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

Examination of Witness (Questions 460-469)


20 OCTOBER 2009

  Q460  Chairman: May I offer a warm welcome to the Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg. Nick, you know the form, we look forward to a short opening statement from you, and then there will be an opportunity for Members of the Conference to ask you questions.

  Mr Clegg: First, thank you very much for holding this hearing. I think it is taking place at a very sort of timely moment. We are all in the middle of a political crisis; the contempt in which politicians and politics is held has never been greater. I think that is compounded by the fact that our Parliament, which pretends to represent modern Britain, does not have modern Britain represented in it. That is something I take very, very seriously, and in the just under two years since I have been Leader, I have certainly tried to move things along sharply to try and change the way we, the Liberal Democrats, are represented as well, because we are woefully unrepresentative of modern Britain. Having looked at it very closely, as far as the Liberal Democrats are concerned, I am absolutely confident there is no kind of systematic barriers of discrimination going on against women candidates, against candidates from black, Asian, minority ethnic backgrounds, candidates with disabilities; in fact, the evidence seems to be that once candidates from those underrepresented groups and communities get through the first hurdle, they do incredibly well. Two thirds of all women candidates on shortlists have been selected; I think of the six seats where Liberal Democrat MPs have said they are going to stand down, four have already selected women. The problem, at least as far as we are concerned, goes further back, it is just not enough women are coming forward in the first place, not enough candidates with disabilities are coming forward in the first place, not enough people from black, Asian, minority ethnic backgrounds are coming forward in the first place.[2] That is the real nub of the problem as far as I can see it, which is that politics as a whole, and perhaps our own internal procedures as well, is just so off-putting to so many people who are not represented in sufficient numbers in this place. How do you tackle it? I would suggest three ways of looking at it. Firstly, what the parties do themselves, I am very keen to answer any questions about what we have been doing. We have done an enormous amount of work over the last two or three years, we have created a sort of fully staffed diversity unit in the party, we have changed the approval process to make it easier for people to become approved candidates in the first place, we have got a new rule in place saying that every shortlist at local level needs to have both men and women on it. We have a Campaign for Gender Balance; we have a New Generation initiative, which has brought together very, very ambitious bright young candidates, and aspirant politicians from black, Asian, minority ethnic backgrounds. So we have done a great deal. Has it gone far enough? No. Am I confident it will make a change after the next General Election? Yes. Will that change be on a scale which is sufficiently large to catch up from where we are, to really be fully representative of modern Britain? Probably not, but I think the progress is certainly sharply in the right direction. Secondly, I think we all have a problem, all parties, with: what happens when you become a candidate, from whatever party? If you are a candidate with disabilities, for instance, you do not get any support for what are called reasonable adjustments in your workplace, which you would do otherwise.[3] Employers are expected to give you some time off for jury service; that is not the case if you want to stand as a candidate. So I think we need to look at the support we give to candidates. Finally, and perhaps more importantly than anything else, the way this place appears. It just reeks of the 19th century: we have a shooting gallery somewhere, I do not know where, but not a cre"che. It is absurd. We do not address each other by each others' names; tomorrow we will have PMQs again, the Alice in Wonderland Punch and Judy show. We do not have proper access for people with disabilities. The whole place, I think, is just systematically, from top to toe, off-putting to people who might tentatively be thinking whether they might want to go into politics, but will be put off from doing so by the way in which we do our business here.

  Q461  Mrs Cryer: Mr Clegg, thank you very much for your opening comments. But can I also ask you what specific rules you have in your party which will not only encourage and allow women to come through to be candidates, but will actually get them into this place, will actually get them into seats which are very winnable, so that they become Members of Parliament?

