Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Bill

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Joan Ruddock: Is my right hon. Friend familiar with the Fawcett Society study of Labour party candidates? Many women said that they felt used by the 50:50 shortlist process, which our party has continued to use. They thought that the constituency had already decided that it wanted a male candidate and they were only there to make up the numbers. That is why selection is not a good enough criterion—it has to be election.

Mr. Raynsford: My hon. Friend makes a valid and apt point. The only real test of the success of a policy, and of whether the remedy is proportionate to the problem being dealt with, is the outcome in terms of the number of elected candidates. The great advance that our party made in women's representation was as a result of our adoption of all-women shortlists during the run-up to the 1997 general election. As we did not feel able to adopt a similar approach for the most recent general election in 2001, it came as no surprise to those of us who believe that positive measures are necessary to deliver the right outcome that we did not even sustain the same number of women representatives as we had in the previous Parliament. The number of women Labour Members fell a bit, although not by much—the figure is still far better than those for the other parties represented in this place. Nevertheless, we recognise that there was a fallback from the position achieved in 1997.

Mr. Lansley: Should I infer from the Minister's remarks that the Labour party is intending to reintroduce women-only shortlists and regards that measure as proportionate? If it does regard it as proportionate, what principle would a court be applying if that proportionality were tested in relation to the circumstances I described? Would it be a UK or a European test?

Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman is far too experienced to expect a response to a hypothetical question about something over which a Minister ultimately has no control. I made it clear in my earlier response that it is for the judiciary, if a case comes to court, to decide on the balance of the arguments how that case should be determined. I have merely tried to set out the circumstances and to make it clear that, providing the remedy is proportionate to the wrong that it is seeking to address, political parties should be able to introduce measures such as we have discussed. That is what we are seeking to facilitate.

Mr. Tyler: My Latin is not good enough to know what the plural of mea culpa is, but whatever it is I am prepared to accept that the Liberal Democrats have had precisely the problem described by the Minister. We have adopted an open attitude to gender balance for selection but it has not resulted in election on a balanced basis. My hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle made that point vividly.

I am generally in favour of amendments that do no harm. However, does the Minister agree with the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle that, although there may be no harm in the amendment, it could cause harm by distracting attention from the primary purpose of the legislation?

12.15 pm

Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman raised the point to which I was coming, but I have not yet responded to the intervention made by his hon. Friend. The hon. Gentleman rightly recognises that the outcome is the only real test of the success of the various efforts being made to increase women's representation. There is a risk that if attention is diverted away from the outcome and is directed at the process of selection, some people may feel pleased—I put it no stronger than that—that they have made great efforts to increase the number of women coming forward for consideration and selection as candidates, but none of those women will be elected to Parliament.

I challenge Conservative Members to correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that 25 sitting Conservative Members stood down at the last general election and no woman candidate was selected for any of those seats, which it might have been thought the Conservative party was likely to win. I accept that in present circumstances the Conservative party may end up with no Members of Parliament and it may no longer have any safe seats, but in normal circumstances it would have been thought likely that Conservative Members would be returned in those 25 seats. Why did the Conservative party not select a single woman for any of those seats?

Mrs. May: I am sorry that the Minister, by making his partisan attacks, is moving away again from the consensus approach that was adopted earlier. Some very good women stood for selection in those seats for the 2001 election, and many of us in the Conservative party hoped that some of the retiring Conservative Members would be replaced by good women Members. It is precisely because of the practical experience of being unable to achieve a better representation for women that we support the Bill, and look forward to the opportunity to introduce the positive action that we think right to increase those numbers.

Mr. Raynsford: I am sorry that the hon. Lady should find a few home truths to be an injection of partisan spirit into the debate, but I shall pass over that. I welcome the support of the Conservative party for the Bill, and hope that it will make full use of these provisions to achieve the outcome of a substantial increase in the number of women Conservative Members of Parliament. That is why we used language that focuses on the numbers of men and women being elected rather than selected, and that is why we believe that the amendment is both unnecessary and potentially a dangerous distraction. I hope that the hon. Lady agrees to withdraw her amendment.

Mrs. May: The Minister again gives us assurances about the application of European Union legislation on this subject. As I said in my introduction to the amendment, and in the spirit of constructive debate, I suspect that these matters will be debated in the other place. As the hon. Member for North Cornwall made clear, there are differing legal opinions as to the interpretation of European Union legislation, its application to this issue and its implications for legislation such as this.

The Minister is right that the Fawcett Society has said that a challenge is not expected, as other political parties in other European Union member states have adopted positive action and have not been challenged. That point was raised in an intervention from the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford. The fact that positive action has not been challenged elsewhere does not mean that it would not be challenged if it were practiced in the United Kingdom.

I noted that the Minister and the Under-Secretary, in their responses to amendments, reiterated on several occasions that any political party undertaking positive action under the legislation cannot simply rely on the existence of the legislation but must take separate legal advice as to the nature of the positive action that they propose to take. I am sure that all those involved in the administration of political parties will have noted that, too. That is the clear advice that the Government are giving to political parties.

I fully accept the point that the Minister made about the importance of focusing on outcomes. The reason we do not oppose the Bill is that we want to see more women in Parliament and, in particular, more women representing the Conservative party. I hope that the Minister accepts that the amendment was not moved to try to take the focus away from the purpose of the Bill. [Interruption.] It looks as if he does accept that.

I also accept that the wording of the amendment might not be as felicitous as it could have been, and I reiterate that had more time been available before the Bill came to Committee, we might have produced a form of words more suited to the purpose. We had no intention of taking the focus away from the outcome of getting more women elected to Parliament and other elected bodies, which is the wider issue that we shall be coming to with the next group of amendments. I wished simply to probe the Government on their reliance on the difference between election and selection, and between being selected for interview and being appointed to a job.

I noted the Minister's response to the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire. I suspect that were the Labour party to go for all-women shortlists, it would have to think more carefully about proportionality than the Minister's response suggests it has done so far. Other forms of positive action can be shown to be proportionate. All-women shortlists are the most likely to be challenged on the ground of proportionality.

As I said earlier, the amendment was intended to discover what advice the Government had taken and what confidence could be placed in the interpretation of that advice in relation to the application of European Union legislation. This will not be the only debate on the issue, and officials will be providing further information and advice to Ministers on it, because I suspect that Members of the other place will allow a rather more intricate, knowledgeable and expert interpretation—[Interruption.]

Mr. Raynsford: Speak for yourself.

Mrs. May: I was indeed speaking about my contribution. I am no lawyer, and I am not as able to explore the intricacies of those aspects of legislation as people who have a long-term or even life-long experience of the law and its interpretation—not only of United Kingdom legislation but of European law.

I thank the Minister for his response, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mrs. May: I beg to move amendment No. 2, in page 2, line 3, at end insert—

    `(f) elections to the Greater London Assembly;

    (g) elections to any body which may replace those listed in this subsection.'

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 3, in page 2, line 3, at end insert—

    `(h) any elections to the House of Lords;

    (i) any elections to any regional assemblies in England.'.

No. 8, in page 2, line 28, at end insert—

    `(e) elections to any body replacing or succeeding bodies referred to in paragraphs (b) to (d) above.'.

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