HC Deb 24 October 2001 vol 373 cc328-82

Order for Second Reading read.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Before I call the Secretary of State, I should inform the House that Mr. Speaker has imposed a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches.

6.21 pm
The Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. Stephen Byers)

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

In a packed parliamentary programme, I am pleased to be able to introduce the Bill this evening. The Government regard it as a central part of our drive to keep our democracy relevant to and representative of the people whom we serve. Because I know that many hon. Members want to speak and because of the late hour at which the debate commenced, I shall restrict my comments.

When the Labour Government were elected in 1997, a record number of women Labour Members of Parliament entered the House. That was a result of the positive measures that had been taken by the Labour party to increase the representation of women. As a Minister since 1997, I firmly believe that several of the policies that the Government have adopted since 1997 came about because of the increased number of women Members of Parliament on the Government Benches.

We have improved maternity rights and pay. The package announced in the recent Budget increased maternity pay: the flat rate will rise to £75 a week from April next year, and to £100 a week from April 2003. The period for which maternity pay is available will also lengthen, from 18 to 26 weeks, from April 2003. That comes in addition to parental leave, time off for emergencies and the same rights for part-time workers as for full-time employees. The Government have also given a boost to the pay of low-paid workers, the majority of whom are women, through the introduction of the national minimum wage—£4.10 an hour, to be increased to £4.20 an hour in October 2002.

We have also established a national child care strategy to deliver choice by extending the provision of good-quality, affordable and accessible child care. More than 700,000 places were made available under the last Labour Government, and our target is to make 1.6 million available by 2004. We have also guaranteed a free nursery education place for every four-year-old whose parent wants it; that is to be extended to three-year-olds by 2004.

Those are all positive policies which were introduced because of the large number of Labour women Members in the previous Parliament. We should be proud of the real progress that was made as a result of their endeavours. Many of those policies were promoted and supported by women Members and the result is a package of measures that will make a real difference.

The positive discrimination measures that the Labour party introduced and employed in the period before the 1997 election were stopped as a result of a case brought before an employment tribunal. The Jepson case put a brake on the development of positive measures to encourage the participation of women in our elected bodies. As a result of the case, the Labour party was unable to adopt the same positive measures for the 2001 general election.

It is no coincidence that, in 2001, we witnessed the first drop for 20 years in the number of women elected to the House of Commons. We have to admit that responsibility for that drop rests with all the political parties that are represented here. Since the Jepson case, in answer to the question, "What are you doing to improve and encourage the representation of women?", parties have been able to hide behind the decision made in that case and say that they cannot introduce positive discrimination measures because of the outcome of that employment tribunal.

Once the Bill is on the statute book, however, there will be no hiding place for political parties. They will face a stark choice: to do nothing and say that it will all work out all right in the end—just give it enough time—or to acknowledge that something positive and fundamental must be done and that the situation whereby women are starkly under-represented in our national Parliament and in local government has to change.

The statistics illustrate the need for steps to be taken: only 18 per cent. of Members of Parliament are female and three quarters of councillors are male. The argument that we should leave things as they are is, the Government believe, not sustainable. We know from our experience in the House of Commons that momentum to improve representation of women can be lost once positive measures are no longer in place. It is clear that there has to be a sustained effort.

That is not to say that there is not also a strong case for non-direct measures, such as basic equal opportunities training for selection panel members, or parties doing more to encourage participation in politics generally, at all levels and by all sections of the community. However, relying on improvements being made without direct intervention has been tried before and it has failed.

That view stopped the House of Lords being radically reformed until almost a century after the first attempts were made. It meant that there were 24 women members of the House of Commons in 1945, and almost 40 years later in 1983—four years after the election of the first female Prime Minister—there were only 23. It was that appalling lack of women Members of Parliament that made the Labour party introduce positive measures in respect of candidate selection before the 1997 general election.

As I said, the Labour party's approach was challenged in 1996 in the case of Jepson and the Labour party. In that case, an employment tribunal held that section 13 of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 did cover the selection of candidates by political parties. That decision is the main reason why the Bill is before the House today. The Bill will amend the Sex Discrimination Act and provide that parts II to IV of the Act will not apply to measures adopted by a party to reduce inequality in the numbers of men and women elected as its candidates. Equivalent amendments to cover Northern Ireland are made to the Sex Discrimination (Northern Ireland) Order 1976.

The Bill allows political parties choice and flexibility, although the measures taken must be adopted for the purpose of reducing inequality. It leaves untouched all the other rights established under existing case law against discrimination in any other circumstances, as it rightly should, and leaves employment tribunals untouched as the forum for redress. That is the simplest and most focused option available to us. An important principle behind the Bill is that it is not the Government's role to regulate the internal workings of political parties, which would be wrong and inappropriate, so the Bill does not seek to do that. We do not want to dictate what measures could be introduced by political parties to reduce inequality. Indeed, the Bill does not force political parties to take any steps whatever. It is permissive; it simply allows political parties the freedom to decide what measures are appropriate in the circumstances to reduce inequality.

The Bill is not restricted to representation at Westminster. Although the extent of inequality varies between elected bodies in the United Kingdom, the Government believe that they all have significant room for improvement. Compared with Westminster, the devolved Administrations have been more successful in ensuring that women are represented. Women make up more than 37 per cent. of Members of the Scottish Parliament, and more than 41 per cent. of Members of the National Assembly for Wales. However, it is important that those bodies can increase, or at the very least maintain, the representation of women that they have achieved. It is therefore important that the Bill's provisions cover Scotland and Wales. I am pleased that, with the agreement of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, they will cover Northern Ireland as well. There have been real improvements in Wales and Scotland and we want to make sure that they are maintained.

The Bill does not just reflect that position and deal with elections to the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and the House of Commons, but—and this has received little attention—will cover the selection of candidates for local government elections. That is important, because many people serve their political apprenticeship in local government; they get used to engaging in political dialogue and debate and it may well be from their experience of local government that they feel able to stand for election to the House of Commons. I do not know whether Members share my experience of constituency surgeries, but it is clear that it is often women who campaign actively on local issues. It is women who come to my surgery to complain about things that are happening in their communities. We should look at ways in which we can involve women; doing so through local government is a positive way to allow that to happen in the political process.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Pollok)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that if more women are to come into government, particularly local government, it is essential that vacancies be created to allow that to happen more speedily? Is he aware of what happened in the Republic of Ireland, where long-serving councillors were given a gratuity to enable them to leave, thereby creating vacancies for women? Does he not think that that would be helpful in the United Kingdom?

Mr. Byers

I have been trying to avoid the issue of councillors' allowances and pensions for the last two weeks; I thought that that sort of intervention might come from Opposition Members. On a more serious note, I am aware of the scheme introduced in the Irish Republic, but I am not sure that we want to introduce it in the United Kingdom. However, my hon. Friend may have a list of serving councillors on Glasgow which he may wish to pass on; we can see if a local arrangement can be accommodated.

To return to the serious point about the number of women serving as locally elected councillors, in England, women councillors account for 27 per cent. of local councillors. In Wales, only 20 per cent. of unitary councillors are women. In Scotland, a survey conducted after local government reorganisation found that just over 22 per cent. of councillors were female. Clearly, therefore, there is a major issue of under-representation. Representation in political parties at local government level is low, for reasons of which people will be acutely aware. About 26 per cent. of both Conservative and Labour councillors are women. The Liberal Democrats do better; just over 33 per cent. of their councillors are women, but most people would agree that that figure is still far too low. Some councils do well; 50 per cent. of the councillors on Islington council, for example, are women. The Bill is drafted so that political parties can introduce positive measures to ensure that more women can stand for election as local councillors, and it is important that we recognise that.

After First Reading, I was asked what was the point of introducing a Bill when only the Labour party would use its provisions to introduce positive measures. It will quite rightly be for political parties to make their own decision, and positive measures will be introduced in different ways. However, it is important that the Bill is being introduced in this parliamentary Session because it will be next September or October that many political parties will determine at conference the method by which candidates for the next general election are selected. If we fail to enact the Bill in this Session, political parties will be unable to introduce election procedures allowing the use of positive measures. I am therefore personally grateful that the Government have been able to find time for the Bill.

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley)

On the point about whether it would be only the Labour party that would adopt the measures, will my right hon. Friend comment on the fact that, in my constituency at the last election, we had an all-female list of candidates for the Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour parties? That was probably only because we had the encouragement of measures for positive action, and it meant that there was a woman MP. Does my right hon. Friend agree that once having women candidates and MPs is seen to be valuable, there will be pressures on all political parties to seek to use those positive measures to get more women candidates?

Mr. Byers

My hon. Friend has made an important point. People and political parties should be able to see that the priorities of, for example, the governing party reflect the number of women Members of Parliament, as I believe the policies that we adopted between 1997 and 2001 did. The relevance of those priorities to many people, particularly women, ensures that they reflect the priorities of the country's population. One reason why we were successful at the last election is that our programme had relevance because it built on the Government's experience from 1997 to 2001. Provided that there is an underpinning power to introduce positive measures, political parties will increasingly feel that they should use the freedom that we want to give them under the Bill to ensure a dramatic increase in the representation of women in the House, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and local government.

If we look at our own experience, we can see that positive measures are the only practical means by which we can increase women's representation. I know that there is an argument that we should give support by encouraging people and providing lots of training, as of course, we should. However, the only way to achieve genuine improvement in the representation of women is for political parties to adopt positive measures.

Joan Ryan (Enfield, North)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that if success in selection and election to national and local bodies was based entirely on merit, there would be many more women in the House and our local councils? The Bill is about removing the barriers that stop women having the opportunities to succeed on merit, which is important. Opposition Members often diminish the significance of such measures to diminish women who want to put themselves forward but face huge barriers.

Mr. Byers

My hon. Friend is right. The Bill will give political parties that freedom and break down the barriers that exist. We must be honest enough in the debate to recognise that, whether we like it or not, those barriers are present in political parties. We must take on the arguments. The Bill will allow parties to have a debate about the positive measures that should be taken. Some political parties will resist positive measures. That will be their decision, but because we are removing the effect of the Jepson decision, there will be no hiding place for political parties. They will have to account to the electorate for any continuing under-representation of women on their Benches. That will be reflected in the way in which people vote in the general election.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire)

Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Byers

Yes, of course. I know that the hon. Gentleman has some interesting ideas on the subject.

Mr. Lansley

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I hope that I have some interesting ideas, and that I will have the opportunity to catch Madam Deputy Speaker's eye in order to explain them a little more. At this point, I am interested in the right hon. Gentleman's ideas. There are different methods of positive action. Parties may choose whether or not to introduce positive action, and they may choose different forms of positive action. To what extent might the Secretary of State contemplate the Labour party taking positive action? Is he advocating a return to the system of 1993–96 and women-only shortlists? More to the point, if he were advocating such a thing, does he think that, notwithstanding the Bill, it would be liable to challenge under the equal treatment directive?

Mr. Byers

Clearly, it will be a matter for individual political parties to decide on any measures that they want to take by way of positive discrimination. We have carefully considered the methods that the various parties have used. The Liberal Democrats have used particular methods for particular elections. In the run-up to the 1997 election, we had all-women shortlists. All those have been examined in relation to the equal treatment directive. The legal advice that we have received is that, provided positive action is proportionate to the issue, there will be no legal problem.

To understand why positive measures are necessary, we need only look at the level of women's representation in the House: 23 per cent. of Labour Members of Parliament are women. For the Conservatives, the figure is just over 8 per cent., and for the Liberal Democrats, just over 9 per cent. The Liberal Democrat conference was told last month that if just 4,149 votes had gone the other way, the Liberal Democrats would have had no women Members of Parliament at all. That shows how fragile women's representation is on the Liberal Democrat Benches.

Mr. Peter Duncan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale)


Mr. Byers

I am about to conclude, as I know that many hon. Members want to contribute to the debate.

The Bill will allow political parties to take positive action. The Government believe that it is right to give political parties that freedom. I hope that the Bill will be supported in all parts of the House, and that we can send out a clear signal that the status quo is simply not an option, that action must be taken, and that the issue of women's under-representation must be addressed as a priority. That is what the Bill will achieve. I commend it to the House.

6.43 pm
Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead)

It is a pleasure to speak on the Bill. I listened with great interest to the opening speech by the Secretary of State, including the long list of measures that he read out which the Government have taken to help women into the workplace. No one in the House is in any doubt of his personal commitment to keeping women in the workplace.

The Bill is an enabling Bill designed to allow political parties the freedom to take positive action to try to secure a greater representation of women as Members of the House. I make it clear from the start that the official Opposition will not oppose the Bill. That is a position that we struck as a party when the Bill was first mooted before the election, and I am pleased to confirm that position today. We support both the aim and the principle that underlie the legislation—the aim to get more women into Parliament, and the principle that political parties should have the freedom to decide how to achieve that and to determine their own selection procedures.

It may be helpful if, at this early stage of the debate, I make it clear that our support for the principle of the Bill does not mean that my party or I support the concept of women-only shortlists.

Stephen Hesford (Wirral, West)

In that case, can the hon. Lady tell us what measures her party might take?

Mrs. May

If the hon. Gentleman will wait until I have got a little way into my speech, I will deal with that. [Interruption.] The speech is about our position on the Bill. I will outline some of the steps that the Conservative party has taken, and some of the steps that we might take.

In his intervention, the hon. Member for Wirral, West (Stephen Hesford) illustrated the point that I was about to make. It is sad and frustrating that the debate about the need to get more women into Parliament and how that can be achieved is so often side-tracked into a discussion about all-women shortlists. There are those who, when the subject is raised, leap to the conclusion that it means all-women shortlists. It does not.

There are those who—dare I say it?—are opposed to the overall aim of increasing female representation in the House, who use all-women shortlists in order to frighten the horses, if I may use that term. However, those who support the aim of increased female representation should also have a care not to jeopardise that aim by assuming that extreme measures are the only ones that will be successful.

The Secretary of State referred to the fact that prior to the 1997 election and the legal challenge to what the Labour party was doing, the Labour party used all-women shortlists, but that is not what the debate is about. The debate is about giving political parties the freedom to pursue the legitimate aim of getting more women into Parliament through whatever means suit their particular needs and circumstances. It is up to individual parties to assess the extent to which they have a problem and to find ways of resolving it.

The Bill gives us and other parties the freedom from the threat of legal action and the freedom to take whatever form of positive action we choose. It is important that the Bill is permissive, not prescriptive. It does not introduce all-women shortlists, but takes the selection of candidates for election out of that part of employment law relating to sex discrimination.

This issue often gives rise to highly emotive debate, and it is important that we lay some of the myths to rest. I am standing at the Dispatch Box not because I believe that Parliament should be rigidly statistically representative of the make-up of the population as a whole, or because I believe that without more women in Parliament, women's issues will never be properly represented. I am a firm believer that all MPs should represent the needs and interests of all their constituents. That means men getting involved in issues that particularly affect women, as well as women getting involved in issues that particularly affect men.

I shall be honest with the House. There was a time when I never thought that I would stand up in the Chamber and support such a Bill. I am standing here because I believe there are many women who are not being selected and elected who would make first-class Members of Parliament, and that Parliament as a whole, and my party in particular, is losing out on a pool of talent that would strengthen the House and enhance its public image.

