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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 30 March 2010

[Mr. Eric Illsley in the Chair]

Speaker's Conference on Parliamentary Representation

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.-(Mr. Mudie.)

9.30 am

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): I am pleased to have secured this debate. We had hoped to have a debate about the important work of the Speaker's Conference on the Floor of the House at some stage, because Speakers' Conferences are rare events, but that was not to be. I had hoped for a two and a half hour debate last Thursday, but that was not to be either. So I am absolutely delighted that we have been given the opportunity to spend an hour and a half this morning discussing the findings and consequences of the Speaker's Conference.

I want to cover four different areas. First, I shall give some context to the Speaker's Conference-why it was set up and the reasons behind it. Secondly, I want to talk about the findings of the report, some of which were surprising, and some of which were less so. We hope that some of the findings will educate people in the future. The third area that I would like to consider is the response of various organisations, such as the political parties and the House authorities, and how they anticipate taking forward some of our recommendations. Those responses to our report have now been published. Fourthly, I would like to spend some time looking to the future and considering how we might carry on the work of the Speaker's Conference. Although a Speaker's Conference only lasts until the end of the Parliament in which it is set up, I hope that our report's recommendations will have long-lasting effects and will potentially change the future composition of our House of Commons. In the time I have available, I hope I can cover all those areas.

As I said, Speakers' Conferences rarely happen. They are often set up at the behest of the Prime Minister of the day, which was true in this case, and they usually consider constitutional issues that will have long-lasting repercussions. Cross-party support might therefore be needed to put recommendations in place. It is no use just one political party or Government accepting the findings of a Speaker's Conference report; it must have cross-party support. We were very conscious that some of the previous Speakers' Conferences had come up with radical proposals. We did not think that we would suggest something as radical as votes for women, as one Speaker's Conference did at the turn of the 20th century, or votes for 18-year-olds, which was one of the findings of a Speaker's Conference in the 1960s. However, we hoped that the findings and recommendations of our piece of work would have the same kind of long-lasting effects on representation.

The Speaker's Conference was set up to consider the composition of the House of Commons and to try to find solutions to rectify the disparity in the representation
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of some groups of people. For example, only 19 per cent. of Members of the House of Commons are women, despite the fact that women make up 52 per cent. of the population, and small numbers of Members are from ethnic minorities, despite the fact that an increasing proportion of the population comes from ethnic minorities. We also considered why there were so few disabled Members, when we know that there is a large disabled population in society. Those were the main areas of our remit, but the phrase "and associated matters" also allowed us to consider other groups that are perhaps under-represented, particularly those from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

We took evidence from across the whole country. We were keen to get out of the Westminster bubble, and did not want to be seen simply as a parliamentary delegation descending from on high. We were also very keen to engage with the people we met, and to listen to what they had to say, so that we could reflect those views in our recommendations. We took evidence in the Palace of Westminster itself, and I thank the leaders of the three main political parties, who gave evidence. Initially, they were not perhaps as tied into the process as we had hoped, but with a bit of persuasion, all three turned up, and we are grateful that they did.

One of the things that we became acutely aware of fairly early on in our deliberations was that the gatekeepers to the process of deciding who ends up in the House of Commons is not Parliament or the public; it is the political parties. They make the decisions on who their candidates are, and it is only the candidates chosen by the political parties who are put before the electorate. The electorate then make a choice from that group of people. We knew that we needed to get some kind of buy-in from the leaders of the political parties, because we were acutely aware that if they did not think that the work of the Speaker's Conference was important, nothing would change-as in previous years, when in many cases nothing much did change. I pay tribute to the three leaders; they did turn up and they acquitted themselves extremely well. All three demonstrated that they thought it important to have a diverse Parliament.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): When the hon. Lady went out and about with the Speaker's Conference, how did the public feel about the grip that the political parties have on candidate selection? Do the public perceive that as being the key to the whole issue? Do the public want primaries, so that the whole community can decide which candidates will stand? How does she think such a system would work?

