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Main Question, as amended, agreed to.

Ordered, ,

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Speaker’s Conference

7.34 pm

The Leader of the House of Commons (Ms Harriet Harman): I beg to move,

Anyone watching our debates today will have seen Members from all parts of the country. As Members of this House, we represent 646 different constituencies in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. However, it is not enough to have a geographical representation. For people in this country, their identity comes not just from where they live, but from whether they are men or women, whether they are disabled, whether they are black or white and whether they are gay or lesbian. Society has changed and we must recognise that the House of Commons needs to change, too.

As women in this country, we now regard ourselves as equal citizens, yet we are not equal in numbers in this House. We are out-numbered by men by five to one. This country is ethnically diverse now—indeed, it has been for many decades—but of 646 Members, only 15 are black or Asian. To be representative of our population, we should have more than four times that number. All of us argue that a disability should not exclude someone from the mainstream of life in this country. There are 10 million disabled people in this country, yet although my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) and my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) exemplify the fact that many disabled people work alongside those without disabilities, what is normal outside the House is still exceptional within it.

If we believe that women are equal; if we are to take account of the fact that the citizens of this country are black and Asian, as well as white; if we acknowledge that someone’s ability not their disability is what counts; and if we abhor the prejudice that discriminates against people on the grounds of their sexuality, we should accept that for the House of Commons to command greater public confidence and have more legitimacy it needs to be more representative of this country than it is now. How are we to convince young black and Asian men that they are genuinely included in our society and our democracy when they still see so few black and brown faces on our green Benches?

Perception matters. The first non-white MPs were elected to this House in 1987. They broke new ground. I want to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member
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for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) and the late Bernie Grant. They were pioneers. I will never forget the huge impact that Bernie had on my constituents of African origin when he took part in the Queen’s Speech debate dressed in his African robes. I spoke for them as their constituency MP, but as a black man of African origin like them, Bernie spoke for them, too. He made this their House of Commons, too. No law that we could have passed on that day could equal the pride that my constituents felt in their black MPs. That was a step forward for our democracy.

How could anyone doubt the importance of diversity of representation after the election of Barack Obama? Even before he has set foot in the White House as President, he has reaffirmed and re-legitimised democracy in America. He said, “Yes we can.” We should say, “Yes Westminster can too.”

We are talking not just about perception—how our House of Commons looks to the people of this country—important though that is, but about our reach and our ability to debate. When I first came into the House of Commons more than 25 years ago, it was into a House of 97 per cent. men. It was hard to have a sensible debate about domestic violence, which remained firmly swept under the green carpet. Child care and the balance between work and family were simply not regarded as political issues at all. The women Members who came into this House in 1997 have begun to change not just the face of Parliament, but our political agenda. But we need to make further progress.

There are issues of importance that our lack of diversity makes us unconfident to debate. How can we have a sensible debate about issues such as the veil when there are no Asian women MPs here? Mr. Speaker—I am sorry, Madam Deputy Speaker; there we go, a moment of irony. Despite the decriminalisation of gay sex in 1967, up until only a few years ago, lesbians and gays felt that they had to hide their sexuality if they wanted to get elected to this House. I am glad to say that, following the lead of Chris Smith, we now have a number of MPs who speak to and for lesbian and gay people in this country. That is yet another regard in which the House has become more representative of wider society. I am sure that, as well as MPs, organisations such as Stonewall will make an important contribution to the Speaker’s Conference, and I know that Mr. Speaker will welcome that contribution. Although it will be for each party in the House to put forward Members for the Speaker’s Conference, and for the Speaker to choose them, I would hope that it will include at least one gay Member of Parliament.

The Government have taken action to make the House more representative. We have brought forward legislation to allow all-women shortlists for parliamentary selection. We have legislated to outlaw discrimination on grounds of disability and sexual orientation. In the equality Bill, we will change the law to enable political parties, as part of their process of selecting candidates, to take positive measures to bring on candidates from under-represented groups, including black and Asian people. But Government action is not enough, and that is why we need a Speaker’s Conference. We need a whole-House approach.

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The proposal for a Speaker’s Conference arises out of a raft of suggestions put forward by the Prime Minister under his governance of Britain agenda. In agreeing to a Speaker’s Conference, Mr. Speaker has taken what I believe will be an historic step forward in the drive to bring Parliament into the 21st century, and I hope that all Members on both sides of the House will support him in doing so.

