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House of Lords

Wednesday, 7th June 2000.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Guildford.

Women and Political Power

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What they will report to the United Nations Beijing +5 conference on reforming the system for elections in the United Kingdom to secure for women an equal part in political power.

The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Jay of Paddington): My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving me the immediate opportunity to report to the House on the UN Special Assembly on the Status of Women, from which I returned this morning. I was pleased to be able to describe considerable progress in the United Kingdom since the 1995 Beijing conference. Copies of the report, Equality in Practice, published by the Women's Unit with the Cabinet Office, the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development, together with my statement to the general assembly, will be placed in the Library.

On the specific issue of women's political representation, I was able to report that a record number of women had been elected to the House of Commons in 1997. In the new Northern Ireland Assembly only 13 per cent of the Members are women, but in the Scottish Parliament the percentage is 37 per cent and in the Welsh Assembly 40 per cent.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply. Perhaps I may ask what lessons she would draw from the elections in Wales and Scotland and, indeed, from the fact that throughout the world the top 10 national legislatures in terms of women's representation are those that have proportional representation, or a form of it, as their means of election. Perhaps I may further ask the Minister whether the Women's Unit will look specifically at the question of women's representation because so far it has not focused particularly on that as a part of its work. Finally, why was no local government representation allowed to be part of the UK delegation to New York for the Beijing +5 conference when we are trying to encourage women councillors and representation of women at a local level where services impinge especially on them?

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her comments on proportional representation. She will probably be aware that so far as concerns the Labour Party,

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specific methods were approved and adopted on the election of Members of the Scottish Parliament and Members of the Welsh Assembly with the twinning of constituencies, which led to a large number of women being elected. Perhaps I may point out that 57 per cent of the Labour Members of the Welsh Assembly are women and 50 per cent of Labour MSPs are women. Therefore, methods other than proportional representation can achieve greater representation of the kind that she described.

As to trying to encourage women to become involved in public life, the Cabinet Office and the Women's Unit are conducting a series of workshops all around the country. One is being held tomorrow, for example, in Salford. I shall attend one in Devon next week precisely with the aim of encouraging women to become involved in local activity and then possibly proceed to elected office.

On the question of local government representation, I am sure that the noble Baroness will understand that many groups were and are involved in the implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action, and many of them have an interest in following that up. Quite frankly, it was impractical to include everyone who wished to attend. I am sure that the noble Baroness will be aware that the Women's National Commission, for example, was well represented and that there were representatives from the devolved institutions.

Baroness Knight of Collingtree: My Lords, perhaps I may suggest to the Minister that encouraging a woman to go forward for political office is surely not the same as saying that she is being denied political power. Does the noble Baroness accept that some of us are rather mystified as to how and in what way women today are being denied political power in the way that the Question suggests?

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, sotto voce from behind me someone says, "Not on this Front Bench"! I simply repeat that it is of course important to encourage people in an informal way to become engaged. That is the point of the exercise that I and various of my colleagues are conducting in order to bring women forward at local level to take part in public life. The noble Baroness will know that there are targets. The Government have, for example, proposed a target for women to fill 50 per cent of public appointments within certain aspects of public life. In the health service, for example, that target has already reached 48 per cent. Therefore, I believe that opportunities exist and we all need to do everything we can to encourage people to take them up.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, I declare an interest. I was on the advisory council to the United Nations Secretary-General for the first Beijing conference. Perhaps I may ask the Leader of the House two questions after congratulating her on what she has just told us. First, as she is now looking at the matter of appointments, could she consider the substantial under-representation on appointments

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boards of women from ethnic minorities in this country? Secondly, I congratulate her on the Government's first tentative steps on the road to PR. May I remind her that Scandinavia has long had an outstanding record on women's representation in its national parliaments, partly for that reason.

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her questions and, of course, for her authoritative perspective on the continuing process under the Beijing Platform for Action. Naturally, she is right when she says that there is a particular need to encourage women from ethnic minority communities to take part in public life. As I am sure she is aware, the political parties are engaged in trying to encourage such involvement. I believe that under our system it is more likely that that encouragement, and, it is hoped, success, will come from the type of action that I have described in relation to general appointments and general electoral processes through the party political machinery. I know, for example, that the Labour Party has a particular programme in action to take that forward in relation to ethnic minority women.

Baroness Howells of St Davids : My Lords, can the Minister tell us what is being done by Her Majesty's Government to promote the rights of women overseas?

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, a most useful part of the presentation to the UN General Assembly, which I described, entitled Equality in Practice, was to try to align those actions taken by the Government, NGOs and other voluntary organisations in this country with our development programme overseas. I am sure that if the noble Baroness has the opportunity to look at that publication, she will see, for example, that some of the specific proposals regarding education and women's economic development, both in the UK and in specific countries in the developing world, show a pattern of collaboration and partnership. That is precisely the way in which the UN hopes that development will take place.

The UK can congratulate itself on a good record in this area over successive years and under successive administrations. In that regard, I particularly commend the work of my noble friend Lady Amos, who is sitting beside me on the Front Bench. The noble Baroness chaired the collective committee between the Department for International Development and the Women's Unit in the Cabinet Office on precisely aligning such policies within the UN. She was able to give a positive report to the United Nations conference on the progress we are making overseas.

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European Central Bank

2.44 p.m.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What is their assessment of the performance to date of the European Central Bank.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the primary objective of the European Central Bank is to maintain price stability in the euro area, defined as an annual increase of below 2 per cent in the Harmonised Index of Consumer Prices (HICP). In April 2000, euro area Harmonised Index of Consumer Prices stood at 1.9 per cent.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. However, perhaps I may point out that my Question asks what the Government think of the performance of the European Bank and not just for the statistics he mentioned. Surely it is time for the Government to come off the fence about their attitude to the European Central Bank and the euro, so that this country can know far more clearly where the Government stand on these key issues. Does the Minister agree that, if we had been in euro 11 from the start, our inflation rate would probably be higher than it now is; our central bank interest rate would be nearer 4.5 per cent than 6.5 per cent, and our currency in export terms would be 10 to 15 per cent lower? Is that a fair assessment? Does the Minister think that that would be a good achievement?

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