  Mr Clegg: Well, the rules, as I say, are firstly that all shortlists at local level must have candidates from both genders. I mean, tragically, there are a number of seats where no women have come forward at all. But where that has operated, it is had a dramatic success; as I said, two thirds of the seats where local parties have recently selected their candidates have selected women where women were on the shortlist. So that is working very well. Four out of the six seats which have been vacated by MPs have selected women. We have not pursued the kind of top down approach of quotas and all-women shortlists; we have tried to do it, if you like, from the bottom up. We have changed the rules, we have given support, we have created a fund, if you like, to help women and indeed candidates from other underrepresented communities and groups, and it is having an effect. Certainly if I look at the figures, as I say, of candidates who have been selected, by my reckoning, about 40 per cent of candidates in what we would term to be winnable seats, we cannot perhaps make those predictions with the safety that the Labour and Conservative Parties can, we do not really have this concept of safe, solid seats going back generations, but about 40 per cent of winnable seats now have female candidates.

  Q462  Ms Abbott: When you said that the problem is women are not coming forward, it sounded like the sorts of things that people used to say 25 years ago. The truth is, 22 years ago, the Labour Party got four black people into Parliament. Even the Tories got black MPs back in the 1990s. Why is your record on diversity, particularly ethnic minorities and racial diversity, so poor relative to the other two big parties?

  Mr Clegg: It is very poor here; it is not actually poor elsewhere; we have a much better record, as you know, at council level than the Labour Party.[4] I think you have to look at whether these measures that have been put into place are sustainable or not. Let us take shortlists. If you look at women's representation in the Labour Party, I think of the 16 open contests which happened recently where there is not an all-women shortlist, only one has selected a woman.[5] Roughly now I think candidates' selection, all three parties, is Even Stevens when it comes to women selection.[6] I wish it was as easy—well, as I say, I think at local level, we are doing rather well on that, and we are doing very poorly at Parliamentary level. We do not have a single black, Asian, minority ethnic face on our benches. That is a source of real, real regret to me, and it needs to change. I am hopeful it will change and change dramatically. You mouth "hopeful", Diane; can I guarantee it? No, in a democracy, you cannot guarantee it. Do we have candidates from black, Asian or minority ethnic backgrounds in seats where I think we can win? Yes.

  Q463  Angela Browning: Nick, you mentioned about women not coming forward, people with disabilities. Do you think part of that problem could be associated with the costs of candidacy? We have been told at a rough figure it is about £10,000 a year. That obviously affects people who are less well off, women with childcare costs, people with disabilities for whom the cost of campaigning can be more. Have you made any analysis of that?

  Mr Clegg: Yes, we have. In fact, I think it was in March of this year we did a full review and commissioned a report on those cases where candidates have given up. We found that particularly for young mothers and young fathers, it was not sort of gender specific, but those with young children, they found it incredibly difficult to balance the competing demands of being a candidate. If you are a candidate, you are not only having to incur often personal financial costs, the time demands are just massive: you are supposed to be fronting the campaign, on the doorstep all the time, you are also doing a lot of work behind the scenes all the time. If I am really honest, I think in some local parties, our local parties, there was evidence in this review that we conducted that some local activists and campaigners bluntly were not sympathetic enough to those competing demands. So there is a financial aspect to it, but there is also a culture change that is required, that if we want people from more diverse backgrounds to represent us in Parliament, then people who campaign alongside them must not expect that they are kind of sort of campaign robots, but they are also human beings with emotional and family demands which they have to keep in play at the same time. Just about a month ago, the leader of Southwark Council, Nick Stanton, who has young children, published a pamphlet which I asked him to do, which looked at the way in which greater understanding could be provided, greater flexibility could be given to candidates at all levels, so they can particularly juggle family life with campaigning duties. But here, I am not sure if we set the right example here. Do MPs have the automatic right to parental leave when they have young children? No, they do not. You need to haggle that with your Whip. Why are we behaving differently to any other person when it comes to parental leave? So I think we need to set an example. We have, as I say, a 19th century shooting gallery but not a 21st century cre"che. There are all sorts of things we could do that could make candidates think that if they could get here, they would be treated like human beings as well as MPs.

