The Government have argued that Labour never carried out such an assessment, but Labour never unleashed such a deluge of negative policies on disabled people. Let me say to the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) in particular that our record speaks for itself. [Interruption.] He should listen to this. Poverty among disabled people, which stood at 40% when Labour came to office, subsequently fell to about one in four,

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and the employment rate among disabled people rose by 9 percentage points. We introduced a host of measures to strengthen the rights of disabled people. We passed the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 and introduced the Equality Act 2010, we formed the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and, in 2009, we signed the United Nations convention on the rights of persons with disabilities.

Let us contrast that with the damaging policies of the current Government, which have been highlighted today. Cuts in local authority budgets have meant swingeing cuts in social care. The independent living fund has been closed to new applicants, and its future remains unclear. The Work programme is failing disabled people badly—only 5% of disabled participants have found work—and the Work and Pensions Committee has established that there is just one specialist disability employment adviser for every 600 people in the work-related activity group.

Guto Bebb: If the hon. Lady is so proud of the record of Labour, can she explain why training and skills programmes financed by the European social fund in Wales are not being made available to Work programme planners because of a decision by the Welsh Labour Government?

Kate Green: I can tell the hon. Gentleman that exactly the same is happening in my constituency. I am glad that he mentioned training and skills, because this Government are placing the future of residential training colleges in jeopardy. They closed 33 Remploy factories last year, and 12 months later two thirds of former Remploy employees were still out of work. Funds from the closures were promised to help those former workers into jobs, but they seem to have disappeared.

Grahame M. Morris: I am sorry to interrupt the flow of my hon. Friend’s speech. She is presenting some excellent arguments. She mentioned specialist support. Northern Rights provides bespoke support in my constituency, but it cannot secure a contract from the DWP because of the prime contractors who are operating in the area.

Kate Green: It is so often the way that organisations which have a specialised knowledge and understanding of the labour market barriers that confront disabled people, and can identify with those people, are themselves shut out and deprived of the opportunity to set up post-Remploy work settings or provide support through the Work programme.

Damaging changes in the benefits system have also had a devastating effect. As was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg), that applies both to cuts in benefits provided specifically for disabled people and to other cuts that affect them disproportionately. Employment and support allowance is in trouble—decisions are taking longer—and problems with the work capability assessment persist. About one in 10 decisions are appealed against successfully. The hon. Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery), who is no longer in the Chamber, appeared to think that the fact that people could appeal was a sign of the success of the system, but surely it would be better to get the decisions right in the first place.

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It is clear that Atos cannot cope. I know that the Minister will say that Labour made the contract, but four years and four independent reviews later—independent reviews which, I should tell the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr Reid), are required under Labour’s legislation—things are going from bad to worse.

Mr Reid: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Kate Green: No I will not.

The Minister has, of course, been commendably frank about his plans to replace Atos with other providers—that was called for initially by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne)—but we need root-and-branch re-purposing and reform of the work capability assessment, as well as improvements in the process. Those improvements should include systemising the collection of evidence in all cases, including evidence from GPs and other clinicians, providing suitable, accessible settings for assessments, and ensuring that recordings of interviews are always available to claimants.

Caroline Lucas: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Kate Green: Not at the moment.

I do not apologise for our intentions when we introduced the ESA and an assessment of people’s capacity for work. We wanted that to be a supportive and facilitative process, but, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs McGuire) pointed out, the renegotiation of the Atos contract by the current Government has rebalanced the system to be punitive, not facilitative. The Minister’s plan to replace Atos with other providers goes nowhere near to meeting the need for wholesale reform.

However, I do part company with the motion in its call for the WCA to be scrapped. I know that will disappoint many disabled campaigners listening to the debate. In my view, the assessment should be the first step in a process of identifying and assembling the right support, including financial support. I say to the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) that I have never thought there should be no assessment or reassessment, and I do not think it now. Justified criticisms were made of people being left for years on incapacity benefit without any support or any check on their progress or the deterioration of their condition, and we should not go back to that. Yet just this week, as my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore)—who has had to leave the debate to attend a Bill Committee—pointed out, we learned that Ministers are going to leave people on ESA in exactly that position for the next two years without reassessment, and apparently planned to keep both claimants and MPs in the dark about it. I hope the Minister will be able to clarify exactly the background to that extraordinary decision today.

Caroline Lucas: I think people with disabilities will be disappointed to hear what the hon. Lady says, because the current work capability assessment has become so tainted by being linked to a Government who are very clearly trying to reduce the amount of money they give out that if a new Labour Government wanted to redesign the assessment, which would still obviously need to assess whether or not people are eligible, they should call it something else. By sticking to the name “work

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capability assessment” and not being able to support the motion, the hon. Lady is doing people with disabilities a disservice.

Kate Green: The hon. Lady largely made a very helpful contribution, but there is an important point about the legitimacy of the assessment process—a legitimacy that disabled people will themselves recognise confers on them the entitlement to the benefits they receive. It is very important that we do nothing to undermine the public’s perception of entitlement.

Meanwhile, as we can see from today’s National Audit Office report, the roll-out of PIP is also in trouble. Terminally ill patients and disabled people have to wait weeks, if not months, for a decision, leaving them stranded financially, and anxious and uncertain about their claim. Why on earth Ministers awarded a PIP contract to Atos, given its failure to manage the WCA contract properly, is simply beyond my understanding. What on earth were they thinking of?

The replacement of the DLA with PIP also comes with a 20% budget cut, leaving disabled people and their carers facing the loss of vital financial support. Some will lose their Motability vehicles, and some will fall out of work as a result. The Disability Benefits Consortium has suggested that if 50,000 people leave work as a result of losing the mobility payment, that could cost the Exchequer £464 million in lost taxes and national insurance and in additional benefits.

It is not just about cuts to benefits specifically for disabled people either, because other benefit cuts affect them disproportionately too: the bedroom tax; the introduction of the benefit cap, which will also significantly impact on carers, many of whom cannot take paid work to escape it; the localisation of council tax support; the removal of funding for local assistance schemes; and, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark) pointed out, the decision to uprate benefits by CPI, which impacts particularly harshly on disabled people, who face substantial additional living costs.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) said, in times of austerity it is disabled people who are bearing a disproportionate burden, and the Government’s responsibility is to work hand in hand with them to protect and strengthen their independence, their dignity, their choices and their right to live free from stigma, hardship and fear. As a first step to doing that, it is high time that Ministers undertook a proper cumulative impact assessment of the effect of their policies, took action and faced up to their devastating effects.

2.15 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Mike Penning): I apologise as I had to pop out of the Chamber for a second—nature called—but I came straight back and I think I caught most of the speech of the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green).

Ian Lavery: It’s down to age.

Mike Penning: Yes, it’s an age thing; the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right—and that is no doubt the voice of experience.

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I welcome the debate and congratulate the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) on securing it from the Backbench Business Committee. This is the sort of debate that should take place. I also agree that it should be a non-whipped debate; that is right and proper. We may not all agree about what has been discussed, but it is, frankly, in my opinion something the Whips should stay out of, and we should have proper debates. I will probably get shot when I leave the Chamber for saying that.

There are also some parts of this very long motion with which I have a great deal of sympathy, and there are parts of it with which I do not agree, as Members on both sides of the House will realise, but perhaps we can try to work on what I do agree on and what we can do together to make the benefits regime better for the people we are trying to represent and the lobby that is here today.

Some 24 Members including myself have now taken part in the debate and it is a shame that it was time-restricted, but I understand fully why that was the case. We could have spoken for a great deal longer and have had longer contributions, however. Many Members on both sides of the House have raised specific constituency cases and my officials are in the Box and will have taken note of them. I will write to the Members concerned directly after this debate and see how we can progress those matters forward. I will also take a personal interest in certain cases, and in particular the case raised by the hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk). On that case, as the Minister responsible, I apologise unreservedly to the family. It falls back on me, and it is about time politicians stood up and apologised when things have gone wrong. In that case, things clearly have gone wrong and the family have every right to be aggrieved, and I hope the hon. Gentleman’s constituent makes a full recovery.

On the call for a cumulative assessment, I am not going to say to the shadow Minister that previous Administrations did not do that—although they did not—but there was a reason why and it is very complex, and the Institute for Fiscal Studies has also said that that could not be done properly and accurately enough. I hope the shadow Minister and others will understand why, although the Treasury carries out independent reviews of different parts of Government policy, it does not do that. I respect the work done in other reports, but they are not cumulative in the way we would like.

Ian Mearns: Outside agencies have attempted to do cumulative impact assessments—Scope and Demos, for instance, worked together on an assessment. Surely, given the resources of Government, we can do a better job than those organisations and make a good fist of it.

Mike Penning: Actually, I was going to refer to the work by Dr Duffy, and when we leave the Chamber today, I will ask my officials to contact Dr Duffy and his team to see whether we can work closely together. Perhaps we can give them better information so we can be as accurate as possible.

The right hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs McGuire) said my heart is in the right place, and I hope it is. I consider it a great honour to do this job and I desperately want to make things right and proper. If we look at the spending since 2009 going forward and projected

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into 2015, we see that the budget in this area of Government expenditure will continue to rise. We have a slightly more cumulative figure than the ones I cited earlier, and it is about £50 billion a year, so we spend just under £1 billion a week in this budget. The key for everybody in the House is how we spend it—that we spend it correctly.

I also believe in having a work capability assessment. I do not agree with the motion, but I do agree with the shadow Minister. I think that the assessment was brought in for the right reasons. I am not going to say all the problems were caused by the previous Administration because, frankly, the problems with Atos and the WCA have been there for everybody to see since the general election as well. It is not quite as simple as saying, as some Members have, that we should go out tomorrow morning and sack Atos. It has a contract. As I said at oral questions earlier in the week, I am determined that once we have negotiated the position with Atos—and we are in negotiation with Atos, which is why I was so surprised to read the views of Atos in the press over the weekend—we must make absolutely sure taxpayers’ money is not paid to Atos as compensation for the end of the contract when that comes. That would be fundamentally wrong and I would not agree to it. The negotiations continue.

We have discussed several aspects of benefits today, and I believe that the time being taken for people to be assessed is fundamentally unacceptable. This is an issue not only for the suppliers of PIP and the WCA—we have talked about Capita and Atos—but for my Department as well.

Yasmin Qureshi rose

Mike Penning: I want to make some progress, but I promise that I will give way to the hon. Lady in a moment.

Kate Green: Will the Minister give way?

Mike Penning: I want to make a little more progress on this point.

The National Audit Office report has been mentioned today. It was a snapshot report based on the situation in the autumn of last year. When I appeared before the Select Committee, I spoke extensively about one aspect of the report, which dealt with terminal illness. It is crucial to understand that I hid nothing away from the Committee, and that I said that the length of time involved in dealing with those cases was unacceptable. It has now come down to about 10 days. That is still too long, although it is less than it was under the previous scheme. We will get it down even further. I am working closely with Macmillan, and we have agreed to pilot a scheme for the 2% of terminal cases in which we will return to a paper-based system until I can get a secure PDF into place. Macmillan is pleased with what we are doing on that. The system is still not perfect, but we have moved an awfully long way, and we learned a lot of the lessons before the report even came out.

Kate Green: My point is on the WCA, and I hope that the Minister will address the question that I and my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) raised about the suspension of reassessment

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of ESA claimants for the next two years. Will he tell us why the Department appears to have decided not to inform claimants or Members of Parliament about that?

