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

Examination of Witness (Questions 447-459)


20 OCTOBER 2009

  Q447  Chairman: Good morning. A warm welcome to the Leader of the Opposition, David Cameron. David, I think you know the form. We look forward to a brief opening statement from you, and then there will be an opportunity for questions.

  Mr Cameron: Thank you very much. Thank you for the opportunity to appear in front of this Conference. I have a very straightforward approach to this issue, which is that the underrepresentation of women in Parliament, and in the Conservative Party, and the underrepresentation of black and minority ethnic candidates in the Conservative Party and in this Parliament is a real problem. It is a real problem for Parliament, and it is a real problem, it has been an even greater problem for my party, and one that I desperately want to address and have tried to address. I think it is bad in all sorts of ways, it is clearly bad for women and for ethnic minorities, it is bad for equality; it is also bad for the quality of our politics. I have a very simple view, which is that we need to make sure that the conversation we have within the Conservative Party, and the conversation we have within Parliament, is like the conversation that is going on in the rest of the country, and indeed is like the conversation we need to have with the rest of the country. Unless we have more equal representation, our politics will not be half as good as they should be, and the Conservative Party will not be half the party it should be. So I have been determined to deal with this problem, and to do frankly whatever is necessary to fix it. I have tried to do it within the confines of a democratic and quite decentralised party, so you are always looking for ways to encourage, to cajole, to educate, to lead, to push and to prod, and that is what I have tried to do over the last four years. The way I have looked at it is there were sort of three particular problems in the Conservative Party. First, there were not enough good women candidates coming forward; secondly, there was an inbuilt tendency within Conservative Associations to choose white men, people like me; and thirdly, the procedures and the testing processes we had for picking prospective Members of Parliament tended to favour not just male candidates, but particular sorts of male candidates. So we have tried to address each of those three areas. In terms of not enough women coming forward, women2win was established as a sort of pressure group, to bring people forward. We have opened up the candidates list, encouraged people to join. We have been out and headhunted people we think would make good Members of Parliament. There is some sign of success: at the last election, 20 per cent of people on the list were women, that is now closer to 30 per cent. The second thing, the inbuilt tendency of Associations to choose men, we have tried to address that in all sorts of ways. We introduced the priority list of candidates, the so-called A-List, which was initially half men and half women, but also 20 per cent of the people on it were from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. Then we have changed quite a number of times some of our selection procedures to try and get more equal outcomes. So for instance, we have insisted that 50 per cent of the candidates in the final round of a selection should be women. We have just changed our selection procedures again, so that up until Christmas, we have a system where a shortlist of candidates is chosen between Central Office and the local Association, and that goes straight to the final round of selection. Again, we will be changing our procedures from January, as we get close to an election, and I might say a word about that in a second. We have also tried to address the problem of the actual testing procedures being less fair, so we have introduced things like community panels, getting representatives of the community on to a panel to ask questions of the candidates; we have had open primaries, and we have also pioneered very recently the all-postal primary, where we actually sent the CVs of the candidates and the ballot papers to every single home in the constituency, in what was a first and I think very effective. The result of all this, well, if we have a majority of one after the next election, wishful thinking I know, but indulge me for a second, if that is what happened, we would have nearly 60 women Conservative Members of Parliament, compared with just 18 today, and we would have between 10 and 15 Members of Parliament on the Conservative side from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. Just one last thing I wanted to add, which is from January, we moved to what we call our by-election procedure, which is that if any MP stands down, either shortly before that date or after that date, the Central Party provides the shortlist to the Association, and it is my intention, if we continue as we are, that some of those shortlists will indeed be all-women shortlists, to help us boost the number of Conservative women MPs, and also to recognise the fact that although about 29 per cent of our candidates are women, there are many very, very good women on our priority list of candidates who have not yet been selected, and I want to give them the chance to serve in Parliament, so that is my current intention. Sorry if that was too long.

