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

Examination of Witness (Questions 79-105)


3 MARCH 2009

  Vice-Chairman: Welcome. I have been asking the others to introduce themselves for the record, but as there is only yourself I think the transcribers will know who you are. On to the next step: questions and John Bercow.

  Q79  John Bercow: Good morning.

  Mr Phillips: Good morning.

  Q80  John Bercow: Why does the public sector duty to address inequality not apply to the political parties?

  Mr Phillips: I think formerly, when the first legislation, the race equality duty, was brought in, in 2000, it excluded political parties because political parties were regarded in this context as voluntary associations rather than as bodies which would be subject in some way to, or would be carrying out, a public function. I think the debate that has taken place in the last ten years has changed the perception of that somewhat, and I think there are two principal considerations that we might apply here. First of all, that political parties, of course, do receive a small amount of public money, short funding. There is every indication that there is a debate to be had about whether political parties will receive more public funding. If they do, I think that the issue of what we would like to call the public service duty will bring more traction to bear and, secondly, I would say that opinion has moved somewhat. The truth of the matter is if Parliament is a public body, political parties, particularly in respect of providing representatives within Parliament, are to some extent providing a public function. In almost every other sphere we are moving to a place where when we spend public money—£175 billion a year procurement—we expect certain standards to be applied. It seems not unreasonable to begin to consider whether political parties, both because they have lost some public money and, secondly, because they carry out a public function, should not also be under the rubric of public standards when it comes to observing diversity. What it would mean in practice is that political parties would have to balance not just their own interests and those of their members but the interests of the wider public and the need for equality in deciding their policies for selection, how they arrange selection of candidates and, indeed, how they conducted themselves more generally.

  Q81  John Bercow: I think it is probably fair to say, is it not, that the present legal framework is permissive but not prescriptive and that you are, in a sense, arguing that the time is right for an element of prescription. In that context, I wonder whether, rather than looking at the issue abstractly or in terms of the merits or demerits of the principle, you might want to build on your last remarks and say in terms what practical difference you think it would make if the duty were extended? In other words, achieving progress, making a difference, delivering change, if that is what you think would result, within some sort of reasonably urgent time scale.

  Mr Phillips: Point one, I think that political parties could now voluntarily decide that they wanted to behave as though they were subject to the public sector duty as it is, if they wish to do so, and I think that would be no bad thing and I think it would not be difficult for them to do so, certainly the larger parties. Secondly, what would it mean in practice? It would mean that they would have to, for example, draw up an equality scheme for themselves at the moment in relation to gender, disability and race, but we would recommend across all seven protected grounds in the Equality Act 2006, which includes religion or belief, sexual orientation, age and transgender status, and it would mean that they would have to make sure that they had available data about their employment, how they dealt with certain categories of membership, how they managed complaints and grievances, so that they could demonstrate that they were carrying out the general duties, which were to promote equality of opportunity, avoid discrimination and promote good relations. Thirdly, we think that the Equality Act, which will be introduced in this House, we hope, next month, will introduce a new single equality duty across all strands, and what that duty will do, we hope, is make the process of fulfilling the public service duty less bureaucratic and more outcome focused. Ultimately what it would mean is that political parties would not just have to, for example, draw up a scheme, but they would have, effectively, to be able to demonstrate that year on year, or in this case election on election, they were making progress in offering a more diverse range of candidates to the electorate. So that will be the practical consequence of political parties either voluntarily adopting the public service duty or being compelled to do so.

  Q82  John Bercow: What role would you like the EHRC to play in monitoring the political parties' discharge of that duty? Is it right to conclude that you would envisage your role being performed under the auspices of the forthcoming bill to which you have just referred, and what sort of penalties would political parties reasonably face, in your view, for failing to fulfil the duty?

  Mr Phillips: Let me be frank and say that the prospect of being the regulator for political parties is not something that fills me with unalloyed joy. I think this might be a privilege that we would want to share with the Electoral Commission. What would it mean? It would mean that breaches of the public duty, for example if somebody were to say that a political party, in its behaviour or the way it conducts itself or manages its affairs, is doing the opposite of providing equality of opportunity, it would come to us come for consideration. What we might then do is talk to the political party, or, if we thought that it was very serious and persistent, we might seek to investigate, declare a formal investigation or an inquiry, but I think, in all the circumstances, what we are doing at the Commission is trying to be, if I can put it in this way, a bit less of a busybody and working more closely with the institutions themselves and particularly their own specialist inspectorates. For example, rather than rushing around schools, we are trying to work harder with Ofsted to make sure that their inspections take equality into account, and in this case I think what we would want to do is work more closely with the House's own authorities and the Electoral Commission to make sure, for example, that short money was being spent in a way that actually encouraged diversity rather than was neutral to it.

