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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 258-264)


8 JUNE 2009

  Vice-Chairman: One of the interesting things we are looking at is how you get more disabled people into Parliament. When you are in a wheelchair and you travel by train everything takes three times longer, and you cannot travel first-class if you are coming from Cheltenham to Cardiff because there is no wheelchair space or toilet in the first-class, so we had to come second-class—but that is okay, except they paid for first-class tickets I think! Thank you very much. My name is Anne Begg; I am Vice-Chair of the Speaker's Conference. I have to start with an apology. My Labour colleagues and I are keen to get back for an important meeting. I am not quite sure why it should have been called tonight, but it is an important meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party. We will leave Jo and the clerks behind. In the meantime, we have about half an hour. I am really sorry about this because we were very keen to come over to Wales to talk to everyone, and we had hoped to do a complete formal session. However, as with all things in politics, "Events, dear boy, events!" It is part of the job that we do.

Ms Abbott: I would say, though, that those of you who have not given written evidence can still submit written evidence, and that will form part of our report. You need not think that we will not be able to give your ideas and thoughts full play. If you submit them in evidence we will make sure that it is on the record.

  Q258  Vice-Chairman: We are trying to explore the barriers to women, people with disabilities, people from ethnic minorities and people who may be lesbian or gay, standing for Parliament. We know that the House of Commons in particular is lacking in those groups. We all see that in Wales you have managed to achieve a good gender balance in terms of your National Assembly, but it is not quite so good in terms of disability and ethnic minorities. We are here to learn from you the mechanisms that you found useful in terms of improving engagement. We also know that again in Wales—that is what everyone has told us, and as a Scottish MP it has been interesting to hear—you have been much more inclusive and much better at doing the outreach work to get a wider range of people interested in the work you do here in the National Assembly. Some of those insights will hopefully be useful to us in the House of Commons. I do not know whether anyone wants to start with any particular comment, rather than us asking questions.

  Ms Barrett: I am Assembly Member for Cardiff South and Penarth. Welcome everyone to my constituency (I cannot resist saying that!). We can feel quite proud in the Assembly, since its inception in 1999, that we came here with a mandate for promoting equality. I hope that we have gone from strength to strength. You mentioned when you came in to me about the wonderful building. It is still not perfect in many ways in regard to some of the materials used, but we went a long, long way to work with the disability groups before the building was built. There are just a few things I would like to touch on—and obviously I do not want to hog the whole meeting—but you talked about our inclusivity and reaching out in outreach. With our committees we do that an awful lot. Some members here have a saying, "Let's try and get out of Cardiff Bay." That is all very well, because we have a job to do, as you do in Parliament; and part of that job can only be done here, but we are taking our committees out. We have now got something called the Magic Bus. I do not know whether Claire Clancy, our Chief Executive, would like it to be called that—I am not quite sure what the correct title is, but we have a bus now that goes out to North Wales and Mid Wales. It is used as a kind of outreach surgery. We can hold vox pop sessions so that members of the public can come in and talk to committee members about whatever the issue is. We work very closely with our staff. I am also a Commissioner for the Sustainable Assembly, which includes equalities, but we work with our Commission staff as well as our own Assembly Members' support staff. We work with them with regard to monitoring our equality schemes. We have gone a long way to ensuring that all the equality strands are covered and represented. Here in Cardiff South and Penarth we have a high percentage of black minority ethnic residents, and I set up a stand at a local high school where they were having a jobs fair and talking about the kind of work they might like to do. I managed to get the Welsh Assembly Government to have a stand, and we had staff there telling them what it is like to work in the Assembly, because we are here in the middle of Butetown, but in the beginning there were hardly any local people working here, because they felt, "It is not for us; that is the Assembly". We have gone out and we try to reach out to as many local groups as we can. We hold lots of events in here—the building is great for that and was built to take these events. We welcome many different groups. We have 53 nationalities represented across the road there, so we do quite a lot of work with that; and I can do a lot of work as a local member as well. I just want to touch on one thing and leave this thought with you. I know that Ann Jones, Chair of the Equalities Committee, mentioned this to your colleagues in an earlier session with regard to family-friendly working hours. When the Assembly was first set up, family-friendly working hours were used an awful lot. I am not sure whether it encouraged women to stand particularly; I do not know how many women stood on a political platform, thinking, "I would like to be an Assembly Member because I know they are going to have family-friendly hours"! If you are in North Wales, Mid Wales or West Wales and you are working here, it makes no difference what hours you work because you are still away from the family, children or elderly relatives that you have caring responsibilities for. There is a lot of pressure on us, as we are getting more and more powers, to work longer hours. That is fine for us, but the staff behind that have to work the longer hours as well. I think we have gone from the idea of a Tuesday and a Wednesday finishing at five o'clock and maybe a Thursday morning; we have gone now to committees meeting on a Monday; legislative committees are meeting on Thursday afternoons. It is putting more pressure on our staff and on members. I will just leave it at that for now. I am obviously happy take any questions or listen to other views.