Mike Penning: If we were to inform claimants and Members of Parliament about the minutiae of every single change in policy, we would be here a lot longer. As most Members know, I am not hugely party political, but I must point out that the previous Administration did not offer that level of information either. That is not how Governments work. We are trying to deal with the delays, and to ensure that people get what they are entitled to as quickly as possible and that nobody will be worse off while we are doing that. We are, however, in the middle of a really difficult negotiation with Atos over the WCA.

I want to talk about how we can speed things up. Yesterday, I chaired a meeting of a network involving all the major stakeholders and charities. I hope that I will not upset any of the charities by leaving them out. It was a positive meeting, at which I said to them, “Sit with us and work with us to help us improve on what we have.” I was very much in listening mode, which is why I shall now give way to the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi).

Yasmin Qureshi: I am not going to make a party political point; my comment is meant to assist the Minister. On a voluntary basis, I have represented people appealing against assessments now, under the current system, as well as 20-odd years ago under the old system. The problem now lies with the assessment method, which involves only form-filling and box-ticking. That is why we can no longer assess people’s disabilities properly. In the old days, a medical expert gave evidence on a person’s ability. If we were to bring doctors back into the equation, we might find that more decisions were made properly.

Mike Penning: I am almost sorry that I gave way to the hon. Lady, because her intervention was so long. My time is being massively eroded, and I hope, Madam Deputy Speaker, that you will give me a few more minutes to address the issues that have been raised.

The consultants and GPs tell us that the clinical evidence taken at the assessment is vital. When they carry out an assessment, they are not there to provide a diagnosis; they are there to assess capacity. They can do that only by using an evidence base. One of the big issues under DLA was that only 6% of applicants ever got a face-to-face assessment. We are at 97% now with PIP. I agree that that is fundamentally too high, as I said to the Select Committee.

I have also attended tribunals to see what is happening during the last part of the DLA claims that are now coming through. I listened to the cases, and I agreed that some of them should never have come before the tribunal in the first place. Under PIP, we have mandatory reconsideration; that was never the case before. I have now asked my officials to go through the approximately 30,000 cases waiting to go to tribunal. We will mandatorily assess all of them, to try to prevent so many from going to tribunal. There is a lot of work to be done, but we must do as much as we can, together with the charities and the representative bodies.

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Residential colleges were mentioned earlier. I agree that they do excellent work, but the college principals know that I cannot pay for places that are not taken up. That is what was happening under the previous contract. There were residential places with nobody in residence, and we had day people on day courses. We have worked with the colleges on that, and we will ensure that we have the necessary capacity. Interventions have eroded my time, so I shall now listen to what the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) has to say; I think I know what it will be. Please, let us work together to ensure that the system is better for everyone we represent.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs Eleanor Laing): Order. Before I call Mr McDonnell to wind up the debate, I would like to congratulate the Minister on behalf of the House on his appointment today to the Privy Council.

2.26 pm

John McDonnell: I am sorry to spoil the Minister’s day. When the banking crisis took place, the Government —with the support of all parties in the House—found £1.3 trillion to bail the banks out. Since then, virtually every other part of society has been paying for that bail-out, other than the banks themselves. Is it not ironic that we are debating cuts affecting people with disabilities in the week when RBS is putting together a half a billion pounds pool to pay bonuses?

Time and again in the debate, we have heard about the suffering that disabled people are enduring as a result of the cuts, and to be frank, I have heard nothing today about alleviating that suffering. That is why it is important to make a commitment to carry out a cumulative impact assessment. Any good Government would want to assess the impact of their policies, so why are this Government refusing to do so? I think it is because, if an impact assessment were published, people across society would be so angered and disgusted at how people with disabilities were being treated that they would rise up in revolt.

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I say to the Minister that when the Question is put at the end of the debate, I will be shouting “Aye”, and I hope that everyone in the House will do the same. If the Government say that it is too complicated for them to carry out the assessment, let us have an independent assessment. Why cannot the Government bring in the Centre for Welfare Reform, Demos and the other think-tanks and fund them to do the cumulative impact assessment that the Government are running from?

All the campaigners have been saying—as we have exposed again today—that the work capability assessment is not working. It is failing people and causing them to suffer; it is failing properly to assess their ailments and conditions; and it is failing to get them back into work. That does not mean that there should be no assessment, however. We are saying that we should scrap this one and work with people with disabilities, their representatives, the BMA and others to create a system that is fair and just. That is all that the people up in the Gallery and the 100,000-plus others who signed the petition are asking for. That is why I urge Members to shout “Aye” today, and to support the reform that is so desperately needed.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House calls on the Government to commission an independent cumulative assessment of the impact of changes in the welfare system on sick and disabled people, their families and carers, drawing upon the expertise of the Work and Pensions Select Committee; requests that this impact assessment examine care home admissions, access to day care centres, access to education for people with learning difficulties, provision of universal mental health treatments, closures of Remploy factories, the Government's contract with Atos Healthcare, IT implementation of universal credit, human rights abuses against disabled people, excess deaths of welfare claimants and the disregard of medical evidence in decision-making by Atos, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Tribunals Service; urges the Secretary of State for Health and the Secretary of State for Education jointly to launch a consultation on improving support into work for sick and disabled people; and further calls on the Government to end with immediate effect the work capability assessment, as voted for by the British Medical Association, to discontinue forced work under the threat of sanctions for people on disability benefits and to bring forward legislative proposals to allow a free vote on repeal of the Welfare Reform Act 2012.

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Parliamentary Representation

[Relevant documents:Final Report from the Speaker’s Conference (on Parliamentary Representation), Session 2009-10, HC 239-I, and the Government response, Cm 7824. First Special Report from the Speaker’s Conference (on Parliamentary Representation), Session 2009-10, HC 449.]

2.29 pm

Dame Anne Begg (Aberdeen South) (Lab): I beg to move,

That this House welcomes the fact that there are now more women hon. Members and hon. Members from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities in the UK Parliament than at any time in history; notes that, in spite of progress, Parliament is not yet fully representative of the diversity of UK society; recognises that increased diversity of representation is a matter of justice and would enhance debate and decision-making and help to rebuild public faith in Parliament; is concerned that the progress made in 2010 may not be sustained unless concerted efforts are made to support individuals from under-represented communities to stand for election in 2015; and calls on the Government and political parties to fulfil commitments made in response to the Speaker’s Conference (on Parliamentary Representation) in 2010, including commitments in respect of candidate selection and support for candidates.

It is interesting to note just how topical this debate is. A few weeks ago, almost every newspaper in the land carried the picture of the all-male Government Front Bench. I wonder whether it will go down in history, and be as iconic as the Blair’s babes photo, which I was proud to be in. I am not sure whether those on the Government Front Bench were quite so proud to be in their photo.

We have also heard that a number of women MPs are standing down at the next election. That is not unusual for women who are over 65 and who have served in this place for more than 20 years, but it is concerning when younger women who have only been in Parliament for one term decide that they would rather be doing something else.

We have also had your plea, Mr Speaker, for a more civilised Prime Minister’s questions—good luck on that one! Is it all about macho culture, as many say, or is there something intrinsic in the confrontational shape of the Chamber? A great deal has been written in recent months about the rather narrow socio-economic background of most MPs. People ask, “Why so few working-class MPs?” All of that is relevant to this debate. However, the reason I applied for this debate is more prosaic. In the previous Parliament, I was vice- chair of the Speaker's Conference on parliamentary representation, and one of the recommendations was that, every two years, there should be a debate on the issues raised in our report on the Floor of the House. It was hoped that such a debate would raise the importance of having a diverse Parliament, look at the progress made and come up with suggestions on how to improve the situation. The Speaker’s Conference felt that if the issue was not discussed regularly, the need to take action would be forgotten. The last debate was in January 2012, so this debate is to fulfil that recommendation.

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way so early in her speech. May I congratulate her on securing this debate and getting the chance to have it on the Floor of the House, and on all the work that she has done, and indeed that

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Mr Speaker has done, on the issue of parliamentary representation? She has mentioned gender, but does she agree that there is also a case for increasing parliamentary representation in respect of race? In 1987, for example, we had four black and Asian MPs. It is now up to 27 on both sides of the House, but that is still well below the percentage of ethnic minorities in the population as a whole.

Dame Anne Begg: I think 4% of the House now comes from a black, Asian and minority ethnic background. The proportion in the general community is 8%. Although a lot of progress has been made, we still have a way to go.

It is just a happy coincidence that the very month that the issue is on the front pages we have the anniversary of the publication of the Speaker’s Conference report. The issue is a live one—as live today as it was five years ago when the conference was first proposed. The arguments for a diverse Parliament being both necessary and desirable have not changed. We should have a Parliament that is representative; it seems obvious. The people sitting in this Chamber should reflect the whole of British society. They should come from all walks of life. This House needs to look more like modern Britain. People should be able to look at this place and see someone who looks or sounds like them and who has, if not the same personal experience, at least an understanding of the life they lead.

To achieve that is difficult. It does not happen by accident. It takes a conscious effort from those with the power to ensure that the candidates the electorate are asked to vote for in the general election come from a range of backgrounds with different life experiences. The political parties are the gatekeepers of this process. They are the ones who choose the candidates, so it is incumbent on them to ensure they have candidates who come from an ethnic minority, are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, have a disability—and are not all white men from private schools. I always use the phrase “private schools”, because in Scotland public schools are run by the state and are free to go to. What a difference language can make!

What progress has been made? The House of Commons is more diverse now than at any time in history. It was only at the 1997 election, when I entered the House, that more than 100 women were elected. Up until then, there were more MPs called John than there were women. Interestingly, there were only five women who had been a member of the Cabinet before Margaret Thatcher.

More than 50% of the Labour intake at the last two elections have been women, and across Parliament 4% are black, Asian and minority ethnic against 8% in the general population. There are now more MPs with a disability, and we have even heard from MPs who have been willing to reveal that they have suffered from a mental health problem.

May I also commend the Government for introducing the access to elected office for disabled people fund and for announcing its extension up to 2015 a couple of weeks ago? The Speaker’s Conference recommended setting up such a fund to help disabled people overcome one of the barriers they face in seeking selection—the extra costs that they incur. The money might go to pay for a signer, or postage for someone who cannot hand deliver letters to members, or extra travel costs. It is important and it is a start.

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Although the fund can be accessed by disabled people across the UK for selection to Westminster, it does not cover elections to the Scottish Parliament and Scottish local authorities—I am sad that the members of the Scottish National party have disappeared out of the Chamber. Those elections are the responsibility of the Scottish Government who have yet to set up such a fund in Scotland. Despite warm words and a motion and debate in the Scottish Parliament last year, nothing has yet happened. Therefore, while English disabled people can access the fund for local government elections, Scottish disabled people cannot. As political parties in Scotland have already begun their selection process for the next Scottish Parliament elections in 2016, the need for such a fund is urgent. If they leave it too late, potential disabled candidates could miss out. I hope the Scottish Government hear my call and follow the example set by the UK Government in this worthwhile initiative.

There have been other changes that have made Parliament more accessible. We now have more reasonable hours, and the programming of business has meant an end to the old late nights spent in the bar. The opening of Parliament’s crèche has also been a step forward. However, there is no room for complacency, and unless the women MPs who are standing down in 2015 are replaced by even more women, then the overall numbers could drop. There is clearly a need for us to look at ourselves to see why so many people think that being an MP is not a job for them.