The Bill is about more than strengthening the image of politics and the House. I fear that young women in particular are turned off politics because they do not see it as being for people like them. When I was thinking earlier today about what to say in the debate, I confess that my immediate thought was to make the point that many young women were put off Parliament because they see it as a sea of grey suits—although I suppose I am not in a position to make that comment today.

Over the years, Labour and Conservatives alike have achieved significant milestones in the history of women in the House. The first woman to take her seat in the House, although not the first woman elected to the House, was a Conservative. The first woman Minister and later first woman member of the Cabinet was a Labour party member. Of course, the first woman Prime Minister was a Conservative. Both parties can claim to have had their successes in promoting women in Parliament.

As part of the move to involve more women in active politics after the introduction of female suffrage in 1918, the Conservative party agreed to reserve one third of all positions in the party hierarchy for women. Nowadays, I am pleased to say that women achieve positions in the party hierarchy without the need for such positive action. Notwithstanding the milestones that have been achieved, Westminster ranks 33rd in the world in terms of women's representation, with only 18 per cent. of Members of Parliament in this House being women, as the Secretary of State said.

Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

The hon. Lady is making a very supportive speech. She has declared her backing of the Bill and her interest in it. However, does she not feel that the whole of her parliamentary party should be seen in the Lobby or should at least clearly show its support for the Bill throughout the debate? Is she sure that she has the support of the shadow Leader of the House, for example?

Mrs. May

I can happily assure the hon. Lady that the shadow Cabinet is of one mind on this matter.

As I said, I do not advocate a strict, statistically correct approach, but I believe that we need to ask whether selection procedures in political parties are currently ensuring that women who would make excellent Members of Parliament are overlooked simply because they are women or because the procedure operates against them.

The Labour party's use of all-women shortlists in 1997 led to a dramatic increase in the number of women in the House, although it was challenged in the European courts. [Interruption.] It was challenged in an industrial tribunal, but I think that an issue was raised later concerning European legislation with regard to all-women shortlists. European legislation has already been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley). The Secretary of State will be aware that we do not oppose the Bill, but those who understand that it is important for this legislation to be enacted believe that it behoves Ministers to be certain that it will not fall foul of European law. I trust that the winding-up speech will include a categorical assurance that that is the case.

I would like to pick up one of the issues raised by the Secretary of State in relation to local councils. The right hon. Gentleman made a very good point about their importance as a possible route into Westminster and a good training ground for Members of Parliament. Obviously, being a local councillor is a valuable thing to do in its own right. I have been a local councillor, as, indeed, has the Secretary of State, and I know from experience that many of the people who are elected to our local councils would also make good Members of Parliament and can see from working in a council that their ambition could go further. Personally, I have always felt that we should encourage councillors to look to Westminster and consider coming here.

I have already emphasised that the Bill is about the principle of allowing political parties to take positive action to encourage the election of more women to Parliament. Thus, as the Secretary of State said, its timing is significant. It is important that it is introduced early in the current Parliament to enable political parties to make decisions about their selection procedures. That applies especially in respect of the next general election, although other elections are coming along, such as those for the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and so on.

A number of measures can be taken. Before the last election, the Conservative party had a policy of encouraging our constituency associations to interview at least the same proportion of women as applied for the seat. We are now in the process of reconsidering our selection procedures to see what further measures need to be taken to ensure that women are not discriminated against in the selection process.

Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands)

Does the hon. Lady still hold the view that young women who are considering a parliamentary career should not do so until their families are in a position to be left?

Mrs. May

I have never held such a view or expressed such an opinion. I suspect that the hon. Lady has read an incorrect report that was featured on BBC Online some months ago. BBC Online made corrections as soon as I saw that the remarks that had supposedly been made were attributed to me, and the production was changed. I am sorry to say that a member of the Conservative party enunciated the views that were expressed, but they have never been mine and I would never make such remarks.

Virginia Bottomley (South-West Surrey)

Will my hon. Friend confirm that Baroness Thatcher became a Member of Parliament when she had twin children aged six?

Mrs. May

I am very happy to confirm that. Those who have been through the Conservative party selection process consider that the election of Baroness Thatcher at a time when she was the mother of young children showed even more the remarkable nature of that particular lady.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)

Will the hon. Lady also confirm that Baroness Thatcher argued very strongly, on returning to this country after a visit to Moscow, against the provision of child care places? She did so because of the examples that she had seen in the then USSR of poor little children being taken to nurseries at 6 o'clock in the morning.

Mrs. May

I am happy to tell the hon. Lady that I have no knowledge of that particular comment of Baroness Thatcher. All I can say is that parties move on in their attitudes to some of these things.

I come now to the part of my speech in which I can respond to the intervention of the hon. Member for Wirral, West. I wish to speak about a proposal that I have made, together with my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire. I am pleased that my hon. Friend is present, as he has long been a champion of the cause of getting more women into Parliament—as, indeed, have a number of my hon. Friends who are sitting behind me.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham)

And beside you.

Mrs. May

I am very pleased to confirm that they are also sitting next to me.

We propose a limited list that is more balanced between men and women, and which includes a proportion of candidates from ethnic minority communities. Such a balanced and limited list would enable associations to continue to have the freedom to select their own candidates, but from a candidates' list that is balanced between men and women. It has long been my contention that one of the measures that my party needs to take is to increase the number of women on our candidates' lists. A limited and balanced list would enable constituencies to choose from men and women in equal numbers.

Stephen Hesford

In reality, we know that Conservative associations can choose whoever they want. They do not have to choose candidates from the list. If they wanted to avoid the issue and choose whoever they wanted, they could do so.

Mrs. May

I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's comments. I suspect that he has never tried to stand as a Conservative candidate, as it is obvious that he does not know as much about the party's procedures as he thinks. There is a candidates' list and associations have the freedom to choose from people whose names are on that list, but they cannot choose from outside it. Limited and balanced lists would therefore help to resolve inequalities. I think that the introduction of such lists is a positive measure that could well be adopted.

Sandra Osborne (Ayr)

Is the hon. Lady aware that, before the 1992 election, the Labour party had a policy of including at least one woman on every shortlist, but completely failed to succeed in selecting more women? Does she agree that a positive measure is required?

Mrs. May

I accept that view. I have spoken to a number of people about the sort of measures that parties have adopted in the past. The idea to which the hon. Lady refers, which has been debated in the Conservative party, does not always ensure the sort of positive results that we are seeking. As I said, however, my party is currently considering its selection procedure and concepts such as that of a limited and gender-balanced list from which associations can choose their candidates. The number of women on such a list would ensure that more women were selected to fight for seats.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford)

The hon. Lady and I have had a number of conversations on this subject, and I well understand the support that she is expressing today. Do the proposals that she and the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) have been discussing include any targets regarding the number of years that it might take for the Conservative party to increase the number of women by, say, 20 per cent. or 25 per cent?

Mrs. May

The hon. Lady will know that it is always difficult to predict election results and to know which seats one will be able to win, so it is difficult to predict the number of years that it will take to reach a particular point.

Caroline Flint (Don Valley)


Joan Ryan


Mrs. May

I am answering the intervention that I have just taken. I hope that the two hon. Ladies who have just risen will forgive me for not giving way, as I am about to finish my speech. A lot of hon. Members want to make their own points in the debate and it is only fair to give them that opportunity. I shall complete my answer to the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock).If we had a limited list, we could have a target number of seats. For example, we could have 100 seats, which were divided 50:50, so that we might be looking at getting 50 women into Parliament. We could approach the issue in that way, rather than having a target number of years, which might be more difficult to work with.

I am grateful for the latitude that you have given me, Madam Deputy Speaker. I realise that we are not here to debate the internal procedures of any particular political party. However, I have raised those points because it is important to show that the Conservative party is examining the kinds of positive action that can be taken to get more women selected without going down the route of all-women shortlists—positive action that a party would have the freedom to pursue under the provisions of the Bill.

I repeat to the Government that we share their aim of seeing more women elected to Parliament, and we welcome the fact that the Bill will clarify the legal position on positive action in the selection of election candidates. We welcome the permissive principle in the Bill that individual political parties should have the freedom to determine their own selection procedures, and I hope that at the next election we shall all be able to see the life of Parliament enhanced by the election of more women as Members of Parliament.

Several hon. Members


Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal)

Order. May I remind hon. Members that Mr. Speaker has imposed a time limit of 10 minutes on Back-Bench speeches?

7.1 pm

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)

I shall begin by thanking my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench for introducing the Bill with such speed after the Queen's Speech. I also pay tribute to the present Minister for Women and her predecessors who, I have no doubt, worked long and hard to ensure that the House had the opportunity to debate this important issue. I say that with the slight cavil that there is something rather depressing about the fact that, here in the somewhat ironically named mother of Parliaments, in the second year of the 21st century, we are having to debate how to increase the equality of opportunity for women.

I was extremely encouraged by the speech made by the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), leading for the official Opposition. I must be honest—I had expected to hear ferocious arguments emanating from those on the Conservative Benches. In the light of the expressions of a couple of female hon. Members sitting behind her, we might still hear some fierce opposition to what is being proposed. We have a side bet running on these Benches as to who will be the first to use the words "token" and "patronising". There is not a lot of money on it, however.

It is particularly important that the Bill does not attempt to prescribe the methods that political parties use to ensure a more honest reflection of the gender balance of this country. I was surprised to discover from the excellent briefing document produced by the Library that the gender division in the United Kingdom is not, as I had thought, 50:50, but 51 per cent. women. I was interested in the point made by the hon. Member for Maidenhead that there must be more women in the House—I realise that I am paraphrasing—to reflect those issues that are important to women. I have never argued, and I know that the hon. Lady was not arguing, that we need more women because—

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

She did not say that.

Glenda Jackson

If the hon. Gentleman would be rather more silent, he would realise that I was making the point that the hon. Lady was not saying that we need more women because only women can proselytise on issues important to women. I have never believed that there is something called a "women's issue". The issues that have made law in this and every other democratic assembly around the world affect, directly and indirectly, the women in those countries. Women are not an homogenous group. There are as many varied political opinions as there are women's views on how we should, dress, bring up our children, and treat or mistreat our male partners.

To ensure that the life of this Chamber makes a continuing and energising contribution to the democracy of this and other nation states, it is important that we begin to reflect more accurately how the lives of women have changed and continue to change. I do not accept that every woman who comes into this place must be a genius. We shall not have achieved what I desire if the make-up of this place is a conglomeration of human abilities and human moralities, which in the short term would mean that everyone sitting on these green Benches would be a saint or ready for sanctification. That is not what this Chamber should be about. This Chamber should be a reflection of the democratic life of this country—its prejudices as much as its liberalities. There should be a place here for a second-rate woman, as heaven only knows there are places for second-rate men, and have been for a considerable period of time during the history of this establishment.

The hon. Lady referred to grey suits. Young women—whether visiting the Chamber to listen to our debates, watching them on television or listening to them on the radio—regard the procedures and practices of this place as totally irrelevant to their lives. They cannot perceive anything in this place that is meaningful to their lives, or, more important, any contribution that they could make. That is why it is vital that political parties change the way in which we select our candidates. This is the central and essential issue.

If we are going to make our democratic processes in central and local government rather more exciting to the electorate, we must ensure that democracy can grow, develop and change. It will have to change. The world at the moment is attempting to come to terms with fundamental and basic changes. When ones reads or listens to exchanges arising, for example, out of the obscenities of 11 September, lip service is being paid to the drastic changes in the world, but there is very little change in our approach to these issues, either philosophically or morally. Certainly there are political changes, but it is one thing to say that we want change, and quite another to deliver it. That is why we have to attach and attract future generations, particularly women.

What is a political arena essentially about? Surely it is about individuals coming together to create a society in which the unique nature of every member of that society can be fostered and encouraged, and in which everyone can live in a structured way without impediment to discovery or dissent, and without going over the precipice into extremes of violence or refusing to listen to anyone else's point of view. A political arena is about how people construct those societies, and how they develop ways of living together and supporting each other across a wide range of realities.

Here, I have to make my only gender-biased point. It is that I believe that the lives of most women are infinitely entrenched in the realities of the exchanges between individual human beings, partly because we are expected to carry responsibility across a wide range of lives in our own countries. We are expected to be—nine times out of 10 we are—responsible for raising children and caring for elderly parents. We are expected to take the role of nurse, doctor, psychiatrist, business manager, chauffeur, gardener, plumber, electrician, window cleaner—you name it, that is what we are expected to do. We are equally expected to have an interest in and commitment to not only our immediate family but our wider community in the world.

It has been my pleasant experience always to have met and worked with women who are only too happy to accept those responsibilities. They regard them in many ways as a privilege, because the benefits of that day in, day out exchange with human beings can be immense and, indeed, intense. Such commitment—the rooted sense of what it is to be a human being, with all the accompanying frailties and strengths—is one of my main reasons for wanting 50 per cent. of these Benches to be filled by those of my gender.

7.10 pm
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson) because I very much agree with the points that she made. I shall return to them in a moment. First, however, I must dispel some of the illusions about the Bill. Its scope has been criticised—admittedly not in the House tonight, but outside. Some have said, "Why aren't we dealing with other under-represented groups?" Of course, there is a central difference between women and, for example, those ethnic groups that might think that we should do something for them. Women are a majority in this country and in our view that demands a separate approach and a separate priority.

It is only right to refer to minorities, however, if only because we are missing the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), who has an interesting view about their representation. He was quoted speaking at a No Turning Back Group dinner, whatever that may mean: All this sucking up to minorities is ridiculous. There are millions of people in this country who are white, Anglo-Saxon and bigoted, and they need to be represented". I do not subscribe to that view, but there may be people on the Conservative Benches who do.

I am delighted with the support given to the Bill by the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), who made a good speech. I hope that all parties find it in their hearts to examine carefully what they will do under the legislation, even though it is only permissive. That is an extremely important point that she made, and one to which I shall return—but first the context.

The Secretary of State made a lot of claims about the great improvements made by the Government, but I draw his attention to the fact that, since 1997 and despite all his efforts and those of the Government to improve the representation of women in public bodies generally, there has been only a 1.8 per cent. increase in the number of women appointees to public bodies. The Department of Social Security, the Treasury, what was the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Office of Telecommunications, the Inland Revenue, the Scotland Office and the Northern Ireland Office all have a smaller percentage of women on their public bodies than in 1997. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) for extracting those figures from the Government.

On current trends, the Cabinet Office and the Department of Health will reach 50 per cent. in time for a general election in 2005. The Department for Education and Skills may make it within two Parliaments and the Home Office within three. However, we cannot make predictions for the Lord Chancellor's Department, which makes some extremely important appointments, because it has exactly the same percentage as in 1997. The time taken to reach the target in that example could be infinite.

We approach the debate in that context, to which attention has already been drawn by no less a person than the Commissioner for Public Appointments, Dame Rennie Fritchie. She described the 1 per cent. drop in the overall representation of women between 1999 and 2000 as "disappointing" and warned of the inadequacies of the present legal situation. She added that those responsible for appointments must however ensure that any initiative or positive action they take to encourage or achieve wider representation is within the law. We entirely endorse the Government's view that the legislation is necessary, but the debate involves more than how the parties respond to it. Getting more women to stand and getting more women elected is all very well—it is urgently necessary—but it is not enough. It is essential that, once we attract more women to this place, we make it a better place for them to work in. That is not enough in itself either, because, of course, that is not a gender issue. We must make the House a better place for everybody to work in, especially the parents of young children, and it is extremely important to re-emphasise that point in the context of the legislation.