  Q83  John Bercow: Is it your overall sense that not only is the time right, in the sense that there is a need to be met, but that if the argument is put seriously, based on evidence and with reasoning, you can command considerable public support and support from what I would call the serious media? Obviously there is always, dare I say it, the bigger faction out there that does not want to be persuaded, cannot engage intellectually with the issues and, frankly, is not interested in doing so but just in being abusive, but as far as what I would call the serious commentators are concerned, do you think that the case can be made unequivocally, galvanising support in the process?

  Mr Phillips: I have absolutely no doubt that it is the right time and I will say why I think it is. This is not a matter about political parties themselves. I do not have a view about the credibility of political parties one way or the other—that varies from time to time and from party to party. What I think is at stake is the legitimacy of this place, of Parliament itself. The reason that this House took exceptional measures in relation to all- women shortlists was a very simple one. It was not just to be nice to women; it was because a House which only had 20 women in it, in the 21st century, looked ridiculous. It looked, and, frankly, some would say was, ridiculous. It did not make good legislation. I think it is almost certainly true, and it was demonstrable in debates over the Disability Discrimination Act, that neither House would have done as effective a job as it did in constructing the Disability Discrimination Act had there not been disabled people in the House. It is not quite enough to say we will consult people and there are lobby groups and so on, there need to be people inside this House, part of it's culture, part of it's debates, who have weight with colleagues, who actually know what it means to be disabled. There need to be more people who are women and there need to be more people from different kinds of ethnic groups or else the House itself, to the public, does not look as though it has entered the 21st century and actually does not do its job as well, and that is why I think at the moment there is, if you like. Of course there will be people who will say this is special pleading for minorities and let us stuff the House with black people and lesbians and what not. We know that kind of language, but actually serious people, and most people, if you say to them, "Do you not think that this should be a House which has perhaps more people, for example, who have had experience of a different kind of life than your average white, middle-class male?", I think they will be with you on that one.

  Q84  John Bercow: You are guilty, of course, of a quite serious understatement of your case, Trevor, and I think it is a tendency against which you ought to curb in the future!

  Mr Phillips: Never knowingly that, John.

  Q85  John Bercow: I think it is fair to say that, not all but some of those who inveigh most violently against the sort of proposals that you are making are themselves, of course, white and male and privileged and they are very happy to keep the world that way and want to abuse anybody who wants to change it. The very fact that you advocate a statutory approach tells its own story about what you think of a purely voluntary approach, but it is just worth revisiting the record. In December 2007 the Councillors Commission recommended that your Commission and the Electoral Commission should work together: "to seek a voluntary agreement on the part of political parties to behave as if they are bound by a positive duty to promote equality". Can you tell the Conference what steps you have taken to implement this recommendation and how the parties have responded to it?

  Mr Phillips: Let me, first of all, enter a caveat. We have been in existence for 15 months and I will be honest and say that the reform of political parties has not been at the top of my agenda. However, I meet the senior officials of political parties, including the leaders, periodically, and, interestingly, if I am completely honest, all three of the major parties in my conversations with them have been more concerned about the position of their own parties than I would have expected. Actually all three of them have been essentially saying, "What can we do to do things better?" So I think that there is quite a lot of willingness to recognise that there is a problem. Where I think we have not really got to see eye to eye yet is the speed at which we can do that. Things are moving, there is progress, I think there is progress in all three of the major political parties, but it is very slow.

  Q86  John Bercow: The same point being that presumably the positive duty will hasten progress?

  Mr Phillips: The positive duty would be a way of making sure that everybody is focused on the issue. Let us be frank, a political party's job is to win elections, and anybody who has fought an election will know that you end up having to decide what your priorities are, and unless there is some reason to make diversity offered to the electorate a priority, the record shows that most political parties tend to say, "Okay, we will fix this one next time round." Most of the measures which we have proposed in our submission are entirely about accelerating the process and also making sure that political parties are not in a position constantly to say, "We will let somebody else fix this or we will fix it later." I think the point is we have to fix it now.

