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12 Nov 2008 : Column 908

Another group of people for whom I would like to make the case is young people. I declare an interest as the only Member of the House currently under 30. I enjoyed the story that the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) told about his experience when he arrived in the House; he was basically asked who on earth he was and what he was doing there. That reminded me of my early experiences in the House. It took quite a long time for people to stop asking me which MP I worked for.

At 28, the House is one of the few places where I ever feel young any more. I speak to teenagers in my constituency, and it is quite clear that I am no longer one of the young people. If we think about people who are in their late 20s out in the country, they are running successful businesses, performing operations in hospitals, and taking cases to court as barristers. They are involved at a high level in every other aspect of our society. We should hope to have more young people involved in elected politics, especially in this House. I look forward to the opportunity to pass on the title of youngest MP after the next election.

I pay tribute to the Leader of the House for her many years of campaigning on the issue of women, which is one of the most glaring inequalities of representation in the House. She has truly fought hard, and on a personal note as a new woman MP, I must say that she went out of her way to be a friendly face and to have a friendly word, and I am sure that I am not the only woman MP who can say that about her behaviour.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) mentioned my work as chair of the Liberal Democrat campaign for gender balance, and I strongly believe in encouraging many more women to get involved in politics. It is something that they would actually enjoy, because, despite what we are doing today, it is not all about getting up and making speeches; most of our job as politicians is about listening to people, understanding our communities and making things happen—activities that women are good at and enjoy. I very much look forward to seeing after the next general election many more women MPs—I hope—from all parts of the House. I particularly hope to see more women on the Liberal Democrat Benches, because I have been working with many talented women who have been selected as candidates for seats that I very much hope that we will win at the next election.

My party has taken a view on positive action, encouraging, training and, crucially, finding women to be candidates, because, looking at the numbers, it is there, rather than in selection, that we have the problem. But I defend the right of other parties to use positive discrimination, because every party must examine the problems that they need to solve to achieve better representation. I noted the comments of the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), who is no longer in his place, but we must shy away from parties telling each other about the only way to achieve success. We should have legislation that enables parties to make their own choices, and give parties the freedom to choose.

Other Members want to speak, but, in conclusion, the Speaker’s Conference is a fabulous opportunity to address the issues of under-representation, and I sincerely hope that it is the start of real change in Parliament.

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8.21 pm

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): I shall speak briefly, first to thank the Leader of the House for her kind comments about myself and my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott). I am nervous about sitting next to my hon. Friend, however, because the last time that I did so we were discussing the issue of 42-day detention, and she heckled me throughout my speech.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Rightly so.

Keith Vaz: My hon. Friend heckled me, too. However, on this occasion, my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington and I are on the same side.

The Leader of the House is a true campaigner, and although I am absolutely certain that she has many years ahead of her in government, I think that this issue will represent her place in history. The way in which she has clearly put her footprint on the equality agenda, by ensuring that we have an equality Bill, and by moving such issues forward, is a terrific tribute to her, and it is paid not just by me but by the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), who has just spoken, and by others.

It has been great to hear contributions to the debate by others from all parts of the House. The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) is a great champion of equality in the ethnic minority communities, but may I say to the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara), who spoke from the Conservative Front Bench, that he does not have to be defensive about the issue of being pigeonholed? His party should be very proud of him. When my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington and I entered the House, I never thought that we would see someone from the ethnic minority communities speaking on behalf of the Conservative party from the Front Bench. He does it with great dignity and he is there on merit, and the fact is that he is only the third ethnic minority person ever to serve the Conservative party as a Member.

Mr. Vara: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Keith Vaz: I shall not, because time is very short. [ Interruption. ] All right, I shall.

Mr. Vara: It is not that I fear that I am pigeonholed, because I am not. I simply want to clarify the point that if Parliament is to progress in the 21st century, we must have a Parliament in which ethnic minorities do not represent constituencies where, on the whole, there are large ethnic minority communities. In the same way that white Members can represent ethnic minorities, ethnic minority Members can represent substantially white seats.

Keith Vaz: My hon. Friends the Members for Preston (Mr. Hendrick), for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Sarwar), for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Sharma), for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington and for Brent, South (Ms Butler), and the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury
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(Mr. Malik), and the Minister of State, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy) do not represent just the ethnic minority communities. [ Interruption. ] I understand what the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire is saying, but anyone elected to this House—woman, man, ethnic minority—represents their entire constituency, and that is why we should be very proud of the fact that we have such a large representation.