If people from different backgrounds do not want to be an MP, and cannot be persuaded to put themselves forward, we will not address the supply side issues. If it is too expensive to enter a selection race, people from modest backgrounds are not going to be in that race. If the public continue to hold MPs in such low regard, why would anyone in their right mind want to be an MP? Of course perception is far worse than the reality, which may explain why a higher proportion of the people wanting to be an MP already have a knowledge of the world of Parliament—either because they are related to an MP, they have worked for one or they have been a political special adviser. What puts other people off, does not seem to discourage them. Perhaps they realise that being an MP can be fun. I must say that I have never regretted standing for Parliament, and I do not come from the typical MP’s background. How do we get across the fact that, for most of us, serving as an MP is a privilege and an honour and the best decision of our lives? Having said that, we must be honest about the issues that put people off. Perhaps we should do more work shadowing, such as that organised by Operation Black Vote, and look closely at the work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears) so that potential candidates can see just how good this place can be, despite all the shouting—although that can be fun, too.

If proof were needed that MPs are different from the rest of the population, we need look no further than the recent research by academics Professor Sarah Childs and Dr Rosie Campbell presented at the “Parenting in Parliament” event last month. Their research has identified a statistically significant difference between the number of children that women MPs have and the number of children had by women of their peer group in wider

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society, with women MPs having fewer children. That would appear to support the proposition that family commitments are a barrier to women’s entry into Parliament. Dr Campbell indicated at the event that further qualitative work would be required to ascertain precisely what factors are involved and how this issue may best be addressed.

One key recommendation of the Speaker’s Conference that remains unresolved was aimed at ensuring that political parties choose a diverse range of candidates in potentially winnable seats: the publication by political parties of diversity data relating to candidate selections has not properly happened. It is worth setting out again the reason why the conference thought that was so important. We found evidence to indicate strongly that inequality persists in candidate selection. The reasons for that are complex, and it is difficult to identify and apply solutions because parties and constituencies select candidates by different methods and, frequently, independently of central control.

The vast majority of MPs are selected on a party ticket. The parties are the agents of change, and the choices the parties make about candidates are central to shaping what the House of Commons looks like. Those choices are important to the parties as well: the message of inclusion is a very powerful one that could help to engage new audiences and develop closer bonds with alienated communities. We recommended the creation of a formal monitoring scheme, requiring political parties to publish anonymised data on the gender, ethnic background and other characteristics of candidates selected. Knowing that the parties already hold that type of information, we gathered it from them ourselves and published it in the six months preceding the last general election—that shows that it can be done. We also secured an amendment to the then Equality Bill—it is now section 106 of the Equality Act 2010—to make such monitoring permanent.

Since the election, however, and the end of the conference, the central publication of data has stopped, despite my writing to the political parties reminding them of the Speaker’s Conference recommendation. Section 106 of the Equality Act has not been commenced, as the Government wished to consult further with the parties and secure their agreement to publish voluntarily. But that has not happened, so may I ask the Minister whether she can implement section 106, so that candidate selection can be tracked? Now is the right time to do it, as candidate selections for 2015 were delayed owing to uncertainty over future parliamentary constituency boundaries, so it was only at the end of last year that selections for Westminster constituencies began in earnest. Data on current candidate selections have now been published online by Labour and the Liberal Democrats, but not, as far as I can discover, by the Conservatives. Some of the information that has been published is not necessarily comparable across the parties, but I hope the Minister can help with all that.

I appreciate that all political parties have different cultures and so may not all adopt the same approaches in tackling under-representation. It might be through all-women shortlists, through the use of primaries, through the use of an A-list or by whatever means, but a conscious effort must be made because this will not happen by accident. There is no silver bullet or magic wand to wave that will change the make-up of the Commons, and it would be an enormous missed

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opportunity if the Parliament elected in 2015 is less diverse than this one. Changing that make-up will require all political parties to accept they have a role to play in fostering talent and in candidate selection. The Government can play a role, too, in providing leadership and encouraging a cross-party approach, as we have seen with the access to elected office fund. But Parliament has to be more welcoming, too, and perhaps, if I may be so bold, Mr Speaker, that is where you come in as well. Our democracy is precious—it is too precious to be wholly in the hands of a narrow elite. We can make this a Parliament for the 21st century, but we can only do it together.

2.44 pm

Margot James (Stourbridge) (Con): Mr Speaker, I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg) on securing this debate and on keeping the pressure up to make sure that the Speaker’s Conference proposals, which were made before many of us entered the House, live and carry on delivering the successful outcomes that they have started to deliver. I agree with much of what has already been said; we are here because we all care about our democracy and know how fundamental it is that all Britons, regardless of their ethnic origin, gender, sexual orientation, where they come from or social background, should not be barred from playing a full part in our parliamentary democracy. So this debate involves the issue of fairness, as well as the effectiveness of our legislative process. As I found in business, things are much more effective where a diverse group of individuals, with a variety of backgrounds and experiences behind them, come together to have an impact on the process. Later in my contribution I will give a few examples of small ways in which that has been achieved by our greater diversity.

A more representative Chamber will also help us to reduce the gap, which we have all seen grow in our lifetimes, between the public and their elected representatives. There are many reasons why we are all here, and the whole process starts at a young age by inspiring in people an interest in politics. Although we have improved the routes into politics, one conventional route is still for young people to come here to work as interns or special advisers or for one of the main parties’ research functions. We have to capture those young people and make sure they are more representative of society at large, as that is a natural pool of entry into politics.

We also need to consider the people who come into Parliament later in their careers, having done something else first. The public always say that they want to see more of that, and I believe everyone in this House agrees with that. There needs to be a career within Parliament that embraces the experience that these people have had in other fields and does not just focus narrowly on the more political experience, and the performance in the Chamber and at the big set-piece events, as the only perceived way of getting on in Government or shadow Government.

There are many barriers to overcome, and I have touched on a few. The hon. Lady gave a strong mention to the economic barrier, which puts a great many people off. It is why we have so few people from lower-paid or manual occupations. Indeed, there are also issues to address in respect of people at the higher end of the pay spectrum, who might feel that they cannot afford to go into Parliament. This is a big issue with numerous aspects.

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The impact on family life has to be tackled better than it has been, and some of the regulations imposed by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority have moved the situation backwards. That has to be tackled head on; we must not be embarrassed or nervous about dealing with the problem faced by those who represent constituencies many miles away and who want their family with them during the working week. They should not be disincentivised by an anti-family system of allowances. That system has to be changed.

Julian Smith (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that the partners, wives and husbands of MPs have changed their view of the role of an MP? An MP, like everybody else in our society, needs to do a range of things both for their family and for their work, and that social change in expectations on child care and other things is a driver in some of the things to which she has referred.

Margot James: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He makes a good point about how society and family life are changing, and how Parliament has to keep up with that. I quite agree.

Dame Angela Watkinson (Hornchurch and Upminster) (Con): Following on from that, does my hon. Friend agree that the decision to become an MP is a much greater one for a woman than it is for a man, particularly if she is of child-bearing age, because there are big decisions to make about when to have children? I am absolutely full of admiration for female colleagues in this House who have had babies while they have been working, but there are decisions to be made about who looks after the child, possibly decisions that men do not have to make. That is one of the reasons why women are under-represented in this Chamber.

Margot James: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention; she makes an important point. I know that she does not mean to imply that the aspects of family life and child-rearing that she mentioned apply only to women; increasingly, young fathers are also involved in making such decisions.

It is difficult to combine a parliamentary career with caring responsibilities. While my parents were alive—they lived close to me in London—I would have found it possible to represent a London constituency but impossible to represent a constituency outside of London and many miles away from them.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. We need to tackle this issue, and the system of allowances and parliamentary hours, about which much progress has been made, needs to reflect the difficult decisions that people make. She is quite right, of course; I believe that there is only one mother in the Cabinet, and perhaps that has something to do with the point she made.

I will talk a little about some of the measures that have been taken and that have worked to various degrees. Clearly, the all-women shortlists that the Labour party introduced in 1997 have had a positive effect on the representation of women in Parliament, and I am sure that they have had much to do with why 33% of Labour MPs are women. Positive discrimination, if I can put it that way, has also benefited Conservative representation, perhaps not so much in this place as in Europe, where

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we have two or three very good MEPs who were elected at the last European elections because we were brave enough to say that in the primary system of election, whereby we were electing candidates, the highest placed woman went to the top of the list.

Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): Does my hon. Friend accept that, although we of course want to have as many women as possible in Parliament—not least because they are as gracious as she is—it is still a fundamental Conservative principle that Conservative associations must preserve full independence to select the best people, whatever their sex?

Margot James: A system that does not recognise that some groups in society face greater barriers than others does not do Parliament a service, and I do not think that we can just leave things to what, in some parts of our country, are fairly small groups of people. If they are in a Conservative area where there is a large majority and effectively choosing the MP, I do not think that they can expect to have untrammelled choice, when we are acknowledging in this debate that many groups—including women and ethnic minorities, and especially people with disabilities—have particular issues they need to overcome. That needs to be built into a system in order for it to be genuinely meritocratic, and I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks.

Mr Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): I could make the quip that for more than 200 years we seemed to have all-male shortlists and nobody seemed to object to that. Does my hon. Friend agree that, when we make international comparisons, we see that where there is higher representation of women in international Parliaments there is some form of positive discrimination?

Margot James: I agree with that point and I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. In most Parliaments where there is a decent level of female representation there is at least positive action.

Our party has succeeded to some degree with the positive action that we have taken. I was on the A-list, as it was known, before the last election, along with many of my hon. Friends. That system enabled a big increase in the number of Conservative women that we now have in the Chamber. As many Members will know, it was a system whereby half of the list of candidates from which an association could select were female. We went through a few other developments on that theme, and later in the cycle of selections there was a system whereby associations had to have gender parity at each stage of the selection process. I commend that process for enabling men to have a proper and fair chance while ensuring that women were supported in overcoming some of the more extensive barriers that they face.

Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): I will just take my hon. Friend back to the point of selection. Is it not also the case that the selection processes of all parties, but especially our party, do not only favour men but men of a particular social and professional background? That has been one of the biggest issues in expanding representation. This debate is about not only gender,

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but social class, and frankly our associations all too often—not in the case of my constituency, I am pleased to say—represent a particular social class.

Margot James: My hon. Friend makes the very good point that, of course, this debate is about more than gender; I could not agree more. In my area, the black country, I do not feel that Conservatives have any sort of class bias in favour of people from higher socio-economic backgrounds, but I can see that in some parts of the country that bias might exist and we must certainly stamp it out.

Gender is an area where it has been easier to improve the selection processes, but we must work equally hard on improving the access to Parliament for other disadvantaged groups. We can do that by fostering a sense of inclusion—a sense that Parliament is an inclusive place—and by our parties respecting that when they select candidates.

The Speaker’s parliamentary placement scheme has delivered a good start in equalising the number of women and men who come into Parliament at a young age to work. Almost 50% of the paid internships supported by the scheme have been for young women, which is a good thing. The hon. Member for Aberdeen South mentioned the access to elected office for disabled people fund. There have been 60 applicants to that fund and 29 people with disabilities, who probably face greater hurdles than anybody else in entering Parliament, now have full funding, which is great progress. I thank you, Mr Speaker, for your support for all that work, which I hope will continue.

I will say a little bit about the sort of changes that we can make when we get here. The number of lesbian and gay people on our Benches now makes quite a big difference. Ministers across all Departments are very busy people. I am glad to say that all the Ministers I know are fully committed to diversity and equality, but the issue is not always at the top of their mind—they have very busy lives and many responsibilities—so it is up to Back Benchers. I applaud many of my fellow gay Back Benchers on keeping the Government to their promises. There has been the legalisation on gay marriage; the removal of historical convictions for consensual sex between men; the pardoning of Alan Turing; and support for anti-homophobic bullying campaigns in school. There are many other examples, too. It is because we have more diversity that we can make that sort of difference, and that is why we need more of it.

