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12 Nov 2008 : Column 902

Mr. Vara: I agree entirely with the hon. Lady, and I fail to see where the misinterpretation has been. She is a shining example of what merit can do and of how far people such as herself and the other three Members to whom the Leader of the House referred in her speech can rise on their abilities to represent people. What I mean when I talk about mainstream representation is that it is important that we do not have a selection process whereby ethnic minority candidates are perceived, as they are in some quarters, as being suitable or more suitable for representing seats where there are more ethnic minority people. That is where I am going, and all I am saying is that we have reached the stage where British people are sufficiently able and fair-minded to select people on ability and merit.

Emily Thornberry (Islington, South and Finsbury) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Vara: I hope that the hon. Lady will forgive me for not giving way. I am mindful that there is a limited time for this debate and that many people wish to speak. I am sure she will have an opportunity to come in later.

As for disabled people being in the House, that issue must be examined. We must ensure that the opportunities for their selection as candidates and election as Members are the same as those for non-disabled people. We must address something else if we are to have more disabled people in the House: we must ensure that the House itself is more easily accessible for them. It is bad enough that there are barriers to getting elected to the House, but worse still is the fact that the House itself is so difficult to get about for those who are disabled.

I am mindful of the woefully short time that has been devoted to debating this important motion, so I conclude simply by welcoming the motion, which I very much hope will help to pave the way to having a 21st century Parliament that represents 21st century Britain.

Several hon. Members rose

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. There is little time for this debate. May I ask Members to be self-disciplined in their contributions, so that the debate can be more representative?

7.58 pm

Mr. Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester) (Lab): I shall be very brief, Madam Deputy Speaker.

As I sit on this Bench today, it feels as though I am witnessing history in the making, and it is a delight to be here. I shall tell a short story about the culture shock I felt when I first came here. For a number of years, I tried to get into this place as a researcher, but no MP would have me, so I had to get elected in order to come here. I remember coming through the Carriage Gates on my first day in the little two-seater red sports car that I had back then. I was 29-years-old, I had the windows down and the music quite loud, and I thought, “This is fantastic. I am a Member of Parliament now.” I walked into the Chamber—the House was not sitting at the time—and I was asked who I was and where I thought that I was going. I took the little green and white badge out of my pocket, showed it and everything was okay. I can clearly recall that what I really wanted to do was to
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quote Eddie Murphy in a film called “48 Hours”. I wanted to say, “I am your worst nightmare. I am a black man with a badge.” I paraphrase—that is not actually what he said.

I do not think that these people—either the Doorkeeper on the gate, or the journalist who first wrote about my selection in Gloucester—are intrinsically racist. However, I agree with some of the things that Trevor Phillips said over the weekend. Dealing with institutionalised racism, to go back to the definitions from Macpherson, is about accepting that there is discrimination in all public bodies and institutions. We have to be brave enough to say that none of us—no political party—is immune from that. It is a case of how we challenge it and how we move on.

When journalists wrote about me in a newspaper, saying that the people of Gloucester had not reached a sufficiently advanced state of consciousness to accept a foreigner as the local MP and that the Labour party in Gloucester had made the same mistake as the Tories did in Cheltenham when they chose a black barrister, John Taylor, as a candidate, they were fundamentally wrong. When it comes to one member, one vote, to balance in the Labour party and to our electorate, I do not think that the British people are any different to the American people.

I am pleased to welcome the Speaker’s Conference, and I pay tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House for pushing the proposal forward. I hope that we learn one thing over the next 12 months. When I speak, Y’know, it is okay for me to say “Y’know”. I grew up in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Sharma), so rather than, “Y’know”, I might say, “Hanna”, at the end of every sentence. I hope that the conference takes into account the fact that that does not make me any less of a person. It comes from where people grow up and is part of what they are—it does not make them any less intelligent or less able to do a job in this House. I hope all Members will take that on board over the course of the next 12 months.

8.2 pm

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): I am pleased for the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda). People will note and applaud what he said and how he said it. It is a great pleasure to have people such as him in the House and to see the change that has happened since the Leader of the House and I were elected.

I pay tribute to the Leader of the House. We have had our differences on other matters earlier today, but she has made it absolutely clear that this place needs fundamental and wholesale reform of its membership. I have shared that view since the moment I came through these doors, a couple of months after she did.

We live in a country where the majority of people are women. Parliament should reflect our country. In other countries in Europe, in Latin America and in Africa—for example, in Rwanda—there are Parliaments that have almost an even balance between women and men.

We live in a country where significant numbers of people are black and from other minority communities. The Leader of the House’s constituency, and mine, have large African communities, which improve where we live and make them different, better and more interesting.