  Q448  Mr Blunkett: I would like to ask you, David, about the primaries that you have mentioned already, and therefore the attempt to open up politics to people who would otherwise have not thought of entering Parliament. You mentioned women and ethnic minorities in your opening statement, but not disability. Albeit that it is the least auspicious moment in our history to be encouraging people of active citizenship and civic goodwill to think of coming into Parliament, in your endeavour, including with the postal primary, do you think that there is a real difficulty in persuading the public as a whole, as opposed to those activists who know people, who can question people, who understand the critical nature of genuine professional politics, to accept people of difference, where, for instance, they may have a disability which the population as a whole may conceive of as being a major obstacle, as I found when I came in to this place in 1987, where a substantial minority did not believe that I could do the job.

  Mr Cameron: It is a very good question. I think attitudes are changing, and what leaders have to do is keep leading and keep pushing, so that these things become less of a problem. I think the truth about primaries is I do not think they are necessarily the most effective weapon for making sure we have more women in Parliament, more disabled people in Parliament, or people of black and minority ethnic backgrounds. I think the primary is a very good weapon to fight a slightly different battle, which is: are we doing things that are opening up politics to people who had not previously considered it; are we involving people more in the political process; are we giving them ownership of a really important step, which is choosing a candidate? But I do not necessarily think that the two sorts of primaries we have tried, the open primary, where anyone can turn up, or the all-postal primary, will actually necessarily help us so much with the issues we are discussing today. But I think that attitudes are changing, people are more open-minded and thoughtful, and so perhaps they will play a role in the future.

  Q449  Andrew George: You described in your opening statement the party as a democratic and decentralised institution, and yet you also described the way in which the party is steering the local parties into assisting you in achieving your national objectives. I just wondered how far you are prepared to go in order to achieve that, particularly where the local parties may be resisting too much Central Office interference.

  Mr Cameron: It is a balance. It is a debate we have all the time. I can see Angela Browning smiling, she has been involved in this debate. You know, the A-List, for instance, was a step that some in the party did not like, because it seemed to be—I mean, I refer to it as sort of positive action rather than positive discrimination, but I think it is a balance. I think you have to try and get the balance right, because at the end of the day, I think it is quite important to, as I do, turn round to my own party and say: actually, in the end, I did not pick these women candidates, you did, I did not pick the black and minority ethnic candidates, you did, and it is something I have tried to make, and I think the Conservative Party is proud of it, I have tried to make them proud of what we have achieved, getting to a situation where if we do win the election, 60 women MPs against 18, it is a big step forward, not as much as I would like. I think if you just totally try and dictate, then you will not take the party with you, so it is a balance. That is not a very good answer to the question, there is no real answer to the question, it is trying to push, to prod, to encourage, to educate, to lead, and hoping that all those things will take people with you, which seems to have happened.

  Q450  Mrs Williams: Following David Blunkett's question about people with disabilities, in your opening statement, you used the word headhunting, and you also mentioned community panels. How do they link together? Do you actually go out deliberately and headhunt people with disabilities or do you not?

  Mr Cameron: Yes, what we do is whenever—I mean, I have encouraged everyone in the Shadow Cabinet to do this, any people you come across who you think will make an effective Member of Parliament, and particularly be on the outlook for women candidates, for people with a disability, for people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, actually, if you come across someone in your life as an MP, or your life as a Shadow Minister, encourage them to put their name forward and go on the candidates list. That is something we have actively been doing with some success, and also after the expenses scandal, I opened up the candidates list all over again, and invited people to apply. I did that on the Andrew Marr show, and something like 4,000 people applied following that, and I think we have already added 100 or so of them to our candidates list. That is the headhunting part of it. The community panel idea; one of the problems we had was this, that when it came to the process of selecting the candidate, the process of standing up in front of the members of the local Conservative Association, making a speech and answering questions, was something that a sort of typical male candidate like me was quite good at doing, but it did not necessarily test out what being a Member of Parliament is really about, which is holding surgeries, helping people, dealing with community issues, showing community leadership. So what we have done in some cases is assemble a community panel, so take the Chief Inspector of Police, the local person who runs the Citizens Advice Bureau, someone from the Federation of Small Business, someone who works in the PCT, and get them to interview the candidates and get them to report to the members of the Association what they were like. So the community panel was an attempt to try and bring into the selection process for candidates some of those things that are actually the skills you need to be a Member of Parliament; not perfect, but it was an attempt to sort of demachoise it, if that makes sense.