  Q87  David Maclean: Mr Phillips, I am interested in your suggestion to use permissive legislation to have all-ethnic minority shortlists. I think in your paper you suggested taking London as a possible region and not strictly enforcing shortlists in individual constituencies but trying to put pressure generally on London as a region. How do you achieve ethnic minority shortlists in, say, the London region without getting resentment from other communities who are excluded? For example, the Jewish community. There may be views on the sort of candidates one should have in Finchley and Hendon. How do you prevent the sort of ghetto'isation? I get letters from people with Multiple Sclerosis around the country who think I have got to speak for them. Certainly not; it is the one thing I will not campaign about, my own problem. Our fellow colleague David Blunkett gets letters from blind people all around the country because they think he is their champion in Parliament. If you were successful in getting, say, a Bangladeshi MP into an area of East London, say Tower Hamlets, how can you ensure that that MP is seen to be representing all the constituency and not be the Bangladeshi MP who everyone in the rest of the country targets as their man in Parliament?

  Mr Phillips: First of all, let me say that the point about this, more than anything else, is to establish the way that we have proposed that the issue of candidate selection and diversity of candidate selection, particularly when it comes to ethnicity, is appraised is to essentially ensure that constituency associations or branches do not always say it is the constituency which has got a lot of Asians' responsibility to select an Asian. That is exactly the point that you are making, and I think is exactly what we want to try to get away from: creating a situation where it is Finchley and Hendon's responsibility to elect a Jewish MP or it is, Bethnal Green and Bow's responsibility to elect a Bangladeshi Member of Parliament. Citizens of Gloucester, I think, did pretty well on this one. Nobody said to them they could not have somebody who looked like most of the citizens of Gloucester, and it seems to me the actual answer to your question is not to colour-code seats. In relation to the question of ethnic minority shortlists, we think there are some issues about how you do this. We are not as a Commission proposing this as the be-all-and-end-all. We think it is one of a set of things that you might make available to a political party to use, if that political party thinks it will be valuable in increasing the diversity of its offer to the electorate, and, in the same way as only one party has used all-women shortlists but that has dramatically changed the number of women in the House of Commons, we do not see any reason why this should be the case in relation to ethnic minorities. In relation to your question about London, London we used as an example. Our proposition is very simple. Not that you simply say everybody can have all-ethnic minority shortlists but that, for example, a political party may say: let us take a region, it might be London, it might be the North West, and in this region we think, looking at the proportions in the population, one tenth of the seats in this region ought to be occupied by someone from an ethnic minority. That party might then say: we will allow selection to proceed openly and in the normal way but, as we progress through selections, if we find that the parties, without any intervention from the centre, are essentially not selecting any ethnic minority candidates, then we could use a variety of methods, starting with saying that every shortlist should contain at least one person from an ethnic minority so that constituents have got to think about it. The ethnic minority shortlist is right at the far end of possibilities. In London if you have selected, whatever it would be, 55 candidates, 50 candidates, there are only three seats left and you have not selected an ethnic minority candidate, I think that most parties would say it is time for drastic measures.

  Q88  David Maclean: I understand where you are coming from, that you monitor and the party at central level pressurises their associations to select more black and ethnic minority candidates, but I put it to you again: I do not think the example of women shortlists is exactly correct in that women are everywhere; they are 52 per cent of the population in almost every seat. Hypothetically this may sound nonsense, but if there was a constituency where there were only 20 per cent women, would any party impose an all-women shortlist in that constituency? It is impossible to answer, and it may sound nonsensical, but we are dealing with a situation where in different constituencies there are different ethnic minority populations and, no matter how much you may care to pressurise the parties on a regional basis, at some point someone has got to decide what nature of black or ethnic minority candidate are we going to have in Tower Hamlets, and if a party wants to succeed they are going to want to select someone who may appeal to that community, and it may not be an Asian there, it may be a member of Afro-Caribbean origin. So, whether you like it or not, parties are going to try to match up, colour-code, as you put it, the ethnic minority background of the candidate to what they perceive to be the winnable features in the seat.

