HL Deb 09 July 2001 vol 626 cc976-1002

5.59 p.m.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what action they intend taking in response to the decline in the number of women Members of Parliament in the current Parliament.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I open the debate by welcoming the new Minister the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan of Huyton, who is to reply to the debate. The customs of this House do not permit me to respond to her speech at the end of the debate, but we all look forward to hearing the maiden speech of the Minister and learning about the Government's plans to tackle the continuing problem of the very low number of women MPs. We all look forward to getting to know the noble Baroness better.

My qualification for initiating this debate is that shortly after the foundation of the Liberal Democratic Party I spent a couple of years absorbed in the business of candidate selection in the English party. Both before and after that experience I have spent a good deal of time on and off nagging my party about the subject.

Some people may not agree that the small number of women MPs—only 18 per cent of the total—is a problem. But I suggest that with one of the lowest percentages of women Members of Parliament in the developed world, the mother of Parliaments is hardly in the forefront on this issue. Perhaps that is why it has proved so resistant to change towards family friendly procedures and why its obsessions and activities seem increasingly irrelevant to our citizens. Indeed, the House of Commons is beginning to look increasingly old-fashioned even in the context of the rest of public and corporate life in this country. Could that be why so many people failed to vote at the last general election?

My honourable friend Dr Evan Harris has confirmed our backing in principle for the Government's intention to legislate on this issue. But I shall not treat today's debate as a matter of party politics. None of the main parties has an unblemished record of support for women as parliamentarians, to put it mildly. In 1997, the Labour Party was put off its policy of all women shortlists, although I admire it for trying.

Neither the Conservative Party nor the Liberal Democrat. Party replaced any of their MPs who retired at the last election with a woman candidate. Even the Labour Party, with its requirement of 50/50 men/ women shortlists, only succeeded in selecting four women to replace its 38 MPs who retired.

This is an important point: it is the number of women candidates in winnable seats which is the true measure of a party's determination to increase its number of women MPs. On the other hand, both the Labour Party, with its policy of twin seats in the Welsh Assembly referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, and the Liberal Democrat Party, with its zipped list for the Euro elections, have demonstrated that positive action can work.

In other European countries, in and out of the EU, there have been many examples of such positive action bearing fruit. Research carried out by Fawcett and by the EOC suggests that only positive action will have the desired result. It is not enough, for example, although it may be desirable in its own right, simply to call for proportional representation. That will not necessarily solve the problem.

The decisions taken in France are an interesting example. After many years of discussion and failed legislative initiatives, the French Parliament in 1999 finally amended its constitutional Act of 1958 to include the clause: Statutes shall promote equal access by men and women to elective office". That opened the way for a new law in the year 2000 which provides for positive action for both list elections—that is, for local government and the European Parliament—and for single member constituencies: Parliamentary elections. This March under the new law, the percentage of women elected in French towns rose from 22 per cent to 48 per cent as a result of the new requirement for lists to contain equal numbers of men and women.

It is interesting to me at least that the French constitution is based on the concept of free and equal citizens. One goes back to the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789. Of course it said "men" or "man", but subsequently that was amended to include women. This idea of citizenship is at the very basis of the French constitution. Maybe we in this country will have to grapple with that thought one day. After all, free and equal citizens, both men and women, irrespective of their colour and ethnic origin, should have equal rights. And all of them have something special and important to bring to the legislative process.

I now turn to my questions for the Minister. The first concerns the timing of this legislation. Last February I asked the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, who was then Home Office Minister, when the Home Office intended to publish the results of its study into the legislative options for reducing the gap in numbers between men and women MPs. His response amounted to telling your Lordships that the research project had not even been designed. Now we are told that the Government will "prepare" legislation—I put that in inverted commas—to allow political parties to make positive moves to increase the representation of women in public life. I hope that the phrase "public life" includes "in Parliament" because the Government are already making strenuous, and, I believe, successful efforts to make sure that women and other people are better represented in order to represent the mix of human society in this country on those bodies to which they make appointments.

At the same time, the next round of elections for the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament will soon be upon us, and, indeed, the round of selections for the next election of MPs will begin in two years it the very latest. Therefore, can the Minister tell us what timetable is envisaged for the legislation?

Secondly, has the Home Office research been completed? As a result of that research, or whether or not it has taken place, will the Government amend electoral rather than employment law? There is an important difference in the approach on those two legal aspects.

