HL Deb 02 October 2000 vol 616 cc1131-3

3.1 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the conclusions reached in the report Women's Representation in UK Politics: What can be done within the Law (Constitution Unit, University College, London) will help them to implement their obligations as stated in the Beijing Platform for Action.

The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Jay of Paddington)

My Lords, the Government have made it clear that they wish to look at ways of increasing the representation of women in Parliament. The Constitution Unit report referred to in the Question suggests that it may be possible for political parties to take positive action to achieve that without incurring a successful legal challenge. The Home Office will examine carefully those proposals to see whether legislation can be introduced.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, I welcome the Minister's reply. I hope that noble Lords from all sides of the House will join in putting on pressure to ensure that the Home Office sees that as a priority. Of course, it is not just in Parliament but also in local councils throughout the UK that women are vastly under-represented. I am sure the Minister would agree that it is not that there are fewer able and talented women but it is simply that there is still an invisible wall and a culture which has prevented them coming through.

Does the Minister agree that the Government must act rapidly so that we do not go into another election, and perhaps the one after that, with the same situation? Parties should be willing to take positive action and should not be afraid of doing so. Parties unwilling to take any action—and this morning, the Conservative spokeswoman sounded as though her party does not want to take any action — should be unable to hide behind the pretence that they are unable to do so.

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I very much agree with the noble Baroness that this is a question of culture change as well as of changing the law. As I said in my original Answer, the Government are asking the Home Office to look at the possible changes to the electoral law which might bring about further action. My party stands very firmly on its record of having achieved 101 women Members of Parliament and having achieved around 50 per cent of women representatives in both the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament. It is instructive that both the noble Baroness's party and the Conservative Opposition are represented by only 8.5 per cent of women membership in the House of Commons. I hope that the noble Baroness will not take it amiss but it was not an indication of culture change in her party when the woman MP who led for the Liberal Democrats on those issues was replaced by a man.

Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen

My Lords, will my noble friend join with me in expressing extreme concern at the attitude of Theresa May, the shadow Minister for women's issues, who said on BBC Online on 6th September: I do not believe that young women who wish to have families should consider a parliamentary career until their families are in a position where they can easily be left". Does my noble friend agree with me that the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, may not agree with that since she came into the House when she was 34, when her twins were six?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I cannot do better than my noble friend has done in pointing out that somewhat anomalous position between the history of the Conservative Prime Minister who was a woman and the remarks of the present spokesman. This is a very serious and important issue. All parties need to look at their electoral practices and selection processes to make sure that the most able people are selected in seats which are winnable, whatever their gender.

Earl Russell

My Lords, does the Minister see any force in the point that I made years ago that we should be able to think we had reached somewhere on this point when a woman was at the Ministry of Defence and a man was spokesperson on women's issues? Does she agree further that it is part of the reputation of Parliament to put this matter right? That is something which is far above party and should be of urgent concern to us all?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, yes, I certainly agree with the noble Earl's last comment. That was the point I made in my initial responses when I said that the Government were asking for the electoral law to be looked at in that context. I am delighted that my noble friend Lady Symons of Vernham Dean is here, representing the Ministry of Defence. She is an illustration of precisely what the noble Earl is looking for.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, before the noble Baroness preens herself too much on her party's 101 Blair babes, perhaps I may remind her—and does she not agree?—that the first lady Leader of this House was my noble friend Lady Young on the Conservative side and the first lady Prime Minister of this country, and indeed the only one to date, was my noble friend Lady Thatcher. Perhaps she can tell me when she thinks there may be a Labour lady leader.

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I suspect it would be a woman leader. Of course, I accept what the noble Lord said. I have made it clear on many occasions, both privately and in this House, how grateful I am to the noble Baroness, Lady Young, for the helpful suggestions that she has given to me in this role.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords, is the noble Baroness the Leader of the House aware that under the law as it stands, there is great scope for the political parties to take effective positive action; that if they do not do so, they may well be liable for indirect discrimination? That applies to race as well as sex discrimination. Does she agree with me that one way of securing much better representation for women and for the ethnic minorities would be to have a proportional system of voting?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I know that this point is made fairly regularly from those Benches when this issue is discussed. Of course I am aware of the concerns which the noble Lord expresses. As I understand it, the helpful point made by the report referred to in the noble Baroness's question is that one could achieve a different degree of positive action by political parties under the electoral law rather than the employment law, which has impeded the progress which the Labour Party was trying to make and which, as I am sure the noble Lord is very well aware, was challenged successfully in the courts. As I said, we believe that it is most worth while to pursue a solution in the direction of electoral law.