  Q464  Miss Begg: I was very interested to hear what you said about the supply side, the lack of people coming forward with disabilities, and women. To pick up on Diane's point, when the Labour Party suggested all-women shortlists, the cry went out from the grass roots, "It is just the women are not there", but what the all-women shortlists did, it meant that the local parties had to go out and find women. That is the route I came through, I was approached. Can you not think that perhaps, from the Liberal Democrats, that you need that central direction, to what is a very autonomous political party, to actually say, in some cases, you will only select from a shortlist of this type of candidate, because that then forces the local party to go out and look for those candidates?

  Mr Clegg: I am not theologically opposed to it. Particularly if we do not make progress in the way that I hope we will after the next General Election, I am certainly keen to look at this. I have said publicly before, for instance, that I think that the legal anomaly, where you can take positive discrimination through all-women shortlists, is not presently—we do not have that possibility, as far as all shortlists are concerned on ethnicity, I think that needs to change, and I would support that change, to allow political parties to take those measures as well. But is it a panacea? No, it is not. It is not a panacea. If all-women shortlists were a panacea, then we would not have many, many women now deciding to leave politics in the Labour Party; we would not have, as I say, this disproportionate selection of men, where all-women shortlists are not operating in the Labour Party; and we would not have, as I tried to demonstrate earlier, the good progress that we have made, that where women have got through our approval process, in two thirds of the cases, they have been selected as the candidates in those seats. 40 per cent of our winnable seats now have women candidates in them. So no, I am not theologically opposed to it, I certainly will revisit it if we do not make the progress we want, but the route we have chosen, Diane clearly does not like it, but it is a different route, it is trying to encourage local parties to be more diverse from a bottom up approach. I think it is working, we will see if the results bear fruit after the next General Election.

  Chairman: We have a couple more people who want to come in on this question.

  Q465  Mr Mahmood: I think you are being a bit disingenuous when you talk about minorities. Over the last 20 years you have managed to field candidates with minority ethnic backgrounds in Labour and Conservative seats but not one in a safe Liberal Democrat seat to get one of them into Parliament. When you talk about these figures and the figures come across about what sort of candidates you put up, you can have all these figures of how many black and minority ethnic candidates you have standing in seats, but over the last 20 years not one of them was in a safe Liberal seat. Why not?

  Mr Clegg: Firstly because we do not have safe seats. That is a really important point. We are on a different trajectory as a party. I perfectly understand if you are a member of the older, larger parties where you have this culture of solid seats where if you put a blue or a red rosette you will get elected and re-elected and re-elected over generations, but we just do not have that culture. We have never been able to take any seats for granted. Do I think in the candidates we have now that we have candidates from black, Asian, minority ethnic backgrounds in seats where I am really hopeful that we will win and they will come to this place? Yes, I am. Do I wish it had happened earlier? Of course I do. Do I think we have started too late on some of these things? Yes, I do. A very precise technical example is this: most of our winnable seats select their candidates in the 12 months after a General Election. We do that as a party, I think, earlier than in most other parties because we have tended to have to work much harder and much longer to win seats. I became Leader two years ago and it is a source of regret to me that we did not take action to really try and give support to those candidates who were not sufficiently represented in that crucial 12 month period after the General Election. It is a mistake that I do not intend for us to repeat after the next General Election.

  Q466  Andrew George: Do you think the party is handicapped by its enthusiasm to be a decentralised organisation? Other parties are prepared to intervene, to instruct and go beyond cajoling local constituency parties into following through, if you like, central diktat and central objectives. Do you not think there is an opportunity to review the way in which the party, if you like, so enthusiastically embraces decentralisation?

