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Equality Bill

Equality Bill

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairmen: Mr. Joe Benton, David Taylor, Ann Winterton
Abbott, Ms Diane (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab)
Baird, Vera (Solicitor-General)
Baron, Mr. John (Billericay) (Con)
Boswell, Mr. Tim (Daventry) (Con)
Brown, Lyn (West Ham) (Lab)
Drew, Mr. David (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op)
Featherstone, Lynne (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD)
Foster, Michael Jabez (Parliamentary Secretary, Government Equalities Office)
Griffith, Nia (Llanelli) (Lab)
Harper, Mr. Mark (Forest of Dean) (Con)
Harris, Dr. Evan (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD)
Hesford, Stephen (Wirral, West) (Lab)
Howell, John (Henley) (Con)
Mason, John (Glasgow, East) (SNP)
Osborne, Sandra (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab)
Penrose, John (Weston-super-Mare) (Con)
Sheridan, Jim (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab)
Thornberry, Emily (Islington, South and Finsbury) (Lab)
Alan Sandall, Eliot Wilson, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Thursday 25 June 2009


(Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair)

Equality Bill

Written evidence to be reported to the House
E54 — Public Interest Research Unit (additional memorandum)
E55 — Fitness Industry Association
E56 — Business in the Community

Clause 99

Selection of candidates
9 am
Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): I beg to move amendment 203, in clause 99, page 73, line 22, at end insert—
‘(f) internal party elections.’.
The amendment allows political parties to positively discriminate in their own internal elections, such as elections for executive members on local councils.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: amendment 204, in clause 101, page 74, line 3, at end insert—
‘(2A) An association is deemed to have at least 25 members for the purposes of subsection (1)(a) if it has been reconstituted or formed out of an association of at least 25 members.’.
An amendment to prevent an association from reconstituting itself into many separate associations as a means of avoiding the duties under the Act.
Amendment 205, in clause 101, page 74, line 4, leave out subsection (3).
The amendment prevents the Government from reducing or increasing the number of members an association must have to be covered by this Act.
Lynne Featherstone: How nice to see you in the Chair this morning, Mr. Benton.
We agree with the Government that enabling political parties to discriminate positively in elections is a good thing, because that changes representation, and, as we know, there has been woeful under-representation of women and ethnic minorities. Amendment 203 is about extending that permission in enabling legislation to internal party elections.
Women are under-represented not only in political assemblies as mentioned in subsection (8), but sometimes in the upper echelons of those assemblies. Obviously we would not seek to bind the hands of a leader to appoint, all on their ownsome, a representative Cabinet. However, in internal party elections and on other occasions it would be helpful, in such cases as under-representation in federal committees, to be able to extend positive discrimination, should there be a need for that. We hope, obviously, that there would be no such need. The idea is simply to apply the same rights in internal party elections as are applied in external elections.
Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): I do not know whether the hon. Lady is thinking about her own party: when she talks about internal party elections, would that include all elections within a party, including the leadership election?
Lynne Featherstone: The provision would be enabling legislation, so yes, theoretically, it would apply to any party election in which an increase in representation of one sort or another was sought. The amendment is not directed at my party in particular.
Mr. Harper: Leadership bid.
Lynne Featherstone: I would not need enabling legislation to make a bid, should I care to do so. However, it is not my desire to do so, and I am not talking in a personal capacity. There is no self-interest to declare in the amendment. However, it would be useful to find that we are not inhibiting parties in any way from correcting any imbalance that they might find, and to make that lawful.
As to amendment 204, I do not know how likely the circumstances it would address are, and I would like the Minister to clarify whether we are worrying for nothing. We welcome the changes that the Government have made to outlaw discrimination by associations, and hope that any club would enter the enlightened era of openness, eschewing any discriminatory past that it might have had.
Nevertheless, the provisions are about ensuring that bigotry cannot hold sway, and I want some assurance from the Government about what would happen in the case of a golf club that had to give up some gender-based prerogative such as, perhaps—I do not know about this, as I am not a golf expert—male-only Saturday golfing. My reading of the Bill may be incorrect, and my fears unnecessary, but I want to understand that such a club would not be able to disestablish itself into smaller associations with a membership of less than 25, to maintain the ability to do as they pleased, and not come within the Bill. The amendment is intended for testing and clarification, and to put something on the record so that that could never happen.
Amendment 205 is about not leaving things to chance, with the possibility that a Government of a different hue might change the threshold at which the provision kicked in. Under the amendment, a future Government could not suddenly decide to change the threshold from 25 to 1,000, which would allow a host of associations not to be included in the protection of the Bill. Many of these important discretionary powers seem to rest on the belief that no Government would ever make changes in the wrong direction to ease the protection, rather than holding fast to the protection. I understand why the Government might want to tweak the numbers to ensure that they are covering the size of an association. My fear is that if that were not done the proper way round, we might run into difficulty.