  Mr Phillips: They might do, but if that is what they think is what will win elections, why are they not doing it right now? They clearly are not. My wider point is a very simple one. A political party, when it is selecting a candidate for a constituency, balances many things: it balances the record of the candidates in front of the selectorate; it balances the interests of the party as a whole. There may be people of worth who do not come from that constituency that the party, overall would, very much like to see in the House, and that constituency becomes a possible vehicle for that to happen. This is the nature of politics. What we are saying is one of the things that a political party might well put into that balance is whether in a region it really wants to have a group of MPs who are wildly exclusive ethnically. That does not necessarily mean you put the black candidate in a seat where there is a large proportion of black electorate. That might be convenient, it might be electorally valuable, but it is not the only way to do it. There are many seats, I think, and we have three or four examples—Parmjit Dhanda is one, Ashok Kumar is another—where the ethnicity of the candidate is not typical of the constituency, and I do not hear that anybody thinks this is a shocking thing to do, so I do not see why this could not be one of the factors that a political party can take into account when it is deciding how it is going to put forward its candidate. My main point is that Parliament as a whole and the political parties that feed it have now to think harder about how important the diversity of the House is to the House's actual function. If you think it is really important, then, frankly, the issues that you raise, valid though they are, pale into insignificance compared to all that.

  Q89  David Maclean: I think we would all welcome people from all sorts of backgrounds; it adds to the quality of decision-making the House of Commons. I think our concern would be having let people become pigeonholed as, "You are the BME quota candidate", as has happened, very unfairly, to a lot of Labour women when the shortlists came in, they were criticised unfairly: "You have only been selected or you have only won because you are in a quota", which was quite wrong. Do you see the same worry, that if one had a quota system for black and ethnic minority candidates they may also face criticism: "You are only in Parliament because you are a quota, you are not good otherwise"—pigeonholed as a spokesman?

  Mr Phillips: Yes. This is an argument that is made in all sorts of spheres as an argument against positive action—not against positive discrimination but against positive action. You do not want to be there and people think that you are only there because you are black. Frankly, I would rather be the black guy with a job who people think is there because he is black than a black guy without a job, because then nobody cares either way, do they?

  David Maclean: That is very true.

  Q90  Ms Abbott: On the question of candidate selection and all-ethnic minority shortlists being pigeonholed, does Mr Phillips agree with me? I was selected 22 years ago under a completely open shortlisting system and I still spent years fending off the suggestion that I was just a candidate to represent Afro-Caribbeans in Hackney. Is not the analogy with all-women shortlists more exact than some of my colleagues are conceding? I remember very well the process by which the Labour Party agreed to all-women shortlists and the resistance was at least as great as that ethnic-minority shortlist, the objections were at least as vociferous and it was as contentious as ethnic-minority shortlists are now. Is not the point not to colour-code constituencies but to achieve, perhaps by a short-term measure, the sort of leap forward in the numbers of ethnic minority MPs which will make it possible for ethnic minorities to be selected under open lists and to be widely respected, as the result was of the 1997 step forward?

  Mr Phillips: First of all, let me say that I do not think anybody would ever make the mistake of thinking that you were anywhere just because you are a black woman. It would not be worth their life, would it, to make that suggestion? But I could not agree with you more. Maybe I have not emphasised enough, and I hope we will talk a little bit about some of the proposals we have made about how to deal with a narrowing of the number of pathways into Parliament. This is a House which is becoming rather more all-graduate, frankly, rather more Oxbridges, and I can give you some figures on that, and so on, rather than just focusing on this particular set of structures, but this particular point, the parallel with all-women shortlists is very a simple one. The House made a decision to take what everybody would recognise as an unorthodox measure to institute something temporarily, bearing in mind this was only until 2015 and has now been extended to 2030, and we would never see the use of all-minority shortlists as a permanent feature of the electoral landscape. This is what we call in our submission a catalytical measure. Basically, we need to shift what John Prescott once called the tectonic plates, but we need to shift them faster. It will be 75 years, at the current rate, before we have parity or representativeness on an ethnic basis in this House if we carry on at the same rate, 200 years to have half the Members of Parliament who are female. A House which wants to be credible with the electorate can not conceivably—well, I suppose it can contemplate it, but I would, with the greatest of humility, suggest you do not.