Finally, there is the vexed question of what is permissible under the European Convention on Human Rights and European Union treaty law. All the countries covered in a recent Fawcett document as having taken positive action to promote women's access to their Parliaments—Norway, Sweden, Germany and France—are all signatories to the Convention. In addition, France was finally prompted to look at the question by the provision in the Treaty of Amsterdam that proportional positive action was acceptable to secure equal treatment for the underrepresented sex. Is the Minister satisfied, with or without the Home Office research to which I have referred, that positive action is possible under European law, in both its senses, in order to redress the balance of the sexes in Parliament?

I started by welcoming the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, to our deliberations. Looking around the Chamber I am saddened that no men are speaking on behalf of this thesis from the Labour Benches, although I am astonished by the seniority and excellence of the women who will speak later. I am also slightly saddened that so few Conservatives have thought it worth their while to take part in the debate, although again I welcome those who have decided to do so. We look forward to a most interesting debate and I shall take very careful note of what everyone says.

6.8 p.m.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton

My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, for initiating this important debate, not least because of the importance of the subject but also because it gives me the opportunity to welcome the appointment of my noble friend Lady Morgan as Minister for Women. Having worked with the noble Baroness for a number of years, I am aware of the key role that she has played in the promotion of women in the Labour Party. I know that my noble friend will continue that work in achieving equality and the advancement of women. I, too, look forward to her maiden speech.

There were many sceptics who incorrectly doubted the Government's commitment to introducing legislation to correct the imbalance in the number of women MPs. It is unfortunate that such legislation is necessary as it seemed that progress was being made by some political parties, principally the Labour Party, in introducing positive action into its selection process. Once the ability to use such action was removed, the number of women MPs declined for the first time since 1979. The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, was right. It is clear that it is difficult to change entrenched positions and the prejudice ingrained in the culture of our political parties.

I do not know whether it is any consolation, but the political parties in this country are not alone in suffering from the inability to change. For instance, in France, the French Socialist Party has proposed that only women will be selected in electoral areas where women were candidates in 1997 and that in seats where MPs are retiring only women will be eligible to be candidates. In addition to the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, in respect of France, French parties can also suffer a cut in their state funding if they do not put up equal numbers of female and male candidates. Perhaps the Liberal Democrats will now use that argument in favour of state funding!

The use of positive action by political parties in the EU is now relatively common. About half of all political parties use some system of quotas. At a recent conference, speakers from France, Germany, Sweden and Norway all discussed the different ways of introducing positive action. They showed that it is possible to have different structures. For example, we do not have a written constitution; nor do we have the same electoral system or state aid. The speakers reported on the results of the legislation they had introduced. In Sweden, the constitution forbids discrimination on the ground of sex. In Norway, an equality act enforces 40 per cent quotas in public bodies. It is interesting that in Sweden the Socialist Democratic Party found it necessary to establish what it called its "support stockings" organisation or else it would have formed a women's party. Even in Sweden, there were problems. Germany is probably nearest to our position in that it leaves it up to the political parties to determine how candidates are selected.

I appreciate that there are concerns about any legislation we introduce being compliant with the UK's international obligations. I quote from Commissioner Flynn, who commented in 1998: The Commission agrees that Community legislation is not a legal impediment to national measures to improve the representation of women in elected bodies". We must take him at his word. Unfortunately, in this country, because no positive action is built into the Sex Discrimination Act, there was always the possibility of legal action against any party willing to make positive moves in its selection process. The challenge by two male members of the Labour Party against the party's policy of all-women shortlists was successful on the grounds that the selection of candidates is seen as an employment issue. That is not the position in other EU countries. None regards candidate selection as falling under employment laws. Rather the reverse, they argue that it is an appointment to a position of trust that is not regulated by labour market laws. There is no employer, no employee and no employment contract. It is therefore essential that the proposed legislation makes the break between candidature selection employment. It is, however, important that we do nothing to damage the employment legislation that is already in place.

I look forward to the legislation being enacted in time. I look forward to the legislation being permissive so that each party can choose for itself. But I hope that it comes in time to ensure the selection of many more women candidates for the next general election. To state the obvious, women cannot be elected if they are not selected. We must improve on the current 18 per cent of women MPs.

