HC Deb 02 March 1998 vol 307 cc787-97

  1. '—.(1) It shall be the duty of any body mentioned in Schedule 13 to make arrangements with a view of securing that its functions are carried out with due regard to the need to secure equality of opportunity.
  2. (2) In this section, "equality of opportunity" means the prevention, elimination or regulation of discrimination between persons on grounds of sex or marital status, on racial grounds, or on grounds of disability or of other personal attributes, including belief or opinions, such as religious beliefs or political opinions.'.—[Ms Julie Morgan.]?

Brought up, and read the First time.

Ms Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The First Deputy Chairman

With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following: New clause 25—Gender neutral drafting'.—The National Assembly for Wales shall use gender neutral language in its publications and when framing subordinate legislation.'. New clause 30—Equal opportunities (candidatures)—

  1. —(1) The Sex Discrimination Act 1975 shall be amended as follows.
  2. (2) After section 49 of the 1975 Act there shall be inserted— "Candidatures for National Assembly for Wales 49A. Nothing in Parts II to IV shall render unlawful any act done by or on behalf of a registered political party within the meaning of the Government of Wales Act 1998 if it is an act done for the purpose of, or in connection with—
    1. (a) selecting female candidates only, or male candidates only, for election to the National Assembly for Wales (`the Assembly'), or
    2. (b) taking any steps preliminary to, or in connection with, such selection which either favour or subject to a detriment either female or male candidates, provided that in the opinion of the party concerned the act in question is in the circumstances necessary to attempt to secure an equal number of members of the sex favoured as there are of the other sex as candidates of that party for election to the Assembly".'.

Ms Morgan

New clause 22 would impose the duty on public bodies of ensuring that their functions are performed with regard to equality of opportunity. It would apply to any of the public bodies mentioned in schedule 13 to the Bill—such as, for example, health authorities and trusts, the Welsh Development Agency and the Welsh Language Board. The membership of public bodies in Wales is very unrepresentative of the people of Wales, with women comprising less than a third of their membership. The new clause is therefore very necessary.

I should like to speak primarily to new clause 30, which would amend the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and allow political parties to introduce positive discrimination, to secure the selection of equal numbers of women and men candidates in elections to the assembly. I shall go into some detail on how the 1975 Act operates and on how new clause 30 would help to secure a more representative assembly.

The Sex Discrimination Act 1975. which is now 23 years old, was the first time that Parliament tried to legislate for equality between women and men. We have come a long way since the Act was passed, in our understanding of what we mean by equality and of how discrimination can arise. Discrimination often happens unintentionally, because little thought is given to the effect of actions on women and on men.

The 1975 Act differentiates between direct and indirect discrimination and states that, to claim discrimination in a tribunal, one must show a detriment. However, the Act provides only a few specific instances of detriment, such as in advertising. The Act makes it clear that its provisions apply to employment, education and access to publicly available goods, facilities and services, although it has been up to the courts to decide by case law what constitutes discrimination.

An individual alleging sex discrimination makes an application to a tribunal and argues her or his case, giving as much evidence as they can. Decisions are made individually. The Equal Opportunities Commission has made recommendations to establish a clearer and more comprehensive law, and has produced a document that is currently out for consultation. However, the law that currently applies is that which was passed in 1975.

The legal definition of discrimination has not been set in stone but has evolved by case law, both in United Kingdom and in European courts. It was not until 1986, for example, that sexual harassment was acknowledged as constituting sex discrimination. Even more recently. the courts have agreed that detrimental treatment of a woman because of pregnancy is sex discrimination. The law grows and evolves—reflecting society's views and sense of justice—in outlawing discrimination.

Until the Jepson case—which challenged all-women shortlists—it had been widely believed that the actions of political parties fell outside sex discrimination legislation. Section 33 of the 1975 Act specifically states that the Act shall not be construed as affecting any special provision for persons of one sex only in the constitution, organisation or administration of the political party. That means that we are legally able to have women's sections and women's seats on committees, which have been widely used by all political parties.