  Ms Richards: Thank you very much, first of all, for allowing us to come here. My name is Lyn Richards, and I am one of the women who are involved in a project called Women Making a Difference (WMAD). For the last three years that project has encouraged women from all backgrounds, no matter where you come from, what your qualifications are, how old you are, whether you have any disabilities, to become involved in their community. The most important thing that the course has done is set up childcare facilities, so for any young person or a person with childcare needs that is sorted out. These young ladies, women and older ladies are all involved in the course. They are given training and guidance. What is absolutely remarkable is that five women from this course have already gone on to take up a political career, whether it has been at a town councillor level, a county councillor—and there are two girls hoping to be AMs. This course has encouraged and brought the women out of the community, out of their houses, and inspired them with their own self-worth. It has been an absolutely superb project. There are two of us here—Eunice is here—and Anita is over there. We are three of the women from the Women Making a Difference project. It is based in Cardiff but it has now gone to Swansea and it is also in North Wales. All I can say to women and anybody who has it, "do it; grab it with both hands and go for it; develop your potential". Thank you.

  Ms Davies: I have a visual impairment so obviously I have particular needs in relation to accessing information and doing training. On the course we have done through Women Making a Difference they have had the right attitude towards people with particular needs, whether a disability or from their culture. They look at those issues for you and help you get over those barriers. I am now going forward to being a county councillor. I wanted to be an AM, but decided I wanted to work at the beginning, and they have helped me work out ways to get over the barriers of accessing information I need in the formats that I need it, whether it is to do with the computer or actually physical written information on a piece of paper. Like Lyn said, they have helped me with the childcare. It is not just that; it is about the attitudes people have and the personalities in that way, because I have come across situations where people's attitudes towards people with a disability, or even culture issues, are not good. In the training we have had the attitudes are good, and personalities are wonderful; and that is what gives the women that positive thing to be able to move forward as well.

  Q259  Ms Abbott: I wanted to ask Eunice—about your involvement in the project and also have you thought of becoming a school governor or getting involved in the Assembly? Have you thought about going forward in politics at all?

  Ms Chipachni: Yes. The Women Making a Difference project has helped me a lot because when I first came to this country two and a half years ago I was a very isolated person, an asylum-seeker, and got recognised refugee status in this country to remain. I volunteered for WMAD, found out what they do, and ended up getting a job. What I have realised is that they gave me the confidence and communication skills which I did not have before. I could not even sit up and look at you or talk to you like I do today, which makes me proud of them. I thought of so many things I could do, but I felt that being a councillor would be something that would be very good for my community and for my political career, because I really want to get my voice heard, especially regarding the BME women and also women with childcare needs like me. I am a single mother with a two and a half year-old child. I managed to get involved in my community. I do volunteering in my community, which is something that I could not have done without the Women Making a Difference project. They actually took me from a stage whereby they did not check my characteristics but they looked at my abilities and what I was able to do, and they really supported me through that stage. You know how much childcare costs—the costs are really expensive. For a project like them to manage to raise £700 or something a month for you to run around, do volunteering and get involved in your community—it is something that I feel, if we keep on supporting this project and women like us, I think we will go far. It will contribute a lot to the running of this country because you really need our views, so you need to take them into consideration. Thank you.