6.14 p.m.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I have a certain apprehension about participating in a debate that is principally on women and is conducted principally by women. I nevertheless congratulate the noble Lords, Lord Newby and Lord Lester of Herne Hill, on being prepared to join in the debate. I thought that, as they were going to do so, why not me as well? I thought that would be an advantage.

This subject is a matter of interest to everyone. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, on her appointment. I congratulate her in advance of her maiden speech, which I am sure will be very good. We shall listen to it with interest. I hope that she will find her time in this place happy and congenial. I am sure that she will.

The reason for my intervention is that I find the subject of the debate curious. The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, asked what the Government intend to do about the low number of women Members of Parliament. I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, will say that the Government greatly value women Members of Parliament but that it is not the Government's business to encourage or discourage women—in the same way as it is not the Government's business to encourage men over the height of five foot six or below the height of five foot six. That is not the business of government.

After all, what is government? The Government are drawn from the people who have been elected to Parliament. If not enough women have been elected to Parliament, that is the fault of the constituencies and the people who have selected their prospective Members of Parliament. If there is a failure in that position, it must be for the constituents to say, "We want more women MPs and therefore we must select women candidates". It can be done only in that way. The Government are made up of those who have been elected to the House of Commons. For them to turn round and say, "We are now going to try to influence those constituencies so that a different kind of person should appear in the House of Commons", would be quite wrong.

It is not for the Government to say who should be in Parliament. The position is different from that of a company which prevents women from coming into the boardroom or from having significant places in the operation of the company. There are rules and laws about that. Parliament is made up of those whom the electorate chooses. It is not the Government's business to determine who should make up that electorate. I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, will say that she admires the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, for her interest in the subject but that it really is an erroneous one in so far as she is trying to get the Government to do something which the Government should not do.

6.18 p.m.

Baroness Walmsley

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Thomas for initiating the debate and welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, to the Government Front Bench.

No legislature can call itself truly democratic if it signally fails properly to include 52 per cent of the population it serves. That is why it is the Government's business. All parties now agree that more women should be in Parliament, so that need no longer be the main focus of our discussion. However, the reasons why we need more women can shed some light on what we need to change in order to achieve it. I therefore intend to start by looking at two of those reasons.

Many people say, "Why do we need more women? Can't men represent them?". Well, yes they can to some extent, but when it comes to establishing a framework of legislation within which we can all live in this country and which is fair to both genders, we need equal input from both genders. So my answer to that question is. "No, not fully". I have two reasons for reaching that conclusion.

My first reason is that the reality of women's lives is different from men's. They see things differently not only because their bodies, brains and personalities are of equal value but different from men's, but because they go through life experiencing work, family and society in a different way. Women therefore desperately need to be represented by people who can understand them, identify with their point of view and make common cause. In particular, we need more women in Parliament because many of the most serious social issues over which the Government can have influence affect women more than men. For example, most women undertake the care of children. One-third of those children live in poverty. Most carers of the old and sick are women. Four out of five poor pensioners are women. On average, women are paid less than men and they still meet with discrimination in the workplace. It is clear from those few facts alone that life experiences are very different for men and women.

Secondly, the quality of government is improved by having fairer numbers of women. Research has shown that the beneficial effect does not really come into operation until at least one-third of the members of a legislature are female. Recent successes of campaigning female MPs include the maternity review in 2000, which achieved many things that benefit both other women and men. While there is still a long way to go in the cause of family-friendly working practices and equal pay for women, these advances benefit families and are welcome.

The devolved legislatures have also demonstrated the fact that positive action works and that the resulting legislatures benefit from the presence of more women. Because they are new, they do not have the entrenched male membership, attitudes and practices of the Mother of Parliaments. This place, along with the other place, was devised for men and to work for men. That has to change. With so many women Members in the Welsh Assembly, the modernising culture has affected the style and quality of debate. It is also benefiting men who wish to contribute in a different way.

Women Members of the Scottish Parliament have undertaken excellent work on violence against women. However, this has gone almost unreported. The Fawcett Society believes that the reason for this is that a great deal of co-operation was demonstrated by women Members across the parties and this is not seen as newsworthy by the media in the way that a more masculine, confrontational style of politics is perceived. Perhaps the media will have to change their news values as we move to a more gender-balanced Parliament. Why is it that female politicians attract the most media attention when they behave like men and are confrontational? I contend that it is not necessary to be aggressive in order to get results and that it is not necessary to behave like a man to be successful in a man's world. In any case, we need to turn it into a man's and woman's world.