I agree with the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow): I know that it is dangerous to prejudge the outcome of the Speaker’s Conference, because it has not actually started, but he is right that we need to look at the issue of positive action. That is why I strongly favour the political parties themselves taking action. The reason why Parliament has to take action to improve the number of ethnic minorities and women in the House is that so far the political parties have failed to do so. That is why I favour the establishment of all-ethnic-minority shortlists. Look what they have done for women’s representation. Look at this single Bench before me, Madam Deputy Speaker—seven fine women are sitting on it. I cannot say how many of them were selected by all-women shortlists, but the majority of them probably were.

Only if the political parties decide to take action themselves will we get more ethnic minorities into the House. I hope that the Speaker’s Conference will encourage them to do so and that it will fully engage with the communities outside. I welcome the fact that it will meet not only in Westminster, but in different parts of the country, which is important. I disagree with the Chairman of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, who is wrong to say that the Labour party is institutionally racist, because those of us who represent it would not belong to such a party.

We should consider the reasons why, on trends thus far, it will take 75 years for the number of ethnic minority people in the House to reflect their percentage among the population. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) represents the constituency for which the first ethnic minority MP was elected. As she asked, how many generations of her daughters, granddaughters and great-granddaughters will it take for women to be equally represented in the House?

As the hon. Members for Buckingham and for North Southwark and Bermondsey have said, we have to think positively and make sure that we make the radical changes. Then we will be able to be proud of a House that is a mirror of the country.

8.26 pm

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): I rise to make the point that getting better representation for those who are currently under-represented is a matter not only of fairness to people who want to be in Parliament, but of better government. The lack of research on the difference that a substantial increase in the number of women and better representation of ethnic minorities has made in Parliament is shocking. After 1,000 days of the Labour Government, I did a bit of cod research that made it completely clear that not only the debates had changed—the Defence Committee was talking about soldiers’ families, Budgets were putting money into women’s pockets and
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we got rid of the tax on sanitary protection. Those things would simply not have happened without the voices of women here.

One of the important reasons why we have to improve the situation is that all sorts of other things are not happening. For example, family visits cannot happen in a reasonable way under our immigration system, but that is not enough of an issue here because not enough of us have the daily experience of the degradation and exclusion involved. It is a shocking fact that, for the first time in 10 years, three Departments have no women Ministers. There has been great progress, but it must get better.

I want to challenge a point made by the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara). Were there to be a majority Conservative Government, he is proud that there would be 50 women on the Tory Benches. Frankly, that is pathetic. At the last election, 65 per cent. of the new Labour MPs were women. That is the kind of difference that we need if this place is to represent the country that we claim to represent.

8.28 pm

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): In the past few days, I have had the privilege of being in the United States. I cannot stress enough to the House how the election of Barack Obama has electrified ordinary people there—I mean not only black people, but Hispanics and white people. They have been electrified and reassured that the system and democracy work. Increasing representation for ethnic minorities and women is not just for the benefit of the individuals who might get a parliamentary seat but for the benefit of the political process—to make it look like a living and real thing to our electorate.

We hear a lot of talk about positive discrimination. Having debated this issue over 21 years, I deplore that term, because it implies that we are taking under-qualified people and making them Members of Parliament. I prefer the phrase “positive action”, because that is what
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I want to do—to tap the talent and ability of the qualified persons out there and bring them in here to enhance our democracy.

A few weeks after I was first elected 21 years ago, I was at a meeting in my constituency where I met a woman I had never met before who looked at me and said, “When I saw that you were elected as a Member of Parliament, I felt big.” What she meant was that she felt enhanced, she felt part of civil society, she felt proud, and she could see the possibilities for her children. It is easy for this to dissolve into party political bickering and point scoring, but there are so many people out there in our constituencies who want to be able to look at the House and know that it offers a promise of hope and advancement and a future for their children.

