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

Examination of Witness (Questions 434-446)


20 OCTOBER 2009

  Q434  Chairman: Good morning, I would like to welcome the Prime Minister, and also the Leader of the Opposition and the Leader of the Liberal Democrats who will be following, to the Speaker's Conference. This is a very important occasion for the future of the House of Commons. The House can do its job effectively only if its Members are in tune with the experiences of the population as a whole. Part of that is making sure that the House reflects more nearly the increasingly diverse society in which we live. However, at present, Members of Parliament, including their Leaders and their Speaker, are for the most part white, male, middle aged and middle class. That is why this Speaker's Conference was established last year to look into the reasons why women, members of the ethnic minorities and disabled people are underrepresented in the House of Commons, and to recommend ways in which the situation can be improved. The Conference has also agreed to consider issues relating to the representation of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities. The close involvement of the Speaker in the Conference demonstrates the importance which the House attaches to the issue of fairer representation. This Conference began under the leadership of the former Speaker, Michael Martin; it was set up, of course, at the instigation of the Prime Minister, and I am very glad to continue its work. I also wish at the outset to pay a particularly warm tribute to the Vice-Chairman, Anne Begg, who has led the evidence gathering work of the Conference with great vigour and determination. She and her colleagues have put the Conference in a position in which today it can ask the leaders what they and their parties are planning to do to make sure that the House more closely reflects our society in the future. Before we start, I should simply set out what my role will be in today's session. I will preside over the session in the manner of a neutral chair of a Public Bill Committee, exercising control and facilitating participation, rather than as a conventional Select Committee Chairman who puts questions him or herself to witnesses. I am the leader of the good order and fair play party. The Conference has offered each of the leaders a chance to make a brief opening statement before answering your questions. Prime Minister?

Mr Brown: Well, there have been in our Parliamentary history only five Speaker's Conferences. They are summoned only when great issues vital to our democracy demand debate and then decision. The greatest of injustices demands the boldest of actions, so it was the first Speaker's Conference in 1916 that opened the way to guaranteeing the right to vote for women, and so it is today, when great injustice arises from discrimination and prejudice on grounds of race, gender, disability and sexual orientation. Some of those who sit on this Conference are those who have done most over recent years to address these inequalities and to plead for justice. When I entered Parliament in 1983, the House of Commons was an all white chamber. There were only 23 women, a House of Commons where 50 per cent of the population had only 3 per cent of the representation. I am proud of the record in extending representation over these last 25 years, but we have not done enough yet to address under-representation in our society. Seen from the outside, Parliament is not yet fit for the 21st century. So I want to suggest areas where we will move fast as a party and as a government to make change possible. For women, we want to advance further, and on a like for like basis, I expect the number of women Labour MPs in Parliament to rise to between 120 and 140 after the next election. The Equality Bill will extend all-women shortlists until 2030, and I hope there will be general support for this. On black and Asian representation, we will make sure that in relevant constituencies, a majority on the shortlist are black and Asian candidates. That will follow the passage of the Equality Bill. On disabled representation, we recognise the barriers of access, in some cases finance and prejudice to disabled candidates seeking selection, and we are determined to offer the greatest of practical support to make that possible. We will increase support for LGBT candidates, and I have said that there is a way that we can deal with some of the prejudice. Just as marriages can take place in the presence of the House of Commons, I hope Mr Speaker will consider that civil partnerships should be celebrated here too, and I hope that he and the House authorities will consider this idea. I am committed to diversity in Parliament, not just because it is at the heart of our Labour Party values, but because it is also in the interests of the whole country, that we keep the promise of our democracy, not for some but for all the people of Britain. I do not believe that sexism, racism and disability discrimination are indelibly woven into the fabric of our society, but it is our duty as Parliamentarians to lead the way in a process that in this generation can end the discrimination and prejudice that exists, and make our Parliament a Parliament where all people feel that they are fully represented.

  Q435  Miss Begg: Thank you for appearing before us, Prime Minister. I am just wondering whether you are satisfied with the speed of change to date and the speed of change that you have just outlined, and whether you think that with recent events, and the way that perhaps Parliament itself has been brought into disrepute, has actually made the whole job of increasing the diversity of Parliament even more difficult?

