Speaker's Conference (on Parliamentary Representation) Contents


Submission from Clare Laxton and Lee Webster (SC-16)

  Clare is a 24 year old Politics graduate, self proclaimed radical feminist and women's campaigner. She has worked in the charity sector for the last year and a half for a disability charity and now a sexual health charity. She writes feminist articles and is interested in issues such as abortion and disabled women's issues.

  Lee is a 30 year old campaigner on disability rights, women's issues and social justice. She has a Masters in Gender and International Development, and a particular interest in women's representation in politics in southern Africa. Her expertise lies in grassroots capacity building and supporting people to campaign on the issues that matter to them.

  Clare are Lee are currently setting up a new social enterprise, that aims to support the voices of young women to be heard by those in power.

SUMMARY:

    — We believe that the lack of women in Parliament, and politics, means that not only are women's interests not represented in Parliament but that legislation that is debated and passed on women's issues such as abortion can be lacking in legitimacy. The low number of female MPs also creates a lack of role models for young political women and can lead to low expectations of female achievement in our society.

    — We support positive action to level the playing field for women is a short term but important solution to the lack of women in Parliament.

    — However, we believe that if the Speaker's Conference and Parliament itself wants to be totally representative then it needs to totally reform in terms of times of sitting and the chamber itself.

  1.  Currently less than 20% of MPs in the UK are women. This not only compares poorly to many other countries in the world but also to the devolved Welsh Assembly (which has 50% women AMs) and Scottish Parliament (which has nearly 40% MSPs).

  2.  Both a cause and an effect of this statistic is the low number of women in leadership positions across all the main political parties. Taking a quick look at the Cabinet and the Shadow Cabinets altogether there are ten women in the seventy five cabinet positions—that is 13% of Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet positions that are taken up by women. Is it any wonder that women are put off from entering politics?

  3.  The lack of women in Parliament not only means that Parliament is no where near representative of the population but also that the main business of the house is discussed wholly with a male bias. Debates, legislation and Acts passed by Parliament have a lack of legitimacy because they are not passed by a representative group. An example of this could be debates on abortion legislation—decisions that primarily affects women and their right to make choices about their body made by men. This is not an empowering or accountable system of political decision making.

  4.  We believe that the lack of women in Parliament also means that there is a lack of role models for young political women to aspire to.

    "What sort of role models do we have? If we don't see women in positions of power all we've got to look at is footballer's wives,"—female student, age 20.

We believe that the gender discrimination that remains in Parliament, and the political arena in general, means that female MPs are often subject to judgments about their clothes, hair and make up which lead to assumptions about their capabilities as politicians. Whereas male MPs, though they can also be subject to comments about their ties or hair, do not have their capabilities judged by their appearance.

  5.  We believe that positive action to level the playing field for women is a short term but important solution to the lack of women in Parliament. All women short lists and quotas enable our political institutions to become more representative. Rwanda, the current world leader in representation of women, has a quota system for women politicians and in the last elections became the first parliament to have more than half of it's members women. Several other countries in Africa, such as Mozambique, Angola and South Africa, have led the way in this field. We would direct you towards the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance for more information and resources, including case studies of good practice from around the world (www.idea.int).

  6.  Although we agree with positive action, if Parliament really wants to be more representative of society then it needs to totally reform. As an institution, the Houses of Parliament were created for old, upper-class, land-owning, white men as a place to wile away their retirement. It was established as an elite institution, not as a representative institution. The House itself is geared up for face to face combat not intelligent debate. Current late night divisions and debates don't take into account caring responsibilities that people might have, and parliamentary surroundings and work style as been described as generally inaccessible by many women MPs.

  7.  We welcome the Speaker's Conference as a real step forward in commitment to a more representative style of government. We strongly believe that the whole country should be energized and empowered to take part in the debate. It is essential to talk to people at grassroots level to really understand the barriers facing women, disabled people and people from ethnic minorities from entering politics and standing for election.

  8.  Furthermore, we would like to comment that as a consultation the Speaker's Conference call for evidence is in itself an example of a parliament removed from the people of the UK. It is a pity that a great opportunity to be empowering and representative has been lost. A three month consultation period is good practice, not five weeks over Christmas and New Year. Furthermore, the consultation has not been advertised on the Parliament website but through other organisations like the Electoral Reform System. The consultation further marginalises women from the political processes and means that Parliament and the Speaker's Conference won't get to hear the opinions of grassroots women.

  9.  We urge you to reach out to people at all levels of society and involve them in the debate—and the solution.






 
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Prepared 27 May 2009