I want to talk about what we can learn from business. In business, we have seen some success in the “Women on Boards” programme, which has very much been led by the Government and the Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant). Now, 25% of non-executive directors on boards are female; that is up from 16%. I can see business outstripping politics if we are not careful. Of course, I hope that business wins the battle to get more diversity and inclusion. It realises that it will not win corporate battles by relying on the talent pool that used to win in the past, and that areas of great shortage, such as engineering, need to attract more women. Some 75% of an organisation’s customers and employees will not be white men, so its decision makers should not be, either.

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There are many ways to lead. Lloyds Banking Group has set a target: it wants women to be 40% of its senior executives in five years’ time. Procter & Gamble has a big programme on developing women leaders globally. Thomson Reuters has a female management academy. Those organisations recognise that women need support and training, and a champion at board level to enable them to fulfil their potential. I see an opportunity there for politics in Westminster. I think that we are all aware that HR at Westminster is perhaps a little antediluvian, compared with HR in industry. We need to learn lessons from these organisations, which do not just set targets, but have committed people dedicated to making those targets a reality. On those programmes, women are identified and put into positions that are known as feeder jobs, in which people can acquire critical skills that they will require at board level. What I am saying is that it is not enough to get greater diversity in Parliament; we then need career progression, which needs to be managed and led from the top. There is a great opportunity there, and I urge that point on Members on both Front Benches.

Julian Smith: From my experience of head-hunting in business, I would say that the key element in getting more women into the positions that we are talking about is incentivising men to look at a much broader longlist of candidates. That is vital in achieving what she wants.

Margot James: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. More broadly, many men, both in politics and the corporate world, now see the benefits of having a more inclusive environment. It is crucial that the head-hunting industry plays its part in supplying the longlists that he mentions. There is a lot to learn from business.

There is also outreach: we have to reach out. I hear from contacts in universities and the workplace that the Labour party is very good at that. We Conservative Members need to follow its example of going after people from a diverse range of backgrounds when they are at university or in leadership roles in business, inviting them in, and suggesting a parliamentary career to them. Hopefully, more will be Conservative than the opposite.

Dame Angela Watkinson rose

Margot James: Does my hon. Friend wish to intervene?

Mr Speaker: The hon. Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Dame Angela Watkinson) need not be unduly shy; she would be breaking the habit of a lifetime.

Dame Angela Watkinson: Thank you, Mr Speaker. I want to follow up the point about going to universities and enthusing people at that stage. That needs to start even earlier. I have been shocked to find in schools that pupils do not ever read a newspaper or watch news bulletins on television. I encourage them to do so. They think politics and public life are nothing to do with them. Interest in general matters needs to start much earlier.

Margot James: I absolutely agree. All of us have a duty in that regard. We all enjoy going to schools and talking about politics, and ensuring that there are school visits to this place; all that is very important. Politics

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A-level should be an option in all sixth-form colleges and all schools, because that can inspire people. If young people do not watch the news on television, perhaps they are getting their information from blogs, or in other ways, but they must be encouraged, by us and by others, to engage politically; I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend on that.

We all want a much more inclusive political process. I hope that I have been able to set out a few ideas about how parties, the Government and Parliament itself can help us to achieve that goal so that we do not go backwards, as the hon. Member for Aberdeen South realistically warned that we might, but instead go forward as a Parliament that is far more inclusive than it has been to date.

3.5 pm

Mr David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg) on securing the debate. She was extremely modest, however, because she has been assiduous and tenacious in following through on these matters since she was vice-Chair of the Speaker’s Conference, albeit that she chaired it under the previous Speaker and then under your tutelage, Mr Speaker, after you were prepared to pick up the cudgel when you came into your position. You carried the conference forward and have given support since then including, of course, through the parliamentary placement scheme that you and my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears) have pushed forward. I am pleased to have a paid intern in my office under that scheme, who happens to be female, which is beneficial in my speaking in the debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South must not hide her light under a bushel, because not enough people keep pushing this issue. I often nip myself and think, “Why aren’t I doing more to speak about this, or to put forward publicly ideas of what we might do?” I should, however, declare a non-pecuniary interest: I am helping to establish the Bernard Crick centre at Sheffield university—it is named after my old tutor, Professor Sir Bernard Crick—which is also called the centre for the public understanding of politics.

We had high hopes that the Cabinet Office, linked to the Deputy Prime Minister’s office, would be prepared to do more. We keep hearing that it will, but after the schemes are put up, they seem to disappear like sand between fingers. I understand that money has been diverted to be handed over to local authorities to address the critical issue of electoral registration, given that Parliament was getting into a mess regarding people being discouraged from registering, but we need to spend even modest sums to encourage political engagement from the earliest years.

The hon. Member for Stourbridge (Margot James) is right that it is vital that we encourage young people at school to be interested in politics and citizenship and that they receive proper unbiased tutoring in those subjects. I was very pleased that the Secretary of State for Education—I do not often say that—took a step back and did not remove citizenship from the school curriculum, but there is still a discussion behind the scenes about parity with other curriculum subjects and the timing of any review of programmes of study. I hope that that will be sorted out between the Department

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and Ofqual as quickly as possible because, as the hon. Lady rightly said, we often pick this up too late. If young people are turned off from the whole idea of public engagement—not just standing for a council seat or this place, but being engaged in campaigns and activities that we would all see as crucial dynamics in a living civil society—we will lose them. By the time people start having children and commitments, it can often be too late.

Dame Anne Begg: When I was listing the things that have improved, I failed to acknowledge the improvement to the parliamentary education service and not only its outreach work, but what it does to bring people to this place so that we can break down some of the barriers.

Mr Blunkett: I agree entirely, and I am pleased that the education centre has been granted planning consent. I hope that there will be a route to it, Mr Speaker, because I am strongly in favour of the service, and support and participate in its programmes. I am pleased that your efforts and those of the Lord Speaker in reaching out, going out and talking about Parliament and politics in a non-party way is encouraging others to be interested in this subject. There is hunger out there. I say that I hope there is access to the new facilities because on one or two days of the week these days, it is quite difficult to get from Portcullis House to here in one piece. I do not want to discourage anybody from coming here, but we will have to look at that.

Mr Speaker: Order. May I just say to the right hon. Gentleman that I have taken careful note of his strictures on that point, and I regard it as being as close to a parliamentary instruction as he is minded to volunteer? I hope that he will not be disappointed when the eventual plans materialise.

Mr Blunkett: I am very grateful for that. These days, I grab at anything that indicates that what I have said is taken seriously, so thank you very much, Mr Speaker.

The way in which people see politics and Parliament has been raised. The allowances debacle four years ago is still doing great damage, partly because people believe things that do not happen and they believe and are worried about things that do happen. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South agrees when I say that, in relation to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, issues to do with disability matters have improved considerably. There is always a step back in any organisation when there is a change of personnel, because people do not know that others have been “educated” to understand the issues and to be sensitive to them. But when it comes to an understanding of families one would have thought that those who have families—everybody is brought up in some sort of family, even if they are looked after—would have understood the issues around family life. I regret that we have not got there yet.

On the issue of disability, access to elected office is important. I am pleased that 29 people have been fully funded on this. I have been trying to help people who have approached me from both major parties. No one

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has yet approached me from the Lib Dems, but I would not discriminate against them if they did, so perhaps I could encourage them to do so.

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): My right hon. Friend may be interested to know that there is not a single Lib Dem in the Chamber.

Mr Blunkett: I thought that the Equalities Minister was a Lib Dem.

Nia Griffith: She is absent.

Mr Blunkett: That is a shame because she served on the Speaker’s Conference. I was hoping that the enthusiasm that she showed five years ago would have shone through. I do know that ministerial office wears you down, and you sometimes lose the fervour that you came in with. Perhaps we could encourage her on these matters.

Access to elected office is important, but here is a thought.

Julian Smith: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way on that point.

Mr Blunkett: Can I just do the thought? When you get to my age after 27 years in this place, if you do not deliver the thought when it is in your head, you might lose it.

The thought was how difficult it is for people with disabilities—it is equally true for those with caring responsibilities, who are mainly, although not exclusively, women—both to become a candidate in the European elections and then to campaign effectively across a region. We need to encourage the European Union to be a lot more supportive in that regard.

Julian Smith: On the point about the Liberal Democrat Minister who is not here. If I am not mistaken, she is on maternity leave. That is a really positive move, and crucial to the issues that we are debating.

Mr Blunkett: I have always been prepared to take advice from around me and behind me, and I totally commend the Minister on her drive and willingness to take on the difficult task of matching her political and personal responsibilities. How could I not? I am reliably informed that there is some sort of job share going on.

We must also not exaggerate the difficulties. We need to be positive in seeking change, but we need to tell people more often that it is possible to do it. I want to say something that is a bit more humble than usual. I am very proud to have been in the Cabinet for eight years, as I am of all sorts of things I have done over the past 44 years, both in local government and in Parliament, but probably the most important thing I have ever done, and the thing I am most proud of, is demonstrating to young people, families, employers and society in general that someone with a definable disability—I rarely talk about this—can work on equal terms in a very tough environment. If I can get that message across, everything else will have been worth while. I say that because I think that we have to be positive in saying, “Whatever your background, whatever the challenges you’ve had in life, whatever economic or physical disadvantages, and whatever your gender or race, you can do it.”

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To pick up on the point made by the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, I have often been concerned that particular ethnic minority groups are underrepresented in Parliament and in many areas of local government. I am particularly concerned in that regard about the Afro-Caribbean community. We need to look at how we can encourage particular groups to feel that they can play a part and that they would be welcome in doing so.

It is about people like us, but it is also about people who are changing like us. I want more people who have experienced challenges in their life to feel that they can come forward and use that experience to bring about positive change for others, but I also want them not to be daunted by the fact that we change. I am not the same person I was when I entered Sheffield city council in 1970, or even when I entered this place in 1987, and the challenges and difficulties I face are not the same. To begin with, I am better off now. I can buy things that I could not previously buy and do things that I could not previously do.

I am also slightly more daunted by things that I used to do, particularly when it comes to travel. For example—I will share this story with the House briefly—I remember going to a football match at Stamford Bridge when I was in my late teens. The match was between Sheffield Wednesday and Chelsea. I persuaded my mother that I would meet an old school friend, who was totally blind, at the ground. She was more terrified about it than I was, but I would be more terrified now than she was then. I came down on the coach and hooked on to the crowd going to Stamford Bridge. I got to the main gate and started shouted my friend’s name: “Tony.” He answered and I found him. How the hell I managed to find someone else who could not see outside the ground, I do not know.

The second part of that story is that we often rely on the support, encouragement and, sometimes, direct help of others, as we all need to be able to do. In those days football grounds did not have audio-described commentary, as they often do now, so we had to commandeer the poor devil who was fortuitously sitting behind us so that he could give us a commentary. Anyway, it was a one-all draw.

I think that this afternoon’s debate will also be a one-all draw, because I want to finish with a dangerous riposte to the hon. Member for Stourbridge, whose speech I enjoyed. She was very kind to my party in commending us on what we do. I must say that I wish we did it in quite the way she described. If we did, I think that I would be prouder, more encouraged and less concerned. We all have a great deal to do, within our political parties and within our society, to change the nature of how we describe our politics, what we are doing and the way in which we are seen and heard. Perhaps this biennial debate will help to encourage other people to think more positively, to be a little more courageous and, above all, to carry this forward post the general election next year.

3.19 pm

Mr Robert Syms (Poole) (Con): It is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett), who not only spent eight years in the Cabinet but was one of the most effective performers on the Labour Front Bench. He has a lot of respect in all parts of the House and has been a role model throughout his time in the Chamber.