When Mr. Jepson began his case, in 1993, the Equal Opportunities Commission took an opinion, which confirmed its view that selection for parliamentary candidates did not constitute employment, and so did not fall within the scope of the 1975 Act, but was an internal matter for a political party. An industrial tribunal disagreed. However, that was only one tribunal; another might have reached a quite different conclusion. The case was not appealed, and therefore did not reach a higher court, where a precedent might have been set and the law clarified.

8.45 pm

The objectives of the European Community and of the United Nations are to achieve gender balance in decision making. The United Nations convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women was acceded to by the United Kingdom Government in 1986, and places special importance on women's participation in the public life of their country. Other conventions have reinforced the position of establishing a set framework of international standards of equality—including the Beijing declaration, and the platform for action arising from the United Nations conference on the status of women, which our Government agreed to implement.

Across the world, political debate now acknowledges that it is not enough simply to remove barriers to women's participation, but that we must take positive action and positive measures to get women involved. The concept of democracy that Labour is committed to renewing will have real meaning and lasting effects only when political decision making is shared by women and by men.

Article 4 of the UN convention encourages the use of temporary special measures to give effect to article 7, which spells out the right to participate in the formulation of Government policy, to hold public office and to participate in non-governmental, public and political organisations.

New clause 30, which would not only amend but clarify the 1975 Act, would allow British political parties to give effect to the principle stated in the UN convention, and would allow the UK to support and to take action in achieving the European Commission's fourth equal opportunities action programme—which has as one of its five objectives promoting a gender balance in decision making, and proposes that the Commission should develop a policy for promoting gender balance in decision making, by improving the quantity and quality of women's participation. The Commission plans to encourage and to support similar actions at the other decision-making levels—at both national and regional level—within member states.

The Labour party's proposals for Wales and for Scotland are absolutely in line with the EC and UN objectives. In Wales, women have been more dramatically under-represented in public and political life than in any other part of Britain. Wales has the lowest percentage of female councillors, and until May, only four women had ever represented Welsh constituencies. The three new women Members elected in May bring the grand total to four out of 40 and were selected from women-only shortlists. Positive action was required to ensure that more women were elected to represent Wales.

Labour has agreed to field equal numbers of women and men as candidates in the elections to the assembly and to the Scottish Parliament.

Mr. Alan W. Williams (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr)

I whole-heartedly agree with the aim of gender balance, but my hon. Friend knows from our discussions on achieving that aim that it raises difficult issues for constituency parties. What is the problem with 50:50 shortlists? That form of positive discrimination could apply in the public sector as well as to political parties, although it would not guarantee gender balance. Will my hon. Friend explain why she rejects that idea?

Ms Morgan

I reject the idea of 50:50 shortlists because there is no guarantee that it will produce the required result. Obviously, it is a step in the right direction, but it would not guarantee 50:50 representation. I would accept that only as part of the solution.

We are working on procedures to achieve equal representation, but a worry remains that the law is unclear and any procedure adopted may be challenged. The new clause would not mean that there would be no legal challenge—nothing can guarantee that—but it would make clear the Government's intention that women should play a full and equal part in the national assembly and their commitment to allow political parties to take whatever steps they see fit to achieve that.

Sir Raymond Powell (Ogmore)

Is my hon. Friend aware of my proposal that there should be 40 seats for women and 40 seats for men, totalling 80 seats in the assembly? Would not that solve the problem? It would do away with the need for proportional representation, as there would be an equal balance of male and female Members of the Assembly.

Ms Morgan

That would be a simple solution, and I welcome the proportionality that it would involve. However, we have to combine gender balance with the element of proportionality.

The new clause would enormously strengthen the position of any political party that needed to contest a legal challenge. We have to be aware that anti-equality organisations may mount such a challenge.

The new clause means that any case would have to hinge on European law. The Equal Opportunities Commission has taken further legal advice, which confirms the earlier advice that it received and argues that measures to ensure parity of female candidates are unlikely to contravene the equal treatment directives.