Both the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament have proved more attractive to women seeking a political career because they have far more family-friendly working hours and systems. In Scandinavia, where there has been a high proportion of women in the Parliaments for many years, the social problems that concern women have been tackled. High quality nursery education is provided from an early age and child poverty is almost unknown—both of these factors enormously benefiting the whole of society.

I do not say that men are not concerned about issues such as child poverty, but is it a coincidence that it is in those countries where women are properly represented that social problems such as child poverty have been minimised? So better quality government can be achieved by including more women.

6.23 p.m.

Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen

My Lords, I, too, should like to begin by thanking sincerely the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, for tabling this Question. For me, this debate is one of the most important that has been held since I came into your Lordships' House in May 2000. Why is that? It is because I believe firmly that women should be given every encouragement to play their full part in society, and that must include their part as Members of Parliament. If they are not, then the nation is the poorer for it.

The Question asks what will the Government do to increase women's participation. I prefer to concentrate on what we can do, together with the Government, and in particular what trade unionists can do. This is one area with which I am very familiar. I worked in the trade union movement for over 30 years and I have been a trade union member for over 40 years.

Women trade unionists' involvement with political parties is not a new phenomenon. Many trade union women were active campaigners for votes for women, believing that if women had the vote, the legislation which Parliament passed would be more sympathetic to and protective of women workers. Margaret Bonfield is perhaps the best known example of the interlink between women in the unions and in Parliament. She was a member of the Shop Assistants Union—which we now know as USDAW—and was one of the first to advocate married couples sharing paid work and household duties. Needless to say, that caused quite a stir at the end of the 19th century. She was the first woman to chair the TUC General Council and Congress, the first woman to enter the House of Commons as a Labour MP for Northampton, and was the first woman to become a Cabinet Minister, becoming Minister of Labour in 1928. The links between trade union women and political women were firmly established many years ago and trade union women have continued to support political parties of all persuasions.

Many trade union men are extremely positive towards and supportive of their female colleagues. But, alas, during my trade union lifetime, I saw far too many capable, intelligent and skilful women trade unionists thwarted in their efforts, both at their workplaces and in their unions—often by men who had half their attributes. Noble Lords may ask why this is important for women's representation in Parliament. I would answer that by saying that it is because unions do have an important influence in the selection of and support for parliamentary candidates, not only in the Labour Party, but primarily so at this point in time.

Trade union women are very well aware of this influence. That is why the proposals for positive action in the Labour Party manifesto are greatly welcomed by trade union women. The TUC Women's Committee has been in favour of positive action for many years and will be pushing the TUC affiliated unions to take positive action swiftly once the legislation is in place. However, we know that there will be opposition from some unions—and I refer here not only to those unions which are male dominated. One has only to look at the current position of women in the higher echelons of the unions to see the uphill struggle which they face. One stark statistic says it all: in the 20 largest trade unions, there are no female general secretaries and only three women deputy general secretaries. I shall not continue with the remainder of the statistics because they are equally disastrous. Women, in particular women officials, are found in the lower echelons of the trade union hierarchy.

The TUC itself has done better than its affiliates in terms of positive action. Out of 46 members of the TUC General Council, 15 are women. That is because, when he was TUC General Secretary, Norman Willis introduced positive action in the form of each union with over 100,000 members having an automatic women's seat on the General Council. That did change the TUC. More recently, the TUC has taken a further important step through the introduction of the TUC Organising Academy, which aims to build a new kind of trade unionism by training a new generation of organisers who will aim in particular at women and younger members. Of course, the more that women organisers are put in place, the more likely it is that they, and the women they work with, may want to become parliamentary candidates.

A recent edition of the Fawcett Society's magazine, Towards Equality, states that: Positive action is needed, not because women are not good enough to be selected on merit, but because the discrimination they face means that they often do not get a chance to try". I know that my noble friend on the Front Bench will do her best to ensure that the unions encourage their women members to become candidates, especially in safe and winnable seats, and take positive action to assist in their endeavours. I believe it to be incumbent on us all to encourage more women into Parliament. Only when the House of Commons has 50 per cent women Members will it truly reflect the nation's needs and aspirations.