  Q91  David Maclean: Would you use the same process to get more disabled people into Parliament, disabled shortlists as well?

  Mr Phillips: I think you would probably want to adopt a slightly different method, because I think the barriers to disabled people becoming Members of Parliament are of a different character. We might want to talk about that to do with mobility, for example. I think the real big barriers to disabled people are more to do with the rather limited idea of what it should take to become a Member of Parliament. Everybody who has sought electoral office knows that there is a whole series of rather ridiculous hoops you have to go through which may have very little to do with your merit as a potential Member of Parliament but have a lot to do with what people think a member of Parliament should look like and how they should behave, and I think that is to some extent to the disadvantage of disabled people. For example, the whole issue of travelling, getting around. You have to put yourself in front of rather small groups in strange places, you know, on the first floors of pubs, where nobody has actually thought about what happens if one of the candidates who turns up cannot get up the stairs.

  Vice-Chairman: We have got a lot of people who want to come in on the all-ethnic minority shortlists. Julie first and then John.

  Q92  Miss Kirkbride: Two quick questions. Do you think there is any issue about definition? Is it a self-selecting person who decides whether they are an ethnic minority? After all, there are shades. Is that an issue? Bearing in mind what a cat-fight it can be to get some of these safe seats, people might see that as a way forward. Do you think if we went down this road, we could have some issues there? Secondly, bearing in mind what you were saying earlier about parties having a legal requirement to do an equality audit, it seems to me that if you take that to its natural conclusion, there being the idea that a certain percentage of all candidates must be from ethnic minorities, then we will get to the point, presumably, and I would just like your confirmation of this, that the political parties then will be obliged to require, certainly by the end of the process, to take an ethnic minority candidate. Do you think that will sit comfortably with public concern, bearing in mind how fiercely local associations pride their right to take these decisions? Is that the logic of where we are: that if we have this audit there will be a requirement on political parties to ensure that there is a certain percentage of candidates being put forward?

  Mr Phillips: First of all, I do not think there is any problem about definition. Most people know what they are. Some people want to make a thing about it and say, "I am this", or, "I am that", but actually we have 17 census categories; pretty much everybody can find a place in the big house that is called the Census. I think the idea that there will be terrible issues of definition is very unlikely.

  Q93  Miss Kirkbride: Is it based on skin colour?

  Mr Phillips: No.

  Q94  Miss Kirkbride: So an ethnic minority is not based entirely on skin colour?

  Mr Phillips: No. All the categories are based on heritage—black British, Asian, and so on—and some people do not like it but most people are pretty much used to filling it in and know what they think they are. This is not being defined by somebody else, you are defining it yourself, and I would be very surprised if anybody who is in a position and of a mind to put themselves forward for Parliament is going to have any difficulty defining what their ethnicity is. On the other question, I do not think that the logic of an audit is that you then go to quotas. There is actually no necessity that that has to be the case. The main point is that at the moment most political parties, like most organisations, do not actually want to know what is happening because it is awkward, because it reveals, sometimes, unpleasant truths, and it does not all go the one way by the way. It might be that you will find that some minorities are over represented in some areas, and so on, but the point is if we are actually going to address this issue, then we should address it from a point of strength, knowing what the truth is, and I think it would be helpful for the political parties to understand, for example, what proportion of different ethnic groups are putting themselves forward, what proportion of women are putting themselves forward, because once you know that you can work out what is actually the problem. Is it that there are not enough candidates who are female, or disabled, or from one minority or another coming forward, or is it that lots of them are coming forward but they are not being selected by the local associations? I think that if you do not have the data, then you end up guessing and you end up saying things like, "Oh, it is the fault of the candidates, they are not putting themselves forward", or, "It is the fault of the local associations because they are all terribly bigoted", and neither of those things can be true. So I think we need to know what is actually happening before we make policy.

  Q95  Mr Dhanda: My apologies for leaving very quickly; I have at 12.30, the racially charged adjournment debate of waste incineration in Gloucester. I am wholly convinced by the catalytic measure. It is a very convincing argument I think you have made, but in terms of auditing the process and helping political parties along the way, do you think that is something they can do themselves or do they need help from an outside body like the Commission or someone else?