Mr. Harper: I will attempt to be relatively brief. I shall speak about the amendments and I might also touch on the clause more widely. I want the Minister to address a particular situation, which I hope that she can rule out, relating to the ability of political parties to take positive action in this way. Most political parties, if they were going to use the measure, would do so in the way that the example suggested. I do not think that any hon. Member would support in any way the British National party using the provision to discriminate positively in favour of candidates of a particular colour—in effect, to use it in the opposite way from that intended by the Government. Have the Government thought about that? Can the Minister assure us, for the avoidance of doubt, that it will not be possible?
When the clause, much of which has been carried over from existing legislation, was introduced, it was at that time, I think, supported by the Conservative party, although we have managed to make considerable progress—of course, it will not be visible until after the next general election—without using all-women shortlists. Indeed, 30 per cent. of Conservative candidates that we have selected already, without using the provisions of the clause, are women, and that is a higher percentage than either Labour or the Liberal Democrats achieved at the last general election. If we had a majority of just one after the next election, we would have at least 50 women MPs. At the last general election, we fielded the highest ever number of female candidates. As I said, we have made considerable progress, although we shall not see it in this place until after the electors have had the opportunity to speak, but that goes to show that it is possible to make considerable progress without the legislative changes proposed in the Bill by the Government or carried forward from previous legislation.
The Solicitor-General (Vera Baird): I have no idea what the significance of that was, because it was palpably incorrect. There is a woman candidate in about 10 of the hopeless Tory seats in the north-east—that is real progress towards equality for women.
Mr. Harper: Thirty per cent. of our candidates.
The Solicitor-General: Thirty per cent. of the hopeless candidates in the non-winnable seats are women. That is great—progress in the Tory party. On we go; let us leave reaction behind.
Amendment 203 would extend the provisions in clause 99 to internal party elections. We are not totally sure what is meant, but granted that it could not cover the leadership, we had better deal with it, I suppose—in a serious way, of course. We are not in favour of positive discrimination, which is the terminology that the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green used, and there is no provision in the Bill to allow positive discrimination, which means discrimination in favour of an individual just because they have a protected characteristic, rather than on merit.
The all-women shortlist provisions have very effectively ensured that there is a larger number of women MPs in the Labour party than in any other party by an enormous margin, and those women have been able to put on the agenda things that have simply never featured in the past, such as concerns about domestic violence, the conviction rate in rape cases, child care and better provision for equality in this legislation and other legislation. All those matters came from Labour MPs and many of them were initiated by those among the influx of up to 100 women Labour MPs brought about by the positive action that we have had the wit to introduce and the foresight to use in a positive way.
Lynne Featherstone: I meant to say positive action. Women shortlists have been successful, and we want them extended to any party that wants to encourage such a change in emphasis.
The Solicitor-General: That is very good. Of course, the hon. Lady also ploughs a lonely furrow in the Liberal Democrat party, which probably has proportionately rather fewer women MPs than even the Tories. However, there is no doubt that my party is well ahead in this race. Indeed, the real sadness is that this is not a race—the other parties simply do not try to catch up and feel no real need to redress the gender balance.
Mr. Harper: The Solicitor-General is saying things that she palpably knows are not the case. The leader of my party has made it very clear that we want significantly more women in this place and a more diverse parliamentary party, and he has taken significant steps to bring that about. As I said, 30 per cent. of the Conservative candidates who have been selected so far are women, and that includes our target seats, not just those that we do not expect to win. After the next general election, the Solicitor-General will find that the Conservative parliamentary party has a significant number of very good female Members of Parliament.
The Solicitor-General: One can only hope so, but it is highly unlikely. There are 9 per cent. of women MPs in the Tory party and 17 per cent. in the Liberal Democrat party, so it is a bit better, although it is, of course, very small in Parliament. Half a woman makes a massive difference in the Liberal Democrat party.
Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): I will not get involved in that discussion, because I accept that the Liberal Democrats have not done well enough on the number of women candidates in the party. I speak as someone who has argued that we could have taken positive action earlier than we did, but progress has been made.
However, I question the Solicitor-General’s view that the only way for the Labour party to introduce policies that women need is by having more women MPs. My party does not believe that MPs’ gender determines policy, which should be determined by what the party calls for democratically. For example, we have not had any out gay MPs since I was elected, but we have been consistently ahead of the game.
Emily Thornberry (Islington, South and Finsbury) (Lab): Shame.
Dr. Harris: The hon. Lady says “Shame”, but the shame is parties not introducing equality policies regardless of people’s sexual orientation. Individuals do not have to be gay to want gay equality or to be black to want to fight racism. That connection should not be made as directly as the Solicitor-General makes it. It should not require women MPs for us to have pro-women policies. That is a slightly separate issue.
The Solicitor-General: That really is a doctrine of reaction. We do not know what impacts strongly and sharply on a community that we are not members of unless we tap into it properly, which the Liberal Democrats palpably fail to do. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman has made a pretty negative contribution. Speaking of Liberal Democrat policy, when were the Liberals last in government? It was 100 years ago or just over, and there are about another 100 years to go.
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Prepared 26 June 2009