I have had the privilege to serve on the Modernisation Committee during the previous and present Parliaments. We have been concerned not with spending less time here, but with making our time more productive. That must surely apply to all Members of the House, whatever their gender, age or background. Similarly, it is extremely important to refer to a point made by the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate in her eloquent speech: we cannot merely make minor adjustments to working hours and conditions—we must consider the culture of this place.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mrs. Calton), who is recently elected and obviously able to consider the matter from a woman's point of view, is able to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, and expand the point. Having been around this place for a long time, it is clear to me that, all too often, women find themselves marginalised and even belittled.

During the speech of the hon. Member for Maidenhead, there were moments when some male Members on the other side of the House treated her in a way that they would not treat a male Front-Bench spokesperson. We must address that, because it does no credit to the House and it certainly does no good when it is seen on television or heard on radio.

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald)

I never noticed such treatment.

Mr. Tyler

The right hon. Lady is a law unto herself and I would not attempt to categorise her in any way, gender or otherwise.

The real problem is the culture of this place, which is a Chamber in which loud male voices tend to predominate. Let us consider what happens at Prime Minister's questions. Those loud male voices lack respect and courtesy. Okay, we understand that there are moments of high tension and high passion, but not many women want to bellow into the microphone or from a sedentary position.

I understand that there are always exceptions, but it is not enough to say, "Wasn't it wonderful? We happen to have had our first woman Prime Minister in this country." Her husband was able to provide the facilities for personal child care. I do not think that he personally provided that care, but the funds were there to make child care available. That is not enough, however, and it is clearly not an acceptable focus for the issue.

I simply underline the general points made by the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate about the culture of this place. Furthermore, the political parties must change. Members from all three major parties will have witnessed those occasions when women candidates are asked questions that would not be asked of a man in a comparable position. We all need to examine that. My own party has sought to deal with it by training and example, but I am the first to admit that we have not been wholly successful.

Similarly, it is not enough simply to deal with the exclusion of women from the political process. We must try to retain them. Labour Members will remember the high-profile exodus from the House of a Member who simply did not feel that her place was here. There may be particular reasons behind that case, but I believe that it represents a critical analysis of the way we operate and it is extremely important that we address it. Even if it applies only to a minority of women who want to become Members of Parliament, it is a perfectly valid point that we must take into account.

In the end, the whole exercise is not about favouritism or doing women a good turn. It is about ensuring that we all, and parliamentary democracy itself, benefit from improving the quality of our work, tapping the talents of more than half the population and taking full advantage of the particular skills of those who could bring to the job something that we desperately need. I accept the point that the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate made in that connection.

I am bound to say that there are differing views in my party about the necessity for the legislation. I for one am not an optimist. Like Mr. Gladstone, I am an old man in a hurry, so I am not prepared to wait for the results of an attempt at encouragement from some of my colleagues. That is why we made a commitment in our manifesto to deal with the need for more family friendly and efficient working practices for Parliament to bring a wider range of people, particularly women, into Parliament and … enactment of an Equality Act. At our spring conference this year, we reinforced that point.

My right hon. and hon. Friends and I believe we need to kick-start the process, and that protective legislation is essential to ensure that it is effective. That applies equally to local government.

I was slightly disappointed that the Secretary of State gave the impression that it was important to help women to enter local authority work because it was a useful kindergarten for this place. Local government needs the legislation for its own sake as much as we do. In comparative terms our local government figure—33 per cent.—is rather good, but it is not good enough. Our target is 40 per cent., and I hope that the other parties will take the point too.

As I said earlier, we accept the permissive nature of the Bill. We believe that the Government had two options, and took the right one. They could have been prescriptive, which we think would have been inappropriate. Permissiveness gives the political parties an opportunity to respond to the challenge within the terms of their own party democracy and their own objectives. In making the Bill permissive, however, the Government have taken on a responsibility that they must openly acknowledge. If we take advantage of these measures, there are still likely to be considerable costs. The Government have made no regulatory impact assessment—a phrase used by them—but there is an impact on the parties, and they should assess it.

The Government's attitude is patent nonsense. Political parties are businesses or charities, or they are both. To say that there will be no impact and no likely regulatory cost is simply wrong. We ask the Government to consider the issue again, perhaps in Committee. I assure them that, if they do not, my noble Friend Lord Lester—who I think is the world expert on this subject—will want to deal with it in the other place. In his view, the Bill as drafted does not fully protect parties against an expensive legal challenge, although such a challenge might not succeed. There is a precedent, in the Neill recommendations on the funding and registration of political parties, for the Government to accept that this is a perfectly legitimate use of public funds.

The Minister who will reply may wish to contemplate the fact that his party is likely to be first in the dock. I think that the Government should come clean. They will have to assess the cost of the legal advice that may be necessary. Legal uncertainty has bedevilled this issue for many years in the case of both Labour and my party, and it is extremely important that progress towards equal representation is not delayed again because the necessary funding has not been available.

There should be no doubt about the fact that the permissive agenda is absolutely right, but there may be real doubts about whether we shall make progress if the parties are left to themselves to defend themselves against aggrieved applicants at either parliamentary or local government level. That has already been mentioned.

My colleagues and I are certain that these measures are necessary now. As the Secretary of State has said, other electoral systems facilitate equal representation in a way that ours currently does not. The balance of male and female members of other Parliaments and assemblies is affected not just by selection procedures but by electoral systems. In the Swedish Parliament, 43 per cent. of members—elected through proportional representation—are women. The percentages are 36.4 in the Norwegian Parliament, and 31 per cent. in the German Parliament. My figures for the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly are not quite the same as the Secretary of State's: according to my figures, 36.4 per cent. of those elected to the Scottish Parliament under PR were women, as were 38.3 per cent. of those elected to the Welsh Assembly. I suspect that that may be because there have subsequently been changes in the composition of those bodies. In any event, the percentages are far higher than those in the Westminster Parliament.

Incidentally, the Secretary of State did not mention that 40 per cent. of members of the Greater London Assembly are women—again, elected according to a fairer system. According to my figures, 17.9 per cent. of Members of the House of Commons are women, whereas in the last Parliament the percentage was 18.2.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the higher percentage of women in the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament is due to the twinning mechanism introduced by the Labour party, rather than to the list system?

Mr. Tyler

That may be true in the case of the Labour party, but my party managed to achieve precise equality—50 per cent.—in Wales because of the electoral system as well as our internal arrangements. It was a combination of the two.

I do not claim that there is a magic wand. What I do say is that the Bill is urgently needed now, but I hope and believe that it is strictly temporary, for two reasons. First, there is a very welcome sunset clause. If we manage to achieve a better balance in the House, it can die the death and wither on the vine. Secondly, I believe that in the long term the case for electoral reform—of this House as well as other bodies in the country—is so strong that we will find it easier to ensure equality and a gender balance.

The Bill, then, is temporary but also urgently required. On that basis, I hope that it will be supported by members of all parties.

7.26 pm
Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

I am delighted by the introduction of the Bill, and delighted to have an opportunity to speak.

I shall never forget why I fought so hard to win the seat that I now represent. When, as a fairly mature politician aged over 50, I decided—fairly tentatively—to fight for the coming vacancy, my young male colleagues on the local council, who had been there for about a third as long as I had and had about a third of my experience, greeted my decision with the words "You? We never thought that you were interested".

It struck me then that it was simply not in their thinking that I might be a competitor. They clearly saw each other as competitors, and were keen to get on with the selection ballot; but they had not reckoned that someone like me—although I had a great deal more experience and good sense than they—was likely to throw her hat in the ring.

That made me think. My experience of life was substantial: for many years I spent time waiting for my children at school gates and attending school meetings, I worked part time to accommodate school hours and school holidays, I travelled with pushchairs on buses, I worked as a carer for my elderly parents in the years before they died and was generally a pretty active political and community person. All that experience, however, counted for nothing when people were considering who might represent them. From that time, I thought "My experience is relevant to politics." I had known that it was relevant in local government, but it then occurred to me that it was more important to be able to speak at national level, and I worked hard towards that.

Women form the majority of users of the public services that receive the bulk of the funds that we parliamentarians provide, yet they form a small minority of members of executive committees. Only 11 per cent. of architects are women. Few women are transport executives, health service managers, senior civil servants giving our Ministers advice or, indeed, decision makers like us, here and in the other place. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson) said, it is an important disparity in domestic politics that needs redressing.

Labour has struggled to put those policies into practice within the party, but we need the support of a decision at national level—we need the whole Parliament, not just the party, to be in favour of achieving equality in representation.

The issue goes wider than domestic politics. It is important to the whole world, particularly areas in conflict. At the beginning of the previous Parliament, I was asked by Mo Mowlam to be her Parliamentary Private Secretary. She asked me to keep people here informed and to do the talking that PPSs do with Back Benchers, but she also asked me to make and to keep in contact with women in Northern Ireland, to listen to them, to hear them and to talk with them. She did not think that she would hear those voices, with the best will in the world, from her officials and advisers or from the gentlemen of the media in Northern Ireland. She gave me that fairly behind-the-scenes role, in which I was accepted by successive Secretaries of State. The four or five years that I spent working in that context made some difference to the important outcome and implementation of the Good Friday agreement, about which we have been saying, "Well done" to each other today.

I found that after years of conflict in Northern Ireland there was a vibrant group of active women at community level, active women's centres and a huge women's adult education programme. Women in the churches were working together, as were women in business, but there was an equally strong antipathy among those same women to participating in organised politics. At that time, there was not one woman here from Northern Ireland in any political party. That has now changed. We have one very welcome woman from the Ulster Unionist party here today. It was clear in those days that that was not really on that party's agenda.

We are now in another difficult world conflict. I was struck by The Guardian poll not long ago that said that only 68 per cent. of women, compared with 80 per cent. of men, were totally convinced that heavy bombing of Afghanistan was the way forward. As the Prime Minister has said frequently in the House, most hon. Members recognise that bombing a very poor country on the other side of the world will not alone be the answer to the huge difficulty that we face. Now is the time to be hearing, to be listening to and to be talking with women around the world—in Islamic countries, but also elsewhere—about the longer-term outcome and how we get through the international crisis.

Many people who had the privilege of attending the United Nations Beijing conference for women and the follow-up conference said that one of the most moving elements of the meetings was the chance to talk to women from the Islamic world and from other parts of the world with a different cultural viewpoint. They were able to come together around the big issues that unite women worldwide—children, caring, education, health—and talk together from totally different viewpoints of poverty and wealth. Now is the time to make it clear that this mother of Parliaments is the right place to say that women's voices are crucial in politics both here and worldwide.

7.35 pm
Virginia Bottomley (South-West Surrey)

I appreciate the opportunity to speak in this debate. I share many of the views of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson) about the particular strengths of women and the degree of suffering and disadvantage of women in many parts of the world.

I need to declare two interests. First, I am vice-chair of the British Council. It works in many of the countries represented at the Beijing conference, in which women do not have access to the education and health care that is needed. They pay the price without any of the privileges, and much needs to be done. Secondly, I am chair of a not-for-profit public sector practice of recruitment headhunters, so I speak with special knowledge of and commitment to the role of women. Of course, my ministerial life was very much involved with trying to secure more female appointments. On the basis of that, and feeling strongly about the need for more women in Parliament, I hope that hon. Members will understand why I have some reservations about where the Bill may lead.

I feel passionately about women playing an active part. Much more can be done. The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) talked about the Government's failure to deliver on their objective to appoint more women to the public sector. One of the measures that I took when I became a Minister at the Department of Health was to insist that the NHS joined Opportunity 2000—the biggest employer of women in the world should be the best employer of women in the world. To a degree of ribaldry, particularly from my own colleagues, I insisted that we joined and set targets. Those targets were monitored and for the most part delivered.

Thirty-nine per cent. of non-executive appointments were filled by women in 1994. The percentage of women who were chairs of new NHS trusts rose to more than 30 per cent. We exceeded the targets. We did so because I had two magnificent women as my allies: Dame Rennie Fritchie, now the Commissioner for Public Appointments, and my noble Friend Baroness Cumberlege. Together we tried to ensure that coaching, mentoring and encouraging schemes were introduced throughout the NHS. Far more women were appointed to non-executive posts. Among them were familiar names such as Baroness Dean, Baroness Jay, Baroness Hayman, my noble Friend Baroness Park, Ruth Deetch and Julia Neuberger. When people are committed to finding women who have talent and merit, it can be done. However, no one suggested that the programme that we set in place was unlawful. My concern is that Parliament is proposing to change the rules for political parties, but not for the rest of the country.

One of the areas in which I was particularly involved was the encouraging of a rise in the number of female consultants. I must declare another interest. As a junior gynaecologist, my daughter benefits from the supernumerary specialist registrar scheme for women doctors with young children, which I understand is now under threat. That practical measure was available to help people to combine their careers, overcome obstacles and end up, I hope, as hospital consultants.

I do not believe that we should act only for Members of Parliament. I dare say that the people of this country care rather more about teachers, for example, than they do about Members of Parliament. I say that with regret, and I am very proud to be a Member of Parliament, but I believe that an opinion poll of our constituents would show that teachers receive a higher rating than we do.

Having spent my previous career working in the inner city, in a child guidance unit and as the chairman of a juvenile court, I very much share the view that many children with fragmented families have no male role model. I therefore feel very strongly that there is a real child welfare and development issue at primary schools where there are no male teachers. Yet we are not proposing to have all-male shortlists for primary schools.

My worry is what the public will make of our passing legislation that is specifically for Members of Parliament when we are not prepared to pass similar legislation for other professional groups. I believe that if the legislation has to be amended, it has to be amended for a number of groups and not only for hon. Members. If we do not do that, we shall be seen to be giving ourselves different and preferential treatment.

Joan Ruddock

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving way. I believe that when there is a time limit on Back-Bench speeches hon. Members no longer lose time by allowing interventions. Does the right hon. Lady not see a distinction between elected office and paid employment in other professions? It is the representative nature of the job that we do that sets us apart.

Virginia Bottomley

I find that a very dubious argument. I am very concerned about child development. Indeed, I am as concerned about children being raised with a good experience of both men and women as I am about women being represented proportionally in this place.

Although I want Parliament to do much more on the issue, I recognise that we have already come a long way. Margot Asquith, a Liberal Prime Minister's wife, said: No amount of education will make women first-rate politicians. Can you see a woman becoming Prime Minister? I cannot imagine a greater calamity for these islands than to be put under the guidance of a woman in 10 Downing Street. Margot Asquith died in 1945. One of the people who most influenced me in my parliamentary journey was the late Baroness Seear, who was bitterly opposed to special measures for women. Her view was that, as the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson) said, an hon. Member's job is to represent their constituency, including men, women, the able-bodied, the disabled, the young, the old, the rich and the poor. The next step may be to establish special measures for those who are over 60, under 30, able-bodied or disabled. We are setting a very sensitive precedent.

I think that the House is united in wishing to address the issue of whether more should be done on ethnic minority representation. When I was chairman of a juvenile court 30 years ago, we made particular efforts to try to recruit people from ethnic minorities to serve in the courts, so that the courts had the confidence of the local community. Hon. Members are, however, behaving as though we are quite unlike any other group.