There have been a number of signs that European law will uphold special measures if they are consistent with United Kingdom law. First, the treaty of Amsterdam, which amends the treaty of Rome, makes it clear that positive action measures to redress the under-representation of women are lawful. Article 119 states that the principle of equal treatment shall not prevent any Member State from maintaining or adopting measures providing for specific advantages in order to make it easier for the underrepresented sex to pursue vocational activity or to prevent or compensate for disadvantage in professional careers". In the recent Marschall case, the European Court of Justice ruled that selection procedures that gave priority to female candidates when fewer women than men were employed was not unlawful discrimination, provided that there was an objective assessment of male as well as female candidates.

There is a great deal of evidence and legal opinion to suggest that a legal challenge to measures to field equal numbers of male and female candidates in elections to a new body such as the Welsh xassembly, in a country where women have been so dramatically excluded from political life, would not succeed.

The argument in favour of amending the Sex Discrimination Act is that that would strengthen the ability of political parties to defend themselves against a claim, by making clear the Government's intention and demonstrating that democracy comes first. The establishment of the Welsh assembly is a crucial part of the Government's strategy to revitalise and renew our democracy, and for it to work, we must ensure that 52 per cent. of the Welsh population who were previously excluded are there at the start. We cannot afford to waste time and energy defending cases through industrial tribunals, when we need to make absolutely categorical and indisputable our commitment to equality and inclusiveness, as part of the new democracy.

The new clause would enable the Government to defend themselves against any claim or action by any political party; it is essential that we ensure that 52 per cent. of the Welsh population have an opportunity to serve on the assembly.

Mr. Öpik

We support the new clause, for the simple reason that it is about time that we started taking equal opportunities seriously. It places a duty on any body mentioned in Schedule 13", such as a housing action trust, the National Museum of Wales, or the National Library of Wales, to ensure that there is equality of opportunity in the carrying out of its functions. It states that 'equality of opportunity' means the prevention, elimination or regulation of discrimination between persons on grounds of sex or marital status, on racial grounds or on grounds of disability — religious beliefs or political opinions.

Mr. Livsey

Does my hon. Friend agree that agism should be included in that list? As it is my hon. Friend's birthday today, on which I congratulate him, does he not think it an appropriate moment to introduce that point?

Mr. Öpik

I thank my hon. Friend for undermining my repeated youthful credentials. The world should know that this is the end of my first third of a century on the planet. At 33 today, I remember when I was younger, but I shall leave those reminiscences until another time.

My hon. Friend raises a serious point, however. There is a great deal of age discrimination, and perhaps the new clause would have been even better if it had included that.

The new clause also demands acceptance that the Welsh assembly would necessarily use gender-neutral language in its publications and when framing subordinate legislation. In effect, it is saying that the status quo is not an option when there is a choice between prejudice and equality.

The challenge of our political generation is to ensure that equal opportunities are enshrined in the etiquette and the legislation of our political institutions. The greatest strength of the new clauses is that they spell out the demand for equal opportunities in the Welsh assembly—a case that has already been made in legislation.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)

The hon. Gentleman has spoken a good deal about equal opportunities. The hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Ms Morgan) spoke a lot about equality of outcome.

Does he acknowledge that there is no guarantee that equality of opportunity will lead to equality of outcome? Where does he draw the line? Would he be prepared to go as far as the hon. Lady on what she described as positive action or affirmative action, or is he sitting on the fence, as Liberal Democrats are wont to do?

Mr. Öpik

I fully understand the Conservative crisis on the issue. I am flattered that the hon. Gentleman is asking the Liberal Democrats for guidance on what the moribund Conservatives should do to ensure equality of opportunity. My tuppenny-worth is that the important point for any political party—not just in Wales—is to set a strategy to dissolve the prejudices that so infest the political structures of the United Kingdom. To that extent, I agree with the desire of the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Ms Morgan) for a system to redress the balance, which surely nobody in any party can think is reasonable or fair as we come to the turn of the millennium.