6.28 p.m.

Lord Newby

My Lords, I decided to speak in this debate because I believe very strongly that we need more women in Parliament if our Parliament is to fulfil its primary function of representing society. We face twin related problems here: first, how to encourage more women to come forward for selection to Parliament; and, secondly, how to ensure that when they do come forward, they will stand a fair chance of being selected. This latter problem is in some sense rather easier to deal with: it will be the subject of government legislation. As the Labour Party found before the 1997 general election and we found during the last European elections, it is possible to take action which is both acceptable within the party and increases the levels of representation by women.

The first problem—how can we persuade more women to believe that becoming a Member of Parliament is a worthwhile occupation?—is, I believe, much more difficult. It is a problem not only in respect of women, but also more generally. Too often Parliament appears powerless and a deeply conservative place—with a small "c"—with working conditions that make it deeply unattractive, in particular to women. Until Parliament changes, in my view it simply will not attract sufficient high quality women candidates who will want to come forward for selection.

There are three specific problems for which I shall attempt three solutions. The first problem concerns working conditions. As my noble friend Lady Walmsley pointed out, Parliament needs to change its working practices. Where parliaments have changed their working practices—both in terms of childcare provision and working hours—the result has been a greater proportion of women members. Incidentally, in regard to working hours, it is not only mothers who will benefit from being able to get home from time to time in the evening; it will equally benefit fathers.

Whenever I have argued that Parliament should have different working hours, I have been met by two answers—usually from men. The first answer is that other professions require women to work into the evenings. Yes, they do, but not on such a regular basis; and there is much more flexibility for lawyers and accountants, for example, in terms of working later into the evening.

The second point that is often made is that male MPs whose families live some distance from London would not be able to manage in the evenings if they did not have something to do which required them to be in Parliament. This argument is regularly put forward by otherwise quite sensible people. Leaving aside the obvious question of what kind of men are incapable of looking after themselves in the evening in London, they would need to accept only a small fraction of the invitations they receive to evening receptions, talks and dinners, which private and public sector bodies regularly issue to MPs to help to inform them on public policy issues. This would serve two functions: it would make them better legislators and keep them out of harm's way.

The second problem is that the style of Parliament needs to change. It is hardly surprising that many women find the macho, Oxford Union style of debate in the Commons deeply uncongenial. It is perhaps not surprising that many of the women who have succeeded best in the Commons have come from an Oxford background, whether it be the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, my noble friend Lady Williams of Crosby or Ann Widdecombe. I do not believe that the style prevalent in the Commons is acceptable for those who want: to debate issues in a rational way. Proportional representation may begin to change that, but there is a problem.

The final, and biggest, problem is what many people see as the pointlessness of Parliament. Many people ask, "What is the point of being an MP with a government majority of 170? Your vote never counts. You cannot get Bills changed in Committee and the Government will ignore many Select Committee reports". In this case, the answer is, in part, relatively straightforward: if we had PR, there would be no huge majorities.

I believe that we need a different style of government in both Houses, one in which Ministers listen to arguments—particularly in regard to Bills—and accept those arguments and amendments which are won on their merits. There needs to be a greater humility on the part of Ministers.

Being a parliamentarian will never be easy. It will always require tremendous hard work and dedication, and it will often be very frustrating. But it would be much more rewarding for the bulk of MPs if they had sensible working practices, less posturing in debate and a willingness on the part of the Government to take them seriously. It would certainly make it more attractive to potential women parliamentarians. All parties need to be involved in bringing about these changes, but the ball is well and truly in the Government's court.

6.34 p.m.

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, I wish to declare an interest in the debate as chair of the Women National Commission, which has long campaigned for very many more women's voices to be heard in Parliament. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, for giving us this early opportunity in the new parliamentary Session to debate this vital matter of women's representation. In doing so, I acknowledge her own tenacious commitment to the cause of women's equality.

Like other noble Lords and Baronesses. l welcome my noble friend the Minister to her first outing at the Dispatch Box and, of course, her maiden speech, From an assessment made over a long and affectionate acquaintance, I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, will be an inspiring, energetic and hardworking Minister, who will be determined to put women's equality at the heart of the political agenda.