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The fact that the Chamber is changing will lead to more change. Let us face it: someone would need to be a bit odd to want to stand for Parliament. We were always the odd people at school; most people were interested in football and other things. If people see positive role models in the Chamber who they feel might well represent them, they are more likely to stand for Parliament. Therefore, the changes that have started to occur will continue.

Our system has a great advantage and a great disadvantage—it is called first past the post. I love our electoral system; it is very good. It means that we represent a definable geographical area, that we have to deal with people who do not vote for us—people come into our surgery who voted Labour, Liberal, Conservative or whatever—and that we have to get to know our constituencies very well. That is a big advantage in terms of representation, but it does mean that, on the whole, associations joyfully go ahead in selecting one person. If every association selects the one person they want, that does not necessarily mean that the team we get at the end of the day is balanced or representative. The one advantage of proportional representation, as in the European elections, is that it enables a slightly more balanced approach.

Clearly, all the political parties are signed up to change. The driver of that change is ultimately political competition, because each party wants to get the most votes possible and realises that it can do that only if there is much more balanced representation in the House. Although articles in newspapers often say that there is a deficiency of women voting Conservative, the polling evidence is that as many women now vote Conservative as vote Labour. There is a slight propensity among younger women to vote for the left and older, or more mature, women to vote for the right. However, we need only look at the US presidential elections to see that the very heavy preponderance of young women voting Democrat was probably the reason Obama won the election, because although the margin in terms of the electoral college was quite large, in terms of the vote it was quite narrow.

One of the things that makes me feel that the situation will continue to improve is that we have a very competitive political system. All the political parties want to get the maximum number of votes, and they all realise that that necessitates changing the manner in which we carry out our selections. That sometimes means educating our own best friends. We all have in our associations people we have known for years and dearly love, and who are great supporters, but sometimes do not always act in a way that is in the broadest, greatest interests of the party. Political parties have to try to persuade their own members that change is necessary. That is a big challenge for those of us who have been in elected politics for a number of years. The Conservative party has changed in the way it sometimes carries out selections. That is to be commended and is starting to have results.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Margot James) and, indeed, the right hon. Gentleman that the role of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority has not helped. People with caring responsibilities, particularly those with children, are not well catered for in the expenses system. The abolition of the resettlement grant is a retrograde step. If we have fixed five-year Parliaments, a Member coming up to their 60s has a choice whether to go or to stay for five years. If there is

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a financial incentive to go early, that will mean more selections, and if there are more selections we will have a more diverse House, so it is a simple way of getting change. If we abolish the resettlement grant, there is always the temptation for a Member to hang on for one more term, even when they may have lost interest. I hope that IPSA revisits this, because there ought to be positive incentives to manage people out of this House rather than the other way around. As we all know—we all have our dear friends in this House—there comes a time when everybody has to go, and usually it is sooner rather than later.

The Speaker and many other people in this House—there are many great examples of role models in the Chamber—have changed the nature of politics. We have to amend the expenses system to make it more family-friendly. For many years, the Conservative party was run by women, and many of them dominate our associations and our local councils, but the problem is getting them into this House. It is not necessarily about women, but about women with children—that has always been the biggest barrier. It is vital to deal with caring responsibilities, and sometimes it is very important to educate my own party in that regard. I am glad to see that both the leadership and most of our parliamentary party understand that, which is why we are making progress.

Parliament is richer for having more diverse representation. That gives people a different perspective, and that perspective makes us all better representatives because we are dealing with people whose life’s contribution and life story is somewhat different from our own experience. Meeting other people and picking up people from less traditional backgrounds is important and makes for better Members of Parliament.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg) on securing this debate. I hope we continue to make progress, and I am sure we will, but my main message today is that political competition will be the driver of that. If all of us do our best to encourage people who want to come into politics from a range of areas, I am sure we will end up with a more diverse and a more vibrant House.

3.25 pm

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): I was proud to serve as a member of the Speaker’s Conference and I want to reflect on some of its broader aspects, because I think it is regarded as being just about how to change the composition of the House of Commons. In fact, it was a big reflection on democracy and politics. I strongly recommend to Members that they read the whole report because there is not enough in politics today that makes the case for political parties and for an active democracy. That is what I think the conference did.

The reason issues of representation became so core to this is that in order for democracy to work, people need to trust politics. In order to trust those of us who are professional politicians, they have to think that we get what is happening in their lives. That means that we have to look normal to them. When the Leader of the Opposition, my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), demonstrated the other day that the composition of the Front Bench of the governing party was all-male on that day, one of the reasons why that had so much resonance was the

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sense that half the country felt that they were not there —that we are extremely odd, peculiar, not like them. Until there is a sense that politics gets it and that it is like us, that gap of trust between the voter and the votee, if I may call us that, will grow. It is extremely significant.

It is only in the past four years, for example, that we have had any Muslim women in this Parliament. On the Labour Benches in the previous Parliament, the hon. Members for Gloucester (Parmjit Dhanda) and for Bradford West (Marsha Singh) were Sikhs. Now on the Government Benches the hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West (Paul Uppal) is a Sikh. I know that my Sikh constituents believe that I can understand their issues—such as whether Britain was involved in the invasion of the Golden Temple or not—but they want to make sure that somebody who has the gut feeling, the cultural baggage which is so important to them is part of the conversation. Having that genuinely does change the conversation.

I will never forget the conversation that I had with the Clerk to the Defence Committee in about 1998. I asked him whether having women on the Defence Committee had made a difference. It was the first time there had been any women on that Committee ever. “Of course,” he said. I asked what difference. He said, “Well, we always used to talk just about how big the bombs were, and now we talk about the families and children of the soldiers and the other people who are out there defending us.” It seems to me quite obvious that if we are asking someone to be extraordinarily brave, the most important thing for them to know is that their family is safe. It is a no-brainer, but it took women on that Committee to have that insight.

It is true that diversity brings different kinds of insight. If we miss out on those insights, politics is poorer. For example, one of the achievements of the Speaker’s Conference was changing the rules in relation to Members of Parliament who have mental health challenges. The interesting thing since those rules changed is that a number of colleagues have been able to come out and say that they have suffered from poor mental health, and that has helped the general public feel, “Oh, maybe they’re more normal.” Confessing to abnormalities has made people feel that we actually have the same struggles and challenges as them.

I did not want ever to speak in Parliament about the fact that I have multiple sclerosis, and I only did so when it was relevant to a debate on stem cell research. That was really important for one of my constituents. He has a much more severe form of the condition than me, but he felt, “If she can do that, I can step up.” There is a sense that if we show people—my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) made this clear—that we are like them and have had different challenges, politics can be more engaging and make more sense to them.

We still have big challenges. I still regularly hear people saying—I speak as the first generation of my family to speak with a southern accent—“Why don’t I hear more politicians speak like me, with an accent?” We really need to address such issues.

Where does this all come from? One of the things that the Speaker’s Conference made clear was the importance of the role of political parties themselves. It said that

“political parties are the mechanism by which people of any background can be actively involved in the tasks of shaping policy and deciding how society should be governed…The extent

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to which political parties are the subject of both contempt and general public indifference should be a cause of concern to all who are interested in how our country is run.”

That is what I want to address. It seems to me that the biggest risk is to our parties, which are the mechanism through which we can deliver some of the changes needed, yet we do not do it well enough. In introducing the debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg) reminded the parties of the commitment they made to publishing their selection records.

We as politicians know that it is political party activists who only ever go to talk to people about politics and how to vote. I am very proud that I and my Labour colleagues have spoken to at least 18,000 electors in Slough since December. We are very dynamic in the way we go to talk to voters and we can probably claim the best record in the country. That is one of the reasons why I am still the Member of Parliament for Slough, because my constituents know that they can engage with people on the doorstep who are like them—people who might not feel comfortable doing what Members do in this Chamber every day and who might not be able to make the sacrifices in their lives that many of us have made in ours, but who nevertheless recognise that political parties are an agent for change.

One of the things that really worries me is that the media perceive political parties as a conspiracy against the voters and as somehow trying to defraud them, and I believe that we feed that conspiracy by having a lot of private little arrangements to deal with things. For example, we have no formal maternity or sick leave arrangements. Instead, the Whips secretly make deals across the Chamber to pair Members. Why are those things not proper rights and more transparent? We need them to be. The risk of us looking antediluvian and ancient is not just because of who gets here and the fact that we do not reflect the whole of society as well as we ought to, but because of our ancient habits and ways of doing things and our habit of saying across the Chamber, “You’re all bad guys and we’re all good guys.”

At the moment, I am missing a sitting of the pre-legislative scrutiny Committee on the draft Modern Slavery Bill. Its members are working across parties—in quite an intelligent way, I hope—to herd the Home Office into producing slightly better legislation than would otherwise occur. Listening to them, people would not be able to tell which party they belong to or what line they are taking, because we are united in a common cause. Members from all parties have united with colleagues from across the Chamber on areas on which they have a common cause.

When we do politics, we should copy Mars, which does not say, “Cadbury is poisonous; go for Mars”, but, “Ours are just better”. In our politics, we have a real problem or challenge about permitting a discourse saying that the other guys are all evil, rather than that we share many values with them, but disagree about some of the ways to deliver those values.

Penny Mordaunt (Portsmouth North) (Con): The hon. Lady is making an incredibly important point. When accusations are made about really appalling behaviour—bullying—they are not made about or ascribed to an individual behaving badly in the Chamber or outside it, but to a general group of people. For example, they are

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made about our male colleagues who, on the whole, are kind, supportive and generous individuals. Do such accusations not perpetuate the impression that this place is an ordeal, particularly for women, whereas it is in fact a wonderful place to work and a fantastic job to have? Will she encourage people who complain about bullying to identify its source and complain to Mr Speaker, rather than to tar all our colleagues with the same brush?

Fiona Mactaggart: I am not sure that the victims of bullying do the tarring; I think that our media are unable to differentiate sufficiently between groups of people, and therefore ask whether men have been the source of the bullying. The situation has got a lot better since I first arrived here and went through a door marked “Members only”—I thought that that was for me—only to find a urinal behind it.

Bullying still occurs, but I do not think that it is only by men of women. I feel guilty when journalists ring me about people shouting in Prime Minister’s questions—I am very reluctant to confess this, but I will do so in front of Mr Speaker—because I have a voice that can very easily be heard and I have been known to behave inappropriately at Prime Minister’s questions. It is not a wholly male thing, because I have done it. I have taken a vow to stop, and I will keep trying to do so. I have also taken a vow to give up chocolate and alcohol during Lent, but I digress.

The hon. Lady’s point is that there is a risk in saying that a whole class of people is guilty of inappropriate behaviour. One thing that we fail to do is to say that the class of people wanting to represent others is, on the whole, made up of people who are honest and want to make a better world, even though some of them have a very funny idea of what that world should look like. We have not done enough to advocate democratic politics as a better way than any other of changing the world and building a better society. Out of this debate should come very strong consensus throughout Parliament about such a belief, as well as a belief that to make politics stronger, it must be less peculiar, involve more normal people and be more possible for people with a range of challenges in their lives.

We need to make our behaviour to each other more supportive here, so that it is more possible for people to do things. Although I have not had detailed conversations with the women on the Government Benches who will be leaving Parliament shortly, I think that partly what is happening is that they are people whose lives were quite normal; who have not been through generations of hateful politics and developed skin a mile thick; and who found the change to their lives, their income and their families very challenging. They have thought, “What I am giving up and what I am having to put up with is too much.”