  Mr Phillips: We can help them with a template, but we think this is the responsibility of individual bodies. What they are going to have to do is publish the data, because that is a key thing; that everybody knows what is actually going on. I think if you ask political parties to collect data and they just keep it to themselves, it is pointless; we are no further forward. What is helpful is putting the data out there, and, by the way, in response to a question which was made to me earlier, I am sorry I should have said this, I think the crucial thing that will convince the British public, who above all are fair-minded, is just telling them the facts. There is nothing that is more likely. Let me put it this way. I think the single thing that made it okay to go ahead with all-women shortlists was demonstrating in numbers that it would take more than a century for the House of Commons to have a decent proportion of women on the rate of progress that we had. I think if you put to most people that it is going to take the rest of this century to get even to 50 or 60 ethnic minority MPs on the rate of progress we have, most people would say, "That cannot be right. We do not want a Parliament that does that. Can we not get it to move a bit quicker?" So the evidence, I think, is the thing that makes people say, "Okay, we want it to be fair, so let us fix it." That is how we persuade people.

  Vice-Chairman: Very quickly from John Bercow because we also want to ask you about term limits which is a very controversial subject.

  Q96  John Bercow: Surely, Trevor, arguments ought to be made in good faith. Is it not the case that when people say, "The trouble is if you have these all-women shortlists or these all-BME shortlists, people will think that you are there only because you are a woman or BME", what they really mean is that that is what they think. The second point is quite simply this. Can one tell which women members of Parliament have been selected by all-women shortlists and which have not? I certainly cannot tell. I am not aware of any equality differential at all. It seems to me to be stuff and nonsense.

  Mr Phillips: The answer to your question is I agree with both points you have made. The first is a variety of, "I am not racist", or "I am not sexist, it's him over there." I think the point about telling the difference is, even if you could, who cares? The question is that we assess members of Parliament not on the basis of the route that they got there but on their contribution and their effectiveness as members of Parliament, their service to their constituencies and their effectiveness in the House. That is the only test. That is the only test that matters.

  Vice-Chairman: On term limits, Ann Cryer.

  Q97  Mrs Cryer: Trevor, this is something that I have not come across at all; it is an idea put forward by yourself. You have suggested that research should be carried out into the introduction of term limits as a means of increasing the turnover of candidates, particularly in safe seats. How would the term limits be enforced?

  Mr Phillips: That would be up to the House. Let me emphasise again that what we are proposing here is a catalytic measure that would change the game essentially. No other parliamentary system has done this, so there is no experience to be drawn, but in most things somebody has to do it first. We have done a little work on this. I think one would have to do a lot of research on this to make sense of it, but bearing in mind the essential point here is that there is change happening, it is happening very, very slowly and the essence of, I hope, this exercise is to ask how can we accelerate it. The point is at the moment four out of five Members of Parliament stand again in the same seats and, therefore, leaving aside political cataclysms, in the normal course of events only one fifth of the seats, 130 or thereabouts, are actually available to move the composition of the House. If you were to impose term limits tomorrow—this is the thought experiment—we think that about 230 Members of Parliament would not be eligible to stand again, and, based on the work that has been done recently by the Fabian Society, which says that about ten per cent of selection processes at the moment are delivering about one in ten candidates in both Labour and Conservative Parties from ethnic minorities, at the next election you would have 24 or 25 new minority candidates. If the same thing happened in the following election, you would have another 25 and in two elections you would have the 60 MPs that people have set as a kind of benchmark. Actually, the second election would not quite work that way because there would not be quite the same turnover, but the point here is that this is a way of making things happen quickly, and I think the choice is really one for you. Do you want to have things happen quickly or do you simply want to have steady imperceptible but real progress or somewhere in between?

  Q98  Mrs Cryer: So I have got this right: you think that it will be the duty of the House, the House authorities, perhaps the Speaker, or someone, to determine that someone had overstayed their welcome in the House and, therefore, ought to stand down, and, therefore, presumably the House would have to approach the party of that member and say, "You have got to select someone else"?

  Mr Phillips: No, you would have to legislate. There are certain categories of people who are ineligible—vicars, for example, at the moment, and members of the House of Lords. You would simply have to say that anyone who had served four terms would not be eligible to stand again. It was true in Venezuela until recently. It is true about executive positions, it is not true about legislative positions anywhere in the world, but, frankly, I do not see why that is so different.

