Speaker's Conference on Parliamentary Representation - Speaker's Conference (on Parliamentary Representation) Contents

1  The case for widening representation

2. In the twenty-first century the UK's society is increasingly diverse. Women constitute 52% of the population. Approximately one in thirteen people comes from a black or minority ethnic (BME) community.[1] The experience of disability is widely shared, with one in five people in Great Britain acknowledging some sort of impairment.[2] It is estimated that six to nine per cent of the population is lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered.[3]

3. These facts would not be obvious to anyone looking at the UK's representative body, the House of Commons. The current composition of the Commons does not reflect society. Eighty per cent of MPs are men. One in 43 MPs comes from a black or minority ethnic community. Only a handful of Members identify themselves as disabled. Currently, only 2 out of 646 MPs are under the age of 30. There is only one out lesbian in the membership of the Commons and the Lords combined. There has never been an Asian woman MP. If these things do not seem strange, they should.

4. There are many reasons why Parliament has been slow to reflect wider social changes: the population within Parliament is only renewed every four to five years; incumbency—the likelihood that a Member, having won a seat, will retain it for one or more further elections—means that particular seats may only be seriously contested every ten or even twenty years. There are, however, also less palatable reasons. Individuals from under-represented groups who have tried to enter Parliament have experienced harassment and discrimination. Women still shoulder a greater burden of caring responsibilities than men. Disabled people and people from BME communities are more likely than the majority population to live on low incomes. These factors make it harder for individuals in these groups to compete effectively.


5. Justice requires that there should be a place within the House of Commons for individuals from all sections of society. If anyone is prevented from standing for Parliament by reason of their gender, background, sexual orientation or a perceived disability, this is an injustice. The democratic right to stand for Parliament "exists separately from any debate about the intellectual and behavioural merits of [individuals] as parliamentarians."[4] This principle—that Parliament should be more diverse—has been accepted by the leadership of all the main political parties.[5]

6. While justice is the primary case for widening Parliamentary representation, there would also be real benefits for both Parliament and wider society if the House of Commons were to be made more fully representative. As we stated in our previous reports we believe that there are, in all, three arguments for widening representation in the House of Commons: in addition to justice, there are arguments relating to effectiveness and enhanced legitimacy. We believe that a more representative House of Commons would be a more effective and legitimate legislature.


7. Our democracy is arranged in such a way that the geographical differences of our country are reflected in the House of Commons: the United Kingdom is divided into 646 constituencies whose Members represent urban, rural or coastal communities, areas with different population densities supported by varying traditional and light industries. This geographical distribution creates a measure of diversity in the House of Commons since the interests and life experiences of these different communities can differ widely; it is not sufficient, however, to capture the full richness and variety of life experience which a socially diverse Parliament would bring. A socially diverse House of Commons would not only represent people by constituency but also reflect the diversity of people's lives in terms of race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, age and social class.[6]

8. We were told that a more diverse House of Commons would make better decisions[7] and solve problems more effectively, because it would be able to draw upon a wider range of experiences and insights:

    [There] is a problem, not because of unfairness or lack of balance but because we miss out on the input from the rich nature of the cultures that make up this country. The problems and challenges that the government faces today are not being solved by the best resource available, the totality of the perspectives of the diverse British public.[8]

9. There is evidence that when the representation of women and other currently under-represented groups increases, the content and style of politics change. Research by the Hansard Society and the Fawcett Society has highlighted the noticeable changes in the House since an increased number of women MPs was elected in 1997.[9] The development of policy and legislation on social issues such as the minimum wage, sex discrimination, childcare and domestic violence is now much higher on the agenda.[10] MPs also report that the culture, style and attitude of the House of Commons has begun to shift towards being less confrontational and aggressive since more women were elected.[11]


10. We recognise that not everyone accepts the case for addressing under-representation of certain groups. A minority of those who sent us statements of evidence considered that our investigations betrayed a "false understanding" of the nature of political representation:

    No sexually-defined group, racial, religious or ethnic minority, or physically disadvantaged interest has any 'right' to a certain quota of MPs. What an individual member of any of these groups has a right to is to elect an MP, and to expect that that MP will further her or his interests in the House of Commons.[12]

11. It is absolutely right that an MP should represent all his or her constituents regardless of their background, personal circumstances or political allegiance. Every good MP recognises this obligation and will do the best they can to meet their constituents' needs. Yet, although individual MPs work hard to represent the breadth and depth of their constituents' concerns and experiences, the absence of a wide cross-section of society in the House of Commons means that the legislature as a whole—perhaps through MPs' ignorance, inattention or a collective failure of the imagination—overlooks the needs and concerns of specific groups. In these circumstances its decisions and actions may be considered less legitimate than they would otherwise be. Enabling individuals from different groups to be seen and heard in the House, by contrast, should enhance the legitimacy of the House's decisions.

