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Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I say straightaway that I am aware of the chronology. Perhaps I may commend the noble Lord for his assiduous efforts since 1996. He has, indeed, pursued the matter with great energy and vigour to good effect. I am aware of the Procedure Committee's recommendations and that the report stated that the idea of a Select Committee in this House may have merit. The noble Lord will know that, when the Liaison Committee comes to consider this issue, it will be a matter for that committee. I hope that since 1997 the Government have demonstrated their total commitment to scrutiny. The explanatory memoranda that now go with the treaties have greatly enhanced the ability to scrutinise. They have been made available and are being used extremely well. Your Lordships should be certain that Her Majesty's Government will continue to look for ways in which they can assist and ensure that open government is a reality.
Lord Archer of Sandwell: My Lords, as a graduate from old Labour, perhaps I may invite my noble friend to confirm that it is government practice not to defer undertaking treaty obligations in international law until Parliament has indicated its approval of the consequent legislation. Would it not be a way of facilitating and expediting that process if a Select Committee could examine the implications and assure Parliament, in a proper case, that the obligations were appropriate ones to undertake?
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, there may be much force in what my noble and learned friend says. It is a matter for the House and its sub-committee. If the Liaison Committee felt it was appropriate, it could invite the House to set up such a committee. It is not appropriate for me to comment on that. It is a matter for the House and I have, as I am sure everyone else in this House has, every confidence that the Liaison Committee will look at this matter with the appropriate degree of concern, energy and erudition, in the way that it has dealt with other matters before.
Lord Tordoff: My Lords, is it not the case that the Liaison Committee has been looking at this issue and the matter has been put aside pending the result of Commons discussions as to the possibility of a joint Select Committee between both Houses? Would it not be better if the Commons got back to work and then we could move on with those matters?
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, while the noble Baroness is right to say that this is indeed a matter for the House, will she give the House an assurance that the Government will do nothing to impede a decision by the House to set up such a committee?
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord knows better than I, having been in this House for some considerable time, that Her Majesty's Government can do nothing in relation to frustrating the way in which this matter is dealt with. I also commend to the noble Lord's attention the robustness and vigour which goes with the membership of any committee of this House. He will know that everyone here will be vigilant to make sure that the Government do not trespass in an inappropriate way.
The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Jay of Paddington): My Lords, the Government have made it clear that they wish to look at ways of increasing the representation of women in Parliament. The Constitution Unit report referred to in the Question suggests that it may be possible for political parties to take positive action to achieve that without incurring a successful legal challenge. The Home Office will examine carefully those proposals to see whether legislation can be introduced.
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I welcome the Minister's reply. I hope that noble Lords from all sides of the House will join in putting on pressure to ensure that the Home Office sees that as a priority. Of course, it is not just in Parliament but also in local councils throughout the UK that women are vastly under-represented. I am sure the Minister would agree that it is not that there are fewer able and talented women but it is simply that there is still an invisible wall and a culture which has prevented them coming through.
Does the Minister agree that the Government must act rapidly so that we do not go into another election, and perhaps the one after that, with the same situation? Parties should be willing to take positive action and should not be afraid of doing so. Parties unwilling to take any action--and this morning, the Conservative spokeswoman sounded as though her party does not want to take any action--should be unable to hide behind the pretence that they are unable to do so.
Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I very much agree with the noble Baroness that this is a question of culture change as well as of changing the law. As I said in my original Answer, the Government are asking the Home Office to look at the possible changes to the electoral law which might bring about further action. My party stands very firmly on its record of having achieved 101 women Members of Parliament and having achieved around 50 per cent of women representatives in both the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament. It is instructive that both the noble Baroness's party and the Conservative Opposition are represented by only 8.5 per cent of women membership in the House of Commons. I hope that the noble Baroness will not take it amiss but it was not an indication of culture change in her party when the woman MP who led for the Liberal Democrats on those issues was replaced by a man.
Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen: My Lords, will my noble friend join with me in expressing extreme concern at the attitude of Theresa May, the shadow Minister for women's issues, who said on BBC Online on 6th September:
Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I cannot do better than my noble friend has done in pointing out that somewhat anomalous position between the history of the Conservative Prime Minister who was a woman and the remarks of the present spokesman. This is a very serious and important issue. All parties need to look at their electoral practices and selection processes to make sure that the most able people are selected in seats which are winnable, whatever their gender.
Earl Russell: My Lords, does the Minister see any force in the point that I made years ago that we should be able to think we had reached somewhere on this point when a woman was at the Ministry of Defence and a man was spokesperson on women's issues? Does she agree further that it is part of the reputation of Parliament to put this matter right? That is something which is far above party and should be of urgent concern to us all?
Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, yes, I certainly agree with the noble Earl's last comment. That was the point I made in my initial responses when I said that the Government were asking for the electoral law to be looked at in that context. I am delighted that my noble friend Lady Symons of Vernham Dean is here, representing the Ministry of Defence. She is an illustration of precisely what the noble Earl is looking for.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, before the noble Baroness preens herself too much on her party's 101 Blair babes, perhaps I may remind her--and does she not agree?--that the first lady Leader of this House was my noble friend Lady Young on the Conservative side and the first lady Prime Minister of this country, and indeed the only one to date, was my noble friend Lady Thatcher. Perhaps she can tell me when she thinks there may be a Labour lady leader.
Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I suspect it would be a woman leader. Of course, I accept what the noble Lord said. I have made it clear on many occasions, both privately and in this House, how grateful I am to the noble Baroness, Lady Young, for the helpful suggestions that she has given to me in this role.
Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, is the noble Baroness the Leader of the House aware that under the law as it stands, there is great scope for the political parties to take effective positive action; that if they do not do so, they may well be liable for indirect discrimination? That applies to race as well as sex discrimination. Does she agree with me that one way of securing much better representation for women and for the ethnic minorities would be to have a proportional system of voting?
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