I have already mentioned the Liberal party. The Labour party, with its tradition of very male-dominated, white trade unions has made a huge change. I welcome the number of women Members and especially the number of women who are serving as Ministers. I hope that hon. Members can learn some lessons without being accused of having legislation that covers us but not other equally influential and important groups.

Mrs. Lorna Fitzsimons (Rochdale)

I appreciate that the right hon. Lady cares deeply about this issue. Does she accept, however, that there is legal recourse for women who believe that they are as talented and able as male counterparts, but feel that they have suffered gender discrimination at work, and that such recourse simply does not exist in the political sphere? Although hon. Members are subject to sex discrimination legislation that is supposed to protect us, we do not receive any of its benefits. If we want to rectify the democratic deficit and low election turnouts, we have to pay attention to women such as one of my constituents, who never became involved in politics until 1997—[Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. Could we keep interventions quite short? Time is very limited.

Mrs. Fitzsimons

My constituent said that she now watches the House's proceedings because there are more women in this place who look like her. Now, as she thinks that our proceedings have something to do with her, she is engaged in the political process for the first time.

Virginia Bottomley

I shall certainly pursue that point. I believe that it is enlightened self-interest for all political parties to ensure that more women are elected. We all should and can do much more. Earlier, I gave an example of a programme for which I was responsible and that delivered results. I agree that the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats have not yet delivered the results that we should, but I have been enormously encouraged by the action that my hon. Friends the Members for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) and for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) have taken already to ensure that we do better and learn more.

In 1984, when I was seeking selection as a candidate, selection committees seriously asked me questions such as, "Mrs. Bottomley, if you want to vote one way and your husband wants you to vote another way, which way will you vote?" A leading Liberal Democrat in the Isle of Wight wrote to the local paper to ask, "Why is Mrs. Bottomley going round meetings, factories and schools? Why is she not making supper for her children?" My children sharply replied, "Mum, she hasn't tried your suppers."

I endorse the comments of the previous Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, when she talked about the danger of the appearance that hon. Members were too concerned about their own convenience and not sufficiently concerned about their duties to the House. In the case of women parliamentarians, I worry that if we go too far in trying to seem that we are quite unlike any other group, we shall alienate the public rather than gaining their support. What we must have and can deliver is far more women in Parliament. Women are not only the majority but, as recent education results have shown us, the brighter part of the population.

7.46 pm
Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford)

Last week, I asked the Prime Minister a question, which is not something that I do very often. It was a topical, serious question, but before I got half way through the preamble, there were hearty guffaws from Opposition Members. I exempt from that behaviour the Opposition Members who are here for this debate.

In my question, I said that I was concerned that all the people who had been brought together to form a post-Taliban Government were men. I asked the Prime Minister if he would examine the mechanisms that had truly enabled women's voices to be heard in the political transitions in South Africa and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson) said, in Northern Ireland. The knee-jerk reaction from Opposition Members was very important and very telling, as was the parliamentary sketch in the following morning's edition of The Independent, which joked about All Women Shortlists in Kabul". The brutal suppression of women in Afghanistan is designed to make them invisible in that society. For political commentators to express incredulity at the prospect of women taking any part in a future Afghan Government only demonstrates how successful that regime has been.

Afghan women are seen primarily as victims, despite the fact that they once had the vote. Indeed, there have been women Members of Parliament in Afghanistan and there is a long-standing and powerful women's organisation called the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan which still operates from Pakistan and undercover in Afghanistan.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden)

Is the hon. Lady aware that, yesterday, in setting out his vision for the future Afghan Government, the Foreign Secretary omitted to make any reference to female representation, although the Opposition have been calling for that?

Joan Ruddock

I thank the hon. Lady for her support. All women Members should be pressing for that representation.

Being invisible is something that most women understand and many women have experienced. In her opening remarks, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough gave an example of that fact when she described the reaction of her male colleagues when she suggested that she might be a parliamentary candidate. I believe that that goes to the very heart of why this Parliament is still 82 per cent. male and why we so desperately need this legislation.

I am delighted to be able to participate in this debate, and I congratulate my right hon. Friends on drafting the Bill and finding time for its passage. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and Minister for Women could not attend this debate, but she has been hugely influential in pressing for the Bill's introduction.

I am particularly pleased because, four years ago, when my right hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General and I were the first Ministers for Women, we proposed that such an amendment be made to the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. At the time, controversy was raging over the twinning arrangements in Wales and Scotland, which have proved to be so successful. People feared then that there would be a Jepson-type challenge. We argued that only by amending the Sex Discrimination Act could we remove that doubt. The time was not right. The word was out; women had had their chance and it was time to return to business as usual.

Last year, I asked the Library to undertake a variety of calculations. These revealed that, taking all parties into account and without special measures such as all-women shortlists, it would take another 30 years to get equal numbers of women and men in this place. At the rate of increase in the numbers of women pre-1977, it would take 70 years. I estimate, frankly, that if we depended on the Tory party alone, it would take another century.

That is why I have asked questions today of Tory Front Benchers about the mechanisms that they might put in place, how effective these would be and what the future might hold. That is why, in March last year, I proposed a Bill to amend the sex discrimination legislation. It was supported by a number of my hon. Friends who are participating in the debate today. My early-day motion was supported by 124 Members from six different parties.

The publicity that that engendered attracted the usual spate of male responses. One man wrote on the subject of all-women short lists: Instead of ensuring the lady candidates came from the ranks of the intelligent and achieving ladies—there are plenty about—great drafts were sent in from the Just Another Bloody Girl Brigade. I reckoned he had to be a Tory.

Another, describing himself as a socialist councillor, said that he was "fed up with interferences in the democratic process" and would "go ballistic" if they were inflicted.

Let me spend a few moments exploring these myths; the quality of candidates and the democratic process. The charge that women candidates selected from all-women shortlists were inferior was made first by commentators who did not know the women and even before they entered Parliament. It was made again, on no objective basis, once they got here. Who actually did the work to compare the 35 new women with 35 new men and found them wanting? What were the criteria anyway?

The truth is that the real objection was to numbers and to difference. Most, but of course not all, women work rather differently from men. Women in this place have tended to fit less well into its traditions and its style of oratory. Because many of us spoke in favour of modernisation during Labour's first Administration, we raised unrealistic expectations for change that could not and should not have been the responsibility of women Members alone.

As for democracy, selection processes that attempt to address the gender imbalance in a party's list of candidates can only be positive. When 51 per cent. of the population is female, it is a nonsense to maintain that democracy is well served by a Parliament in which women make up only 18 per cent. of the Members.

This Bill is permissive and makes no interference with the democratic elections of the country. It enables political parties to take their own democratic decisions about whether or not they wish to put special measures in place to ensure that the electorate has a more balanced number of women and men to vote for, not just as parliamentary candidates in Westminster, but for the devolved Parliaments and Assemblies, the European Parliament and, importantly, local government.

I am certain that my party will have to readopt all-women shortlists because no other measure—we have tried all the others that I know—will work for Westminster selections and elections. It will not be easy for the party at local level and we will justifiably continue to be criticised for the fact that people from ethnic minorities continue to be under-represented. However, in the case of ethnic minorities, there is much less ground statistically to make up and I am confident that we can do that.

The challenge of the Bill lies with the other parties. If the Opposition parties do not change their selection processes, the proposed legislation will be needed long beyond its sunset clause of 2015. Labour Members will all be fighting to win the next election, but the electoral arithmetic is clear. Women losing their seat in an election with any substantially reduced Labour majority would more likely than not be replaced by men.

The correspondent I quoted earlier asserted that there were plenty of "intelligent arid achieving ladies" out there. Like the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Virginia Bottomley), I have absolutely no doubt about that. Remarkable women are everywhere. The problem with the political parties is that they do not find them and they do not recognise them.

Last week, I was privileged to attend the annual Women of the Year lunch and assembly. This unique event is organised by and the inspiration of an exceptional woman called Tony, otherwise known as Lady Lothian. It has been held every year for 46 years and honours 500 women from all over the country, all of whom are chosen for their achievements. The theme this year was courage. The award winners were: Pam Warren, the founder of the Paddington survivors group—the woman in a plastic face mask; Marie Colvin, the war correspondent, who lost an eye in Sri Lankan clashes this year; and Ellen MacArthur, who sailed alone around the world. These are women who can match men any day. They are all highly visible women, but there were 500 others who are much less visible.

In many walks of life, women are making a contribution, leading and serving communities. We need those women on our councils and in our Parliaments. We owe it to them to ensure that the political parties adopt selection processes that are designed to end the democratic deficit that so distorts our elected institutions.

7.57 pm
Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald)

As ever, it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock), who has spoken with much feeling and made a significant contribution to the debate. She will not be surprised to hear that I do not entirely agree with her.

I have always advocated greater numbers of women in Parliament. I have always wanted to see more women succeeding, not only in getting into this House but in holding positions of responsibility. I earnestly look forward to the day when we have a second woman Prime Minister.

Virginia Bottomley

A Tory.

Miss Widdecombe

Quite right.

The Bill is fundamentally wrong. I must ask this question; are all the men in this place sound asleep? Do they realise what the Bill means for them? Have they thought that positive discrimination for women can entail negative discrimination for men?

I am often quite sorry for men. There are lots of injustices with which they have to put up. For example, they do not live as long as we do, but they have to work longer in order to get a pension. That will not be put right for some time. Some 50 per cent. of young men getting married today will not be able to see their children through to maturity in the same household. Whereas in the past women have had it very hard, there are now a few injustices for men. This Bill will create one more.

The Bill says that it will be permitted, that one could have—apparently we should be grateful that we are not being coerced into it—out of all the methods that could be chosen, an all-women shortlist.

What would that mean for a man in that constituency who had given to his local council the same lifelong service that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson) gave to hers, and who had lived in the constituency all his life? Let us say that the man had worked there and escaped from there, and that he wanted to apply for the seat when it fell vacant. He would not be able to represent the constituency if all-women shortlists were in operation.

That would be the reality for men under this pernicious Bill, yet hon. Gentlemen welcome it as a great step forward. It is a massive step towards inequality for men, and the poor souls just let the women walk all over them. They do not appear to care what will happen to them.

Mrs. Fitzsimons

Does the right hon. Lady accept that some of the hon. Gentlemen may be intelligent enough to realise that that has been the experience of women over the 700 years for which our alleged parliamentary democracy has existed?

Miss Widdecombe

Women have been able to apply for seats anywhere in the country, but the Bill would mean that no man could apply for some seats, no matter how strong his claim to consideration.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon)

Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Miss Widdecombe

Yes, I shall be equal and give way to a man this time.

Dr. Evan Harris

I am grateful in many ways to the right hon. Lady, and take her admonitions to heart. However, does she accept that the justification for affirmative action and positive discrimination is that it would remedy the effects of the negative discrimination that exists in the selection process? Is she prepared to condemn the special discriminatory treatment meted out by some parties to some women when they tell those women that they should not put themselves forward—and that they will not be selected—unless they have sorted out their child care responsibilities? Such questions are not put to men with children who apply for selection.

Miss Widdecombe

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that when I entered a constituency selection committee and saw that most of the people there were women, my heart used to sink. We should not get the idea that discrimination against women is performed solely by men. It is not.

I do not believe that the Bill will do little more than deny some deserving men their basic human rights. The hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson) said that there was a bet about when the word "patronising" would first be used. It is now 8.3 pm, and the time has come. If I had been in a selection committee anteroom with two men who had got there by beating off all the competition yet I was only there because a place had been reserved for a woman on the shortlist, I would not feel helped. I would feel humiliated, insulted and patronised. I am glad to say that my party never did that to me.

I do not believe that the proposal behind the Bill is what was intended by the equal opportunities legislation of the mid-1970s. I remember that legislation, because I belonged to that minority in my party that believed it was necessary. However, feminists in the 70s said, "Give us equality of opportunity and we will show you that we are as good as, if not better, than most of the men." Now, a quarter of a century later, we whinge and whine and demand special treatment because we cannot make it otherwise.

If that is not an insult to women, I do not know what is. Positive discrimination is always negative discrimination against someone. I want every woman in this House to be able to look every man, from the Prime Minister down—or up—in the eye and know that she got here on exactly the same basis as he did. She must know that she has defeated all the competition, and that her path was not artificially smoothed by the removal of inconvenient male competition.

That is the sort of Parliament that I want, and an example of the sort of women's rights for which I have always stood. I firmly believe that the Bill would create two groups of women in the House. One group would be here on the same basis as everyone else, but the other group would be patronised, helped along and specially provided for. That would create two classes of woman MP—and that would be just about the biggest danger to the standing of women in the House.

Mrs. Fitzsimons

Would it not be a bigger insult if we had to wait another century for equality? That is how long it would take if the current rate of change in the Conservative party were applied to the House.

Miss Widdecombe

There is no reason for the House to wait another century. There are other ways in which women can be encouraged to come forward. In the Conservative party, they will not want to do so on the basis that they will be second-class citizens in the House.

With great respect to my hon. Friends on the Front Bench, I am afraid that I oppose the Bill. I think that it is misconceived and an insult to women. It would also be terrible for the future of men, and the poor souls just cannot see it. They need to wake up.

8.6 pm

Caroline Flint (Don Valley)

It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe). This is my 23rd year as a member of the Labour party, and I know that the right hon. Lady is a longstanding member of the Conservative party. I am sure that, like me, she has engaged in discussions for many years about how women's representation can be increased. I have been at many conferences and meetings where all the people attending, male and female, have agreed on one thing—that there should be more women MPs and councillors. The only problem is that some men have not woken up to the fact that more women MPs and councillors would mean fewer men in those positions.

If a level playing field existed that meant that candidates were selected on merit, that would lend merit to the argument of the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald. However, that is not the reality, and later in my remarks I hope to outline why.

I am also pleased to speak in this debate because I was chair of the Brentford and Isleworth Labour party. That was of one of the constituencies cited by Mr. Peter Jepson at the employment tribunal considering his case for overturning the Labour party's position on women-only shortlists. My constituency party volunteered to have a women-only shortlist, and I was pleased that we subsequently elected a woman MP.

I represent the Don Valley constituency, and I was elected on a mixed shortlist. I do not consider that my role—as a woman Member of Parliament and a woman involved in politics—is to lead the vanguard that all women should follow. My position and circumstances mean that I am an exception to the rule, and I feel that I should do something to ensure that other women have better opportunities to be represented in this place.

We should recognise and welcome the steady increase in the representation of women in public life and politics generally, although it may not be as great as we would prefer. As someone who has worked in the trade union movement, I take issue somewhat with my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson). There is no doubt in my mind that the increased voice won by women in the labour and trade union movement has led to the minimum wage, rights for part-time workers, statutory holiday pay, better child care provision and increased child benefit.

Men lead on the Front Bench on some of these issues. For example, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has done much to tackle poverty in families on low pay, but it is the unsung women in our movement who have done so much to make those policies part of the Labour manifesto and the Labour Government's policies. It is no surprise that when male membership of trade unions was on the decline, unions turned to part-time women workers to become members. They have effected enormous change. My trade union is the General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trades Union—the GMB—and I was pleased to speak at an equal rights conference not so long ago. I paid tribute to all those invisible women, many of whom could have been general secretaries or Members of Parliament but did not have the opportunity.