We all need to have a bit more solidarity for one another, so that people who want to do that noble thing of representing constituents and building a better world do not get put off by the exigencies of public life. We could all help to meet that challenge through our own behaviour, whether it is by shouting less at Prime Minister’s questions or by offering just a little support to someone when they are having a hard time. Frankly, that is something that political parties do not do sufficiently for our colleagues.

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3.41 pm

Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart). I particularly agreed with the final part of her speech. She was entirely right to say that we do not always help ourselves in this place. For those of us who do not come from particularly political backgrounds—I did serve as a local councillor for a while, but that was very different from this job—the torrent of abuse that we often have to put up with and the invasion into what were previously perfectly normal lives can be difficult to take. It has made me question on more than one occasion whether I want to continue doing this.

This has been an interesting debate. As I intimated in my intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Margot James), I want to talk about social class. Much has been said about gender. This place is under-representative in terms of gender, race and sexuality, but it is also under-representative in terms of social class. That is not often spoken about. There is an intense debate about all-women shortlists. I have always come back at people by saying that there is little use in replacing a privately educated, middle-class man with a privately educated, middle-class woman if the person who misses out is, for example, a working-class, northern mechanic. That does not increase diversity in this place in any real sense.

The only tag that I am interested in applying to myself, apart from the Conservative tag for the purposes of the election, is a working-class tag. I am proud to be from a working-class background. I am the son of a school secretary and a foundry worker. My dad lost his job in the recession of the early ’90s and we spent a considerable period on benefits. He later got a job as a market gardener, which he still does at 69 years of age. I could not have asked for more loving or hard-working parents.

I attended a local comprehensive school in Hull. It was so bad that it was closed down twice. I am probably the one and only Member of Parliament who will come from that school.

I come from a completely non-political background. Most of my family voted Labour. I had a great-granddad who was apparently something of a communist agitator in the ’30s. He was the only political person in my family. The rest of them were Liberals, apart from my grandma, who was a Tory.

I am proud of that background. I am also proud to be the first member of my family to go to university. My parents were the first generation in my family to buy their own home. My grandparents all grew up and lived until they died in social housing or private rented housing. We are all the sum total of our experiences. I am proud of that background, not that I like to whine on about it too much.

I have also been a teacher, which makes me very unusual—a working-class, northern Tory from the public sector. My last workplace was a primary school and that was very under-representative as well, but in that case it was men who were under-represented. It is not only this place that needs to do more to be representative.

Without wanting to whine on, let me say a little about the challenges and difficulties of getting here for someone who comes from a normal background and does not have any money behind them. I was lucky in that I

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ended up on the parliamentary A-list. I always joke that it was because I turned up for the interview in a frock, but it was not. I hope it was because the party saw that I was working-class—I will not say normal; we will leave others to judge that—and from a profession that was not well represented on these Benches. However, that was largely irrelevant to me because I would have been able to stand in my area as a local candidate.

I was lucky that the selection processes for 2010 had changed somewhat, but in all parties our selection processes still favour people who come from a certain professional or educational background. At many difficult comprehensive schools, pupils simply keep their heads down and try to get on with surviving school, rather than putting themselves forward for things that might exist in other places such as debating societies—not at my school—or wanting to be something called a head boy or a prefect. We did not have anything like that. In many difficult inner-city comprehensive schools, pupils simply keep their heads down and get used to not raising them above the parapet, but the selection process for getting to this place is the complete opposite.

Selection used to be a case of having to make set-piece speeches—who does that benefit? As a school teacher, I was okay doing that; I just thought I was speaking to a load of five-year-olds—actually, they are more frightening that the selection executives of local Conservative associations. However, it certainly feeds into the fact that a lawyer or a barrister will be more used to doing that kind of thing and feel more comfortable with it. We must recognise that the processes sometimes have an in-built advantage for certain people.

Sir Edward Leigh: My hon. Friend is not making a speech against the selection of old Etonians is he?

Andrew Percy: No, not at all. I am making a speech in favour of ensuring that we select the best people, and create processes that allow the best people—from whatever background or social class—to come forward and succeed.

A lot of the time, we end up with non-local professionals who come in and take the seats. They often do a very good job, but that sometimes disadvantages local candidates whose hearts may be a bit more in their local area. As somebody who came to this with no personal or family wealth, I spent three and a half to four years as a candidate fighting for a marginal seat and not knowing whether at the end I would achieve my aim of getting elected to Parliament. That is a big risk that would put off many people, particularly if they have small children.

The financial commitment is huge. I was lucky to have a very supportive association, and to get a lot of support from the Conservative party, for which I am grateful. I had a really good chairman and agent, Councillor Rob Waltham, who was there to provide support where necessary. One of my local councillors, Caroline Fox, lives round the corner from me, and I would not have survived the three and a half years without her constant support, whether in the form of meals or saying, “I’ll give you a hand in the house,” or whatever. I would not have got here without people such as them.

The time commitment and the impact it has on a career is massive. As I said, I was a school teacher, but I started teaching part time in order to try to achieve my aim of winning the constituency from the sitting Member. That has a massive financial impact, and an impact on

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my career. Had I not won the seat I would have been greatly disadvantaged and gone back to teaching part time in the primary school where I was when I was elected. That is a great job to have, but it would have left me financially much worse off.

Penny Mordaunt: My hon. Friend is making an excellent point. One thing that was always a bit unfair before we had fixed-term Parliaments was that prospective parliamentary candidates were disadvantaged because they had to prepare for three possible timings of election campaigns, whereas Members of Parliament had a better idea and were more financially secure. Does he agree that fixed-term Parliaments will be a great help in creating a more level playing field for people wanting to get into Parliament?

Andrew Percy: Absolutely, I could not agree more. Those of us who had been selected early had the prospect of the 2007 general election, which did not happen. I remember thinking at the time, “Please, Lord, just let this election happen”, and that was only 12 months into being the candidate. I wanted it to be over.

There was then the constant question of when the election would come. From a career point of view, what could I say to my head teacher? I was very lucky at Berkeley infant school to have had a lot of support from the deputy head teacher, Sarah Shepperson, who was also my job share. She was there to take over, and was happy to take over, from me if I was elected. That uncertainty—will the election be in three months’ time or six months’ time?—is a killer. I completely agree that fixed-term Parliaments at least deal with that side of it. They do not deal with the prospect of spending three-and-a-half years flogging what is ultimately a dead donkey, so we need to bear that in mind.

Fiona Mactaggart: I just wanted to follow up on the hon. Gentleman’s point on some of the difficulties that face people if they stand. Recommendation 37 of the Speaker’s Conference states:

“The Government should legislate to enable approved prospective parliamentary candidates who are employees to take unpaid leave, rather than resigning their employment, for the period from the dissolution of Parliament”.

That is just one step towards making it possible for more people to stand.

Andrew Percy: Absolutely. That deals with the issue during dissolution, but unfortunately it does not deal with the preceding three-and-a-half years. I think it was estimated on ConservativeHome that the average cost to a candidate was about £40,000. That is not only from having to stomach the cost of large parts of one’s own campaign—feeding the students who come out and help; they are even poorer than the candidate, allegedly—but from the loss of the income that would have come from career advancement.

Despite all that, I am glad to have got here. Lots of other colleagues got here too. I am lucky that my near neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), is a fellow local working-class lad, as is my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis). My hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) is a former McDonald’s employee. She trained me at McDonald’s

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in Hull, when I was 16 and she was a student—she was a taskmistress, but we will not go into that. She is the first Tracey to have been elected to Parliament. I cannot claim to be the first Percy, as one of them tried to blow this place up. I am assured that there is no family connection, although the Whips have often wondered whether that is my ultimate aim.

I want to say something on the role of the public, on expenses and on what Parliament is like. I do not care about people’s background: I treat people as they treat me and I think it is great that we have Members from a whole range of backgrounds. I get sick of being told that I am in a posh party. That really does rankle with me, because there are plenty of Conservative Members who are not posh and there are plenty of Labour Members who are.

This institution is a bit odd. It is not like real life. That is partly because of the nature of the environment in which we operate. It sometimes feels very much like a private members club. I remember going into the Tea Room for the first time and being told, “You can’t sit on this side, because that’s where Labour Members sit.” When I go to Starbucks or Mae’s Tearoom in Goole, I sit wherever there is a spare table, so that seemed like a strange thing. With the wooden panels, the way people speak, the cliques and all the rest of it, it is a bit like a private members club. I know that you, Mr Speaker, and others here have done a lot to try to challenge that, but there is still more to do. The processes are a bit stuffy. If one asks a question, even to Officers of the House, one can be spoken to as if it is a terrible question or as if one is an imbecile—which I may be.

What do we do? We could get people interested from a young age. I was a bit odd in the sense that I was interested in politics at William Gee school in Hull—not many pupils were. I had that interest and drive regardless of wealth, but we have to get people from different backgrounds in here through paid internships. We also need to avoid tokenism. I was disgusted with the debate on which party has the most women MPs who are retiring. I understand that a greater percentage of women MPs on the Labour Benches have said that they are not standing at the next election than have those on the Conservative Benches—I believe it is 13% compared with 11%. That whole debate was thoroughly filthy. We should also establish non-ministerial routes for career progression, so that there is an alternative for those who do not want to move forward.

Finally, the public have a role, too. Unfortunately, driven perhaps by the expenses scandal—justifiably in some cases, not in others—there is something of a hate campaign against politicians. The judgment is constantly made that we got into Parliament only to feather our own nests, milk the expenses system, or, in some way, sell favours to our wealthy friends. Well, that is not the case for the vast majority of us, if any of us. Every institution, including this place, has its bad apples over the generations, but the constant torrents of abuse and the questioning of our motives is a real disincentive for people who might otherwise come here and want to stay here.

MPs are, ultimately, normal human beings, but when we try to come across as normal, we are told “You are only doing that because you want to be seen as normal.” We cannot win. When I went into the kebab shop in Goole at 2 am one night, one of the patrons there,

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although thoroughly lovely to me, told me that it was a scandal that I was in the kebab shop at two in the morning. The disconnection between what people think politicians are and what we really are must change, and the public have a role to play in that.

I am just someone who happens to do a job. This is the job that I do now, but before I did this job I was a teacher, and before I did that I did other jobs, including working at McDonald’s. I am still a human being. I still have a family and friends as everyone does—as we all do here. We are all human beings. Until the agenda of hate against politicians ceases, we will not get more normal people into this place, because the only people prepared to put themselves forward will be people who are a little bit odd.

3.46 pm

Valerie Vaz (Walsall South) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg) for initiating the debate. I suppose that it is a measure of how far we have come that both the Front Bench spokespersons are from diverse backgrounds, which is very pleasing.

Before I entered the House of Commons in 2010, I used to watch the evidence sessions of the Speaker’s Conference, and I suppose that, in a way, that gave me the motivation to have one last fling, as they say. I had been trying to get into this place for a number of years, but had been unsuccessful. Then there were a great many retirements, which benefited me because plenty of seats became available. It was probably the Speaker’s Conference that finally pushed me into making another attempt, and I think that it also sent a message to the political parties that certain things had to change.

The first point that I want to make is about the qualities that we have. I do not think that there are such things as male and female qualities. Some women—including me, it could be said—enjoy the cut and thrust of debate, or challenging people, and some men do not. I think we should acknowledge that we have a mixture of patterns of behaviour. We know that many men nowadays take out the rubbish and change nappies. There is even a new word for them. I do not know whether you know it, Mr Speaker, but they are described as “metrosexuals”. They like facials, and wear moisturiser. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] So we are changing.

I am sure many Members will know that it took both men and women in the House to push forward the change in the hours, which has made a huge difference in giving us a decent, family-friendly workplace. The leaders of the three main parties, all of them men, supported that proposal.