12. There is an urgent need to assert the authority and importance of our democratic process. In July 2009 we reported the extent of the slump in public trust which had followed disclosures about Members' allowances and the expenses claims of a number of MPs:

    Data taken from the British Election Study survey for May 2009 indicates that when participants were asked to rate their trust in the political parties on a scale of 0 to 10, 85.8% gave a rating between 0 and 5; 91.6% gave a rating between 0 and 5 for their trust in politicians. Nearly a quarter (23.8%) said they had no trust at all in political parties and nearly a third (30.7%) said they had no trust at all in politicians. This contrasts with the ratings which participants gave to their trust in people in general: 37% gave a rating between 0 and 5 and only 2.2% said that they had no trust in people at all.[13]

13. There is a widespread perception that MPs, and Parliament itself, are divorced from reality. There is little sense that Members understand, or share, the life experiences of their constituents. Restoring public faith in Parliament is of crucial importance to the future of our democracy. Ensuring a diverse representation within Parliament is one way to rebuild trust and restore a dialogue between Parliament and those whom it represents.

14. The House of Commons exists to formulate and review the laws which govern our society. It should challenge Government and test the effective delivery of policy. It can do these things most effectively if the people who make up the House have the widest possible experience of the outcomes of policy; and, people are more likely to have faith in our democratic system if they see their own life experience is reflected in Parliament and brought to bear on the process of scrutiny. A woman who had stood for selection as a parliamentary candidate noted that her experience as a mother of young children probably gave her a better understanding of the Government's current frontline services than many MPs would ordinarily have.[14] A parent's insight into our health, education and welfare services is just one of many perspectives which should be better represented in the House.

Our remit

15. The Speaker's Conference (on Parliamentary Representation) was set up, with the support of the whole House of Commons, in November 2008. The House asked us formally to "consider and make recommendations for rectifying the disparity between the representation of women, ethnic minorities and disabled people in the House of Commons and their representation in the UK population at large; and [where appropriate…] to consider other associated matters".[15] Recognising the very difficult issue of stigma which may attach to an individual's declaration of his or her sexual orientation, we decided that we should add the experience of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) community to our remit. Other factors, perhaps particularly the issue of income, clearly impact upon the experience of a number of under-represented groups and we discuss these as they arise.

16. We began our work at the end of January 2009 under the leadership of the then Speaker, Rt. Hon. Michael J. Martin MP. In the following six months we consulted, and heard the views and evidence of, a wide range of individuals and organisations. We received more than 100 written statements of views. We held a number of formal hearings at Parliament in Westminster, but we also carried out a large number of informal meetings in London and around the country. We heard, for example, from young participants in the UpRising scheme at Bethnal Green, East London, and debated the issues with representatives of communities in Manchester, Cheltenham, Leeds and at the National Assembly for Wales in Cardiff. We held bilateral discussions with colleagues from the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly whose own experience, and progress in promoting equality, provides important lessons. We received valuable evidence from the Prime Minister and Leader of the Labour Party, Rt. Hon. Gordon Brown MP, the Leader of the Conservative Party, Rt. Hon. David Cameron MP, and the Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Rt. Hon. Nick Clegg MP. Our online forum prompted some interesting lines of inquiry, and ideas. We are unable, here, to name everyone who has contributed to the consultation process but we are extremely grateful to them all for their time and effort.

17. We owe special thanks to our Specialist Advisers Professor Sarah Childs, Lorraine Gradwell MBE, Professor Shamit Saggar and Professor Paul Whiteley for their enthusiastic advice and support. We are grateful to Professor Philip Cowley and Professor Haleh Afshar OBE who shared their research and contributed to seminars for us. The research support provided by staff of the Journal Office, the Legal Services Office and the House of Commons Library, particularly the Parliament and Constitution Unit, has been invaluable.

18. We are, of course, mindful that people will read and respond to our report in the context of the disclosure of Members' allowances and expense claims, which in 2009 so damaged the reputation of Members and of the House alike. Our recommendations are intended to contribute to the long-term work of rebuilding the House of Commons and making it the efficient, effective and credible legislature it ought to be.

1   www.statistics.gov.uk/CCI/nugget.asp?ID=273 Back

2   http://www.odi.gov.uk/docs/res/factsheets/Factsheet_CivicParticipation.rtf Back

3   Ev 80 (References in the format Ev 123 refer to the volume of evidence published as HC 167-I (Session 2008-09); references in the format SC123 refer to the volume of evidence to be published as HC 239-III) Back

4   Ev 59 Back

5   Qq434, 447, 460 Back

6   Ev 188 Back

7   Ev 188 Back

8   Ev 48 Back

9   Ev 217; Ev 58-63 Back

10   Ibid; Sarah Childs, Joni Lovenduski and Rosie Campbell, Women at the Top 2005: Changing Numbers, Changing Politics? (Hansard Society 2005) pp 89-90, 97 Back

11   Ev 216-219; [Women at the Top 2005], pp 89-90 Back

12   Ev 1 Back

13   Speaker's Conference (on Parliamentary Representation) Interim Report HC 167-I (2008-09), paragraph 10 Back

14   Posting by winkywen on Conference forum http://forums.parliament.uk/speakers-conference/index.php?read,1,118,128#msg-128 Back

15   HC Deb, 12 November 2008, col 912 Back

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