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We live in a diverse, exciting Britain, but it does not always feel like that in this House. Why? Instead of having 10 per cent. black and minority ethnic Britons in the House, which would be about the right ratio, we have nothing like that. It is frustrating for me and my colleagues. Our party had the first non-white MP, elected to Finsbury in the 1880s, but we have not been able to sustain that. There was a long period when no party had any black, Asian or minority MP at all, until the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) and others came. They made it very clear that it should not just be them, but that others should be allowed to follow in their wake. Have we begun to be alert to those things?

I shall be very brief, as it is important that a diversity of people contribute. The amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) has not been selected for debate but, like the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara), I hope that its sentiment is accepted. This debate should not be only about women, or people from black and ethnic minorities, or disabled people. It should also be about gay people and young and older people, and about having a diverse Parliament. Unless we see that in the broad spectrum, we are not fulfilling Parliament’s expectations of us.

I join those who say that the Speaker’s Conference is significant and welcome, and I hope that it is as groundbreaking as many of us hope and want it to be. It is urgent that we change. By electing Barack Obama, America showed what can be done if politics is opened up. It showed how more people—young people and those who have never voted—can be engaged in voting. We need people to look at Parliament and say, “I could be there, there are people like me there.” That is the difference that it makes when there are young people and old people, as well as able bodied people and ones with disabilities, and so on.

I shall end with two final points. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), who chairs an organisation in our party called the campaign for gender balance. Like the rest of us, she has worked to make sure that we do not just sit passively by and let selections happen. At the last general election, our party doubled from five to 10 the number of women we have here. For the first time, in most of the seats that we hold where Members are standing down—and I think that there are six of them—most of the people selected to take over are women. We have to work at these matters all the time, as nothing happens automatically. That is why we need to look at the broader canvas.

Like my party leader, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg), I support the initiative taken by the right hon. Member for Leicester, East, which has been used by the Labour party. The right hon. Gentleman has said that in certain circumstances positive action has to be taken, and that positive discrimination should be adopted for a limited period, because one sometimes has to break the glass to make the breakthrough. That does not always happen unless really dramatic action is taken to make it happen.

My final point is an obvious one. I know that people bristle when this is mentioned, but we have to look at the fact that our electoral system militates against representativeness. I am not a theological purist for the
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single transferable vote. That is not where I come from, but I know that a proportional system of election such as operates in other Parliaments in this country and elsewhere provides a better balance of representation. That has to be on the agenda for us to discuss, and it is clearly included in the remit of the motion.

I hope that no one will have any no-go areas in this debate. I hope that all of us will go into it with open minds and be willing to look at all options. I believe that the wish of the Leader of the House and of many of the rest of us is that, when we finish our duties in this place, we leave it as somewhere that looks, feels and sounds like Britain. I think that Parliament will make much better decisions as a result, because the mix that is Britain will be contributing to them.

8.8 pm

Emily Thornberry (Islington, South and Finsbury) (Lab): As a representative of an inner-city seat, I represent mainstream Britain. When I was a child in the 1970s, I remember my stepmother saying, “We are fighting the battles of women’s liberation not for ourselves, but for you, Emily. We won’t see equality, but you will.”

Unfortunately, of course, I have not seen that equality. It is said that women hold up half the sky, but when one looks around this place it cannot be said that women make up half of Britain’s decision makers. Women make up only 20 per cent. of Members of Parliament, although this evening just over 50 per cent. of Labour Members present are women. That is a healthy mixture.

There are 94 women Labour MPs, which compares with the Tories’ 17 and the Liberal Democrats’ pitiful nine. That is still not good enough, and it is not democratic. In the international league table of the representation of women, the UK comes a shameful 59th—behind Rwanda, Afghanistan, China and Honduras.

It is about time that we did something about the problem. At the present rate of increase in women’s representation, not only will I not see women’s equality in this place, but neither will my daughter—nor her daughter, nor her daughter, nor her daughter, nor her daughter, nor her daughter. But her daughter might, by the time that she retires. That will not do. We must do something. I want to be able to tell my daughter that the battle I am fighting is a battle for her, and to be able to deliver that for her. I want us to win this battle for us all.

I wholeheartedly support this initiative, but with one reservation. The proposed Speaker’s Conference should expand its remit to consider the increased representation of lesbians, gay people and bisexuals, because to have only one out lesbian in this place of 1,300 politicians is not sufficient to be able to speak about the lived experience of Britain’s 1.8 million lesbians on their behalf.

8.10 pm

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): This is a far-sighted and progressive initiative, upon which I congratulate the Government. May I begin by agreeing with the suggestion of the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) that it would be a useful addition to the robust terms of reference that have been established to consider how we might ratchet-up the representation of lesbians, gay men and bisexuals in this representative House of Commons?