My second point is about diversity. As many Members have pointed out, diversity is important because it is important for us to look like the country overall—to represent the full range of people, both able-bodied and non-able-bodied, including people with different conditions. Let me give an example of the way in which Members with long-term conditions have changed the way in which Parliament works. People with epilepsy used not to be allowed to climb to the top of the Clock Tower to see Big Ben. It took two of my co-members of the all-party parliamentary group on epilepsy, the hon.

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Members for South Thanet (Laura Sandys) and for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), to do such a thing. They climbed the Tower, as a result of which the rule was changed. Anyone can climb the Tower now, including people with epilepsy, but if those two Members had not done so, the change would never have happened. I apologise for not telling them that I was going to mention them in the debate, but I will write to them later.

As many Members will know, people in a number of professions—including some in Parliament—used to say things like “This is not a woman’s job”, and women were kept out of those professions. There were quotas: for instance, only a certain number of women could become doctors. It is only when women and people from different backgrounds are given opportunities that others can see just how capable we all are.

How do we address that need? You, Mr Speaker, are doing a huge amount to change our way of doing business in Parliament. For instance, when you call Members to speak in debates, you alternate between the two sides of the House, and check whether the women have spoken. We owe you a debt of gratitude for the way in which you are changing Parliament. I was very honoured to be part of your delegation to Burma, Mr Speaker. When we were there people were asking, “How do you change Parliament?” I think you will recall that I gave them the example of how you have changed the way we take part in debates. You look around and see who has not spoken before—Members on the Back Benches, for example—and do not necessarily give first place to Members on the Front Benches or those who have had a lot of speaking time. You are going some way towards addressing the way Parliament works, therefore, and it is much appreciated, certainly from the 2010 intake.

How do we address these matters? We must have a level playing field. That involves ensuring, as many Members have said, access to opportunities and to support, which you are also doing, Mr Speaker. Judges used to be picked by a tap on the shoulder, and that was the same in lots of different professions—I think in previous times many Members of Parliament were picked in that way.

Turning to positive action, the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Margot James) talked about business. She is right that it is moving ahead of us in certain aspects. Many businesses now have crèches, and when women have to go on a career break they do not come back to a lower stage than they were at; their position is protected. So we do have something to learn from businesses.

Let us focus on the question of positive action. It is always the case that people have to fulfil the criteria for the post. They are not the lesser candidate because there is positive action; they are of equal stature and they have fulfilled the requirements for the post. We have to look at where there is underrepresentation, and in some instances men will be given positive action. We start from the premise that everyone can do the job. The hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) made a very amusing speech, but he will see when we serve on the Health Committee together that a stream of people from a certain section of society—we can call them white males if we like—give evidence even though the health service has a very diverse work force.

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Equal opportunities does not mean some will be excluded. The greatest gift of a diverse Parliament or work force is that everyone will feel included.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: Order. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her kind remarks, and may I just say that there are, I think, seven further Members who wish to contribute to the debate and the winding-up speeches will need to start no later than 4.40 pm and we should allow a small amount of time for a winding-up speech by the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg), so we will need speeches of approximately five minutes each, if colleagues can discipline themselves?

4.2 pm

Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): I will certainly do my best to stick to that, Mr Speaker.

I want to contribute to this debate from the point of view of someone who is perhaps by all accounts regarded as being a member of the class that is too represented in this House: someone who is white, male—

Andrew Percy: From Lancashire.

Mr Nuttall: Originally from Yorkshire, if you don’t mind, but I will come to that in a minute.

I come to this debate from the perspective of being white and male and, because I was a solicitor by profession before I entered the House, I would be widely regarded as being middle-class. That points to the archetypal criticism that is thrown at Members particularly on the Conservative Benches: it is said that our Benches are stuffed full with white middle-class males.

That is not the whole story, however, because we need to look more widely than that. We must look at a person’s background. I came from an ordinary working-class background in the north of England—in south Yorkshire, where my father was a steelworker in the rolling mills in Sheffield. On that score, by all accounts I am underrepresented in this House. So statistics can be made to prove anything really. The statistics show that there were 48 solicitors among the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat Members elected to the House in 2010—some 7.7% of all Members—so we are certainly over-represented. We should not try to ensure that every group in society is equally represented; that cannot be done.

I was a solicitor, but I regarded myself as a small business man. As a partner, I was running a small business. I had responsibility for finance, marketing, personnel, administration, complying with regulations and so on. By that score, I should be regarded as having been a small business man. Incidentally, when I was running the practice, more than 90% of the 40 or so staff that we employed were women. I remember one occasion when we had all gone out for an evening meal. I was the only gentlemen among 20 or 30 women. At the end of the evening, a guy came over to me and said, “Crikey, I don’t know what you do, but I wish I had your job!” He was amazed to see me with all those ladies on the table.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): On what table?

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Mr Nuttall: The table in the dining room.

When people recruit for businesses like mine and when political parties choose candidates for selection to this House, they should choose the best person for the job, regardless of physical characteristics—male or female, white or black, Christian or Muslim, Hindu or Jew, gay or straight; it should not matter. We should simply choose the best person for the job. We should not try to engineer a situation in which the membership of this House matches exactly, or even approximately, the make-up of British society.

I should like to refer briefly to the Bradford West by-election, which was triggered by the death of the sitting Labour MP. The 2011 census showed that 54% of the population in that constituency were Asian or British Asian, with just 37% white. The Labour candidate was Mr Imran Hussain, a Muslim, who was the deputy leader of Bradford council. He was no outsider; he was not parachuted in from London. Any observer would have thought he was the ideal candidate, yet, as we all know he lost not by just a few votes but by more than 10,000 votes, and he was beaten by a man who is white—the present hon. Member for Bradford West (George Galloway). The residents of that constituency decided that the hon. Gentleman was the best man to represent them, despite the demographics of the constituency. The diversity of this House is about more than just race or religion; it is also about the background and life experiences of Members.

Let us trust the people to send the right people to this House to represent them. We should not take artificial measures to tinker with the make-up of the House, because that will inevitably mean that someone who would otherwise have been the best person for the job ends up being discriminated against.

4.8 pm

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to speak in the debate, and I pay tribute to you, Mr Speaker, for the work that you have done in this respect.

The underrepresentation of specific sectors of society has been well documented. We understand clearly that we need diversity in order to be representative, to bring in new priorities and to speak for a whole range of people. It is no coincidence that, when a critical mass of more than 100 women Labour MPs were elected to Parliament at the 1997 election, there was a real difference in the types of topics that were talked about here. My hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) has already mentioned the Defence Committee. The agenda in the House focused much more on a range of subjects including maternity and paternity leave, carers, flexible working and equality legislation. We debated a raft of issues that would probably not have come to prominence had there not been such a critical mass of women in the House.

That did not just happen, however. We are 57th in the world in terms of women’s representation. We are behind not only many of the progressive countries but some of the countries with a very traditional view of women’s roles. They are catching up with us fast.

Let me remind people of where we are with regard to women MPs. From 2005 to 2010, some 98 out of 356 Labour MPs were women, 27%; 17 out of 192 Conservative MPs were women, 9%; and 10 out of 62 Liberal Democrats were women, 14%. In 2010, Labour went up to 32% and

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the Conservatives to 16%; and the Liberal Democrats went down to 12%. It may be significant that there have been no Liberal Democrats in the Chamber for this debate, apart from the brief appearance by the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt).

It is not good enough to allow things just to happen, which is probably the Liberal Democrats’ way of doing things. They think everyone is a nice person, and therefore things will change. However, we are not starting from a level playing field. We need to look at why the representation is as it is now, and what more we can do to encourage people to come through. It is easy to describe the situation, but much more difficult to do something about it.

We must put in place positive steps. We cannot allow chance to make things happen. We need to look at why people are not coming through. What is stopping them? Why are we beginning to stagnate in some respects? Why are we not moving forward in the way in which we would all like to do?

We do not have enough role models. We are beginning to have a few role models who are women and a few role models from different ethnic minority groups. A few people have come from diverse backgrounds, and a few represent those with certain disabilities. None the less, if we ask the person in the street what comes into their mind when they hear the word “MP”, they say a middle-aged white male. We are beginning to see more diversity among reporters and news presenters on television, but there are still some fields that are significantly under-represented.

There is a huge tendency for everyone to pick people who are like themselves. That has been well documented in lots of human resources work about equal opportunities interviewing. The tendency is to choose a person who speaks like us, looks like us and who does things in the way that we do.

One of the key requirements for this job is an immense amount of self confidence, which can be a major obstacle. If we look at the work done in schools, we tend to find that in primary school, children are relatively confident whatever their background. As they get into secondary school, we find significant differences between the way boys and girls perceive themselves. Children who consider themselves to be not so bright academically think that they are second rate compared with those more successful pupils. We often hear children saying, “Oh, they never pick anyone from this class.” They may also say that about the street in which they live. We must deal with that sort of attitude, because confidence is such a key part of political representation. We have to believe that we can do something and that we can make that difference, so confidence is one of the things that we need to look at again and again.

If we take schools, we find that not enough is being done about citizenship lessons. In Wales, we now have the Welsh baccalaureate, which makes pupils look at the way that society and politics work, but that is not widespread, and not rolled out in the same way across England.

School councils can be effective in primary schools. Quite often, young pupils come forward with good ideas, and they have opportunities to implement them. In secondary schools, there is less of a direct connection between what pupils come up with and what can be

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implemented, partly because of the size of the schools and partly because of the cynicism of teenagers. It is more difficult at that stage for young people to have the opportunities to participate in a democratic way.

If we look around Portcullis House, we see far more young men than young women. Again, what are we doing about the people who ask to come here and to take advantage of the opportunities that this place offers? I think more young men than young women approach this place, and more people from privileged backgrounds than less privileged backgrounds. We must take steps to improve that situation.

It is not for me to comment on the selection procedures in other parties, so I will talk about what happens in my party. The key is to make sure that it is not easier for people who have had a lot of opportunity to know what the procedure is like to do better than those who have not. I very much welcome the fact that on Saturday I will be at a special conference where we will be examining the opportunity to limit expenditure on selection procedures. However, this is not just about expenditure; it is also about time, because, as has been mentioned by the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), there are implications in respect of having to give things up and do a lot of work early on. I put my name forward and very much worked full-time in my job, and it was a lot more difficult for me than it might have been for someone who had time available to them.

We need to make sure that we get all those things in place, but we also need to bring forward a range of candidates—we need to be looking for people. That is not because we do not want a level playing field—we do want one, but the playing field is not level to start with. That is why we have to make the extra effort, particularly for those from less privileged backgrounds. We also need a better geographical selection, because there can be a tendency for people from London and the south-east to go to represent a seat elsewhere, and we have a geographical imbalance in where people come from.

On the IPSA issue, it is important that we never have a system whereby people who do not have wealth behind them cannot be MPs; we must make sure that it is possible for people to be MPs. I worry that it may be very difficult to attract people who are the main earner in the family and between the ages of 35 and 50 if we do not get the MPs’ expenses system right. It must be possible for someone to be that person, otherwise we will have only very young people or people who are older and able to take a drop in salary. It is important that we get all those things right, but it is not a matter of trying to create special privileges; it is a matter of trying to put right inequalities and bring forward more people from all sectors of our society.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: Order. The wind-ups from the Front Benchers are due to start at 4.40 pm, and half a dozen colleagues still wish to speak. I know that colleagues can do the arithmetic for themselves, and I hope they will try to help me to help them.