Miss Begg: I am conscious that the hon. Gentleman perhaps has a slightly different perspective on these matters from other people-I think he is standing as an independent at the next election. Interestingly, the general public often say that they want independents, and that they do not want the party political bickering. However, in reality, they find it very difficult to make their choice when independents are involved, because one thing that the political parties can do is provide a shorthand, in terms of a political philosophy. It is very difficult for an average constituent to know all the ins and outs of every candidate and the minutiae of their views, whereas the political parties, with their manifestos, create a shorthand that makes it easier for the public to make a choice.

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In the report, we say that it is a challenge for the political parties to realise their own importance in the democratic process. They perhaps must revitalise themselves and consider how they can reform their processes, particularly their selection processes, to ensure that they address the kind of issues about the general public to which the hon. Gentleman referred. The general public want people whom they can trust, and they want to feel that they have been given a proper choice. What is most clear is that people want a diverse Parliament that reflects them. They do not want to turn on the TV, put on the Parliament channel and continually see a group of people who they think have nothing to do with their lives. That point certainly came out loud and clear from our work.

At this stage, I should say exactly how important it is to have a diverse Parliament. We are not advocating having more women, ethnic minorities and disabled people in Parliament just because that would be a good idea-of course it is a good idea, as it would be nice to have people from different backgrounds in Parliament-but because that is fundamental to our democracy. It is imperative that we have people from different backgrounds and with different life experiences and perspectives in Parliament. Not only must the Executive represent the diversity of British society today, but Parliament, if it is to do its job of scrutinising the Executive properly, must represent that diversity as well.

It is not good enough to say that just because someone has been elected by a diverse electorate they know all about the different aspects of their community and everything that is going on. Had my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) or someone like her not been elected, I suspect that the issue of forced marriages might not have been given the thorough attention that she has given it, because of her particular perspective and the work she had done on that. We know that people from different backgrounds and from more diverse sections of society have different views on what is important or crucial when deciding on policy.

There are three main reasons for broadening representation in the House of Commons. First, it is a matter of justice. Anyone who is an elector in this country should be allowed to stand for Parliament, and there should be equality of opportunity, so that all people have an equal right to stand for election to this place, no matter what their background, disability, skin colour or gender. Secondly, as I have indicated, we think that a diverse House will make better decisions and will therefore be much more effective. Thirdly, broader representation would enhance the House's legitimacy.

All those points are important in the light of what happened while we were taking evidence. We did not know whether our timing was particularly bad or particularly good, but as we were touring the country and taking evidence the expenses scandal blew up in all our faces. It was not something that we expected when we started our deliberations, and there is no doubt that it had an impact on the evidence we took. We saw how the standing of Westminster and the House of Commons in particular, and trust in the institution, were being eroded day by day, as more and more revelations came out. There was also a public clamour to get rid of us all,
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because there was a view that if we were all cleared out and a new lot came in, somehow everything would be different.

All that was happening as we took evidence. My view is that our timing was perhaps very good, because a large number of Members decided to stand down, giving us a chance to ensure that the new House of Commons is much more representative of the general population. Many candidates had already been chosen-I am not sure whether that was unfortunate or not-but there was still an opportunity to bring our recommendations to bear on the selection of a new cohort of MPs. We therefore rushed out an interim report that recommended that political parties should aim to redress in their late selection processes some of the inequalities that exist in the present system.

As we took evidence, it became clear that that would not necessarily happen without the buy-in of the political parties and their leaders. It would not happen by accident, as it had not done so in previous generations. It became clear from the political parties that had a mechanism for encouraging groups that had been under-represented that that certainly made a difference. The only direct reference in the report to a party's policy was the reference to the Labour party's use of all-women shortlists. There is no doubt that the use of all-women shortlists increases the number of women representatives by a proportion that it is not possible to achieve by other means.