I was delighted that, because of women-only shortlists, in 1997 a large number of Labour women entered Parliament. Policies such as the minimum wage, the working families tax credit and increased child benefit have been part of our vision for what we could achieve in government. It is predominantly women, particularly those in low-paid jobs, who have benefited from those outcomes.

Whatever the outcome of the debate to tackle inequality in representation, we must recognise that inequality still exists in the wider community, in this country and abroad. Job segregation, particularly in the manual sector, means that women earn 80 per cent. of men's hourly pay rates. Women still find it difficult to juggle child care and carer responsibilities and to be valued for it.

When I go to economic regeneration meetings in my local community in Doncaster, I am faced with a sea of men, whereas the child care partnership meetings are peopled predominantly by women. The value that is placed on both those important activities is distorted and unfair. It is a sad fact that if a male candidate has been involved in economic regeneration and a woman in creating child care places, the person with the economic regeneration experience may score more points of value than the woman whose contribution has been to child care.

Even the way in which the media portray women says something about the different ways in which men and women are judged. A radio programme the other day referred to research done by major private companies into why women without any child care responsibilities were not getting promoted. The conclusion was that different judgments were still being made. It was said that women get promoted on performance while men get promoted on potential. Merit is not necessarily why people get selected. Too often, people say that a man will go a long way and that even though he has made a few mistakes he has potential and the right kind of face.

Women continue to gain ground in traditional areas. There is a woman bomber pilot on duty in Afghanistan. We have seen the professionalisation of women's sports. Women have broken through in areas we had never thought possible. However, the fact remains that men run our armed services; they dominate our major sports and will continue to dominate politics for quite a while.

The achievement of equality of representation in the House of Commons is only part of the picture. My colleagues and I also want to see more fundamental changes in the wider society, to ensure that the experience of men and women is reflected and equality is sought.

What is so good about the Bill—and I might have liked it to be more prescriptive—is that it tries to find a way forward in which we can reach agreement across the House. Ultimately, political parties will have to choose how they want to address these issues.

The Labour party did not take the decision to have women-only shortlists lightly. It did not happen overnight. For many years, every conceivable way was tried to ensure that women got the chance to be selected. We have had the coaching, the makeovers, the training; we have had one woman on every shortlist. At the last round, we even had 50 per cent. of women on our shortlists. However, women candidates who got in touch with me have said that the male networks operated to try and put weaker women candidates on the shortlists, excluding some of the stronger ones. I say that without any problem, because women have different merits, and not all are as good as each other. We all have differing points of view, including political points of view.

The decision to ask constituents in marginal seats to choose women-only shortlists was a means to an end and was taken after much consideration. As some of my colleagues have said most eloquently, when we worked out the figures, we did not see how we would make any progress in our lifetime.

We like to believe that this mother of Parliaments is at the forefront of democracy, but that is not true. We are far behind some other European countries in terms of women's representation. Indeed, the agreement at Harare in 1991 to try and ensure that 30 per cent. of representatives in national Parliaments are women has been eagerly embraced by many countries in the developing world. I was fascinated when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development said today that in Pakistan 33 per cent. of those elected in recent council elections were women. We have fewer women representatives in England, Scotland and Wales, and it is ridiculous to suggest that we are leading the way.

The political parties have to consider how to operate. Let us consider the last two elections. Of those seats which raised our total gains in 1997 to 146—and from seats like my own, in which a new candidate replaced a retiring Member of Parliament—we added only another 10 women MPs. The women-only shortlist, where the outcome was at least 50 more women selected, was the main reason for the change. Little were we to know that the endorsement of new Labour would lead to us exceeding our expectations in terms of numbers of seats won, but in fact, it reverted to type without—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord)

Order. The hon. Lady has had her 10 minutes.

8.16 pm
Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire)

I am glad to follow the hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) but sorry that we did not have the opportunity to hear more of her comments. In a sense, my starting point for the support that I wish to give my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) in not opposing the Bill derives from the same origins as the intention of the hon. Member for Don Valley in relation to the Labour party. However we debate the principles of these matters, there is a woefully poor representation of women in Parliament. That is especially true of my Benches, but it is also true of the Labour Benches, and it is important that we change it.

I will come on to why I think that the Bill does not necessarily suffer from some of the problems to which my right hon. Friends the Members for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) and for South-West Surrey (Virginia Bottomley) referred. Perhaps I can go further than my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead in hoping that the Conservative party might use the opportunities available in the Bill.

We need to do something about the situation. I suspect that in 1975, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald said, there would have been an expectation that, using the exception provided in the legislation for political parties from the application of sex discrimination legislation, political parties would, if anything, have been more active in pursuing positive discrimination and more successful in achieving the entry of women into Parliament than was the case for some of the other professions.

When one thinks of Parliament as a profession, one thinks of other professions and the extent to which we, as a Parliament, reflect the nature of the society that we serve. That is why we have to allow the opportunity for more positive action. We do not represent the society that we wish to serve, and we have to do so if we are to be successful as a Parliament. If we consider some of the professions in which women have been increasing their representation, we have clearly failed. In the medical profession, 31 per cent. of doctors are women, but so are 46 per cent. of senior house officers and 50 per cent. of house officers, while 60 per cent. of general practice trainees are women. Although only 19 per cent. of chartered accountants are women—not so many—45 per cent. of chartered accountant students have been women this year.

The law is often thought of as the profession from which so many parliamentarians have been and continue to be drawn. Of the 6,056 entrants to the profession up to July this year, 51 per cent. were women.

Something very serious is going on. For generations Parliament has been, broadly, a place to which people come from the law, medicine or other professions, but the composition of the House does not reflect the change that has occurred in society. We must do something about that. We have to allow positive action to be taken, but what sort of action?

The issue is whether we need this legislation to take such action. The problem—the Minister can no doubt explain this better than I—is that it is unclear whether positive action can be taken. We must make it clear. We should be able to take action to treat genders—and, for that matter, races and minorities—equally. The principles of equal treatment and positive action are not mutually exclusive.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald argued that positive discrimination is undesirable because it results in negative discrimination for others. I am through the gate, as it were, so I am perhaps less vulnerable, but men should not be chary of having to fight for reasonable representation on their merits while women do the same.

The issue is—my right hon. Friend raised this explicitly—whether, if a man regards himself as exceptionally well qualified to represent a particular constituency, given the nature of our electoral system, it would be grossly unfair for him not to be selected. That is why women-only shortlists are not the way to proceed. That is what my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead made clear from the Opposition Front Bench.

With all respect to the Secretary of State, when he answered my question, I think that he missed the point. The Labour party may wish to go down the path of women-only shortlists, but the question is not whether that is proportionate to the objective; the test will be whether, according to the European Court of Justice ruling on the Abrahamsson case, it will lead to a situation in which it will be permissible to confer preference on a female candidate who possesses equivalent or substantially equivalent merits to a male competitor, provided that the candidatures are the subject of an objective assessment that takes account of the specific personal situations of the candidates. There is a risk for the Labour party, but as political parties, we would do well to embrace this principle when using the powers under the Bill. We must ensure that where an objective assessment of the personal situation of candidates can be applied, there will always be an opportunity to override what might otherwise be giving priority of preference to remedying the gross under-representation overall.

I will confine my remaining remarks to the Conservative party. We should set out to arrive at a system that will rapidly amend the gross under-representation of women on our Benches, but which will allow individual constituencies to select candidates on the basis of their individual merits.

The sort of system that I advocate will operate on the basis that, until now, far too few women candidates who have been endorsed by Conservative central office have been on candidate lists. If we increase the proportion of women, broadly speaking, to 50 per cent., particularly for constituencies that we hold or are most likely to win, we stand a good chance of requiring those constituencies to ensure that we end up with more women representatives.

Miss Widdecombe

Is the small percentage of women on the list the result of the procedures or of the fact that not enough women come forward in the first place?

Mr. Lansley

It is the result of both, but I will not go into the matter at great length. We need to reform procedures and we need to recruit far more women. We will only be successful in recruiting more—there are many women of obvious talent and merit in the Conservative party—if we have put in place a system that makes it much more obvious that they will not be discriminated against and that their chances of selection are at least as good as those of any man.

Stephen Hesford

If a list that is 50 per cent. male and 50 per cent. female is issued by central office and local associations must choose their candidates from it, might not the following happen? Those associations that select first might take the 50 per cent. of candidates that are male because they could choose from either part of the list, and the rest would have to take the women who were left.

Mr. Lansley

I understand the hon. Gentleman's argument. I think that the Conservative party should have something akin to a twinning system, but on a much larger scale, and in biddable and winnable constituencies. Individual constituencies can select candidates who live in their area, subject to the consent of Conservative central office. It is a process that will have to be actively managed by the Conservative party to produce the necessary results.

No one should be under any illusions. Under such a system, there is no question of candidates being selected who do not have obvious merit. We will be setting out to create a list of candidates, for winnable seats in particular, made up of people who do have such merits. That is why the Conservative party can use this legislation without fear of its being overturned. I fear that the Labour party may go down the path of women-only shortlists, undermine the case for positive action, and put itself at risk of further legal challenge as the equal treatment directive is amended.

8.26 pm
Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North)

Thank you for calling me to speak in this important debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am delighted to be here on this occasion.

On 2 March 1998, during my first year as a Member of this House, I moved an amendment to the Government of Wales Bill that would have exempted political parties from the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. Obviously, that amendment was not accepted by the Government. Information for the speech that I made then was provided by Val Feld, then director of the Equal Opportunities Commission for Wales, who until recently was the Assembly Member for Swansea East. Tragically, she died in July and I pay tribute to her for the endless work that she did for equal opportunities in Wales. She would have been delighted that this Bill is before the House today with the support of the Government and all the other parties.

I congratulate the Government on producing this Bill so swiftly in the new Parliament. The need for it is self-evident. As the Secretary of State said, the general election was the last straw. The failure to increase the number of women Members of Parliament firmly demonstrated that some mechanism is needed.

In Wales there has always been a problem in getting women selected as parliamentary candidates for any of the political parties. At present, women MPs—all Labour—represent only four of the 40 Welsh constituencies. The other political parties in Wales have no women MPs; indeed, the Tories hold no Welsh seats at all. Since women obtained the vote, only seven women have held Welsh seats, and six of them have been Labour Members.

Since I have been involved in politics in Wales, however, women have always been ready, willing and able to stand for parliamentary seats; they have simply not been selected. It is argued that women do not put themselves forward, but that is not true. In Wales, women have constantly sought selection for parliamentary seats, but they have not been chosen.

Women are not put off by the hours worked in the House or by its male image. They are not put off by the problems of caring for children or elderly relatives. They have constantly put themselves forward as candidates. Women have experience of juggling jobs and child care; they set up after-school clubs and run voluntary bodies. We women are used to doing myriad things as we juggle our various priorities.

Why have women not been selected in Wales, even though they always stand? I have no doubt that it is due to a bias against women at selection conferences, even though in many cases it may be an unconscious bias. In Wales, we overcame that bias by adopting the twinning mechanism for the Assembly elections. That resulted in a Labour group of 16 women and 12 men—a unique situation. Overall, 42 per cent. of Assembly Members are women. Thus, the Assembly has the best gender balance of all the UK bodies, followed closely by the Scottish Parliament where twinning was also used. That contrasts with the 17.9 per cent. of women MPs at Westminster—a drop since the previous general election.

The adoption of the twinning mechanism was extremely controversial. Argument raged while the procedure was being considered by the party. There was daily debate as to whether it was fair or right or whether it should be implemented. Pro and anti-twinners held demonstrations outside Labour's Cardiff headquarters. Those of us who supported twinning even had a song. It might have been rather banal, but we sang "We shall twin to win". The campaign lasted for several months, but it had the desired result.

After the excellent result achieved for women in the National Assembly, the general election was a huge disappointment in Wales. No more women were elected for Welsh seats. In my party all the seven seats held by retiring Members went to male candidates, despite all the advantages women had gained in the Assembly where they are highly visible and hold prominent positions. Women are in the majority in the Assembly's Cabinet, but as soon as the general election came along everything reverted to type and women did not get a look in.

Two years after that highly successful twinning campaign to get women into the National Assembly, all that effort came to nothing and we reverted to all-male candidates. That makes the strongest possible case for a mechanism to ensure fair play in Westminster selections. That failure to make progress, or even to protect the progress that has been made, shows that equality in selecting candidates for the Westminster Parliament will not occur naturally.

Some of my hon. Friends have talked about the different mechanisms that have been used. Many methods have been tried in my party. We started off by saying that there should be a woman on every shortlist. At that time, there was certainly one woman on all the shortlists in Wales—sometimes more than one—but no progress was made. At the last general election, there were 50:50 shortlists, yet the result in Wales was that no women were selected for those seven seats, even though no one could claim that there were not able and committed women who could easily have come to the House and played a major role—women were simply not selected. It was not even that men won four or five of those seven selections; they got seven out of seven. That makes the case for the Bill. A mechanism is needed.

It is only through all-women shortlists that progress has actually been made. That mechanism contributed to the influx of Labour women MPs in 1997. Three of the four women who represent Welsh constituencies were selected from all-women shortlists.

I am proud to have been selected from an all-women shortlist. When I think of the selection process, I recall the other women who were on the shortlist, what they had to contribute and the range of skills that they had. They represented different sections of the Labour party and, as has been said, women are not a homogenous group. Party members were able to choose between different political positions. I completely reject the suggestion made by Conservative Members that there are two types of woman MP. That is a dangerous way to talk.

Proportional representation has been mentioned and I strongly support a fairer system of representation. The Equal Opportunities Commission research document on women in Parliament found that women are twice as likely to be elected under proportional representation as under the first-past-the-post system. However, PR will advance the position of women only if the political parties select women for winnable seats. Although PR under a list system may make it easier and may remove much of the stress and difficulty of choosing candidates, the parties must first have the political will to encourage the greater representation of women.

Twinning was a one-off and it will be difficult to repeat it, especially as there are many sitting incumbents. It is important to know the Bill's timetable and when it is likely to receive Royal Assent. I fear that that might be too late to influence the process of selection for the next round of National Assembly elections, but the fact that the Bill is going through Parliament may affect the way in which selection takes place.

If the Bill is passed, the Labour party—

Mr. Deputy Speaker


8.37 pm
Mrs. Patsy Calton (Cheadle)

I stand before the House a little wiser than I was 30 years ago. Then I believed that discrimination would disappear as more women were educated and joined the professions and commerce. I believed that they would be able to do anything to which they committed themselves and that, gradually, the numbers of women in senior positions in all organisations would increase. I was wrong.

In some walks of life women have been able to reach the top, on a par with men, but that is all too rare. This place is the supreme example of the failure on the part of a parliamentary democracy to achieve true representation of the people.

The reasons are many and complex. We hear that not enough women put themselves forward and, indeed, they do not. Why could that be? The perception of this place is that it is a male club That perception results from its adversarial nature and from the laughter at people's trivial mistakes as well as from long speeches that are designed—to do what? Little is done to convince the public that anything worth while takes place here.

In the debate on international terrorism held during the first recall of Parliament on 14 September one woman was called to speak. What was the subliminal message to anyone switching on their television that day? It was that, on an important subject of national and international significance, women had little part to play.

