Women make up more than half the population of the United Kingdom and, at a time when more women are in work than ever before, there is no good reason why women should not make up half of the House of Commons. Yet only 30 per cent of MPs are women; this constitutes a serious democratic deficit. The particular challenges faced by women MPs have been in the spotlight in 2016. The murder of Jo Cox has shown that the violence female elected representatives face globally is not absent in the UK. There have been recent high-profile cases of threats and abuse aimed at other women politicians; successful prosecutions are welcome but are not neutral acts for women considering the potential impact of taking up a role in public life.
The UK ranks only 48th globally for representation of women in the lower or single legislative chamber, having fallen from 25th place in 1999. If the Commons is serious about being truly representative of the people that it seeks to represent, it must rise to the challenge of being a world leader on women’s parliamentary representation. While political parties must retain responsibility for candidate selection, there is also a role for the Government, which has committed to achieving women’s full and equal participation under the Sustainable Development Goals, agreed by 193 UN Member States in 2015.
It has been almost 100 years since the first woman MP was elected, but it is a shocking reality that there have only ever been as many women MPs as there are men sitting in the House of Commons today. The backdrop to our inquiry is the publication of Boundary Commission proposals for implementing equalisation of the size of parliamentary constituencies, which will reduce the number of seats in the Commons to 600. In seeking to right one democratic deficit by equalising constituency sizes, political parties need to ensure they have strategies to tackle gender balance too.
Parliament as an institution should actively encourage women to participate in democracy through its outreach initiatives, and continue to investigate ways of making the working environment of Westminster one that does not present unnecessary actual or perceived barriers to women’s participation.
Political parties have the primary responsibility for ensuring that women come forward to represent them and that they are put in positions from which they can win seats. The starting point for each party is different, but all of the main parties fielded significantly less than 50 per cent women parliamentary candidates for the 2015 General Election. The parties at present express confidence in their own internal mechanisms for improving this situation, but we consider that the Government should be prepared to legislate to achieve parity among candidates, including setting out financial penalties for under-performance, if voluntary measures do not bear fruit. Introducing publication of parliamentary candidate diversity data, as provided for in the Equality Act 2010, would be an important step towards transparency in holding parties to account for their performance.
In their evidence to our inquiry, the leaders of political parties agreed that the House would benefit from equality in gender representation, and they have made commitments to improving their parties’ performance. A range of initiatives, both voluntary and institutional, are in place, but we saw little evidence of an analysis of the likely effectiveness of these measures which would justify the confidence of political parties that they will be sufficient. We remain concerned that there is a lack of clear strategies for gender equality and concrete action plans to achieve it, and that party leadership is not yet providing the necessary clear and strong direction in working with local parties to deliver more women candidates. Parties should explicitly identify winnable seats and adopt ambitious targets for women candidates in those seats, with the aim of converting that into a significantly increased proportion of women MPs in all parties in the 2020 Parliament. Above all, parties need to be transparent and accountable in their progress, or the lack of it.
22 December 2016