Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Bill

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Mrs. May: The amendments are partly probing. The Minister and the Secretary of State made their position absolutely clear on Second Reading. In his opening speech the Secretary of State said:

    ``The Bill is not restricted to representation at Westminster. Although the extent of inequality varies between elected bodies in the United Kingdom, the Government believe that they all have significant room for improvement.''

He went on to refer to the rather greater success in women's representation in the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales, and made it clear that the Bill did not cover only Westminster. He continued:

    ``The Bill does not just reflect that position and deal with elections to the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and the House of Commons, but—and this has received little attention—will cover the selection of candidates for local government elections.''—[Official Report, 24 October 2001; Vol. 373, c. 330.]

I am sure that we would all agree that there are many good women councillors, but more would be nice. Although the figures vary slightly between parties, on average about a quarter of councillors are women. As the Secretary of State said—and I was happy to concur with this view—local government can be a useful experience for anyone wanting to enter the House. That is not to suggest that serving in local government is not valuable and important in its own right, because it is, but those who want to become Members of Parliament would find that experience useful if they were elected.

The Bill relates to existing bodies. It covers parliamentary elections, elections to the European Parliament, the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales and local government elections, and clause 2 covers the Northern Ireland Assembly. The purpose of my amendments is to press the Minister on what other elected bodies should be covered by the Bill and whether the language in the Bill includes them.

Amendment No. 2 refers to elections to the Greater London Assembly. I hope that the Minister has not overlooked their importance, as someone who, at one stage in his political career, wanted to stand for election to the London mayoralty, although he was unsuccessful in that. Amendment No. 2 also specifies

    ``elections to any body which may replace those listed in this subsection''.

That could be described as a catch-all, but it is an attempt to ensure that, were any of the relevant structures to be changed, the Bill would still cover the process of selection and election to those bodies. They would not fall by the wayside simply because they had not been named in the Bill. I want to ensure that the Bill is all-encompassing. Perhaps the bodies listed in clause 1(3) will not be changed or replaced in future, but if that were ever to happen, I would not want the Government to have to introduce further measures to identify another body.

Amendment No. 3 refers to two other types of elections that do not currently take place but which might in future. The Government have declared an intention that at least a proportion of the House of Lords should be elected. It is not clear whether clause 1(3) would cover future elections to the House of Lords. I suggest that it should do so.

The Government also propose the introduction of regional assemblies in the United Kingdom. We have a difference of opinion on that matter of policy.

Mr. Lansley: Before my hon. Friend moves on to discuss regional assemblies I have a question about the House of Lords. My hon. Friend seemed to take the view that elections to the House of Lords might happen in the future. However, an election has taken place in the House of Lords to determine the hereditary peers who were to remain. Presumably another such election might occur. Trying to find gender balance in that context might be tricky, but nevertheless would my hon. Friend interpret the relevant provision as applying in such a case?

Mrs. May: I am not sure whether I am grateful for that intervention, but it is a valid point: there have been elections in the House of Lords. I suspect that there was little gender balance in the candidature, although I know several women came through, including a constituent of mine, Baroness Darcy de Knayth, who was one of the Cross Benchers elected. That is a relevant issue. When I raised the matter of elections to the House of Lords, the Minister indicated that the legislation did not cover that subject. The Government may have overlooked the issue, given their intentions. I look forward to the Minister's response, as he seems to be shaking his head to indicate that the issue has not been overlooked. If the Government have taken a conscious decision that the Bill will not apply to future elections for membership to the House of Lords, the Committee should be made aware of it.

The Minister may say that if other legislation were introduced to deal with elections to the House of Lords, it could cover sex discrimination against election candidates. It behoves us to consider future circumstances, and it is important to examine whether the Bill can be amended to give it wider coverage, so that it encompasses future bodies.

Mrs. Gillan: It would be interesting if the Minister could enlighten us on the Prime Minister's attitude to the subject, as he is currently making appointments to the House of Lords. I wonder what criteria he uses, and whether he follows his gender balance recommendations strictly.

12.30 pm

Mrs. May: My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. The Bill covers only elections to bodies, not appointments to non-democratic public bodies or to the House of Lords. By introducing the Bill the Government have made it clear that they think that the number of women in the House of Commons should be increased. It would therefore be interesting to know whether the Labour party—particularly the Prime Minister—extends that view to membership of the House of Lords. Notwithstanding the fact that the Bill does not cover appointments to non-elective bodies, I should like to know whether appointments to such organisations will be covered and the number of women appointed to such bodies increased.