Speakers’ Conferences are convened only very rarely, and this one will follow in big footsteps. It was a Speaker’s Conference established in 1916 which secured cross-party agreement that women should have the right to vote. That was an historic and major change. I hope that we can vote today to set up this Speaker’s Conference, and that it will set its sights high. The motion before the House today will establish a Speaker’s Conference that will be able to meet in public, to be cross-party and to take evidence from a wide range of organisations and individuals. It will consider the disparity of representation between the Members of this House and the country at large. It will report before the end of this Parliament, and it will make recommendations.

The Prime Minister is committed to equality of representation, and so am I, but I move this motion to engender progress on a cross-party basis. Through this Speaker’s Conference, and with Opposition Members, I hope that we can all work together to address a shared belief in the importance of tackling the lack of legitimacy that is inevitable until the House becomes more representative. There is a democratic deficit: the missing faces on the green Benches, and the missing voices in the Chamber. This is not a criticism of any individual Member. It is a recognition that this House has a problem that we need to change. I ask for the support of the House, not just in passing this motion but in actively supporting what I believe will be an historic Speaker’s Conference.

7.43 pm

Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): We support the proposal for a Speaker’s Conference. I note that the Leader of the House said that the conference would report before the end of this Parliament. Perhaps she would like to tell us when that is likely to be, as I am sure that many of us would like to know the precise date for that, or even simply to have an indication.

Previous Speakers’ Conferences have looked at fundamental issues, as the Leader of the House has already said, including issues of electoral reform. Whether they related to extending the franchise, to the number and distribution of parliamentary seats, to methods of election, to election law or to election expenses, the Speaker’s Conference has been the method of choice for Parliaments to debate key elements of our electoral process. Throughout all those processes, the impartial leadership and guidance of the Speaker has been essential, allowing for cross-party support for the measures.

The fact that such conferences are held so rarely—including only five times in the past century—demonstrates the importance of the topics, and the need to galvanise all involved into taking action rather than just using words. The motion before us allows us to debate the important issue of under-representation of women, ethnic minorities and disabled people in the House of Commons.

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It should be noted, however, that when the Prime Minister first spoke of having a Speaker’s Conference, he indicated that the remit would be much broader. In his speech to the National Council for Voluntary Organisations on 3 September 2007, he said:

Today’s proposal, however, is principally confined to discussing greater representation for ethnic minority people, women and disabled people.

I appreciate that paragraph (2) of the motion allows the conference to

but the word “associated” limits the scope for further discussion to matters specifically mentioned. Nevertheless, despite its limitations, we support the motion. It would be helpful if the Leader of the House explained in her concluding comments why the proposed Speaker’s Conference has been truncated to a version that is substantially less than the one originally proposed by the Prime Minister. Will she also enlighten us as to whether the issues of voter registration, voting at weekends and so forth are likely to be looked at in some other forum?

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): I am listening carefully to my hon. Friend and agree with everything that both he and the Leader of the House have said. Might not the motion be limited in order to focus on the matters of greatest importance? The inequality of representation in the House is a scandal that must be addressed and it is right to concentrate on that. If we widen the debate too much, we might end up not having an answer to anything.

Mr. Vara: My right hon. Friend makes a relevant point and I suspect that Government Members would agree that that was indeed the reason for the limitation. I would nevertheless like to hear from the Leader of the House whether other forums will be established to discuss the other important matters raised by the Prime Minister in his earlier comments.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): My hon. Friend is making a typically courteous speech, which the House appreciates. For the avoidance of doubt, however, I put it to him that our right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) is likely to command considerable support for what he said. If we focus this Speaker’s Conference on a narrow number of very important matters, we have a much better chance of eliciting a decent and focused result, which must include greater representation of women, members of the ethnic minorities and people with all sorts of disabilities, including communication disabilities.

Mr. Vara: I agree with my hon. Friend, whose comments are, as always, relevant and pertinent. I certainly agree that we should have no poverty of ambition in respect of what we seek to achieve.

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Before I move to the substance of the issue, I express my support for conducting the conference along the lines of a Select Committee. That will allow for the reporting of proceedings, the taking of oral evidence from relevant people and so forth. This will be welcomed and it will contribute to producing a more effective conclusion at the end of the conference.