One of the amendments that we hope will be made to the Equality Bill would oblige political parties to report their monitoring of their candidate list with regard to gender, ethnicity and, if the candidates declare them, disability and sexuality. By making the parties aware that they have to report on those matters, we hope they will pay more attention to them. The Conservative party is trying hard to increase its number of women candidates but has not used such mechanisms, whether all-women shortlists or others. Although the number of Conservative women Members in the next Parliament is likely to double or even triple, regardless of which party wins the election-we know that just from the number of Members standing down and the number of women candidates standing in safe seats-that will still be nowhere near the 50 per cent. of the new cohort needed to redress the historical imbalance, as they are starting from a low base. Although I pay tribute to the work the Conservatives have done to ensure that they have more women candidates, because they did not go down the route of having a mechanism that would redress the balance, their proportion of women in Parliament will still be short. The most we can possibly hope for is that in the next Parliament, the proportion of women will increase from 19 to 24 per cent., which is still a long way behind what is needed, even though the numbers will increase dramatically.

There is no doubt that the political parties have chosen more ethnic minority candidates. No Asian woman has ever been elected to Parliament, for example, and there is a pretty good chance that there will be more than one in the next Parliament. Again, we will fall far short of the numbers we would need to reflect society at large.

I want to concentrate more on disability, because we are still not sure that the next Parliament will be any different in that regard from previous Parliaments. As
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someone with a disability, I know that we are used to being almost 20 years behind everyone else on the equality agenda, although during the past 13 years that has changed dramatically under the Labour Government -we are possibly only five or six years behind everyone else, which might still be two Parliaments or more. There are real challenges concerning people with disabilities. Disability is no different from the other issue, so unless we address the supply side the candidates will not come forward.

We need to ensure that political parties, community organisations and anyone involved in politicising-with a small "p"-people or campaigning open their doors to disabled people, so that those with the prerequisite qualifications will put themselves forward for Parliament. It is still the case that someone will not be selected for a winnable or safe seat in Parliament unless they have some kind of background in community or political activism, because that is one of the key qualities that constituency parties look for when selecting candidates. They want to know that the person will be able to do the job of being an MP. The political parties have a responsibility in that regard, but so too do voluntary sector groups, and in a much wider sense. In fact, it is the responsibility of everyone to ensure that people with disabilities are not forgotten or sidelined, but are encouraged to be part of the mainstream in whatever the decision-making process or campaigning may be, or the area of work in which the organisation is involved.

Disabled people also have in-built disadvantages. Generally, they are proportionally less likely to be in higher paid jobs. One of the things we found-the amount varies from party to party but this applies across all the parties-is that becoming an MP is not a cheap process. It can cost a huge amount of money to get selected, and if the constituency the individual is hoping to be selected for is not local, travel can cost a great deal. For someone with a physical disability, travel may be even more expensive. If they do not drive but rely on taxis, the costs of trying to get selected could be completely prohibitive.

One of the things the disability charity Scope proposed, with which we agreed and have recommended, is that there should be access to some kind of public life fund that would operate in the same way that Access to Work operates. It would make extra funds available to people with disabilities, to allow them to compete on an equal footing with those who do not have disabilities and thus, the extra expenses.

Another way in which disabled people have a disadvantage is that they are perhaps disproportionately put off even putting themselves forward for this place. I remember thinking that the last thing I, as a woman, wanted to be was an MP in Westminster. Why would I want to get involved in all that yah-boo politics? I have to say that once someone gets elected, they get caught up in it and really quite enjoy it, but that is how it is perceived from the outside.

The same can be true for disabled people in particular. They see this Victorian pile sitting along the River Thames and the stairs going into it, and they assume it is not particularly accessible, but that has changed. In the 13 years I have been in this place, the willingness of the House authorities to recognise that people with different abilities and disabilities should be welcome in this place-their whole attitude-has changed dramatically.

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It is difficult to explain that to people who might want to put themselves forward. There will still be anxiety that perhaps adjustments will not be made. We have not had someone elected who uses British sign language, for example, so there are practical difficulties that would have to be ironed out.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Maria Eagle): Does my hon. Friend accept that role models are tremendously important, and that she herself, having slogged away for 13 years in this place, is the best role model imaginable for disabled people, particularly those with a mobility impairment? Every day she comes here, she shows that it can be done. People out there see that it can be done, and she is the one who has shown them that. She should be congratulated on that.