There are differences of view on how best to achieve our aim. The Labour party is proceeding in one direction. We settled our process at a conference at the weekend. I look forward to hearing what the Conservatives will do to ensure that they do not live in the ancient past, with ridiculous sexual inequality and an overbearing proportion of men in whatever seats they can win in the assembly. I hope that that answers the question of the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes). I shall be happy to furnish him with a few more ideas on what the Conservatives might do, when he buys me my birthday drink in the Strangers Bar.

9 pm

Mr. Alan W. Williams

The Liberal Democrats are claiming the moral high ground on sorting out the gender balance. Of the 46 Liberal Democrat Members of Parliament, how many are women? What did the Liberal Democrats decide at their weekend conference?

Mr. Öpik

I do not want to digress too far from the matter in hand, but in the spirit of directness that I always seek to achieve in my interactions in the House, I shall answer the hon. Gentleman's questions as briefly and clearly as I can. He well knows that of our 46 Members of Parliament, only three are women. That is an unacceptable proportion. We have said that, and others have said it. We must set about modifying not just the proportion but the first-past-the-post system, which creates such an outcome. The hon. Gentleman knows that we believe that a single transferable vote system would redress the balance. The statistics on our candidates in the general election back that up.

The hon. Gentleman's second point is probably more relevant to the issue under discussion. The fundamental need is to engender an attitude of not tolerating discrimination in our systems. To summarise very briefly, the conference decided that we must proceed with equal shortlists and show to one and all attitudinally that we are not prepared to accept the prejudices—which come from the head and heart rather than constitutional documentation—that have infested our party and kept us from achieving the sexual equality that we all seek. I hope that that is sufficient explanation for the hon. Gentleman. I see him nodding, so I shall move on.

On a clean sheet, which the assembly is, we can draw any picture that we want of etiquette and prejudice. We can reproduce the same old tired weaknesses and paradigms that we see in this House, or we can decide that the past is not an option, refusing to tolerate the sexism, racism and agism that have pulled down the credibility of our political system. [Interruption.] Despite some of the incomprehensible shocked disappointment coming from the Conservatives on what is not just logic but a moral imperative, we should all agree on the issue.

The Government can give a little. Some people think that it is a sign of weakness to accept someone else's ideas. It is the same for the Government sometimes. The starting point for overcoming prejudice is recognising that the vulnerability of listening to and accepting another person's views can help us to modify positions that may prevent us from achieving equality. Just as men must acknowledge that a person's capability should be assessed regardless of gender, just as skin colour does not define personal abilities, so being in government does not entitle a person to believe that they have a monopoly on good ideas. Those who think otherwise feed the fallacious assumptions of superiority from some arbitrary distension. That and a fear of looking vulnerable are the seeds of discrimination. The Government genuinely could go some way to accepting the new clauses, rather than giving some reason in the summation why that is not on.

Whatever one's view about the selection processes adopted by various parties, what possible harm would it do Ministers or the Government's image to accept the basic request of, say, new clause 25, to ensure gender-neutral language in the assembly's publications? That would not cost a penny. I suggest that those who do not think that that is important ask themselves whether they are unaware of some prejudice in their outlook in the political environment, which makes them discount the importance of changing words to reflect the attitudes so clearly enunciated by the hon. Member for Cardiff, North.

I urge the Government to show commitment to equality in terms of words and deeds. It is a virtue to admit fallibility. In doing so, they will provide the precondition to sweeping away sexual prejudice. The best thing that the Government can do is to prove that they mean what they say. They have been resistant to accepting change in our deliberations so far. I urge them to accept this change, to show us that they take the issue seriously and to send a message, behind which I hope we can all unite, that sexual equality is the only option in the assembly. The assembly should be a model of good parliamentary practice for the rest of the United Kingdom. We have a golden opportunity to dissolve prejudice.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

As I look to the Benches behind me, I freely confess that the Conservative party is not unpreoccupied with matters of female representation in this place, or in the party. One of the key features of our party's renewal will be the involvement of more women in its front line.