  Q451  David Maclean: Clearly you are not satisfied with the diversity of your Parliamentary party. We have heard a little bit about the top down approach you use. How do you go about persuading Conservative Associations, who jealously guard their independence, do not like taking direction from the centre, that we need to promote diversity in the party? When you meet resistance, how will you overcome it?

  Mr Cameron: Before the selection procedures kick in in any of these seats, what has tended to happen is John Maples, Theresa May, Shireen Ritchie or others go to the constituency, talk them through some of the issues, and try and take people with them, and explain that the issue of diversity is important for the party as a whole. I think attitudes are changing, but as I say, it is a mixture of education and leadership; also some of these procedures and processes need changing; and then some positive action as well. But I would say, when you look at the number of women candidates now chosen, the Conservative Party is quite proud of the progress that it has made, and frequent reminders that we were the first party to have a woman Prime Minister helps.

  Q452  David Maclean: We have heard some evidence from experts that that approach does seem to have worked in the Conservative Party. How do you institutionalise it so that it does not die with David Cameron in a few years as your great idea?

  Mr Cameron: I think it is very worthwhile what this Conference is trying to do, but in the end, I think it is important that the parties feel they are competing with each other over this issue. I think now it has become very much a part of the Conservative Party's reform and modernisation, that if I was run over by a bus, this would continue. There are many people in the Conservative Party who feel very strongly about this issue, that we want to have more equal representation. We know it would improve the quality of our party, of our politics, of our contribution in Parliament, and it is not just me that is doing this, there is a big movement in the party to get this right.

  Q453  Fiona Mactaggart: Is there not also a movement in your party to go in the other direction, as reflected in the Equality and Diversity (Reform) Bill proposed by ten Conservative Members as a Private Members' Bill last Friday, including Privy Counsellors? I was struck by that. But actually, you know that the way to increase the proportion of women is for them to be selected in seats which are either currently held or very marginal for the Conservative Party. You have told us that if the Conservative Party was in the majority, there would be nearly 60 Conservative women MPs. That means that we really, for the first time for a long time, will have fewer women in Parliament than presently. We have learnt that the Labour Party has selected women for 54 per cent of the seats currently held by male, by sitting MPs. What is the percentage that has been selected in seats where Conservative MPs are retiring which are women?

  Mr Cameron: I do not have that figure. What I do know is that when it comes to the marginal seats, the seats that we hope to win, that is the very good percentage, that is why you get to 60 women MPs if we win with a majority of one. So we are very much focused, our whole approach has not been, let us try and just make sure we have a good percentage of women candidates in all seats, our whole effort the last four years has been: let us make sure in the marginal seats we get a good percentage.

  Q454  Fiona Mactaggart: What is the percentage in marginal seats?

  Mr Cameron: It is about 30 per cent, I think I am right in saying. It is 33 in the Conservative held seats. But I do want us to go a bit further and faster, and that is why I have said after January, when we move to the by-election procedure, we are going to look at all-women shortlists in some of those seats that may come up, if more MPs decide to stand down.

  Q455  Jo Swinson: Conservative Home has estimated the cost of Parliamentary candidacy at £41,500, which chimes with the other evidence that we have received, that is about £10,000 a year. Surely that is a huge barrier to anyone who is not well off, and what will you do to help to overcome that problem for people from a diverse range of backgrounds?

  Mr Cameron: I think this is a problem, and if anything, it is getting a bit worse, because we are all, as party leaders, asking our candidates to do more and more things. I do not think there is some easy answer to this, because as we all know, money is short, and suggestions for new ways to spend public money are not exactly flavour of the month. So it seems to me, first of all, do not make it any worse. We must make absolutely clear that candidates must not be required to buy houses in the constituencies they want to represent, or contribute to their Conservative Associations or anything like that. Do not make it any worse; I think that is vitally important. Of course let us look as a party, and we will look as a party, are there procedures we can look at where we can help individual candidates? We have done that, I think, on one or two occasions. I think it is important to recognise that while the costs put forward by Conservative Home, that seems a very big figure, I think if you were, for instance, a local candidate, I do not think the cost would be anything like that. But I do not have an answer to the overall problem, because I do not think some sort of new fund for politics is going to find much favour at the moment.