Worse is the impediment here to getting anything done. Local councils have been instructed by law to modernise, and decision making takes place more swiftly there than it does here. Here joined-up thinking appears not to have even started. No thought is given to the costs of debate, as we all oscillate around decisions for month after month.

I do not have great experience of Select Committees, but I am aware that they pass "difficult" topics such as child care provision for Members around like hot potatoes. Even a decision to do something as obviously sensible as opening the Line of Route in the summer recess has taken hour after expensive hour of everyone's time. I emphasise that I do not criticise right hon. and hon. Members, who do their best in the circumstances. It is the system that is impenetrable, and the culture allows that to happen.

Then there is the language. A young man at a meeting recently told me that when his black friends switched on the Parliamentary Channel nothing they saw had anything to do with them. Very little of it has anything to do with me. This place is an anachronism, a series of archaic procedures. The words "modern legislature" do not ring true, do they? No wonder some of our young colleagues could not stand the thought of another term of office.

It is also true that not enough women get through the selection procedures. Why not? It is because there is a mixture of direct discrimination and an inability to select anything that did not have a shave that morning. The male-shaped space wins almost every time in a winnable seat. So why am I here? It is very simple: no one thought I could win.

I used not to think like this, but years of having "Mum" metaphorically stamped on my forehead have changed my mind. Given the statistics, the best candidate does not always win the selection in a winnable seat. The person who has had the time to build the party networks and can be flexible because someone else is looking after the children has an in-built advantage.

The playing field is not even. If it were, many more women would be achieving office already. The Bill gives political parties the opportunity to implement measures to give more women the chance of standing for Parliament and other political office. That process should not stop at elected office. Only a third of appointees to quangos are women.

The Bill is not without risk to political parties, a problem that was addressed by my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler).

Some European countries have taken positive measures to ensure more even representation by women. The most successful in terms of outcome have been those that combine proportional representation with a quota system. In the House, there is less than 18 per cent. representation by women. My party has nothing to crow about, with representation by women standing at less than 10 per cent. Women are under-represented in local government, as has been stated, and especially in senior local government positions, which are badly affected by the imbalance.

We need to stop blaming the victims for the problem and recognise that there will never be true representation in this country until we address the culture of our decision-making bodies. This policy is not about doing women a favour; it is about doing the country a favour.

It is wrong to regard the playing field as level. The country will continue to need, and should value, the caring role that is largely carried out by women. Most women's lives are not like most men's lives. We need to measure success by outcomes and not the processes used. This country will make no more significant decision this Parliament. We lag behind democracies across the world and action is needed now.

8.43 pm
Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)

I support the Bill because the requirement to improve the way in which democracy functions in Great Britain is important. Our democracy is deformed by the fact that women are inadequately represented in Parliament. There is clear evidence that the only way to change that is to introduce either electoral reform, which I support, or positive action measures such as those permitted in the Bill.

The policy gives rise to many anxieties, one of which was eloquently expressed by the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), who I am sorry to see is no longer in the Chamber. She said that men will have to move over to create opportunities for women, but it is not a new phenomenon for one sex to have to give way to another. Men in politics have long built their careers on women—their secretaries, their wives, their agents and the party volunteers who have helped their careers. Many of those women have sacrificed their own ambitions in the process. Now it is time for men to return the favour to help the political system as a whole to do a better job.

One cause of anxiety is that a system that provides direct assistance to women produces second-rate MPs. The leader of the Conservative party recently expressed that view, saying: All-women shortlists have not been a success for Labour because instead of getting people who are high quality what we have actually got is people who have not really performed for the Labour party. He produced no evidence to support that breath-taking observation, and I concluded that he probably did not know which Government Members had been selected from all-women shortlists. I do, so I decided to carry out some research and find the evidence about our performance.

That evidence shows that we are at least as good as our colleagues and above average in many respects. We are active participants in the Commons: more than 70 per cent. of the 35 MPs selected from all-women shortlists were in the top 50 per cent. in terms of participation in Commons Divisions during the 2000–01 Session. They ask an average number of questions and contribute powerfully in Select Committees. Two have successfully introduced private Members' Bills: my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Ms Shipley) promoted the Protection of Children Act 1999; and the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool. Garston (Maria Eagle) led directly to the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Act 2000. Only 18 private Members' Bills became law in the last Parliament.

Women MPs are persistent and, as the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions acknowledged, they have helped to ensure that Government policy reflects women's concerns. A parliamentary answer I received on 13 March stated that Budgets set during the last Parliament had improved the incomes of women on average by £440, and of men by £225—showing that we are doing our bit as a Government to ease the income gap between men and women.

Many MPs who were selected from all-women shortlists have been promoted since 1997, so clearly someone thinks we are doing a good job. Eight have been invited to become Ministers and seven have accepted the promotion; 16 have been Parliamentary Private Secretaries. A comparison with other Members elected at the same time reveals that the same proportion of both groups have become Ministers, and a rather larger proportion of MPs selected from women-only shortlists have become Parliamentary Private Secretaries.

Something close to the heart of every single Member of Parliament is elections. We have done especially well in that respect. Women selected from women-only shortlists have performed better than other Labour candidates. About a third of us increased our share of the vote, in common with about a third of Labour candidates; but candidates who had been selected from women-only shortlists achieved a higher than average share of the vote for Labour.

Why is all that relevant? MORI reported that only half of the female population expresses any interest in politics, compared with two thirds of men. Figures that are clearly connected to that suggest that 3 per cent. fewer women than men voted in the general election. Compelling research supports the assertion that women think that women politicians are more in touch with what they care about, their lives and their concerns. I think that a strong argument can be made that women in Parliament will help to re-engage women with politics.

There is compelling evidence that unless we take direct action—and take the brickbats of those who say that because we were selected from women—only shortlists we must be second-class MPs—we will not have more women in Parliament. We can disagree about the specific tactics required in individual parties, but we all know that the good intentions expressed by every party so far have failed. We need more than good intentions and half-hearted measures.

I think that we will pass the Bill tonight, but for many of us its enactment will mark only the start of our work. The next challenge will be to win support within our parties for the action that the Bill permits. It is unusual for politicians to stress the things that they have in common, but women in every party face the same problems. I have talked to women in other parties who, if the selection system was fair, would be in the House. I think of Jean Lucas, the formidable Tory agent in Wandsworth, and my sister who, I am quite glad, is not a Liberal Democrat MP. Women who read reports by the Bow Group or the Centre for Policy Studies about the struggles of women in the Conservative party to be selected, or who listen to accounts of what went on at the recent Liberal Democrat conference, will have twinges of painful recognition.

We have all been present when someone arrives in the middle of debate, not having heard what was said, and starts muttering critical remarks in a corner. That happens in our party meetings as well as the Chamber. Members on both sides of the House must discuss how they are going to achieve whatever system is right for the culture of their party and how they are going to get more women in Parliament. Unless we take positive action we will not be able to repair the fault in our democracy; at the moment, we have a men's democracy, not a people's democracy. The only way to repair that fault is for every party to design a system that will guarantee to increase the proportion of women standing on its behalf in elections. Frankly, we all know that if we do not, a phenomenon which I suspect worries everyone equally in the Chamber and was obvious in the poor participation in the last election, when only a small number of people bothered to vote, will become more serious. Democracy is democracy only when Members of Parliament genuinely represent their constituencies; we can represent them fully only if our constituents participate in the business of putting us here.

The Bill is about who the parties offer our constituents. We are equal as MPs because we are all chosen by the people who live in our constituencies, and we should all be proud of representing them. No one here is second-class, but until we get politics in the House of Commons that make sense to our constituents, we will fail the principle of democracy.

8.52 pm
Lady Hermon (North Down)

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson) is no longer in the Chamber, as I should have liked to thank her for her kind words about how active women are in communities in Northern Ireland. I want to add to her remarks by bringing a Northern Ireland perspective to our debate and registering the Ulster Unionist party's deep concern that the Bill may result in positive discrimination. We in Northern Ireland have just embarked on a form of positive discrimination that we find deeply divisive and counter-productive; I shall speak about that in due course.

I am one of only three women in Parliament who represent constituencies in Northern Ireland out of a total of 18 MPs in that part of the United Kingdom. Of course, that is a deeply unsatisfactory state of affairs, but it is a great improvement when one considers that for the last 30 years or so all our MPs were men. However, the House might also note—this gives me no pleasure—that the total of three is inflated, as the Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Michelle Gildernew) achieved her 53-vote majority only with the aid of intimidatory tactics in a polling station. Those tactics were described only last Friday by Lord Chief Justice Carswell in an electoral court in his home town of Belfast as "extremely reprehensible".

There is little doubt that women are grossly under-represented in political life in Northern Ireland. particularly when compared to other regions of the United Kingdom. I understand that 42 per cent. of Members of the National Assembly for Wales are women. The figure falls to 37 per cent. for membership of the Scottish Parliament. Much worse is the figure for the new Northern Ireland Assembly, where just 13 per cent. of Members are women.

I am glad to see the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough back in her place, and I thank her.

Fortunately, the Belfast agreement was not silent about the role of women in public life. As a strong supporter of the agreement, I was pleased that it enshrined, among many things, a clear commitment by all the parties to the right of women to full and equal political participation". That is a commitment which the Ulster Unionist party greatly welcomed and still does.

The agreement also included a provision whereby all the parties affirmed the right to equal opportunity in all social and economic activity, regardless of class, creed, disability, gender or ethnicity". Given the central themes of equality and nondiscrimination which run through the Belfast agreement, which I repeat that I welcome, my party would be strongly opposed to any legislation that ran counter to those themes. We in the UUP are opposed to all forms of discrimination, including positive discrimination.

I alluded earlier to a recent example of positive discrimination. It relates to the recruitment process for the new Police Service of Northern Ireland. For the benefit of right hon. and hon. Members who might not be aware of the fact, I should explain that the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 incorporated a provision which legalised religious discrimination in recruitment, so that 50 per cent. of recruits would come from the Roman Catholic community and the other 50 per cent. would not. In practice, that means that Jewish, Protestant, Chinese, atheist and Muslim recruits who have made it through all the tests on merit may nevertheless be rejected on the grounds of their community background—their religion.

My party shares the desire to make the Police Service of Northern Ireland much more representative of the entire community, but we emphatically do not believe that the discriminatory recruitment policy is the way forward. We believe it to be counter-productive and divisive for the new Police Service, and that is not what I wish to see. Likewise, we believe that if the selection of political candidates were brought about by positive discrimination, it would be counter-productive and divisive.

I have listened carefully to the debate and the contributions from other right hon. and hon. Members. We need a much clearer understanding of the reasons behind the low numbers of women in political life throughout the United Kingdom. I therefore commend to the House the work of the recently established centre for the advancement of women into politics. I must declare that I sit on a voluntary basis as a member of its advisory board. The centre was launched last month, on 28 September 2001. It is based in the school of politics in Queen's university, Belfast, and aims to foster an appreciation of women's contribution to politics, government and public decision making in the United Kingdom and Ireland. I believe it to be the only centre of its kind in Europe.

The centre considers women's political participation as having two important dimensions: the proportion of women in decision making, and the inclusion of women's perspectives in Government policies and programmes. I take the opportunity to pay tribute to its director, Yvonne Galligan, and also to the lady who opened the centre, who is no other than Mary McAleese, formerly of Queen's university and now the President of the Republic of Ireland. I think that President Mary McAleese's well-deserved rise to become her country's elected Head of State demonstrates that the correct blend of determination and ability can bring political dividends for a woman in these islands.

I appreciate that the Bill is permissive, as opposed to prescriptive. However, although the Ulster Unionist party will always support equality we shall not be persuaded to support positive discrimination.

9 pm

Stephen Hesford (Wirral, West)

I am conscious of the fact that I may be the only male Back Bencher to contribute to this debate. In that respect, I bear a heavy responsibility. I hope not to speak for my 10 minutes, because I do not want to be accused of promoting male domination, especially as others who are present have much more relevant and serious experience of prejudice and loss, which they can eloquently bring to this debate

I was going to start my speech with a quotation from Peter Riddell, the columnist on The Times, but when I heard the speech of the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) I thought that it would be irrelevant. Fortunately, however, I was rescued by the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe). I respectfully suggest that she represents more of what the Tories think about the Bill than the hon. Member for Maidenhead, however seriously and honourably she expresses her views. She shakes her head, but we may see in future weeks and months that that is a truism.

In 1993, Peter Riddell reviewed women's progress in Parliament up to the 1992 election. He wrote: But, as in many other professions, there is a long way to go to redress the overall imbalance and the disadvantages which women face when in a career structure favouring men. That was true then, and it is still true now. If there is any doubt about the argument—I shall come to some statistics in a moment—we must remember that that is the principle that we are debating. By giving the Bill its Second Reading and then enacting it, I hope that we will defeat it in this place—and not before time. We are considering an issue of principle, which, as other hon. Members have made clear, is about equity for that 51 per cent. of the population who are vastly under-represented in this place. It is also a question of the balanced representation that people who would otherwise be women MPs could bring to this place.

The Bill is short, but it will have a significant effect on our political body. Many people fear that change, even though they do not expressly say so. I am sorry to say that Labour Members do not come to the debate with clean hands in that respect. I hope that my colleagues will forgive me for saying that the fears that I describe are shared on the Labour Benches. We must grasp that reality.

Let me read some statistics on women's representation after the 2001 election. Eight per cent. of Conservative MPs were women, and women accounted for 23 per cent. of Labour MPs and 10 per cent. of Liberal Democrat MPs. The Government have done all they could to bring representation of women to the fore in this place by appointing them as Ministers, of whom 30 per cent. are women. In terms of the overall proportions, women are over-represented as Ministers.

I am pleased to see that that is the case. The Government have done as much as they could. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on looking to bring forward role models to say to the public that this place and this Government in particular are not as irrelevant to their lives as they sometimes perceive. Some 26 per cent. of Cabinet members are women, which is six people out of 23.1 would enter a small caveat in relation to that figure, as it takes into account members of the other place. My point, however, is that if there is a political will within the party or parties, progress can be made.

The Inter-Parliamentary Union compared democracies around the world, and I am grateful to the House of Commons Library for providing this information. Of the 179 members of the IP LJ, Britain comes in a very sorry 39th in the list of democracies. To put that in stark relief, and with no disrespect to the countries that I am about to mention—in fact, in some ways I applaud them—we are behind Turkmenistan and Vietnam. We cannot look with equanimity on that fact.

There is a party political element to this issue. Although I welcome the agreement among the Front Benchers of both Opposition parties, one must look at the reality. The proportion of women Liberal Democrat candidates has fallen since 1992. I have to ask—perhaps rhetorically—whether, in the light of their recent conference decision, they come to this debate with entirely clean hands. However, I welcome their support, if support it is.

Dr. Evan Harris

I am not entirely sure what point the hon. Gentleman is making, and I am not entirely sure that he knows either. We have recognised that we have a problem, particularly with winnable seats. It is somewhat easier to put up women candidates in non-winnable seats. We focus on the winnable seats, and we have a numerical problem with that, given the electoral system. We recognise our problem and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that we bring that recognition to our support of the Bill.

Stephen Hesford

I hope that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will forgive me if I simply move on.

In the 2001 election, 15 per cent. of the Conservative party's female candidates were successful—14 out of 92, its lowest successful proportion ever. So Conservatives cannot, come to the debate claiming that up-to-date statistics are glad tidings.