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I want briefly to make two points, as I am conscious that other Members wish to speak and they should have the opportunity to do so. First, this is, of course, about doing the right thing by people who have suffered too much for too long with too little done to help them—people who, on the basis of their ability, in a discrimination-free society would have been in this place for some years already, but who have not been elected and who probably will not come to be elected if we do not change the social mores of this country. Therefore, there is a sense in which we are seeking to cater to the interests of those individuals—be they gay, lesbian, members of ethnic minorities, women or people with disabilities—for their benefit. Secondly, and critically, as Members have mentioned—including the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) in his excellent speech—we are seeking to do this because it is for the benefit of the country as a whole. We should not be defensive about it and think it is something we have to do to satisfy a fashion or in accordance with the dictates of a particular plaything of a given politician. It is not about that. Our democracy will be richer, stronger, more diverse, healthier and broader if we go about this process.

Of course, people will have their own views about the particular policies that should flow from the conference, and it is right that we should let the evidence take us in the direction it takes us. For my own part, I think that the conference must consider—and I feel sure that it will—the implementation of positive discrimination measures, because the evidence is that without them we might achieve progress, but we will do so at a snail’s pace. We owe it ourselves in this House, and to the people in the country at large, to do better. It is a fine initiative, and I wish it well.

8.12 pm

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): I, too, very much welcome this initiative, and I think it promises much. I agree with everything that has been said, and I will not repeat Members’ comments as that would be a waste of time. Instead, I shall be extremely brief.

Let me explain what I would have liked to have happened—and as the motion includes the phrase “other associated matters”, I hope it will happen. I am making a plea for “other associated matters” to be considered. In doing so, I would like to refer to an interesting speech made last week by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. The speech was widely reported, largely because it was seen to be attacking bloggers. I agree with her on attacking bloggers, who exchange argument for vitriol, but that is not the argument I wish to highlight now.

My right hon. Friend also sought to describe what she thought was an exclusion from political life in this country, and which means having to talk about a word that has not been mentioned at all in our discussions so far: class. The Labour party was born to bring working-class people into political life. That is what the party was about. It came into existence because the Liberals were refusing to choose working-class candidates, so the trade union movement and others said, “We will set up our own party to ensure that working-class people can enter Parliament.” It would be odd to talk about the problem of under-representation in public life, and to set up a Speaker’s Conference at which we could think about those issues and come up with remedies, without
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mentioning class at all. As my right hon. Friend said in her speech last week, it is pretty clear that we have a huge problem with the exclusion from political life of people who live at the sharp end of society.

Ms Abbott: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Dr. Wright: I will not, if my hon. Friend does not mind.

There are all kinds of social reasons for the problem, but to think that it is not an issue, and simply not to include it in the terms of reference of the Speaker’s Conference, would be unfortunate. There is at least an argument to be had about whether middle-class women or working-class men are most under-represented, although they are both under-represented. That issue should be included.

When we talk about under-representation, we have to talk about over-representation, too. We know that former public schoolboys are vastly over-represented in the House of Commons. I think that they are the majority element on the Conservative Benches. Is that primarily a statement about gender, or class? The truth is that it is a statement about both, so both have to be included. I hope that we shall not forget that issue, and will consider it with all the other subjects that I would like to be included in “associated matters”, as it goes to the heart of what our party is about.

I now come to my second point on class, which, again, was mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State last week, although it has been mentioned by other people, too. If we are seeing the creation of what one might call a political class—a class of people whose only trade in life has been politics—we are creating a political class that is exclusive, and whose members live in a kind of bubble and are disconnected from the rest of society. There are major trends in that direction. I absolutely accept that we want to increase the representation of women and ethnic minorities, although I am outnumbered on this Bench, and the representation of people with disabilities and other people, too. However, if we simply finish up with a political class, in which there are more women, more people from ethnic minorities, more people with disabilities and so on, we shall not quite have attacked the problem of an exclusive political class. That is why I hope that we can smuggle some of those issues in under “other associated matters”.

8.17 pm

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I feel passionately about our democracy. I believe that it is good thing for people to participate in democracy, and that it is essential that they do so if we are to have a successful democracy. We have a problem if lots of groups of people feel alienated when they turn on the television and see what goes on in this place, and realise that it does not represent society or them. That is the case whether we are talking about women, people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, people who are disabled, people who are gay, or people from different faith groups. I just mention to the shadow Deputy Leader of the House that at least one other major party has had a Roman Catholic leader; my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr. Kennedy) certainly falls into that category.

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