  Q456  Angela Browning: Following on from that, David, do you think the fact that there is this attendant cost to fighting a Parliamentary seat, and for some people it is four or five years, sometimes it is two Parliaments, it is a lot of money, does not that really affect women with childcare costs, women who perhaps have more family responsibilities, women on lower incomes who cannot afford the childcare costs they might otherwise have paid for, and, of course, people with disabilities, for whom campaigning has additional costs. So within the whole, there are some who are affected more than others.

  Mr Cameron: On the issue of disability, and the costs of overcoming disability to be a candidate, I think there may well be a case, and we are looking at this, whether there ought to be some specific fund that people with disabilities who want to overcome the problems and be a candidate, I think there is—I can see specific cases there, and we have some candidates with relatively severe disabilities who I have spoken to about this, and actually I think there may be some progress we could make. On the other issue, I am afraid I do not have the answer. As I say, it is expensive being a candidate; it is less expensive if you are a local candidate, but I do not think there is a case that we can make at the moment for more public spending to help people to be candidates. So I think it is something the parties themselves have to look at, and as I say, we are doing that.

  Q457  Miss Kirkbride: It is being suggested that political parties should sign themselves up to openly reporting the candidates they have selected in each seat, and that reporting would form the basis of their gender, their ethnicity, if they have a declared disability, and if they are prepared to reveal their sexual orientation, or they want to do so. Would you want to sign the Conservative Party up to that?

  Mr Cameron: We do not do that with sexual orientation, that is not something we ask our candidates, but we do that in terms of gender, BME candidates and those who register themselves as disabled, we do that anyway. It is obviously something we monitor very closely; I have been keen, as I say, to make progress on this, so my office monitors it regularly. I think all the figures are published anyway, but we are very happy to publish them in a format the Conference would find helpful.

  Q458  Mrs Williams: Could I ask you, you mentioned your targets for the 2010 Election, do you have targets for the 2015 and the 2020 General Election?

  Mr Cameron: No, I do not. I am taking one step at a time. I have been very focused on the inheritance, which is 18 Conservative women MPs, and what I wanted to achieve, which was something in excess of 30 per cent, and I am just sort of crawling up to that peg and trying to get past it. My view is: (a) you do not give up on this, once we get through the 2010 election, you keep going to make sure you are driving this agenda forward; but (b) I think it will become more self-reinforcing. You know, once you get to a situation where there is not a critical mass, but just more women MPs, more Conservative Members of Parliament from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, the whole process will become easier, because it will become self-reinforcing. Just one last thing: in all of this, to me, the importance of role models, particularly when it comes to the issue of black and minority ethnic candidates, are absolutely vital, and having candidates like Sean Bailey, people like that, people that others can see, if he can do it, so can I, I think role models are as important as some of the issues of quotas and all the rest of it.

  Q459  Mr Dhanda: David, the other day I watched "When Boris met Dave" on Channel 4, it was very white and Etonian and all the rest of it. Talking about targets, have you not thought of any targets in terms of your Shadow Cabinet? There are 4.6 million people in this country from an ethnic minority background, yet none in your Shadow Cabinet that have a full responsibility shadowing a government department; is that not something that you think is a weakness, something you would want to put right?

  Mr Cameron: At the moment, in the Conservative Party, we have two Members of Parliament from a black and minority ethnic background, only two. Both of them are Shadow Ministers, but both were elected at the last election. I think you are being a little unfair, in that Sayeeda Warsi is the first Muslim woman appointed to any Cabinet or Shadow Cabinet, and as far as I am concerned, she has extremely important responsibilities, and is an important spokesperson for the Conservative Party, so much so that when it comes to Thursday night and the Question Time programme, she is the person we are putting forward to take on the loathsome BNP. Would I like to do more? Yes, of course. But we need to get more black and minority ethnic candidates into Parliament on the Conservative side which I am very confident we will do after the next election. In terms of setting a target for the future, of course the one target I have set is to say that if we are fortunate enough to form the next government, by the end of the next Parliament, I want a third of my ministers to be women. I think that is achievable, given the sort of figures we are talking about, and I think that is a good and stretching and sensible target.

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

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