Mrs. May

We have said nothing of the sort. If the hon. Gentleman had listened to my speech, he would have heard me say that my party needs to ensure that we, in particular, increase the representation of women on our Benches.

Stephen Hesford

I hear what the hon. Lady says. When the Labour party, struggling with this difficult issue before the 1997 general election, moved to all-women shortlists, there was almost unanimous derision from the Conservatives.

Mrs. Spelman

indicated dissent.

Stephen Hesford

The hon. Lady shakes her head, but it is true. There was complete derision.

Mrs. May

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is trying to pick a fight, but I do not think that the need for a fight exists. Although I recognise that one or two speeches in the debate have taken a different course, it has been interesting to note the degree of agreement about the need to do something to increase the number of women in Parliament. It is right that members of my party have challenged the concept of all-women shortlists; indeed, I did so tonight. The important point about the Bill is that it will enable parties to do what they believe is right in terms of taking positive action—positive action of all kinds—and my party will take the action that we believe is necessary, which may well not involve all-women shortlists.

Stephen Hesford

We have heard the comments from the Conservatives. I have to say that the contribution of the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Virginia Bottomley) was somewhat schizophrenic. She began by speaking in favour of the Bill, then seemed to argue herself out of that view by the end of her speech. The hon. Member for Maidenhead made the same kind of argument in a less obvious way, submit that this is and remains a party political issue. The courage shown by the Government in introducing the Bill forces the issue, and I commend the ministerial team: For that. I hope that the Bill receives a Second Reading.

Two arguments are put to me as a male Labour Member. One is that the legislation is not a doorstep issue. People ask, "Why are you bothering to bring the Bill before the House?" Introducing it is a point of principle, which is important in itself. If we cannot legislate on important points of principle, what good are we in this place?

The second argument is that the legislation is a doorstep issue for all those constituencies that are more than adequately represented by my female colleagues who were elected in 1997 on all-women shortlists. I am absolutely honoured—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I call Mr. Walter.

9.11 pm
Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset)

I am delighted that there are two women on our Front Bench to represent the Opposition view—not two token women but two of the most effective women in Parliament. As well as speaking on women's issues, they hold key shadow Cabinet portfolios.

The Bill marks another milestone in the slow progress in western democracies towards political equality between men and women. The measure should be unnecessary, but alas the inbuilt prejudices that have existed throughout the battle for women's representation persist today. That battle extends back to the 19th century and even before, and I am reminded of it every morning. Hanging on the wall outside my bathroom is an item from the collection of political memorabilia owned by my wife, Barbara Gorna. She has campaigned for political equality for many years, as have many women Members, and she inspired me in that cause. She also stood for election to the House in 1997, albeit unsuccessfully.

I am reminded of the battle for women's representation by the bloodstained scarf worn by Emily Davison when she fell in front of the King's horse at the 1913 Derby. Hon. Members will remember that Emily Davison died in Epsom hospital on 8 June, but my wife has the telegram sent from Buckingham palace to the jockey on 7 June: Queen Alexandra was very sorry indeed to hear of your sad accident caused through the abominable conduct of a brutal lunatic woman. I telegraph now by Her Majesty's command to enquire how you are getting on and to express Her Majesty's sincere hope that you may soon be alright again. Queen Alexandra would be at home on many parliamentary selection committees today.

Progress in the House began with the Reform Act 1832, which massively extended the franchise, although alas not to women. In 1867, the franchise was further extended and by 1869 a small group of female ratepayers gained the vote in municipal elections. At the time, a remark of particular relevance to today's debate was made. Benjamin Disraeli said: In the present age, and under the existing circumstances of the country, the best way to maintain and strengthen the character and functions of the House of Commons was to establish them on a broad, popular basis. I do not have to remind hon. Members that it was not until 1918 that the House managed to extend the franchise to women over 30. In October that year, it gave women the right to sit in the House of Commons. The opposition then, and in 1928 when the franchise was finally extended to give women equality, was deep-seated, bigoted and misplaced. The hon. Member for Enfield, Colonel Applin, said: There are at least 75 per cent. of the people of this country who do not want this thing … I feel certain that I am right. It is not an equal franchise; it is an unequal franchise. Colonel Applin calculated that there would be 2.2 million more women than men on the register. He went on: It will give the women the power over the finances of the country. Then—in a fashion that might find some support among selection committees—he went on: It must mean taking on grave responsibilities, which would perhaps be too great a burden for women. Colonel Applin was interrupted by at least one woman Member at that stage, but he ploughed on: Suppose a woman sat on that Bench as Chancellor of the Exchequer … Imagine her introducing her Budget, and in middle her speech a message coming in"— he obviously had some foresight about pagers— 'Your child is dangerously ill, come at once."' He concluded: It is obvious that, with a thousand cases like that, the whole system must break down".—[Official Report, 29 March 1928; Vol. 215, c. 1392–93.] And so, today, we come to this Bill. Britain currently has one of the lowest levels of political representation of women in Europe. It has been argued that the best way in which to counter the trend is for parties to use positive action mechanisms. Encouragement, coercion and shame do not work; where positive action has been used, it has dramatically increased women's representation.

The last election saw 118 women elected to Parliament—less than in 1997. That represents progress at a rate of about 1.5 women per year in the 82 years since women have been eligible to sit here. Now we have gone into reverse: in the European Union, only Ireland and France have lower female representations.

Positive action, is needed not because women are not able to succeed on merit but because discrimination in the selection process means that they are rarely given an opportunity to try. Experience from across Europe has demonstrated that the use of positive action is a key factor in the determination of whether a country has high levels of female representation. Better training and support for potential female candidates are of course necessary, but they have not made a significant difference.

Today we have an opportunity to amend the Act that outlawed Labour's all-women shortlists. There are those who argue that candidates should be selected simply on merit—that the best candidate for the job should be selected, regardless of gender. In an ideal world, of course, those candidates should be selected on merit, but at present that does not happen. Opaque discrimination is inherent in the selection processes of all political parties. If a selection committee is determined to choose a male candidate, the woman candidate will not be selected no matter how good she is.

The predominantly elderly selectors tend to have a clear vision of their ideal candidate. In the Tory party he is married, 40-something, with a reasonable career in the City, the law or the Army. A bit of experience in local government helps, but the real clincher is the attractive wife, two smashing kids and a labrador.

Positive action is needed not because women cannot succeed on the basis of merit, but because discrimination means that all too often women are not given the opportunity to stand. There are those who say that discrimination should not be countered with more discrimination—discrimination against men. They say that two wrongs do not make a right. My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) made that point. But positive action is not designed to discriminate against men as revenge for the discrimination suffered by women; it is designed to level the playing field, to allow women to compete for parliamentary selection on the same basis as men.

I have heard female colleagues suggest that it is patronising to women to suggest that they need this kind of help. There are clever party functionaries who say that the problem is not that women are being discriminated against but that not enough women are putting themselves forward. They would say, "Why bother?" But every political party contains talented women who have been trying for years to be selected to fight a safe or marginal parliamentary seat. Even in the Labour party, and I speak as no expert, half the aspiring candidates shortlisted for safe Labour party seats were women, yet only just over 10 per cent. of those seats went to women.

I have heard successful male candidates argue that women are coming forward but that they are not good women and that with positive action we end up with low-quality Members of Parliament—obviously, those without smashing kids, jam-making spouses and pedigree labradors. They suggest that women elected under Labour's all-women shortlists in 1997 are a prime example of that. I could make a cheap party point, but in all honesty there is no evidence to suggest that the women selected under all-women shortlists are any better or worse than the rest of their parliamentary colleagues.

The Bill is permissive. Political parties may take advantage of it if they wish. It will not force any political party to adopt positive action mechanisms. It is a desperate measure, but it is temporary. It is essential and it is timely.

9.21 pm
Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands)

In the United Kingdom, the watershed for women parliamentarians was the election of the Labour Government in 1997 and the election of 101 Labour women to Parliament. Before that, women had never made up more than 10 per cent. of all UK Members of Parliament. But we cannot rest on our laurels. We have just 118 women MPs now. Less than one in five MPs are women, which is well below the record of our European neighbours.

I am particularly pleased that the Bill extends to local government because it is often at local level that women are most active—for example, as school governors, tenants, representatives or representatives of church organisations. It is a natural step for many women to stand for council and find a route to wider political involvement. However, that route to empowerment locally and nationally can be blocked for women. Only one quarter of local councillors across England are women, despite women's traditional involvement in grass-roots politics. I do not think that anyone in their right mind would suggest that that is because women are less able than existing male councillors.

Local government cart be a valuable training ground for politicians, but my concern is that we are failing to attract young recruits, just as we are failing to enthuse young people about voting. I recently visited a sixth form in my constituency for a political debate. I was particularly impressed by the articulate and well-informed girls who quizzed me. A few years ago, when I visited schools as a local councillor, it was difficult to get girls to be vocal and to participate. Now there is no holding them back. It is the boys who are less forthcoming.

If my constituency is anything to go by, we have talented young women interested in politics, but how do we transform that interest into involvement? The Bill will do a lot to help, but we must do more. Putting citizenship on the curriculum is a step forward but democracy should be a real part of young people's lives. All schools should have school councils that mean something—not talking shops but forums to listen to pupils' views and to act upon them.

We must involve young people in their communities, giving them a stake in those communities. Then they will want to vote and to involve themselves in community politics. I know that that is easier said than done, but it has to happen if we are to have a healthy democracy. Let us be in absolutely no doubt: ensuring that women of all ages are involved at every level of government is about building a healthy democracy. We cannot afford to exclude over 50 per cent. of our population from political representation, but that is what we have done. Since 1918, of Members who have served in the House of Commons, only 6 per cent. have been women. That is shameful.

The trade union movement is another traditional training ground for Labour Members. All too often, however, as Fawcett Society research has demonstrated, good intentions on women's representation are often sidelined in the desire to get favourite sons into safe or winnable seats.

My experience with Unison has been rather different from that. Prior to the 1997 general election, Unison created a parliamentary panel of 12 members, 10 of whom were women. It provided training, advice, support and assistance with printing, and four Unison women were elected. I am delighted that another woman from Unison, my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Anne Picking), joined us in 2001. Unison's use of a small panel enabled it to give support to women candidates which helped them to be selected. I believe that unions have a proud record in promoting women's rights in the work force, by training and by representation. If they have the political will they can do the same for women parliamentarians.

The selection process itself is central to the promotion of women candidates. It is vital that parties adopt rules that are clear and very much in black and white. Any perceived bias in the selection process must be eradicated if women are to believe that they have an equal chance of selection. There must be a level playing field for all applicants on access to membership information, the use of conduct rules, postal votes and contact with party members, and also concerning the types of information that candidates can circulate.

I support women-only shortlists because too many women have been put on shortlists simply to reach a 50 per cent. quota. Women-only shortlists helped to break the logjam back in 1997, and they can help us to make further progress now. They are not an insult to women.

In my selection, I defeated five men. In the mid-1960s, when my father was selected as a candidate for Preston, North, he was chosen from an all-male shortlist. However, he did not feel patronised because he was not taking on allcomers. At that time, women were not even considered for selections. No one batted an eyelid that he was selected from an all-male shortlist because it was traditional, old-fashioned sexual discrimination. It was not positive discrimination to secure a Parliament that properly reflects the experience and skills of the whole population.

9.27 pm
Adam Price (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr)

I shall keep my speech short.

It is a great pleasure to speak on behalf of Plaid Cymru—the party of Wales—and the Scottish National party on this very important and welcome Bill. It is a pleasure also to add another Welsh voice to the debate. As the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) said, we come from a country that has elected only seven women to this place from the more than 1,500 Members that we have returned here since the Act of Union. Now, however, in the excellent record of the National Assembly, Wales is leading the debate on structures of representation for women.

As we have heard today, the evidence shows overwhelmingly that the problem lies not with the voters—who are only too happy when given the opportunity to elect women Members—or with women, but with parties and institutions. That is the clear message that I am taking away from this debate. As we heard, many women find the culture of the political arena alien, unfriendly and sometimes even hostile. Consequently, many of them reject politics entirely. Other women face more practical obstacles in juggling personal and political commitments.

Despite the welcome changes in recent years, the sitting hours of the House and the parliamentary programme have still not been adjusted fully to take into account the dual burden carried by many women and also by many men. I draw hon. Members' attention to the family-friendly hours that are operated by the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales. We could learn much on the issue from those institutions.

Lack of confidence is one of the key reasons for w omen's under-representation in formal political institutions, and this shows the importance of a supportive culture within parties and institutions in nurturing women's political self-confidence. In this regard, I pay tribute to the exemplary record of the Scottish National party, which has had a strong record over the years in terms of women's representation in this House. The party achieved a representation of 43 per cent.—17 women MSPs—in its Scottish parliamentary group without mechanisms. That shows the health and strength of that party's commitment to gender equality.

We as a party in this House do not have such a good record; that is why, in the 1990s, we instituted a gender balance commission and placed the women candidates for the National Assembly elections at the top of the regional lists. Together with the decision of the Labour party in Wales to operate twinning arrangements, that ensured the excellent result that women made up 41.6 per cent. of representation at the National Assembly for Wales. It should be noted that, throughout Europe, that level of representation is surpassed only by Sweden at 42.7 per cent; it is an excellent and creditable result.

It is because of the great advances achieved in the devolved Administrations in recent years that my party welcomes the legislation and urges the Government to ensure that the Bill receives Royal Assent as soon as possible, to facilitate still further the selection processes for the National Assembly for Wales. I am pleased to tell the House that our equal opportunities director is currently developing proposals on ensuring fairness and gender equality in the choice of candidates, and these are to he passed at a special constitutional conference in November.

We welcome and support the Bill, although, in passing, I should point out that the Labour Government might have saved some parliamentary time if they had had the courage to challenge the Jepson ruling, as the Equal Opportunities Commission asked. At least they have given us a valuable opportunity to have a necessary debate, and to look not just at the issue of representation but at the issue of culture and the attitudes that too often exclude people from the mainstream of modern politics.

9.32 pm
Sandra Osborne (Ayr)

I want to concentrate my remarks on the Scottish Parliament, because I believe that its success in selecting women can teach us many things.

The sixth of May 1999 was an historic day for the political representation of women in Scotland with the first elections to the new Scottish Parliament when 48 women entered the Chamber as elected Members. The representation rate was over 37 per cent. and that broke all records for the representation of women in politics in Scotland at local, Westminster and European level. We were only beaten by Wales in that respect, although that was welcome. The significant difference between the parties in terms of the number of women MSPs is directly related to the action or inaction that the parties took to encourage women candidates, either in constituency seats or in the list.

The Scottish Labour party had a 50:50 gender balance; 28 female and 28 male MSPs were elected. Some 43 per cent. of the Scottish National party's MSPs were female; the figures for the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives were 17 per cent. and 12 per cent. respectively. The election results demonstrate that even with a newly elected Parliament—where there is no incumbency barrier—equal representation of women cannot be taken for granted. It can be argued that the results provide evidence that political campaigning and specific policies and mechanisms are essential to ensure that women are represented in significant numbers in political life.