  Mrs Cryer: How about appeals? What about a member who feels that it is absolutely crucial for the future of the world that he should stay on and, therefore, he wants to appeal? What would happen? Would you have an appeal system?

  Q99  John Bercow: The system would be clogged up is the answer!

  Mr Phillips: There is a point of view that suggests that one way you might do this is to say that if a Member really feels that his or her constituents could not possibly do without him or her, then they can have a trigger ballot, rather as the Labour Party currently has trigger ballots for its sitting members. You might ask the electorate if this person should be able to override the four term bar. I can understand that in the place where I am proposing this, this is not going to make me the most popular girl the school. However, let me put it to you again. The question is do we want change? Do we want it in our lifetimes? If so, is there an alternative? Because at the moment if four out of five members of Parliament essentially contest their seats, again, short of a huge political cataclysm and the incoming political party with a landslide having a wholly different composition of its candidates than the outgoing political party, nothing will change very quickly.

  Q100  Vice-Chairman: I appreciate the time, and you have stayed longer than your welcome. If you are all right, can we ask one more question?

  Mr Phillips: Sure.

  Q101  Miss Kirkbride: Landslides do happen, but, of course, if your proposal had come about and Tony Blair could not have stood a second time as Prime Minister, Gordon Brown could not be Prime Minister at all. So that would have been quite interesting. Can I ask Trevor about what he was saying a minute ago about the stuff he has on Oxbridge cluttering up the works? I was going to ask you about disability, but can you spend two minutes on that first because the Conference would be interested to hear that? You were saying a minute or two ago about the exclusivity of Parliament as to who gets in here. I think the Conference might be interested to hear your views on that before I ask a question on disability.

  Mr Phillips: Okay. Can I say, briefly, on the issue of serving and past Prime Ministers, democracy is about every individual, is it not? We have a President of the United States who has served two years in Senate. Nobody says he is not competent. In fact, frankly, all the evidence is exactly the opposite. On the issue that you asked about, university background, the reason that we looked at this is because we think that one of the problems that the House faces, like a lot of professions, is that the number of routes into the House is shrinking. There is a whole series of ways that people used to get into this House—trade unions and so on—and there are fewer and fewer such people finding their way through the process. We are seeing more people coming through the professional route—MPs researchers, the party machinery itself, and so on, even local councillors, I think, you would probably say are getting a bit of a squeeze in this respect—so we had a look at the educational background and here are a couple of points. Three hundred and sixty one MPs are university educated—that is about 46 per cent. Of the 122 new MPs in 2005, 73 per cent were university educated, so 18 per cent above the average. Forty-two MPs in the whole House went to Oxbridge—that is six and a half per cent of the House. Of the 2005 intake, 26 of 122 were Oxbridge educated—that is 21 per cent—or, to put it another way, the 2005 intake was three times as likely as the average to have come from Oxford or Cambridge. The Russell Group contributes 190 members of Parliament out of the 361 MPs who are university educated, and that means something like three out of ten Members of Parliament come from just 20 universities.[2] My point is a very simple one. If you take that as an indicator, there is a narrowing of the range of backgrounds of Members of Parliament. It does not mean that before they went to university they did not come from lots of different kinds of households and socio-economic backgrounds, but it means that there is a bottleneck. Increasingly you have to go through a particular process, a particular set of universities, a particular party pathway, in order to get into the House of Commons. So one of the things we are proposing (and we would like to propose that we do this with you) is a proper exhaustive study about the current pathways into the House of Commons to demonstrate whether our hypothesis is really true, because if that is the case, then I think that has to be central to any remedies that you might propose.

  Vice-Chairman: I think the Conference would welcome that.

  Q102  John Bercow: Am I right in thinking that attendance at public school is becoming less of a predictor?

  Mr Phillips: We do not know. It would, frankly, surprise me, to be honest, but we do not know, we have not looked at that.

  Q103  John Bercow: Any other observations you have on under represented groups in Parliament, who they are and how we might help them to get here, and then perhaps you might move into, as one of those groups, what can we do help disabled people to get into the House, what measures we might take or what help we might offer?