  Mr Brown: If the final conclusion of all the various reviews, including the Legg and then the Kelly review, were to give the impression that the only people who could afford to be Members of Parliament are people who have very substantial incomes or wealth in the first place before they are considered as representatives, then that would be a very big blow to the opportunities and possibilities of people from poorer backgrounds, low income backgrounds and backgrounds where there are huge barriers to overcome to get into Parliament. So we must ensure in everything that we do that we do not create new barriers to representation. As far as being satisfied with progress, I am not. That is why I am saying that we will do more to make sure that women are properly represented in Parliament. In the Welsh Assembly and in the Scottish Parliament, it is more than 50 per cent. On our Labour Party National Executive Committee, it is 50 per cent. I believe what we are doing for women's representation is not a top down enforcement of rules, but a bottom up process which over a period of time is increasing the representation of women at a local party level, then at a council level, and also at a Parliamentary European and Welsh and Scottish Parliament level. So I believe that is a bottom up process as well as the enforcement of all-women shortlists. On the question of disabled Members of Parliament, I do believe that you have yourself sent a huge signal by the success that you have had as a Member of Parliament, but I am conscious that there are only 2.5 per cent of our candidates who are people who are self-declared as disabled. We must therefore try to remove whatever barriers do exist, and I recognise that some of them have to be financial, as well as access, mobility and everything else, to representation. On the question of black and ethnic minority representation, we have made progress by making sure that in every selection committee, a branch will be able to nominate someone from the black and Asian community. We are proposing to make further progress by saying that in some constituencies, a majority of people on the shortlist when it comes to the members for final decision would be ethnic minority representatives.

  Q436  Ms Abbott: I listened to your statement with care, and I welcomed the fact that you had a target for the number of Labour women MPs you want to see after the election, 120-140. But I notice you did not have a target for the number of black and minority ethnic Members of Parliament. The fact is it is 22 years ago that I was selected for Parliament, and 22 years later, we have just two black women Members of Parliament. It was 22 years ago that my colleagues Paul Boateng and Bernie Grant were selected as Members of Parliament, and 22 years later, we have just two Members of Parliament of African or African Caribbean background. What I wanted to ask you is what makes you think that having, as you put it, relevant constituencies, and I find that a slightly problematic formulation, because some of our best black and minority ethnic MPs do not sit for relevant constituencies at all, but what makes you think that in relevant constituencies, having a majority of ethnic minorities on the shortlist will actually produce more black and ethnic minority candidates? The truth is that the biggest bar to diversity in selection is the ever present favourite son candidate, and the system you are proposing, which is to have a majority of ethnic minorities on the shortlist, will still allow the favourite son to occupy his position and be rammed through in the end.

  Q437  Chairman: Prime Minister, there are others who want to come in on this as well.

  Mr Brown: You are absolutely right, there is a great deal more progress to be made, and it is far slower than I would have wanted, but let us remember, the Labour Party has made possible the first black person elected to Parliament, the first black Cabinet Minister, the first Asian Cabinet Minister. We have four times more representation than the other parties put together. We are 88 per cent of the representation in the House of Commons, but I accept it is not enough. Why do I think that the things we are proposing will make a difference? Because they are already making a difference in the selection of candidates for the next election. We have seen a larger number particularly of women from black and Asian representation being selected in seats for the next election, but we will go further by saying that in certain constituencies, and that is a matter for debate, so I accept it is a matter for debate, but we want to make sure that a majority of people on that shortlist are from the black and Asian community. Look, this has taken more time than we would have wanted, but nobody can imagine now a situation, as I came into Parliament in 1983, where only 23 Members were women, and there were no black and Asian Members at all. That is an inconceivable situation now for a country like this. Now we have to make the further progress, but I believe it will happen in the next few years.

  Q438  Jo Swinson: Despite the success of all-women shortlists and electing many more women MPs, there are still very few women who at the time of being elected had young children. Do you think that ensuring we have better representation of parents in Parliament is important, and if so, what will you do to tackle some of the difficulties faced by those with young families, both as candidates and then as MPs?

  Mr Brown: I am grateful for you recognising the importance of all-women shortlists, that is what we have done as a Labour Party, I would urge other parties to consider doing this. I recognise also that when I came into Parliament, there was no—Harriet Harman had just come into Parliament and launched a campaign for proper cre"che facilities for women Members of Parliament. We have to go further in making it possible for families to be properly catered for, if one of the partners are Members of Parliament. A great deal more has to be done on that front as well. I think it is something that you, Mr Speaker, have taken an interest in improving, and I think that would be very important as well. But again, we have to recognise that MPs—and this is one of the things that comes out of Legg, and also comes out of what will be in, I suppose, the Kelly review, you have to recognise that people are living in two places at once, they have family responsibilities, and there has to be some place for showing that the financial arrangements for MPs take account of that.