The increase in the number of women elected to the Scottish Parliament is due in part to sustained campaigning by women's organisations and civic society in Scotland, and reflects the different approaches taken by the different political parties in Scotland. Prior to the election, all parties stated their concern to see more women in politics and their intention to encourage women to come forward for selection. But the Labour party was the only party to operate a specific mechanism to achieve that. Recognising that, under the additional member system, most Labour seats would be gained on a constituency basis, a scheme was devised to twin constituencies to allow both men and women to stand for election.

The Liberal Democrats signed the electoral agreement published in the Scottish Constitutional Convention's final publication, entitled "Scotland's Parliament, Scotland's Right". They committed the party in principle to gender equality in the new Parliament. They initially proposed a so-called "zipped" system to get women on the lists at a reasonable level. However, they later reneged, and the party, at its annual Scottish conference, voted against the proposal. The fact that nothing was done contributed to the fact that Liberal Democrat party has so few women in the Scottish Parliament.

The Scottish National party also proposed a zipping system. Although its conference rejected that proposal, the party put women high on selection lists with the result that its level of women's representation has reached a respectable 40 per cent. However, I argue that the party's use of a specific mechanism—in this case not women-only shortlists, or twinning—was absolutely necessary to produce that outcome.

The Conservative party continued to express its opposition to special measures, saying that it would select people on merit. I make no comment about the Conservative men who are Members of the Scottish Parliament. I have beaten one of them twice in elections, but I welcome the apparent turnaround in the party's approach to these issues. I am surprised, and gratified by it. I hope that it will be reflected also in the Scottish Conservative party.

The Scottish Parliament proves that a specific positive measure is the only way to get more women into politics.

9.36 pm
Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden)

Tonight's debate may have come as a surprise to some hon. Members, and it is possible that more than one speech anticipating opposition to the Bill from Conservative Front-Bench Members has had to be scrapped. I am delighted that some Labour Members have recognised the important change in my party's approach to this matter, which in fact was made just before the last general election. The turnaround is perhaps not as sudden as has been made out.

There is simple recognition among hon. Members of all parties that not enough progress has been made in getting women elected to Parliament. No one is against getting more women into Parliament and, although hon. Members differ about how to achieve it, that is the common point from which the debate begins. In that sense, the debate has not been party political. Those who have tried to make it so may have misjudged the mood of the House.

I hope that the Conservative party has demonstrated its lead on this issue by fielding a woman to open the debate and another to wind it up. We were also joined for much of the time by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait). For the record, 50 per cent. of female Conservative MPs sit on the Front Bench. That shows that those who get here get on.

I am sorry that the Secretary of State has not returned to his place, but he referred at the outset of his remarks to various initiatives that he has taken to help women in the workplace. He mentioned improved maternity benefits, support for low-paid women and better child care arrangements, but unfortunately, such measures are not likely to help in the context of Westminster, where there is no official maternity leave and no child care facilities, and where we MPs are not remotely able to describe ourselves as low paid.

I am glad to see that the Secretary of State has now returned, so I hope that one of his colleagues can advise him of the point that I have just made. My description of the House is not what puts women off. Women are put off by a strong and true perception that it is very difficult to get selected, and that, once here, the experience is not especially easy. No one aspiring to Parliament would expect an easy life, but good candidates are lost, or never get started, because of the poor perception of the House.

That perception is based on hard fact: 82 per cent. of MPs are male and, as several hon. Members have noted, that compares unfavourably with other Parliaments in Europe. Closer to home, greater progress has been made with the devolved Assemblies. My hon. Friends and I are especially keen to support the remarks made by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson), and we, too, are keen for more female representation in the Northern Ireland Assembly. What is even more embarrassing for the mother of Parliaments is that many Parliaments in the developing world have achieved better female representation than we have.

We support the principle enshrined in the Bill which will allow political parties the freedom to choose from a range of measures to help increase the number of female Members of Parliament and return them to this place. As my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) said, we should not get hooked up on women-only shortlists, as they are only one of the measures that could be used. A range of measures are possible under the Bill, such as the additional training of candidates and selectors, or the scheme proposed by my hon. Friends the Members for Cambridgeshire, South (Mr. Lansley) and for Maidenhead. We believe that it should be for individual parties to decide on the best mechanism for selecting their candidates.

Not surprisingly, the hon. Member for Wirral, West (Stephen Hesford) showed a hazy understanding of Conservative party selection procedure. We have massively enfranchised our grass roots, with each member of a local association having an equal say in choosing the candidate. It is highly democratic, but with those rights come responsibilities to choose the best candidate. Understanding what "best" means requires training, but as the law stands, that could be illegal. The change in the law would make it legal in the future.

I understand the sensitivity of women who claim that they feel patronised by the Bill. At the Liberal Democrat conference we saw the clash of views between the leadership advocating women-only shortlists and their candidates wearing T-shirts bearing the slogan, "I don't want to be a token woman". None of us wants to be a token woman, and I am grateful that my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) does not regard me or my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead as a token woman in any way. The correct form of positive action should be chosen to suit a party's culture, and it need not imply tokenism.

I received good advice from some Labour women MPs who told me that women-only shortlists have created a backlash at local level. We intend to learn from that. It is one of the reasons why I am not in favour of that measure. However, there is much we can do to improve the situation by changing our selection procedure, and several recommendations have already been made in our party to achieve that.

Dr. Evan Harris

Does the hon. Lady recognise that if the Conservative party rejects all-women shortlists, which it is perfectly entitled to do, and when the Tories eventually reject first past the post—as they will—new options under a more proportional system will be proposed, such as pooling or zipping?

Mrs. Spelman

With respect, I think that the real question tonight for the hon. Gentleman's party is to decide what it will do under the Bill.

There is no denying the fact that the use of women-only shortlists in the Labour party had a dramatic effect in the 1997 election. However, some of the euphoria of the system's proponents was deflated by the outcome of the successful challenge by a male candidate—the so-called Jepson case. At the time there was much debate about whether a change to the laws on sex discrimination would be compatible with European law. Those of us who support this change in British law make a strong plea to the Government not to get egg on their face a second time if there is a legal challenge regarding its compatibility with European law. That is the Government's job—they have the necessary resources and lawyers at their disposal. It is our job, as an Opposition, to ask whether European Union compliance has been exhaustively checked. I should be very grateful for the Minister's reassurance on that point tonight.

Conservative Front Benchers welcome the Bill's permissive nature and we will support this change in the law. However, I warn the Government that we may vote on the timetable motion on a point of principle. The Bill enables the parties to choose what will work for them. No country has significantly increased the representation of women in its Parliament without some form of positive action. There is no reason why the United Kingdom should be any different.

We should put tonight's decision in the context of falling electoral turnout and the female voters who tell us that they are turned off by the style of politics in this place, to which they cannot relate. We need to think how to make British politics more attractive and accessible, and tonight offers the opportunity to show our willingness to try something new which can make a difference.

9.45 pm
The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Nick Raynsford)

We have had a good debate with an encouragingly large number of speakers—20 in total, of whom, significantly, 17 were in favour of the legislation. I appreciate the support that we received from those on the Opposition and the Liberal Democrat Front Benches and from Plaid Cymru. We certainly intend to proceed on the basis of consensus to achieve an important change that will make a real difference in the representation of women, not only in Parliament but in democratic institutions throughout the United Kingdom.

The hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) supported the Bill and pointed out, fairly and forcefully, that the Conservative party in particular was losing out on opportunities from the reservoir of talent because of the way in which the selection processes operate. She showed some reluctance to answer the question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock)—whether the Conservative party would set a target for increasing the representation of women in the party. I hope that the hon. Lady will think further about that.

The hon. Lady also asked about compatibility with European law, which is an important point. I must make it absolutely clear that the Government would not want any amendments to domestic law to be found to be in breach of Community law. I am confident that the Bill is compatible with EU treaty law and does not contravene the United Kingdom's international obligations. The Government's view is that the selection of candidates does not fall within the ambit of Community law, in particular the equal treatment directive. I hope that the hon. Lady finds that reassuring.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson) made a powerful speech in favour of increasing the representation of women in this House, but not because specific women's issues required the attention of women—she made a strong case against there being specific gender issues. She made the sound and sensible observation that Parliament should reflect the full range of talents and variety in our society and that it should be more representative of women in particular.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), speaking for the Liberal Democrats, tried to widen the debate to cover appointments to public bodies. I suspect that the motive might have been to draw attention away from his party's difficulties at its recent conference with affirmative measures to assist women's representation. His review of appointments to public bodies was a little selective.

We are the first to admit that there is an enormous way to go, but it does not do the House any service to paint an unduly gloomy picture. Looking at the record of our Department in government, I am pleased to be able to tell the hon. Gentleman of the real advances that have been made in the past four years.

I have three examples. In 1997, the Audit Commission comprised 38 per cent. women; now, 56 per cent. of its members are women. In 1997, only 18 per cent. of the board of the Housing Corporation were women; now it is 38 per cent., with a woman in the chair. When we came to office, the advisory panel on standards in the Planning Inspectorate had no women members. Now, four of the seven members are women—a majority. So there are good examples of cases where affirmative action has been taken and the position is improving.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall compared himself to Gladstone, as "an old man in a hurry."

The difference is that William Ewart Gladstone carried his party with him on most issues. The hon. Gentleman has not been able to carry his with him. His experience at the party conference must have been galling. How can he have felt when Jenny Willott, a representative of the Liberal Democrat party, said that Labour had won most of the female vote at the 1997 general election because it had women candidates in winnable seats? She said: They looked like a women-friendly party. Any woman who looks at the Lib-Dem parliamentary party now, no disrespect to any of them, but they don't exactly look a women-friendly bunch.

Mr. Tyler

May I tell the right hon. Gentleman that she voted for me?

Mr. Raynsford

I am delighted that someone feels that the hon. Gentleman at least is woman-friendly in that otherwise women-unfriendly bunch.

The hon. Gentleman raised the question of European treaty law and the European convention on human rights. I hope that my response to the hon. Member for Maidenhead deals with that point. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the concerns expressed by Lord Lester as to the need for a regulatory impact assessment. We shall consider that and I am sure that it will be raised in the upper House.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson) gave an entirely apposite description of her experience when she first announced her intention to stand as a candidate for election and was greeted by incredulity in her own locality. That was a telling example of the problems faced by women wanting to stand for Parliament. My hon. Friend also spoke movingly of her experience in Northern Ireland, where she made an important contribution, liaising with women's groups to advance the peace process.

The right hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Virginia Bottomley) was one of three Members who did not support the Bill. She referred specifically to public appointments and expressed concern about that field. I am pleased to be able to tell her that, since 1997, the number of women on health authorities has increased from 40 per cent. to 50 per cent. as a result of measures taken by the Government which I am sure she will support.

The right hon. Lady is confused in thinking that the Bill applies only to Members of Parliament. It applies to people seeking elected office in the United Kingdom—whether to Parliament, the devolved Assemblies, the European Parliament or local councils. The measure is comprehensive and covers the full range of elected posts.

The right hon. Lady raised the issue of ethnic minorities. That is a fair issue and an important one to consider. However, there are very different considerations. The right hon. Lady knows well that the distribution of ethnic minority groups around the country is varied; in many areas, they make up a relatively small proportion of the total population. It would thus be extremely difficult to set up a simple, national system of universal application to enable that particular discrimination to be tackled by legislative means. By contrast, we know that throughout the country, area by area, give or take about one percentage point, there is equal representation of men and women in every constituency.

Virginia Bottomley

The contrast that I was making is with teachers. Would a primary school with an all-female staff who felt that it would be right to appoint a male teacher because it was important for the children to have a male role model be prohibited from drawing up an all-male shortlist?

Mr. Raynsford

As an experienced Member of the House, the right hon. Lady knows that there is a fundamental difference between people who are appointed to paid employment and people who are selected as candidates and then stand for election. That is a fundamental distinction recognised in the Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford, in an eloquent and moving speech, set out the strong case for the Bill and for ensuring more effective and extensive representation of women. I pay tribute to her for all the work that she has done to ensure that the issue has come before the House. She has been an assiduous and persistent campaigner for the measure.

The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald was the first person, predictably, to use the word "patronising", which she did at 8.03 pm, as forecast by some of my colleagues. She also referred to a phrase used by a member of her party in the past: "whingeing and whining". The fundamental problem that the right hon. Lady must face is that her recipe would leave the Conservative Benches continuing to be overwhelmingly occupied by males—91.6 per cent. to be precise.

The right hon. Lady suggested that she had other ways of dealing with the problem. She did not specify them but, given that she was in full flood as she put forward that view, it reminded me of nothing less than King Lear. Towards the end of the tragedy, as his wits began to go, King Lear said: I will do such things— What they are yet I know not—but they shall be The terrors of the earth. The right hon. Lady's ideas will be the terrors of those on the Opposition Front Bench.

My hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) explained the impact of women-only shortlists in redressing the imbalance. Hers was an important contribution.

The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) supported the principles behind the Bill, but raised questions about compatibility with the equal treatment directive. He referred to the Abrahamsson case but—and he will be aware of the significance of this—that case was brought in relation to the appointment of a candidate for an academic post. There is an appointment distinction, which I have already made, between the appointments to paid posts and the selection of candidates who stand for election. That is why we are confident that the equal treatment directive will not apply.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) opened her speech by paying tribute to Val Feld for her important work on equal opportunities in Wales. I would like to add to that, because I worked closely with Val Feld when she represented Shelter in Wales many years ago. I knew of her sterling qualities. My hon. Friend also commented on the difficulties that women had encountered in being represented in Wales, and referred to the important advances that have been made recently.

The hon. Member for Cheadle (Mrs. Calton) referred to problems of the male club in the House of Commons, and my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) highlighted the important contributions that women have made as Members of the House, particularly in promoting private Members' Bills and as Ministers and Parliamentary Private Secretaries.

The hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) was one of three Members who did not support the principles behind the Bill, but she conceded the difficulties that face the women in Northern Ireland who seek selection. I trust that, as she considers the Bill—it is a permissive one—she will realise that it moves in a direction which, I hope she will be able to support.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, West (Stephen Hesford) approved of the Bill, and the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) gave us an entertaining account of the past 150 years of history, including a reference to an obscure blimpish MP in the 1920s. The hon. Gentleman drew a veil over the party affiliation of that obscure military man, but I wager that he was not describing a member of the Labour party.

My hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) gave a robust defence of all-women shortlists, and the hon. Member for East Carmarthen and Dinefwr (Adam Price) referred to the proud record of the Welsh Assembly, where 41 per cent. of Members are women. That would not be the case, however, if more than 50 per cent. of the Labour Members in the Assembly were not women. My hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Sandra Osborne) made a parallel point about the important contribution that women have made in the Scottish Parliament.

We have had a very good debate. We have heard much about issues of representation and about the unacceptable levels of discrimination under current arrangements. A fundamental problem needs addressing, and most of us will agree that something must be done, and done soon. The Bill is permissive and aims to open up for political parties the options that are available. It will give them the flexibility to pursue options that will advance women's representation in the way that the parties think is most appropriate. In doing so, they will have to consider carefully how women and men are represented at all levels of government. Our proposals are proportionate and are designed to be appropriate to the problem that they seek to resolve.

The Bill will remove the excuse provided by the Jepson case for not facing up to our responsibilities. It will enable political parties to adopt appropriate measures. I believe that it will make an important contribution to improving our democracy. It is a short, simple and elegant solution, which will seek to redress a fundamental imbalance that has marred our Parliament for far too long. I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.