The new clauses display a remarkable lack of confidence in the electors of Wales and how their elected representatives will deal fairly with such issues without the sanction of primary legislation. The Bill already requires the assembly to exercise its functions with due regard to equality of opportunity. The assembly will also have to publish a report each year, outlining what arrangements it has put in place to achieve that and how effective they have been. I imagine that, by implication, that applies to the assembly's responsibilities. It is up to the assembly whether it wishes to lay down conditions for Welsh public bodies, as new clause 22 would require in primary legislation. New clause 22 would impose a duty on the bodies to make similar arrangements to the assembly for exercising their functions with due regard to equality of opportunity, but that surely should be a matter for the assembly and not be imposed by the Committee.

I shall brush over new clause 25 and move straight on to new clause 30. New clause 30 appears to be an interference in the relationship between the elector, the party and the elected. Whatever the internal arrangements of a party, it is not for legislation to lay down methods of selection. Nor should it legitimise forms of discrimination that would otherwise be illegal.

The way in which the argument about discrimination has progressed is extraordinary. Discrimination is outlawed in the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, the equal treatment directive and article 119 of the treaty on European Union. As that does not satisfy the political agenda of some of the participants, they want to make legislation more, not less, discriminatory.

When the Labour party tried to introduce women-only shortlists for parliamentary elections, that was found to be unlawful under the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 in the case to which the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Ms Morgan) referred. Labour did not appeal, leaving the legal position still somewhat unclear, but several leading lawyers argue that the parliamentary selection process would not be subject to the Act if it came before a court of law.

Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill)

Will the hon. Gentleman explain why he thinks that the new clause would lead to a more discriminatory outcome when the whole point is that, starting with a clean slate and a new assembly, the intended outcome should be equal and that neither sex should have a numerical advantage over the other?

Mr. Jenkin

The logic of the hon. Lady's position is to accept an earlier suggestion that we should simply legislate for 50 per cent. of the Members of the Assembly to be women. That is not a democratic outcome, because the voters of Wales should decide the membership of the assembly, and they should be free to vote for the candidates whom the parties choose to put up. There is a difference between discrimination in the process and discrimination in the outcome. We are against discrimination in the process, whereas the hon. Lady is in favour of discrimination in the process in order to achieve a particular outcome that satisfies her beliefs. That is not necessarily more democratic.

We all want more women to come into public life, to compete for jobs in public life and to do well, but it does not do women a favour to promote women who are necessarily less well qualified than men. [Interruption.] Women are not inferior to men; women can do just as well as men and often do far better, as we in the Conservative party have discovered from time to time. The problem is that the new clause would legitimise discrimination, and that flies in the face of the very rights that the hon. Member for Cardiff, North is trying to create.

I refer the Committee attention to article 14 of the European convention on human rights, which the Government are incorporating into United Kingdom law. It states: The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this Convention shall be secured without discrimination on any ground such as sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status. That is the true language of rights. The language of the new clause is the language of a political agenda that has more to do with restricting rights in favour of certain groups than with promoting genuine equality. That is why we oppose the new clause, although I congratulate the hon. Member for Cardiff, North on her tenacity and on her honesty in telling the House that she herself is here by virtue of such a discriminatory process.

Mr. Win Griffiths

The business of the Committee has meant that the debate has not been as long as we might have wanted it to be and my remarks will necessarily be brief.

New clause 22 arises out of a use of schedule 5 to the Scotland Bill and, unfortunately, the way in which that has been transposed into the Government of Wales Bill does not meet the same requirements that exist in the Scotland Bill. It would extend rights in respect of religious and political beliefs, but we have no statute law on those matters and they are therefore specifically excluded in the Scotland Bill, even though they are referred to in the interpretation of equal opportunities. Because of the pressure of time, I shall write in detail to my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Ms Morgan), who stated her arguments clearly, and place a copy of the letter in the Library.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) spoke to new clause 25. We believe that the Bill already provides in clauses 47 and 113 for the assembly's business and the exercise of its functions to be pursued having regard to the principle of equality of opportunity. We also believe that the use of gender-neutral language is only one element in this. The national assembly advisory group is already considering equality of opportunity in the context of clause 47, and I shall ensure that its attention is drawn to the concerns that the hon. Gentleman raises.