  Q439  Mr Dhanda: Prime Minister, let us look at what you personally can do. Your top table, your Cabinet, there are 23 members in it. When you became Prime Minister, your predecessor left two minority ethnic Cabinet members. There are none now, yet there are four white Scottish men. Do you think this is an acceptable state of affairs? Do you think you personally can do more to correct that?

  Mr Brown: Well, I think you are looking at the people—I would point you to the people who sit at the Cabinet table.

  Q440  Mr Dhanda: I am talking about Cabinet members.

  Mr Brown: Yes, but I would point to people who sit at the Cabinet table, because there are people who sit at the Cabinet table who do not necessarily hold a full departmental responsibility, but are equally important to the running of the government. I would say that there are seven women sitting round the Cabinet table; we have the first Asian Cabinet Minister sitting at the Cabinet table representing issues of transport; and at the same time we have the Attorney General, who is the first black Attorney General, and a very successful one at that. So I would ask you to look at the wider picture. We have not done what other governments have done in terms of Scottish, Welsh and Irish, or considered, in terms of Scottish, Welsh and Irish representation; we have a separate Secretary of State for Scotland, a Secretary of State for Wales and a Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and that has to be taken into account in how you form your Cabinet.

  Q441  Mrs Williams: Prime Minister, you mentioned the bottom up process in your earlier answer. If there is resistance locally and regionally within the Labour Party concerning diversity, promoting diversity, how do you propose to tackle those issues?

  Mr Brown: I think bottom up is the way in the long run that is going to make the huge difference. I do think the declaration that there will be all-women shortlists has made a huge difference in the way women are represented in Parliament. I just should emphasise, maybe in answer to Parmjit's question, that there are 35 women Ministers in the government, as well as seven round the Cabinet table, and that is far higher than at any time in the past. Equally, I would say, on this bottom up process, it really does depend on at a local level the encouragement and support being given. So Emily's List has been very important, Bernie's List in terms of black and Asian representation, Dorothy's List in relation to LGBT representation, all these have been important to establishing and encouraging the principle that more women, more disabled people, more black and ethnic minority people should be represented in Parliament, as well as lesbian and gays.

  Q442  Andrew George: You have some very admirable objectives and targets with regard to black, women and disabled candidates in future, but, of course, all of these are delivered through locally made decisions in local constituency parties, as far as the candidates that are selected. How far are you prepared to go in order to ensure that those locally made decisions follow a pattern which actually help you deliver those targets? Are you prepared to overrule decisions made which will otherwise divert you away from achieving your objectives?

  Mr Brown: Well, you have controversial issues locally, as we had in one Welsh constituency in the last election, which everybody is aware of. But it is not simply leaving it to local people to make the decision: when we impose all-women shortlists, that is a national decision that has been made, that is being implemented at a local level. Again, I say we are the party that has made the decision to do this, it has been proven that that makes a difference in the numbers of women who are represented in Parliament. I hope that other parties can consider doing that, and our Equality Bill will make that possible, so that it does not stop at a particular date in the near future, but goes right through and is an encouragement to young women to come forward, because it will be in existence until 2030.

  Q443  Ms Abbott: It is one thing to talk about having more diverse candidates, but the important thing is to have diverse candidates in seats that are either solid Labour seats or are very winnable. All-women shortlists have proved to be a tried and tested way of getting women in for those sorts of seats. Why are you opposed to all black and minority ethnic shortlists?

  Mr Brown: The principle must be that we are removing discrimination, and creating a House of Commons that is more representative of the nation as a whole. 50 per cent of the population are women, and the under-representation of women historically, we have found, can only be addressed by all-women shortlists. 11 per cent of the population come from black, Asian or minority populations, and our determination to increase that representation is, as I suggested, by taking measures that at a local level encourage constituencies that this is the right thing to do. Our aim, of course, is to get a House of Commons, a Parliament that more accurately reflects all the faces and the different ethnic groups of our country. So that is our aim; how we get to that aim, of course, is going to be different in different cases and bound to be so, but the principle that we should have far greater representation for black and Asian communities, and for black and Asian MPs to be represented in the House of Commons, is shown in our determination to move forward with what we say. At a local level, a branch has the power to ensure that there is a black and Asian person on the branch nomination, there is a guarantee that there will be someone from that community who is on the shortlist, and now we are saying we are prepared to go even further than that, and I think we are the first party to do that.