  Mr Phillips: We have spoken about public service duty, we have spoken about the research we would like to do on pathways into Parliament. We think that one way in which we might help with the tendency to narrow the range of backgrounds from which people come or the ways in which they get in is through a parliamentary internship scheme. At the moment the internships, researchers, and so on, are all in the hands of individual MPs or parties, and to some extent this depends on people. I know that Members of Parliament do try to be fair, but there is a sense that you have to have the right political background; it helps if you know somebody, and all of that. We think that a parliamentary system of internships would add to that, it would be fairer, it would be something more like what we see in Brussels, where the Stagiaires are. This is a process that is only competed for, and so on, so a process of internships I think would be very helpful. May I make one other point before we talk about disabled people who want to be at this level of politics? I think we also felt that it was slightly disappointing that the terms of reference of this Conference did not include the presence of lesbian, gay, bi-sexual members, and the reason for that is this. It is not at all clear. It is clear that there are way smaller numbers of "out" lesbian and gay members in the House than there ought to be compared to the population as a whole. What we do not know is why this is. Is it because there are proportionately the right number, or a reasonable number of lesbian, gay and bi-sexual Members of Parliament but they do not want to declare their sexual orientation for a whole series of reasons to do with culture of the House, political parties, and so on, or is it that political parties are not selecting lesbian, gay and bi-sexual candidates? We do not know. We think that this Conference really ought to be an opportunity to interrogate that question. The reason I think this is important is because if you are a young person who is lesbian, gay or bi-sexual, there are no, I do not like to use the term "role models", but if you look at the House of Commons and actually you do not see anybody who has that sexual orientation openly, then you are going to conclude one of two things: either you will never get in if you want to or it so is horrible for you, if you are a lesbian or gay, that you would have to repress it. It would feel like something out of the 1950s, and I do think, again, as part of the modernisation, which is what this process is supposed to be about, tackling that would be a great part of what you have to do, and you may want to consider that under the rubric of, I think it is, associated status, though it is not quite precise.

  Q104  Vice-Chairman: There we are. There were questions on disability, and your paper is quite short on this. How do we encourage more people with disabilities into the House?

  Mr Phillips: There are two things. One is we suspect the parties make it too difficulty physically: there is a lot of rushing about. We think that there are probably ways in which political parties can make parts of the process of getting selected less onerous for people who are disabled or people with impairments, but to understand what exactly they would be you would have to talk more (and I would be happy to help with this) with disabled people, or candidates, disabled people who wanted to be members and did not come through. The second thing that we think we probably need to address, again, rather as I have been saying in relation to lesbian, gay and bi-sexual potential candidates, is are there some aspects of the culture, for example, that would make it difficult for somebody with a mental health disability to put themselves forward? Speaking personally here, I think probably this is still one of the great taboos. It is only quite recently that we have lifted the bar on people who had had psychiatric episodes from being candidates. I think that there is still something hanging around the system which makes it very difficult for someone who has had, or has, a mental health condition to reveal that and put themselves forward, and, of course, the truth is that today you know if you put yourself forward as a candidate you are never going to be able to hide anything, somebody will find out, and the question is for you: do you tell your selectorate that, even though you think it is irrelevant, and then perhaps turn it into an issue or do you just not mention it and then find you get selected, you get elected and one of our friends in the media discovers it, there is a double-page spread on a Sunday morning and your family are humiliated and you look like a liar? I think this is a very, very difficult issue which it would be helpful to address, particularly with some of our disability stakeholders, who I think have much greater expertise than I do on these questions.

  Q105  Vice-Chairman: Thank you very much. I know it is way over your time. Thank you very much for your evidence; it has been very useful to us.

  Mr Phillips: Thank you.

2   Correction by Witness: Around 450 MPs are university educated-about 72% of the House of Commons.
Of the 122 new MPs in 2005, 108 went to University. That is almost 89%, 18% above the average for the House.
175 MPs in the House of Commons went to either the University of Oxford or University of Cambridge (27% of the House).
Of the 2005 intake, 35 of the 122 newly elected MPs were from the University of Oxford or University of Cambridge (29%).
The Russell Group contributes 302 Members of Parliament out of the 450 who are University educated. Therefore, almost half-46%-of MPs come from just twenty universities. 

previous page contents

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2010
Prepared 8 February 2010