On representation in the House of Commons, there has certainly been an improvement in recent years, particularly for women and people from minority communities, but it goes no way as far as we would like. Clearly, much more needs to be done if we are to be truly representative of the people of Britain. That being said, may I put on record the fact that although the Conservatives have only 17 women Members—we are trying to improve the position—we are pleased that we had the very first woman Prime Minister? We are also pleased to say that we have had two party leaders of Jewish origin, one of whom was Prime Minister, and that ours is the only major party to have had a Roman Catholic leader. Although we recognise the present deficiency in the number of Conservative women Members of Parliament, we have certainly played our part in the attempt to provide role models in the context of other issues.

It is important for any methods used to change selection patterns and increase representation to be long-term measures, not just quick fixes. It is vital for selection guidelines and processes to be reviewed to allow a genuine step change in representation. What matters is for people to have the requisite skills and competences to do the job. That is something that Conservative Members have been working hard to achieve in our own selection processes. I am pleased to say that, in recent times, we have had a good deal of success in increasing the number of women candidates selected to fight winnable seats in the next election. As a result, it is likely that if an election were held tomorrow and we had a majority of just one Member of Parliament, we would see an increase in the number of Conservative women Members from the present 17 to between 50 and 60.

Let there be no misunderstanding. We recognise that there is much more to be done. That is not to say, however, that we should not also recognise that we have done a lot in the past two years, which will pay dividends both at the next election and, we hope, in the years ahead.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): I agree with much of what my hon. Friend is saying. He will have heard the Leader of the House use the election of Senator Barack Obama—who will become President of the United States in the middle of January next year—as an example of what has been done in America. Senator Barack Obama won that election deservedly, and I personally welcome it, but does my hon. Friend not accept that he did so without any positive discrimination? Is it not important for us, in the House and in the country, to seek not to manipulate results, but to achieve them on an open and transparent democratic basis?

Mr. Vara: I shall deal with that point later in my speech, but let me put on the record now that Senator Obama has exceptional qualities, and has got where he is on merit.

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I very much hope that the experiences of all political parties in grappling with the problem of putting more minority groups, women and disabled people in Parliament will be discussed and dealt with at the Conference, and that all of us—members of all parties—will be able to learn from each other’s experiences.

Let me now turn to the parliamentary representation of people from ethnic-minority backgrounds. Of course an increase in representation is necessary: we all agree on that. We need to engage positively to encourage more people from minority backgrounds to enter politics in general, not just Parliament. That means their standing for the membership of parish councils, district councils, city councils and county councils, as well as the European Parliament. However, it is important for us also to ensure that those of us from such backgrounds are not pigeon-holed into what are deemed to be ethnic-minority seats or areas, for reasons of political expediency or otherwise. It is important to break down barriers of that kind in selection processes.

My hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) represents a seat with a very small ethnic minority population, as do I. Both our constituencies can hardly be described as diverse in their demography. That fact is very significant, as it moves the issue of representation away from ethnicity alone and makes such elections mainstream. It helps to create an atmosphere less of “them and us” and more of the selection of people on merit, regardless of ethnic background, to represent any part of the country. To that end, I am pleased to say that my party has selected a number of ethnic minority candidates, to fight seats such as Witham, Chippenham and Maidstone, all of which are comprised of a predominantly indigenous population. Those selections are breaking down barriers and have led to the recent positive comments of Sir Trevor Phillips about the Conservative party’s work in this area. Moreover, Simon Woolley, of Operation Black Vote, has said:

I would like to make a suggestion for the Speaker’s Conference: that it not only considers how to increase ethnic minority representation in the Commons, but tries to ensure that the new ethnic minority Members of Parliament represent mainstream Britain, and not only certain communities within it. That has to be the way forward.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman will be aware that I was first elected to this House 21 years ago, and I consider myself to be representing mainstream Britain; I remind him also that indigenous Britons now come in all classes and all religions. It is tiresome, 21 years later, to hear people talking about making people MPs on merit, because when my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) and I were selected 21 years ago there were many black and Asian people of merit, and that remains the case to this day. We want due speed in tapping into all the talent and all the ability in our wider population that could be here on the Benches of the House of Commons.

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