  Ms Davies: I am Siân Davies; I work for Mencap Cymru on a project called Partners in Politics, along with my colleague Sara Pickard, who will speak a bit later. The whole purpose of this project is to encourage young people with learning disabilities to become more politically and more politically aware. Sara delivers the training session in schools and colleges. One of the main barriers generally for people with a learning disability—not talking necessarily at this stage about representation, but feeling they can contribute—is the aspirations of people within that community have for people with a learning disability. The strength of this project is that we provide positive role models for young people. I do not know whether Sara would like to say a little about her experience as a community councillor.

  Ms Pickard: My name is Sara Pickard, and my role within the Partners in Politics project is that I am an example of one of those role models that Siân was just saying about, who goes in a school or a college and inspires young people to have that confidence to stand up for themselves. I do think that one of the main highlights of our project is seeing these young people living the lives they want to and being able to say, by seeing people like me and my work colleagues, given what we are doing, that they can achieve this as well. Like Siân was just saying, I am a community councillor as well for my area. Again, this goes to show that you can be represented at any level. I now have my chance to shine and show what young people feel in my village. I feel extremely fortunate and proud to be able to take on other people's views and go on to a council, like a community council, and say to them, "These are issues that young people are facing in my village; please help them." Thank you.

  Q260  Vice-Chairman: From what you have said in the different groups, it would appear that without the mechanism of an organisation that is identifying fostering people, then women and people with disabilities particularly and people from ethnic minorities are always going to be on the periphery and will not have the confidence to compete against the men—white men usually—when it comes to getting involved in politics. Is that a general feeling? Are there any other mechanisms you have used in Wales to help to do that?

  Mrs Clancy: Last year we had a scheme running with Operation Black Vote in which individuals shadowed Assembly Members. Perhaps Bethan could say a bit more about that. It was very successful and allowed people to get really close insights into the work of an Assembly Member and to learn more about democratic processes. This year, we will be extending the scheme so that we attract in people from a range of under-represented groups, so people with disabilities and people from ethnic minorities and others too; so we are looking right across the piece. We are doing that with the Welsh Local Government Association. Again, it is within our organisation trying to find those mechanisms that will help raise awareness and promote access. A similar example is that our Presiding Officer has been doing a series of visits, an outreach tour, as part of our tenth anniversary celebrations. He has made a point of making sure that those visits are directed at and focused on people from under-represented groups; so going out and deliberately talking to groups of people with disabilities in local communities. We have found that going out and talking in the local areas in that way again is a good way of getting across information about the work of the Assembly and hoping to open our doors. The final thing I wanted to say—it is a little bit of a plug—you have had an opportunity to talk to Holly and our Equalities Team—one of the real things that makes a difference in our organisation—and it is evident in other organisations too—is the passion and commitment of the staff, who give their all to make this happen. We have staff that are completely committed to democratic processes in Wales and completely committed to equalities and making that happen and making a difference. They make us very proud, do they not?

  Ms Jenkins: I wanted to speak quickly; my name is Bethan Jenkins and I am one of the Plaid Cymru Assembly Members in the National Assembly. I just wanted to talk briefly about what Plaid Cymru does and then say a little bit about the Assembly. Obviously, you mentioned at the beginning how progressive we were in terms of the number of women that were here, but I would like to add that that is only because of the action that has been taken by a few political parties in Wales, and my concern for the future is that with the changes in the systems of our party, that that may change in the future. At the moment we have seven out of 15 Assembly Members in our group who are women, but we have changed our policy. It used to be women at the top of the regional lists. My fear is that we will not look so progressive in the future; so we need a mechanism that would be from the institution and not from the political parties, if they want to try and get more women and disabled people into politics. The other point that I wanted to make was that Mencap Cymru has participated in the Petitions Committee in the National Assembly. The role of that Committee is to be that door for the Assembly so that people can lobby the Assembly; it is not anything like No.10 Downing Street when people do not interact with the system—they come and give evidence. We go out to different schools, and it has been a way of getting people involved in politics, especially young people who have not been involved before. I would say, because I have spoken at the Hansard Society debate, that that is something Westminster is already looking to emulate. It has been a way of getting more people involved in politics. Operation Black Vote was a very useful way for us to move forward in engaging with people. I had a mentor—Lorraine—who came and shadowed what we did, but if we expand that to more groups than we currently do, it will show that we can move forward positively.