I hope that the Speaker’s Conference, in which I hope to play a part, will come up with an outcome that means, just as the election of Barack Obama means that many millions of American children of different colours and classes can aspire, that our children, in all our constituencies, and whatever their colours, religions or races, feel able to aspire, too.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered, ,

12 Nov 2008 : Column 913

House of Commons Members’ Fund

8.31 pm

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): I beg to move,

The House of Commons Members’ Fund is, in essence, a benevolent fund for former Members and their dependants who have fallen on hard times and need financial assistance. That is a function that a good many employers carry out as part of their social responsibilities, and it is right that this House should do likewise. The fund currently has around 90 beneficiaries, a few of whom are former Members, mostly very elderly, although the majority of beneficiaries are their surviving widows and other dependants. The motion concerning appropriation is brought forward every year in line with legislative requirements, and it enables the trustees to continue making awards to ex-Members and their dependants, having regard to individual circumstances.

The fund is governed by a variety of Acts of immense complexity that stipulate the basis on which payments can be made and the amounts payable. Some payments are known as “as of right” payments—a rather misleading term, since there is no particular legal right attached to them. “As of right” beneficiaries are such because they are not entitled to a parliamentary pension because they left the House before 1964 or are widows or widowers of former Members who have a parliamentary contributory pension fund benefit below the current specified level, and the fund makes up the difference. The other category of payments comprises those awarded at the trustees’ discretion. Discretionary payments can be recurring to improve a person’s standard of living, but they are more usually one-off grants to improve the quality of life and meet a particular need. The average value of the recurring payments is about £2,000 per annum. A handful of one-off grants are made each year, with an average value of only about £5,000. Relatively small sums can make a great difference in some circumstances. I commend the motion to the House.

Let me take this opportunity to mention the review of the fund. As some hon. Members will be aware, an extensive review has been completed, and conclusions have been reached and endorsed by the trustees and the Members Estimate Committee. Implementation of the changes would, however, require changes to primary legislation. If new legislation is passed in line with the conclusions of the review, we will do away with the need for a Treasury contribution into the fund and for the annual appropriation motion. The review also recommended that “as of right” grants to former Members and spouses of deceased former Members paid under the House of Commons Members’ Fund be increased from the very meagre current level of £2,924 to £5,000 per annum for a former Member and from £1,827 to £3,125 per annum for widows.

12 Nov 2008 : Column 914

Following discussions with the Leader of the House, it has been agreed that the most appropriate way of increasing the grants is by way of the trustees exercising their discretion. The trustees will be meeting tomorrow to discuss and, I hope, agree the most appropriate method for the recommended increase to grants made under the House of Commons Members’ Fund and Parliamentary Pensions Act 1981, and the way in which it should be applied.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Approximately how many people currently benefit from the fund, and can my right hon. Friend offer the House a breakdown of the distribution of those benefits between former Members on the one hand and spouses or family relatives on the other?

Mr. Lilley: I cannot give a detailed breakdown. As I mentioned, there are currently 90 beneficiaries, the majority of whom are widows of former Members who were not entitled to have a proportion of a former Member’s salary increased when the new increase for widows was introduced in 1975. By discretion, we raised the amount that they receive from three eighths to five eighths. That is the biggest single category. Then there is the category of Members who retired before the pension scheme was properly up and running, and their widows—that is the next biggest. Every year there will be a handful of former Members who have fallen into difficult circumstances who usually receive discretionary grants.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): I am grateful for what the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues do. Following on from the last question, can he tell us whether the trustees have complete discretion in each of the categories? Do they vary the amount depending on the circumstances and plea of the applicant, or is a standard sum given, so that those entitled get their £3,000 a year or whatever is appropriate?

Mr. Lilley: I am grateful for the question. In the case of the so-called “as of right” beneficiaries, a standard amount is set down. It is a very meagre amount, and if they have additional needs, they can make an application for an additional grant reflecting their circumstances. The amounts given to the other, smaller number of beneficiaries are made entirely on the discretion of the trustees. The trustees have the power, through that discretion, to raise the “as of right” amount from one standard level to another. I would prefer that to be done by legislation, but we cannot wait for that so we will use the discretionary method, assuming that the trustees confirm the decision they previously mooted when they meet tomorrow.

I conclude by thanking my fellow trustees for the work that they undertake on the fund’s behalf. It is not a hugely onerous task, but it involves Members’ time and we all know how valuable a commodity that is. It is a necessary and valuable task to fulfil the whole House’s responsibility to those of our former colleagues and their dependants who need our help.

8.38 pm

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