  Q444  Mrs Cryer: Prime Minister, can I just ask you about the difficulties for people from a poorer background of the costs of candidacy? You have already said that it would be unfortunate if only wealthy candidates could go forward. It would also be unfortunate if only people locally could go forward, because of the costs of travelling. So can I ask you, how can we ensure that candidates with different levels of income and different campaigning costs, such as disabled people, single parents, have an equal chance of being and later winning through to being a Member of Parliament?

  Mr Brown: Well, I think there is potentially an issue of finance there. It is not necessarily solved by issues like primaries, which are very expensive, although there is a case for looking at primaries, but there is an issue of finance for people from low income backgrounds, and that has to be addressed internally by the parties themselves. I think we also have to recognise that there is another point about what people expect MPs now to be able to do is to be far more active locally in their own constituencies, and be far more connected to the causes and communities of their own constituencies, and to be able to reflect them. I think that is a duty on MPs that has been imposed by the public, most of us willingly accept that duty, but it is a huge change from where we were 30 years ago. It makes it necessary, and I think we have to emphasise this, that MPs have to have a base both in London and in their constituencies, and any reform of the system relating to MPs that does not recognise that will be falling very short of the mark of what the public expect of Members of Parliament now.

  Q445  Angela Browning: Prime Minister, there is cross-party agreement that the approximate costs of fighting as a candidate are about £10,000 a year, so for many candidates, they are looking at £40,000 or £50,000 to fight a seat for a whole Parliament before they even get elected. Particularly for women with childcare costs, or people with disabilities, as Ann Cryer mentioned, how do you see that challenge to get more women in, who have those attendant costs, just to get into Parliament?

  Mr Brown: I recognise that there are costs. I am not sure if I have the same figures as you about what it actually costs. Obviously it depends on the time that a person is selected, and the distances they have to travel, and it depends on what their home arrangements are. But I recognise that it is more difficult for people who have family responsibilities. The one thing that we want to encourage is that people who are more representative of the face of our nation are standing as candidates for Parliament, so yes, you have to look at how you can encourage that, and you have to look at how as a party you can defer some of the expenses that are involved in people being candidates once they become candidates. This is maybe something that your Conference may have to look at in more detail, but I am sure that our party is trying to deal with these issues and I hope other parties are. Can I just say on women, I do repeat, we made a decision to have all-women shortlists, we believe that that has worked. I would urge other parties to look at this issue. We have made a decision on black and Asian candidates, that we will give full rights to be at a selection committee, and in some cases to be a majority of candidates at selection committee, once the Equality Bill goes through. No other party has done that, I urge people to do that. Where there have been changes made by one political party that other parties can now see have brought beneficial results, I think it is better for them to look at whether they can implement these changes, than perhaps some of the other things you are looking at at the moment.

  Q446  Miss Begg: Our Interim Report[1] suggested that local parties should provide data for the various selection processes, and the Labour Party did provide that data. Can I ask if you are prepared to sign the Labour Party up to constantly reporting the data on all the selection processes and panels that take place under the criteria that we use or we recommend in our Interim Report?

  Mr Brown: You are absolutely right, unless people know what is happening, then the public opinion that is being shaped about this cannot put the pressure that is necessary on the parties to change. This is not just a matter of one or two individuals, and there are heroic individuals around this table, on this committee, who have themselves brought about great changes by what they have done. I think it is fair that at this stage, I applaud people round this table who have been change makers themselves, and the world has changed as a result of them. But it does need us to educate and inform public opinion about what the opportunities are for Parliament. I repeat, I could not imagine a Parliament now that did not have the scale of women representation that we have, and indeed should have more, and equally, Parliament must have proper representation from the other communities. If this Speaker's Conference achieves anything, it must be to send a message to the public that a Parliament that is not representative of all faces of the people is not one that will command the trust and respect of the people. Therefore, we must make these changes as parties, and if necessary, make legislative changes to bring that about.

  Chairman: Prime Minister, thank you for your time and your evidence, we are extremely grateful to you.

1   Speaker's Conference (on Parliamentary Representation), Interim Report, HC 167-I, 15 July 2009 Back

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