer for what has happened in the Labour party or explain why the proportionate numbers of male and female candidates who were presented were not reflected in the candidates who were selected. If the hon. Member for Cardiff, North cares to think about it, one of the reasons why that occurred may be because there is continuing discrimination in the manner of selection in individual constituencies.

My hon. Friend's amendment would enable the Conservative party to present representative and proportionate numbers of men and women to constituencies, but would ensure that in the process of selection, there would be no discrimination in the application of those rules. I hope that the Conservative party will take that up.

I do not know whether I have pre-empted my hon. Friend's remarks, but I gladly give way to her.

Mrs. May: My hon. Friend has not pre-empted what I was going to say, but I may echo the point that he has just made. The amendment would ensure that, even where positive action takes place as permitted under the Bill, the selection process could not involve different discriminatory procedures that we know already occur and to which the experiences quoted by hon. Members testify.

I apologise to my hon. Friend for having to leave the Room while he was speaking, but I was pleased to hear in a recent conservation with the Fawcett Society that it had considered the proposal that my hon. Friend and I put to the Conservative party in the summer, and that it believed that our proposal could work and would positively increase the number of women representing the Conservative party in Parliament. The party must still, of course, go through the process of deciding what positive action it will take.

Mr. Lansley: I stress that I am expressing my own views on this matter and not the corporate views of the Conservative party that must determine what it will do. The process that my hon. Friend and I discussed in the summer certainly implies that the Conservative party would commit itself not only to presenting representative and proportionate numbers of candidates to constituencies, but that it would do so expressly with a list targeted on seats that we either hold or are most likely to win.

As time goes on, if there is any discrimination in the way in which those constituencies select candidates from the list, and people are removed from that list, increasing numbers of women will be available to other constituencies. We may, of course, get to the point where the Conservative party presents women to a constituency from the centre. That could happen currently in a by-election selection: for example, the central list might present to a constituency just one or two women candidates.

Rosemary McKenna: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Lansley: I will just complete my point. Members of other parties must understand that, as our constitution currently provides, women-only shortlists in the Conservative party are a non starter because, notwithstanding the central candidates list, each constituency can consider candidates from its own constituency and, having selected them, present them to Conservative central office.Each constituency thus selects women and men together.

Stephen Hesford: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Lansley: I think that the hon. Member for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth was first.

Rosemary McKenna: We wish the hon. Gentleman a fair wind in changing his party's constitution, because unless that happens, his party will get nowhere on the issue. There can be a substantial change in the number of women elected to a body only if a mechanism to allow that is introduced. In the 1997 general election, the Labour party adopted a national women-only shortlist, and the number of women elected increased greatly. In 2000, the Scottish Parliament used a twinning mechanism and achieved a 50:50 balance in membership. In the 2001 general election, the Labour party had no such mechanism in place, and the number of women who represent Labour at Westminster was reduced. I wish the hon. Gentleman well, but he will not achieve equality unless a similar mechanism is introduced.

11.15 am

Mr. Lansley: When I have pursued the issue further, I shall parade the hon. Lady's support, which will convince many in the Conservative party. The hon. Lady must not misunderstand me; I do not propose to change the constitution of the Conservative party. I think it necessary and desirable for Conservative constituency associations to be free to put local people of merit forward for selection, regardless of their sex. I hope that the Conservative party adopts positive, substantive measures to ensure that constituencies select candidates who will lead to a more proportionate end result.

It is difficult to balance the retention by constituencies of the principle of selection on merit against a process that is governed and managed by the party and designed to ensure a representative outcome.

Stephen Hesford: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

The Chairman: Order. Before anyone else intervenes, I ask hon. Members to ensure that interventions relate to the clause or amendment under debate.

Mr. Lansley: I shall give way to the hon. Member for Wirral, West.

Stephen Hesford: On Second Reading, I asked a Conservative Member about the Conservative party's candidate selection process. I argued that the Opposition's propositions would not work because, as the hon. Gentleman admits, each Conservative association can, if it wants, choose a local candidate and avoid the central list. Is that so? Was that Member of the Opposition Front Bench wrong to chide me when I mentioned that point?

The Chairman: Order. I am being tolerant, as that point did not relate to the amendment under discussion.

Mr. Lansley: Let me explain why the hon. Gentleman's point does relate to the amendment, Mrs. Adams. We must ask whether the amendment would allow us to ensure the application of non-discriminatory employment practices if constituencies continued to select from a mixed group of men and women. I can tell the hon. Gentleman as a point of fact that constituencies may select candidates from their geographical area. Candidates must subsequently be approved by Conservative central office; constituencies cannot simply select whom they like. That begs a further question about measures, but I shall not go into that, because we are not here to discuss the purposes to which the Conservative party will put the legislation.

It is the intention of the Conservative party—more so than the Labour party—to take positive action and to have special measures in place. The extent to which such measures will restrict a constituency's choices varies, but we probably will not go so far as to impose women-only shortlists on constituencies. Constituencies are required to act in a non-discriminatory way. The Conservative party needs legislative backing to make sure that it can pursue that path. If Parliament legislates to remove the selection of candidates from sex discrimination legislation, barrack-room lawyers—they are found in every organisation—will argue that no one can force constituency associations not to discriminate.

Mr. Raynsford indicated dissent.

Mr. Lansley: The Minister is shaking his head, which may provide me with some comfort. The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that discriminatory questions and practices explicitly remain outlawed, so far as we can make that clear. We want to keep the baby while we throw out the bath water, as it were.

Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham): I want to speak from my experience, as I recruited professionally in my previous employment and have been through the selection process most recently of the four members of the official Opposition on the Committee.

When I recruited members of staff for PricewaterhouseCoopers, my previous employer, we had strict guidelines on what we could and could not say. We were given strict instructions on families, women juggling the home-life balance and such issues. The process was fair, and we adhered to it. My experience of the selection process was very different, notwithstanding the guidance on those subjects issued by the party before the last selection round. From talking to other candidates, I gathered that women were asked discriminatory questions.

It is important that we back up the guidance that we give to those on selection committees, many of whom have had little experience of selecting candidates professionally. As my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead said, many of them have not selected candidates for a seat for 15 or 20 years, as was the case in Fareham. We need some legal support for the work that our professional agents undertake and for our guidance and instructions on the treatment of the relevant issues, so that we ensure that we do not ask ladies discriminatory questions.

Stephen Hesford: Is the hon. Gentleman saying that, as the issue is so difficult for the Conservative party, he supports the amendment because it would enable people to use the new legislation as evidence to show selection committees what they could and could not do?

Mr. Hoban: No. The issue is difficult for all parties. The amendment would reinforce the important message that all parties should give to their selection committees, regardless of whether they use all-women shortlists.

I welcome the amendment. It would reinforce the legal position that selection committees take account of when selecting candidates. People who have selected candidates professionally in business would apply the provision to the selection of candidates for Parliament.

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Prepared 6 November 2001