  Q261  Jo Swinson: I have a question to Claire about how the Operation Black Vote scheme was organised because from the way you said it, it was almost as though it was organised through the Assembly, whereas where that has been tried in Westminster, they have gone individually to the whips of the different parties, but the institution of Parliament itself has not been involved. You mentioned the Equalities Unit—is that a Welsh Assembly unit, because to my knowledge we do not have anything like that in Westminster? It seems that structurally, institutionally, on both of those two things, that is part of where the Welsh Assembly is streets ahead.

  Mrs Clancy: Indeed. We worked with Operation Black Vote, and it was a co-ordinated effort, which we funded. We will be funding the wider scheme this year jointly with the WLGA. It takes quite a lot of work, effort and commitment to make it happen and make sure people get productive things from it. It is the sort of scheme that if you leave it to happen by itself, it probably will not be so successful, so I think you need within the organisation to have that commitment to make it happen. Our Equalities Team is small, but we are a small organisation anyway. We have a handful of people working on equalities within our corporate unit and promoting it through the organisation. They do an excellent job as well of making sure that members of staff have those issues uppermost in their minds. For example, we have quite a big team working on education through schools and we have a lot of young people coming in here. The Equalities Team is indispensable.

  Ms Abbott: Ann, Betty and I were able to speak informally with the Equalities Team this morning, and it was very interesting to find out what they did.

  Mrs Cryer: I just want to say how we really do appreciate you all being here. You have all given us some good ideas and we are very impressed by all of you. I am sorry that we have got to go back to London. Somebody can be left in charge.

  Ms Abbott: You will be left with the top team; we are just the B team!

  Q262  Mrs Williams: Sara, how long have you been a councillor?

  Ms Pickard: For a good few years now because I was actually uncontested when I was going to be elected. Mencap wanted to campaign but sadly did not get round to doing that because I went straight on to the council and have not looked back since.

  Q263  Mrs Williams: Congratulations. Well done!

  Ms Pickard: Thank you.

  Q264  Vice-Chairman: In Scotland the twinning or zipping caused some controversy, though not a huge amount, but it did in Wales quite a bit. Was it worth it? Are other political parties using that?

  Ms Barrett: It was very difficult. My constituency was totally opposed to it. One of our members says that at least twinning enabled 50 per cent of men to be elected! It was difficult because it was new and ground-breaking stuff. Real passions were aroused there. I have to say, as a woman in the Labour Party since 1976, I was first elected to a town council in 1977—so Sara, my seat will be up for grabs the year after next because I am retiring! Look out for Sara perhaps. I have always worked mainstream within the party without wanting to be part of the women's section particularly because I have wanted to be seen as a Labour Party member rather than a woman needing some special consideration—but, having said that, we needed something to happen. I think the party took a really brave step, and looking back it gave all those women the opportunity to be those role models, to be the faces of the people you see on television. I am always amazed when we take our committees out to England particularly and sometimes Scotland; we get there and we are talking to a room of men in suits, and we are mainly women from the committee. You can see this stark contrast; that these women have all gone off to give evidence to another committee where there was often a majority of men. It has done something, but Bethan is right that we all have to keep our eye on the ball because in our party as well, some women may be replaced by men. We have reverted to the old system: where the black ethnic minority candidate puts him or herself forward, they will be shortlisted, and you will have at least one woman on the shortlist. It is still down to the vagaries of who happens to turn up to that meeting to vote.

  Vice-Chairman: I was hoping to hear everyone, but I am sorry I am going to have to dash as well. Jo will take the chair. Thank you so far anyway!

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