Miss Begg: Modesty prevents me from responding. However, my hon. Friend has put her finger on something. My right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire)-I hope she will not mind my saying this-qualifies as a disabled person under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 because she is an insulin-dependent diabetic. She told me that she was at a hustings event for disability organisations, and one of our colleagues in this House did not imply but actually stated that he thought I was the only disabled person in this place. There are at present three of us who use wheelchairs to get around, so it was not that he had not noticed the invisible disabilities-he had not even noticed the visible disabilities. I am not sure what my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) would have made of that.

It could be that we have been so successful in becoming integrated that people do not notice we have a disability. That would be great, but it is wishful thinking. That is part of the problem, and one of the issues. People who have an invisible disability are in a quandary as to whether to declare their disability. At present, we still equate the word "disability" with ill health and weakness. While those things are connected, it is difficult for people who have a hidden disability-I shall speak about mental health in a moment-to declare it. It is one of the problems they have.

Mental health is another issue on which the House of Commons puts out the wrong message. If someone is sectioned under section 141 of the Mental Health Act 1983, they lose their seat as a Member of Parliament. We had hoped to get an amendment through the House to repeal that section, but it will not be possible to do so before Parliament dissolves. It was interesting taking evidence, because we discovered that someone who was in a coma for six months could keep their job as an MP, but someone who was sectioned under the Act for six months could not. That sends out the wrong message, because it basically says that anyone with a mental health problem is not fit to be an MP.

To go back to the point I made at the beginning of my speech, it is imperative that we have people with different experiences in this place. We know that the proportion of people who have mental health episodes in their life is high; therefore, it would be useful to have people in this place who are willing to talk about their experiences and how they came through their problems. As with all health issues, a mental health disability is not necessarily permanent. It might be, but if someone
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has any kind of permanent disability or chronic condition, they learn how to cope and how to carry on. Those are the important things.

We asked the political parties to present the data they have been using in monitoring their candidates. From what we can gather, we are not sure that the next Parliament will have any more disabled people than this one. Of course, we do not know how many disabled people there are in this Parliament. We know of quite a number of people who have disabilities, as defined by the Disability Discrimination Act, that no one knows about, and that such people do not think of themselves as disabled. We still have a huge job to do to improve the representation of disabled people. I am conscious of the time, and I know that a couple of my colleagues wish to speak as well.

The next thing I want to discuss is the responses we received, including from the House authorities, to whom I pay tribute. I thought their response was very good. Their attitude has changed, and Parliament's education department has improved in recent years. It does much more outreach, and one of the things we need to do-certainly on the supply side-is to enthuse people about politics and what we do in this place, so that they can become part of the political process, and, being part of the process, therefore be more likely to stand for Parliament. The three political parties have also responded, and the Government responded in the form of a Command Paper. All the organisations in question have taken the findings seriously.

Another area we are concerned about-perhaps this is where our timing was either good or bad-is the report published yesterday by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. If barriers to becoming an MP are built into how we remunerate MPs and how the expenses system works, we could make things worse. We have some concerns that what was published yesterday might act as a barrier to those who have caring responsibilities, whether for elderly relatives or young children.

I am still trying to absorb everything in the report. It recognises that an MP with a disability may have extra expenses, but the caring element for an MP with a child seems to end when the child is five. A Member who represents a Scottish constituency and who has a new baby will face a challenge when deciding where to send her children to school, and how to do her job as an MP. Both things are important, but the situation is difficult for someone with a young family.

The responses are there. The Speaker's Conference ends when Parliament dissolves. I had thought that its work would finish when we published our report, but I discovered that it continues. My seat is marginal, and I do not know whether I will be re-elected-that is up to the electorate in Aberdeen, South-but having examined the issue, I realise how important it is. If I am re-elected, I will not let it lie, because responsibility for implementing the findings and recommendations is not just for this Parliament, nor even just for the next; it will be for future Parliaments. I hope that during the next Parliament we will make some progress, but it will be far short of what is necessary.

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