  Mr Clegg: We are not a sect where the leader says this and it happens across the country in every single local party. I am proud of the fact that we have this very decentralised grass roots culture. It is push and pull. We have been pushing hard from the centre changing the approval process, insisting on new rules that every shortlist should be gender balanced, putting money, resources and people behind one of the projects I mentioned to you before, the New Generation project, which has got handpicked folk from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities to really give them the mentoring and support and that then joins together with local democracy. I think neutering local democracy is a shortcut. It might create a temporary, one-off shot in the arm, but do I think it creates a sustainable solution to why we in this Parliament are so woefully unrepresentative of modern Britain, I think it is a tempting shortcut but I do not think it would work.

  Q467  Mrs Williams: In your answers to Diane Abbott and Andrew George you talked about your success, or lack of success, at local and national levels. Are you saying to us this morning that under your leadership your party needs to take a different approach to the local, regional and national levels?

  Mr Clegg: What I was trying to illustrate was that by the measures that we have taken over the last few years we have made significant progress, as I say, in having candidates approved and selected from black, Asian, minority ethnic backgrounds, women candidates and about five per cent of all selected candidates with disabilities, many of whom are now in seats which are winnable. That is a big, big sea change in the way the Liberal Democrats have selected candidates and the way in which we will be more representative of Britain after the next General Election. Do I wish we could have started earlier was the specific point I was making, particularly in those months after the last General Election to then put in place some of the rules we have now got in place, changing the approval process, insisting on balanced shortlists and so on, yes of course I do because that would have been the period of time during which we could have made even more progress. We have made real progress. Some of the indicators I have given to you: two-thirds of the constituencies where there are approved women candidates on the shortlist, they get selected; of the half a dozen MPs who have stood down, four of them have been replaced by women candidates. That is really good progress in the right direction.

  Q468  Miss Kirkbride: Are you happy to sign the Liberal Democrats up to openly reporting the candidates who have been selected in all the seats on the basis of their gender, ethnicity, whether they have a declared disability and also if they are forthcoming about their sexual orientation?

  Mr Clegg: Yes. We already publish very full reports which we provide to our party conferences twice every year. I think we have conveyed a lot of those statistics to you already and we would be very happy to make that public.

  Chairman: We have got time for a very short last question and a short last answer, if there is such a question.

  Q469  Mrs Williams: You talked to us about your targets for the 2010 General Election but have you looked further and do you have targets for 2015 and perhaps 2020?

  Mr Clegg: As I say, for example we have got what we call the New Generation project where we have got a cohort, a big group of people, from black, Asian, minority ethnic backgrounds who do not feel that their time is quite right now to jump into the political ring but want to. We have created a fund, a whole system of training, of mentoring, working with them on a one-to-one basis, and we have got fully paid-up staff in a diversity unit in our headquarters here in London. That is really trying to create this new generation, if you like, who will I hope be the place to be leading candidates for us at the election after next and beyond.

  Chairman: Nick, thank you for your time and your evidence. Indeed, as our time is now up I would like to reiterate on behalf of the Conference our thanks to all three witnesses—the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and Leader of the Liberal Democrats—for their time and evidence today. The uncorrected transcript of this meeting will be published on the parliamentary website tomorrow. It might be of interest to people to know that the Conference hopes to publish its final report at the end of the year. Thank you once again. Huge thanks also to those who have taken an interest, whether from the media or the public. Thank you.

2   Note by Witness: 8% of approved Liberal Democrat members come from BAME backgrounds. However, some of these candidates are not currently "active" ie. not wanting to stand for the next election, and certain ethnic groups remain extremely under-represented. It is therefore necessary to proactively increase our pool of approved potential candidates from these communities. Back

3   Note by Witness: Parliamentary candidates are not eligible for financial support for "reasonable adjustments" whilst campaigning, whereas employees with disabilities are eligible to apply for funding to make these adjustments in the workplace. Back

4   Nick Clegg was referring to the percentage of women councillors when he said that the Liberal Democrats are more representative than Labour at the local level. Back

5   In fact, of the Labour Party's most recent 16 open selections, 4 women were selected. Back

6   According to research conducted by the Fabian Society (2008), new selections of women candidates are running at similar rates across the parties Back

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