Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Bill

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Mr. Raynsford: As the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) pointed out, clause 1 is the heart of the Bill. It inserts at the beginning of part V of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 an exemption for positive measures designed to reduce inequality in the numbers of men and women elected to certain bodies. It exempts them from the general prohibition in the Act against discrimination on grounds of sex. As the 1975 Act does not extend to Northern Ireland, the clause relates to Great Britain only, which is why clause 2 is necessary for Northern Ireland.

The clause is permissive and designed to give political parties as much flexibility as possible. An important principle is that it is not the Government's role to regulate the internal workings of political parties.

Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham): I thank the Minister for the assurance that the Government do not intend to intervene in the workings of political parties, but is he aware that the Leader of the House said yesterday that the minimum 30 per cent. of male and female appointments should apply to future party nominations? Does that not run against the permissiveness to which the Minister referred in his opening remarks?

Mr. Raynsford: No. The hon. Gentleman is confused in the same way in which Opposition Members are confused about the Bill; he has confused appointments with elections. I have made it clear that the Bill relates only to the process of election and how political parties bring forward candidates for election. The principle applies in that respect.

When it would be more in order, I would be more than happy to debate the appropriate arrangements for the reform of the House of Lords. I pause to remark on the fact that, for not only decades but centuries, the Conservative party happily acquiesced to a framework in which an unreformed House of Lords gave it an in-built majority. I hope that it will willingly embrace a framework that will ensure more balanced representation in the upper House in future.

Mr. Lansley: My hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead was, in effect, winding up the debate on her previous amendment, so the Minister has not had an opportunity to assure the Committee that, in legislation on House of Lords reform, the Government explicitly intend to provide for the application of the Bill to future elections in the House of Lords.

Mr. Raynsford: In respect of elections, I gave that assurance in Committee on Tuesday and I am happy to repeat that we intend to apply the principle in the Bill to all future bodies that come into existence and are elected. Of course, I have already made a distinction between election and appointment, but we certainly intend to apply the same principle to elected bodies.

I owe the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire an apology, because he made an intervention on Tuesday to which I did not respond. It was about the role of elected mayors in London or any other local authority area where a directly elected mayor was returned as the executive. The nature of the post makes it impossible to achieve gender balance, as only one person fulfils the executive role. Our focus is on outcomes rather than process, as we debated to some extent on Tuesday, and therefore it will not be possible to impose a similar obligation of greater gender balance in the election of a directly elected mayor. There will never be a gender balance in the outcome; the mayor will be either male or female. That is logical.

Mr. Lansley: The logic of that is inescapable. The difficulty, which relates to a point made by the hon. Member for North Cornwall, is that by the same logic, Members of Parliament in the House of Commons occupy the single post of representing a single constituency. By definition, one cannot achieve gender balance in that role. That is the distinction between what happens in this country and on the continent, where proportionality and balance are often achieved by electing Members of Parliament as a body rather than for single constituencies.

Mr. Raynsford: I counsel the hon. Gentleman not to take his argument too far, as he may stray into territory that the hon. Member for North Cornwall will rapidly seize on as an argument in favour of a proportionate electoral system.

Mr. Tyler: The Minister will be delighted to hear that I shall not go down that track. Has he taken full account of paragraph 41 of the White Paper on the reform of the House of Lords? It suggests the possibility of some indirectly elected Members from the various national and regional assemblies of the United Kingdom alongside the directly elected Members. I made a point about that yesterday, as did the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson). There is a strong view that that might make the second Chamber more democratic. How would the Government ensure gender balance in indirect elections to the House of Lords?

10.30 am

Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point, which we shall address in our White Paper on regional government early next year. I made it clear at our previous sitting--I do so again today--that we intend the principles in the Bill to apply to elected regional assemblies. We are laying the basis for gender balance in such assemblies and if there is indirect representation in the House of Lords from them, it will be easier to ensure the objective to which the hon. Gentleman is committed. I give him an undertaking that we shall examine the matter in more detail and cover the relevant issues in our White Paper on regional government.

The hon. Gentleman claimed that the Bill imposes burdens on political parties. It does not. It is permissive, and provides an opportunity for political parties that we believe that they will want to seize. I was pleased to hear the hon. Member for Maidenhead, who speaks for the Conservatives on such matters, say that they want to seize the opportunity. They certainly need to do so to redress the imbalance in their representation in the House and we hope that the Bill will facilitate that process. There is no additional burden, so the doctrine that the hon. Lady cited--that when legislation imposes new burdens it is appropriate for the Government to underwrite legal costs--does not apply.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall prayed in aid the Neill report, which states in chapter 7:

    ``Our support for public funding for one purpose is by no means an indicator of our support for public funding for other purposes.''

That is a very clear statement.

Mr. Tyler: Does not the Minister recognise that we have a sacrosanct duty to try to produce legislation that is not open to challenge? It should be as impregnable as possible. At our previous sitting and again today, he accepted that political parties will require legal advice and support. All of us in the Room support the Bill's objectives, but the Government would be foolish if they did not acknowledge that some will not accept them. It is already clear that there are chinks through which challenges will be made.

Mr. Raynsford: The Bill addresses the problem that was clearly highlighted in the Jepson case, which created a legal challenge to the adoption of positive measures by the Labour party in the 1990s. We are addressing that problem, and the Bill provides for remedies to make it easier for political parties to introduce positive measures without risk of legal action. However, it would be a foolish Minister who did not give the advice that I have offered consistently during our proceedings. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary also confirmed that we would advise political parties to take legal advice before adopting specific measures. That is prudent advice, which any Minister would offer on any similar legislation and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take it in that spirit. We are rightly and properly signalling the duty on political parties to take responsibility for their actions, and the wisdom of taking advice on that. However, our measures are designed to reduce the likelihood of legal challenge and to respond to the specific problem highlighted by the Jepson case.

That covers the issues that have been raised in the short clause stand part debate. In conclusion, I stress the importance of enforcing the Bill in good order and at an early stage so that political parties can adopt the necessary measures to achieve the outcome to which we all aspire. The legislation will be measured by the outcome, which should be a transformation of the unsatisfactory gender balance that applies not only to this place, but to other elected bodies in the country. The clause is the core of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2

Exclusion of candidate selection from 1976 order

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Dr. Alan Whitehead): I beg to move Government amendment No. 9, in page 2, line 24, leave out `section' and insert `Article'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take Government amendment No. 10.

Dr. Whitehead: The amendment seeks to correct a technical drafting error in the Bill. It has no effect on the substantive impact of new paragraphs 43A(3) and (4) in Northern Ireland. Although the effects of clauses 1 and 2 are the same, hon. Members will appreciate that orders have articles, not sections.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment made: No. 10, in page 2, line 29, leave out `section' and insert `Article'.—[Dr. Whitehead.]

Clause 2, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 3


Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Tyler: Why has the Minister selected 2015 for the so-called sunset clause? My hon. Friends and I agree that a sunset clause is helpful: in the House, it is useful to give a specific time scale to much legislation because we do not return to it regularly enough to assess its impact. I have no problem with the principle. The Bill obviously has a natural life—or, at least, we hope that it has—and we hope that sufficient progress will be made to enable it to wither on the vine. However, I wonder whether 2015 is significant—perhaps it is when the Under-Secretary gets his bus pass, or he knows that the world will end that year. Whatever the reason, I would like to understand better the time scale involved.

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