HC Deb 07 March 2000 vol 345 cc882-5 4.31 pm
Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 with respect to the selection by political parties of candidates for parliamentary or local government elections. I am promoting the Bill because in 1996 the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 was used, contrary to its purpose, to prevent positive action in the selection of Labour women parliamentary candidates. The Bill is necessary for the future avoidance of doubt. In 1993, the Labour party adopted a new selection procedure whereby candidates for winnable seats would be selected from all-women shortlists. Although the policy was controversial, it was highly successful until two disgruntled male would-be candidates challenged it at an industrial tribunal.

Although political parties were exempted from parts of the SDA, the tribunal maintained that selection as a parliamentary candidate led to employment, and that that breached the vital employment provisions of the Act. Industrial tribunal decisions are specific to the case on which they are made. The judgment was not binding on others and did not make all-women shortlists illegal. However, only an appeal could have confirmed or overturned the decision. Such an appeal was never made.

Consequently, many politicians and commentators have held that all positive action is potentially illegal. Indeed, I can testify to the constant challenges that I, as Minister for Women, and my colleagues faced in pressing for positive action under the twinning arrangements that were adopted for selecting equal numbers of Labour women and men for the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly.

While it remains my view, and that of leading barristers, that the SDA's employment provisions do not apply to the selection of parliamentary candidates, the Bill will remove any doubt. It provides for the specific exemption of political parties from the employment provisions of the SDA only when they are selecting candidates for parliamentary or local government elections, and are trying to redress the unequal treatment of women and men. The Bill prescribes nothing, but I am confident that it would remove any ambiguity from future positive action by a political party. It would also stop the Conservative party from hiding behind the smokescreen of illegality.

Why does this matter? If women cannot get selected by political parties, they cannot be elected. The result is a profound democratic deficit. Women make up 51 per cent. of our population, but more than 80 per cent. of Members of Parliament are men. In a democracy, the elected Parliament should mirror the society it represents. That view is not universal—certainly not in the House. However, I ask hon. Members to consider carefully their understanding of political representation.

There are two possible ways in which a group's interest can be represented: by the presence of its members in the decision-making process, or by having its interests simply taken into account in that process. I know which way most women would prefer; however, it is for men to answer.

No one denies that there are men, not least in the House, who have championed women's causes and campaigned on women's issues—I am pleased to have several as sponsors of my Bill. Indeed, the SDA was introduced by a male Home Secretary in Harold Wilson's Government. However, by definition, men cannot bring a woman's perspective to the whole range of political concerns. Most women Members contribute to the House through different life experiences and perspectives. Women electors agree that recent research shows that women still think that women politicians are more in touch with their lives than men. Women want more women MPs because they think that we are more likely to understand the problems that they face. I am proud that my party has recognised that fact. The presence of 101 Labour women, including 34 Ministers, has ensured delivery of policies on women's priorities—child care, family friendly working, the minimum wage, increased child benefit, improved maternity rights and financial help for the less well off through the working families tax credit.

Under the direction of my right hon. Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), the women's unit was established to maintain a focus on delivery for women across all Departments. More recently, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Equal Opportunities has exposed the startling pay inequalities still faced by women in Britain today. The contributions of Labour women Back Benchers are too numerous to catalogue, but they have been well documented in a Fabian Society pamphlet by my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart).

The challenge is how to maintain the momentum. Over the past 80 years, close on 4,500 Members have served in the House. Only 239 have been women. It is significant that two out of every three of those women were Labour women. The position is even more marked today—women MPs make up 24 per cent. of the parliamentary Labour party, but only 9 per cent. of Conservatives and 7 per cent. of Liberal Democrats. It would be easy for my party to rest on its laurels and wait for the opposition parties to catch up, but that would be neither fair nor just, and it would be out of step with modernisation. Our policy of 50:50 shortlists and the aim of equal representation in Parliament remain.

We are not alone. Women all over the world are campaigning for positive action to ensure more equal representation of women—not because women are less able and need special treatment, but because the pace of cultural change is too slow to remove the structural and institutional barriers to proper political power sharing. Where positive action has been applied over the years in other European countries, Governments have not become ineffective nor their Parliaments dysfunctional. The Inter-Parliamentary Union's world league for women's parliamentary representation is topped by seven European countries: Sweden leads with more than 40 per cent. and Germany is seventh with more than 30 per cent.—but the United Kingdom, with 18 per cent., comes in 31st.

My Bill lays down no prescription, but it would remove any excuses. Labour Members know that positive action works and we need more of it. Tory spokesmen oppose such actions, calling them patronising and likely to produce second-rate candidates. I wonder how many Tory hon. Gentlemen feel that they were patronised or are second-rate Members because they were shielded from female competition by all-male shortlists. True equality would mean having women as well as men with the whole range of talents, from brilliance to mediocrity, as Members of Parliament.

Others hold that it is impossible for women with children to cope in this place. I ask, what about the men with children? The nonsense of last Tuesday's all-night sitting is an argument for timetabling all legislation, not for excluding women Members.

Finally, there is the argument that society is changing, and progress will come naturally. I am happy to concede that that can happen, but in 1979 the Tory party returned eight women MPs; 18 years later, it returned 13. Some progress there! Seriously, how long do women have to wait? Even if the rate of increase achieved on the back of Labour's all-woman shortlist was maintained, it would take another 30 years to bring about parity in the House. At the Tory rate, it would take more than a century.

Tomorrow, we will join women throughout the world to celebrate international women's day. I believe that it is the responsibility of this Parliament to acknowledge our democratic deficit and to remove any obstacles to the achievement of equal representation.

4.41 pm
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

I did not intend to speak, but I feel that I must correct the impressions with which the House has been left.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) on presenting what would be a wide-ranging and—in her view alone, probably—welcome addition to the statute book, but I feel that I must oppose it and provide the House with the information with which it can make up its mind. I should point out, for instance, that the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and the Equal Pay Act 1970, which came into force in 1975, derive their power from article 119 of the treaty of Rome.

The original all-party list of single-sex candidates submitted for selection, consisting only of women, was deemed out of order for a simple reason: "equal opportunities" means not just equal opportunities for candidates, but a free choice for the selection committee from both men and women. I think the hon. Lady will find that, according to leading opinion, the regular issuing of either all-male or all-female lists would be deemed illegal under the Sex Discrimination Act and, indeed, article 119.

I am extremely proud to have been elected as one of 14 lady Conservative Members, who, I believe, were selected fairly and on merit. Let me place on the record that it was indeed the Conservative party which, in 1979, made legal history by electing the first woman party leader and, indeed, Prime Minister. I know that it is disappointing that the hon. Lady's party has not seen fit to follow our proud record.

The hon. Lady mentioned all-night sittings. As a former Minister, she will appreciate that it is the duty of Governments to try to push through their business programme, and the duty of Oppositions to frustrate that programme with whatever procedures are at their disposal—especially in the face of a rather larger Government majority than one would like.

I do not want to detain the House by forcing a Division, but I think it important to realise that "equal opportunities" means not just the ability of candidates of both genders to apply to be placed on a list, but the ability of a selection committee to choose from both males and females.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 23 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business), and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Joan Ruddock, Jackie Ballard, Mr. Malcolm Chisholm, Lorna Fitzsimons, Barbara Follett, Dr. Ian Gibson, Ms Harriet Harman, Dr. Evan Harris, Dr. Ashok Kumar, Fiona Mactaggart, Ms Julie Morgan and Dr. Jenny Tonge.