Amendment No. 3 relates, in part, to elections to regional assemblies. The Minister and I have a difference of opinion on regional assemblies, to which the Government are committed. The Conservative party does not believe in regional assemblies, as we made clear at the previous general election. Notwithstanding our difference of opinion, does the Minister agree that, if the Government introduce elected regional assemblies, elections for those should be covered by the Bill?

I shall listen with interest to the Minister's response, because when Ministers in the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions have responded to questions on the subject recently, they have shown that the Government are wavering in their commitment to introducing regional assemblies in the near future. A White Paper on the subject, which was to be introduced by the Deputy Prime Minister rather than the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, was to be published before Christmas but has been postponed until the new year. That indicates either that the Government's commitment is wavering or that they intend to introduce regional assemblies on a longer timetable than first suggested.

The Bill contains a sunset clause and is operational until 2015. I doubt whether the Government intend to postpone the introduction of regional assemblies until a time when the Bill is no longer applicable. If they intend to introduce regional assemblies, why do they not ensure that the legislation covers elections to those assemblies? On Second Reading, Ministers said that they believe that the number of women on elected bodies is an important issue. We want a good proportion of women to be elected to bodies at all levels of government, and all such bodies should be encompassed in the Bill.

Amendment No. 8 relates to clause 2, which deals with Northern Ireland. It would ensure that coverage in Northern Ireland was all encompassing and covered bodies introduced in the future to replace or succeed those referred to in proposed new section 43A(3), which relates to parliamentary elections and to elections to the European Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly and any district council. Again, the Bill should apply where this Government or a future Government change the structures in the legislation, replace bodies or introduce new ones; it should not be necessary to revisit the legislation in the future. We have the opportunity to ensure that the Bill is all encompassing, and it is sensible that we should do so and not fall into the trap of allowing positive action for certain elections but not others.

Mr. Tyler: I am delighted to support the amendments in much the same spirit as the hon. Member for Maidenhead. When I mentioned consensus earlier, I had in mind my opposite number, the other shadow Leader of the House, who regards it as a dirty word. I am delighted that his colleagues in the Committee take a different view, and we have already demonstrated that we agree on several important issues.

The hon. Lady referred to the sunset clause and to 2015, but it sounded as if she did not expect her party to be in government in the intervening period. I take a different view in the sense that I regard my party as having a chance of governing—whether that is with a majority or in partnership will depend on the electoral system.

Mrs. May: The hon. Gentleman might not have noticed that I made it clear in my closing remarks that I was talking about structures that might be put in place by not only the present Government but their successors, who could be drawn from any party—or rather, from one of two parties.

Mr. Tyler: This debate is important, and I hope that the Minister will respond positively. The Bill covers local authorities, which, as the hon. Lady said, have a better record on the whole in terms of outcomes. My own party has nothing to boast about in this place, but can claim, with 33 per cent., to have the best proportion of women in local government. I take great pride in the fact that some of our major local authorities are led by women councillors, who have proved to be effective managers and leaders. That is why it is important to put down a marker about other elected assemblies.

I shall not be drawn into the intriguing question of what will happen if internal elections among the hereditaries and other groups in the other place continue, although I hope that they will not. The idea of gender balance among the bishops, Law Lords and hereditary peers is intriguing. If the Government do not take the bull by the horns and get on with making the other place a democratic assembly, there might be problems.

The amendments are more concerned with existing or planned changes to our hierarchy of authorities. The Greater London Authority is already in place and has a reasonable gender balance, largely because of the electoral system. I mentioned in exchanges with the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire the relevance of trying to achieve such outcomes to the system of election. We made that point on Second Reading and shall no doubt return to it.

I am delighted to see from a weekend report that the Leader of the House believes that electoral reform is back on the agenda, if not immediately for this place, at least for other parts of our constitutional settlement. That will be true when we discuss some of the other issues that the amendments address.

Although the GLA already has a reasonable gender balance, future changes in the election system or the attitudes of parties might cause that balance to go astray, so I hope that the Minister agrees that it should be included in the ambit of the Bill. I also hope that it follows, as light follows day, that if the electors of London are enabled to adopt that attitude, the same will happen when devolution rolls out across the country, as I hope it will. It would be ludicrous if electors in London were given an opportunity to ensure good representation in their regional body, but the electors of the hon. Members for South Cambridgeshire and for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) —let alone the electors of Cornwall--were not. We in Cornwall demand whatever London has as quickly as we can, and would certainly hold to account any Government who failed to give us the same protection and opportunities. Similarly, we expect to have the same form of proportionality, so that each part of the country has a reasonably representative body.

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Prepared 6 November 2001