On new clause 30, the Government attach great importance to much more extensive participation by women in the political process. I take it that that is the feeling of the whole Committee, despite some rather negative remarks. For far too long, there have been far too few women in our elected chambers. That is particularly true of Wales, where, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North said, women have been scandalously under-represented in political life. In 80 years, only seven women Members of Parliament have represented Welsh constituencies, four of whom are current Members. However, I am pleased that two of the five representatives of Welsh constituencies in the European Parliament are women—that is something on which to build.

9.15 pm
Mr. Dafis

I want to make it clear that Plaid Cymru Members strongly support the new clause tabled by the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Ms Morgan). May I draw to the Minister's attention the fact that the Women's Institute in Wales suggested that the Equal Opportunities Commission should be included in the list of organisations in schedule 4, to establish a relationship between the assembly and the commission and so encourage the integration of gender balance into the work of the assembly?

Mr. Griffiths

Speaking off the cuff, I do not think that there would be any problem with that—we shall consider it.

The Government hope that representation in the National Assembly for Wales will, from the outset, be different from what we have had at Westminster. The assembly will be a new start for Wales, and we hope that women will be to the fore in ensuring that that new start is a success.

Sir Raymond Powell

What are the Government's proposals to ensure a gender balance? How will they ensure that women are elected to the Welsh assembly?

Mr. Griffiths

If I may continue with my speech, I hope that some of the issues will emerge as I proceed.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

Three minutes.

Mr. Griffiths

Well, I shall have to proceed very quickly.

The Government are committed to the principle of equality. We want the assembly to be inclusive and equally accessible to all groups in Wales. New clause 30 would amend the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 to remove from its scope the selection procedure for assembly candidates. That is a complex issue. The requirements of European employment law, particularly the equal treatment directive, and the Sex Discrimination Act have established the framework in which we work.

The parties can take a range of steps to encourage more women to put themselves forward as candidates. They need to make a strong statement nationally of their commitment to encourage women to come forward as candidates for selection—I have no hesitation in giving that commitment on behalf of the Wales Labour party.

Parties should offer more training for women who are interested in putting themselves forward as candidates. There should be training for local selection committees, and promotional literature to encourage women party members to stand for selection. The Equal Opportunities Commission has offered political parties advice on how to put into practice equal opportunities in their selection procedures, and I urge all parties to take up that offer.

We are also aware that the procedures and working practices of a legislature may in themselves be an active disincentive to women who might otherwise be interested in standing for election. With that in mind, clause 47 requires the assembly to make appropriate arrangements to ensure that its business is conducted with due regard to the principle that there should be equal opportunities for all.

Clause 113 also requires the assembly to make arrangements to ensure that it has regard to the principle of equality in the exercise of its functions. The White Paper made it clear that we are committed to equal opportunities for all. That commitment extends to women and men, members of the ethnic minority communities, the disabled and others. We urge all political parties to have regard to the principle of equal opportunities in drawing up their procedures for the selection of candidates for the assembly elections.

I urge my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North to withdraw the motion.

Ms Julie Morgan

In view of those remarks, and in the hope that the Government will examine the issues again during the passage of the Scotland Bill and consider whether free-standing legislation should be introduced, I reluctantly beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Wigley

On a point of order, Mr. Lord. In view of the way in which the guillotine is preventing debate on matters such as the consumer affairs committee, can we have some assurance that those matters will be given some consideration on Report?

The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr. Michael Lord)

That is not a matter for the Chair at this point. I am sure that the Committee is well aware of the times laid down for debates this evening.

Mr. Livsey

Further to that point of order, Mr. Lord. May I make the same point about the Consolidated Fund, which is especially important?

The Second Deputy Chairman

I have dealt with that point of order. I remind the Committee that points of order simply take more time out of tonight's debate.

Mr. Ron Davies

Further to that point of order, Mr. Lord. Let it nevertheless be on the record that the timetable motion with which we are complying was agreed by all parties, and that the whole House has responsibility for the passage of the legislation.

The Second Deputy Chairman

I think that I have dealt with that point of order.

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