4.17 pm

Mr Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) and I welcome today’s motion, for the fact remains that,

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notwithstanding recent progress, both women and ethnic minorities are woefully under-represented in our Parliament today. So what are the facts? As we have heard, we have 27 ethnic minority MPs, which is just 4% of the total number of MPs, whereas about 18%—not the 8% mentioned earlier—of the population are represented in the 2011 census as coming from a non-white background. We have 147 women MPs in Parliament, which represents 23% of all MPs, whereas just over 50% of the population are women. Clearly, we can do better and we must do better.

As co-chairman and co-founder of Women2Win, I intend to limit my remarks to what my organisation has been doing to address the concerns legitimately raised in the motion. Parliament and political representation is made stronger by diversity, and we should all be working to make this change happen. Without buy-in from men, attempts to encourage more women into Parliament will not be as successful as they could be, so we all need to engage with the issue of diversity of representation. I strongly believe that, which is why I co-founded Women2Win in 2005, in order to work with other parliamentarians to address the imbalance. Back then, there were only 17 female Conservative MPs—a paltry 9% of our MPs. Women2Win was launched in November 2005 by myself and Baroness Jenkin to support and enable more Conservative women to gain election to Parliament. Women2Win helps a substantial number of women candidates to gain selection and election, through headhunting, mentoring, training and supporting in a variety of ways. Over the course of 2013, we have had more than 30 MPs volunteering their time and expertise to run training sessions and to mentor candidates, and I am pleased to say that more than half of those volunteers have been men.

I will take a moment to give special thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), the vice-chairman of Women2Win, who, as our head of training, has dedicated countless hours to ensuring that we are doing everything we can to increase the number of women applying for seats and doing so successfully. Over the course of 2013, we have provided more than 150 hours of training to women candidates, and the feedback and success have been extremely positive.

We have made progress since 2005. Indeed, given the leadership provided by the Prime Minister on this issue, with the support of organisations such as Women2Win and the Conservative Women’s Organisation, we saw the number of women go up from 17 to 49 in 2010. We also saw the number of ethnic minority MPs in our party rise from two to 11.

I agree with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who recently pointed out:

“On the important issue of getting more women into public life…this is…important for our country, because we will not represent or govern our country properly unless we have more women at every level in our public life and in our politics.”

He ended his statement with the words,

“we need to do much more.”—[Official Report, 5 February 2014; Vol. 575, c. 264.]

Amen to that.

I believe that, with more women in politics and public life in general, we not only get better decision making but better policy outcomes for the country as a whole. More women in politics will mean more role models,

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leading to a virtuous circle whereby, hopefully, political associations will increasingly select and the public in general will increasingly elect women to become their representatives in Parliament.

In my party, we will continue to work hard to strive for more equitable representation in Parliament as we head towards the 2015 general election and beyond. Indeed, my slogan for the 2020 general election campaign would be, “50:50 by 2020.”

Let me end my speech by thanking my co-chairman and co-founder of Women2Win, Baroness Anne Jenkin; the director of Women2Win, Ellen Miller; our vice-chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham; and our chief operating officer, Resham Kotecha, and her predecessor, Dolly Theis. I am delighted to support the motion.

4.22 pm

Simon Danczuk (Rochdale) (Lab): I, too, thank my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg) for leading this important debate. I apologise for being absent for the opening remarks; I was called to an urgent meeting with the Opposition Chief Whip, the details of which I will not bore Members with.

I have found the debate interesting and helpful. At times, it has felt as if it has been quite therapeutic for some hon. Members. Nevertheless, I have enjoyed it and I want to add my two-penn’orth, as we would say in Lancashire, and to concentrate on some of the issues mentioned by the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) about working and social backgrounds. I agree that we need to make more progress as regards gender, race and disability, but although we are doing so a little slowly, we are making some progress nevertheless.

As for social background, in 1979 nearly 100 MPs had backgrounds in manual work, which was about 15% of all MPs at that time. If we fast-forward to today, 22 MPs have a background in manual work, which is just 4% of all MPs. To put that in context, 20% of the country’s work force are skilled or unskilled workers. To get a House of Commons that reflects the working lives of people in this country, we would have to sack 105 hon. Members and replace them with manual workers. I have no doubt that you, Mr Speaker, could identify some of the people up for dismissal and replacement.

This is an important point. I do not want to enter into some sort of Monty Python sketch with the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole about background, work experience and life experience, but like him I come from what would be described as a humble background. It is important that there are more people in this place who represent the wider communities out there.

My worry is that we are getting too many politicians from white-collar professional backgrounds, and too many politicians effectively come from what is known as the Westminster bubble. Many of those hon. Members are very good at their job, I hasten to add, but we need more of a mix. The journalist Peter Oborne has talked about the idea that there is a closed shop, or guild, for politicians, and I worry that that is very much to the fore at the moment. All political parties need to do more to dilute that.

The final area that I want to talk about is business experience. The Labour party has been very good at diversifying the make-up of those on the Opposition Benches, but it has been particularly poor when it

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comes to getting Members with a business background. Figures from the Library show that just 20 Labour MPs out of 257 have a business background. We could do more to encourage people with business experience, particularly experience of micro-business and small and medium-sized enterprises, to stand for our party.

There are no easy solutions, and I will not go into lots of detail, because of the time, but we need to put more effort into encouraging people to come forward for selection, and to change the culture in our political parties. Earlier this week, I wrote a piece for the Manchester Evening News about having a turnout threshold for elections of, for argument’s sake, 20%, so that if not enough people voted in an election, there would be no political representative. That is quite controversial, but it would concentrate political parties’ minds on who they selected and whether that person related to the community that they were trying to represent. It would certainly make candidates work harder. Also, if MPs in safer seats perhaps relaxed too much, there would be an emphasis on them to get out and do more. There is also an argument for looking at primaries.

To conclude, there is a long way to go before we can really say that we have a Parliament that reflects the people of this country. There are steps that we can take to address the problems before us; only by taking those steps will we get a Parliament that looks like the country that it represents—male and female, black and white, rich and poor. Hon. Members might even call that a one nation approach to representation.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: Order. With a maximum of 13 minutes left, there are still four Back-Bench colleagues wishing to contribute; I simply put that on the record.

4.27 pm

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): I will be as quick as I can, Mr Speaker. Fifty-one per cent. of our population are women, so if we are to be fair, 51% of Members of Parliament should be women. There should be more chance of the Prime Minister being a woman than a man under those circumstances. Looking at the numbers, the Labour party does better than the other parties by a factor of at least two, but no political party reflects our population, so how can we balance the equation better? The best way is for society to change, so that people do not even question the idea that women should naturally be in Parliament.

Things are changing through societal evolution, rather than revolution. As hon. Members can tell, I am entering young old age, and I accept that some, particularly on the Conservative Benches, will look at me as a dinosaur. I somewhat reflect my generation. I freely admit that I have not done enough to equal the effort made by my wife when it comes to my family; it is something like 90% effort from her, and 10% from me. Maintaining our home has really been up to her, and I am not a very good father, at least in terms of care, but my children—I have several—are very different from their old man. Those with children of their own do not even question the need to share duties, the idea that women should be equal, or the idea that Parliament should be made up equally of men and women. That is wonderful.

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Everyone wants more women in Parliament, but fellow Members will agree that we also want the very best people in our society to represent our society, male or female.

4.29 pm

Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con): I shall curtail my remarks. I was going to talk about the need for more working-class representation, on which I fully support the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy).

On the selection process, the hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) mentioned primary elections, which help to broaden the base of those who make selections. I acknowledge that it would be unrealistic to have a widespread primary process in which all constituents could be involved, but using semi-open primaries similar to that through which I was selected would broaden that base. The process probably trebled the number of people who attended my final selection round, many of whom were not members of the local party.

A recent survey by Professor Philip Cowley, in which he asked members of the public two questions, demonstrates the importance of broadening the base. In effect, the public said that they wanted a Member of Parliament who was more like them, and the proportion of people saying that increased as one went down the socio-economic scale. The Speaker’s Conference mentioned social class as one of the supply-side barriers that might stop individuals coming forward for selection, as well as the public’s perception of a typical MP.

Those from a similar background to mine rarely consider a political career, although I am pleased that they are more likely to do so nowadays. My parents were proud to call themselves working-class Tories, and as I have progressed through the ranks, I have appreciated that there is a wider spread of such people than I thought on our Benches and among the Conservative party at large. I attended a bilateral state school, which meant that it had grammar and secondary modern streams, with children having the ability to move between them. Such schools would be a useful addition to the education mix that we have today. At the time I left my secondary school, people had little chance of a university career, as only 6% or 7% of people moved on to universities from state schools. I eventually graduated at the age of 54.

Time and chance also play a great role in our lives. My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) is in the Chamber, and he encouraged me to put my name forward as a candidate for my home town of Cleethorpes. I remember the day distinctly because he made his suggestion as we were driving home from a meeting of Cleethorpes Conservative ladies’ luncheon club. That august body is still in existence and does a grand job for our party.

All parties have become more representative, but we need to do a great deal more and modest financial support from our parties would not go amiss. However, I sense, Mr Speaker, that you want to move on to the next speech, so I shall call it a day there.

Mr Speaker: That is extremely public spirited of the hon. Gentleman.

4.33 pm

Julian Smith (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): I congratulate everyone who has been involved in moving things on so well since the Speaker’s Conference report was published.

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The Conservative party has done a great deal in the past few years to increase the number of women on our Back Benches and, most importantly, the number of high-quality women on our Back Benches—[Hon. Members: “What about the Front Bench?”] On all our Benches. What was so infuriating about the photo of a couple of weeks ago is that we already have 20% female representation on our Front Bench. We now have a golden pipeline of high-quality female Members who are ready to move on to the Front Bench, which means that the Prime Minister will be able to hit his 30% representation target soon.

There are people in our party whom we need to thank. There are people who have unfortunately passed away, such as John Maples and Shireen Ritchie, and those such as Gareth Fox and Davina Merison, and many others, including David Jones who runs our assessment centres. We have put in place a phenomenal competency-based programme, and that has produced so many excellent female—[Interruption.]I am sorry; I am just going to keep going. The criticisms of the Prime Minister on this issue are absolutely unwarranted.

We have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr Newmark) about the work that we are doing as a party, but we need to back the work that the House of Commons and Mr Speaker are doing to promote this place outside. Mr Speaker seems to get a lot of criticism for doing foreign trips and promoting this place. He seems to get a lot of criticism for educational initiatives, which my constituents cry out for. They want more of these initiatives. Why on earth he is getting this hassle for promoting this wonderful cradle of democracy I do not know. I just encourage him to keep pushing forward.

The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority has done a great deal for parliamentary staff. We have 100% maternity pay. Ira Madden has done great work in the occupational health area, but there is a lot more to do. I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod) has her commission set up, and I hope that that will look at some fundamental questions, such as why my friend Bridget Harris is having to fight in the media about groping allegations. Why, when I speak to other colleagues, do they say that this is not unknown today? Why are 140 crimes taking place on this estate, with about three or four in the last 21 months against women? Why are sexually charged words and phrases used in the media in relation to female Ministers and Members, whereas that lexicon and that dialogue are not used for male Members? How do we make this place more family-friendly? Mr Speaker had a lot of hassle about the crèche, but for a new dad like me that is vital to me doing my job and keeping my deal with my wife.

How do we ensure that everyone in the House becomes obsessed about the pipeline issues that we have spoken about? We must all worry about and obsess about that. Most importantly, how do we ensure that as many men as possible realise that the current position is unsustainable? We have to nail this in the next couple of years by finding more women, more diverse candidates, to come here and be part of our democratic process.

4.37 pm