It was a matter of great celebration to us all that in 1997 the number of women MPs rose to its highest percentage ever. Even more important was the way in which those new voices made a distinct difference to the culture of Parliament. In another place, Mr Eric Forth is always ready with advice. He said: We hear from the babes on the Government Benches—and from other honourable Members—that they believe that being detained inconveniently in the House is unacceptable in this modern age".—[Official Report, Commons, 28/6/01; col. 799.] To be frank, I cannot blame the "babes", as be calls them. As well as influencing the culture of Parliament, the new women's voices are also important in regard to the legislative agenda and its implementation.

The DTI's maternity review, referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, would not have reached the conclusions it did without a strong cohort of women MPs pressing for better maternity pay and leave, and the introduction of paternity pay for the first time, as well as the new, very welcome, legal right of women to ask for flexible working arrangements on their return to work after childbirth.

The Sure Start programme would not have been so energetically rolled out across the country without the proactive backing and involvement of so many women MPs who wanted the programme to work in their constituencies. The strengthening of the laws on rape and stalking was, in large part, down to the pressure and presence of women MPs. The list is a long one. Those are but a few examples of the changes that have taken place because of the beginning of the feminisation of Parliament.

The 2001 general election returned a magnificent Labour majority but disappointed in its reduction in the number of women MPs, a reduction for the first time since 1979, as the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, reminded us. That is because political parties took their eye off the ball of fair and equal representation between men and women, even though the new devolved Assembly in Wales and the Parliament in Scotland had pointed the way forward in their progressive stances on the subject.

I know women in all political parties who are fiercely committed to seeing women influence far more the life of this country at all levels, yet there has been, to my mind—with the brave exception of the Labour Party, with its all-women shortlists prior to the 1997 election—an unnecessary hesitation about adopting any processes that have a hint of "positive discrimination" about them. Sometimes that has been on the spurious ground of positive discrimination somehow sapping away merit, and sometimes on the ground of litigation and a fear of a backlash in that sense.

When I saw the name of the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, on the List of Speakers, I felt that perhaps he had become a "born-again feminist". But, having heard his contribution, I think we shall have to wait for another day. It may not be that far away, but not today.

We have a government who are committed to bringing forward legislation which will allow political parties to use positive mechanisms to increase the number of women in public life—I, too, hope that that means the number of women candidates in political parties—and for political parties to use those mechanisms should they wish to do so. The following inclusion in the Queen's Speech—that the Government, will prepare legislation to allow political parties to make positive moves to increase the representation of women in public life", was, as the chair of the EOC put it, "a turning point in history". It holds out great hope for us that at last we may catch up with many of our European partners.

The Fawcett Society, the EOC and the Women's National Commission are already beginning to organise support for this new legislation. We want to ensure that the questions many are asking about the timing and content of that legislation will be answered, as far as possible, by our new Minister today.

6.40 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, I, too, join in the congratulations to my noble friend Lady Thomas of Walliswood on securing this debate. I should like also to welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan of Huyton, to her new position.

Noble Lords have explained fully the reasons why women should play a full part in public life. I do not want to rehearse the points again. I want to add that that role is equally important at local level. Will the Minister confirm that any new Bill being considered by the Government will apply equally to local government, not merely to MPs?

It is at local government level that many women find their political feet first, including myself and many other speakers in this debate. It is a natural route to the wider political stage. It is also a worthwhile end in itself. Women are very active in schools, as governors and members of PTAs, as they are in local voluntary services. An item in today's edition of the Guardian states that women represent 65 per cent of workers in the voluntary services. Reference has been made to the fact that large numbers of women are carers: they look after children, elderly parents and disabled relatives. However, when it comes to standing for membership of the local authority that awards the grants and devises the social services strategy, women make up only about 25 per cent of candidates. The position has changed little over the past 30 years. The last survey, carried out in 1997, indicated that 73 per cent of all councillors were men and about 25 to 27 per cent were women.

The reasons are possibly even more depressing when it comes to women not being encouraged to stand and not being selected as parliamentary candidates. The problem relates partly to the selection process. At local council level they do not have to spend nights away from their families. However, one factor that stands in their way at local level may be the culture of the local council. If they see Parliament in the same light, it may put them off applying for selection.

Councils with as few as 10 per cent of women members should be encouraged by the Government to reconsider the issue. Such an approach should totally suit the Government's new local government agenda of forging partnerships in community planning. It is hard to see community planning succeeding when so many community activists are excluded from the primary decision-making circuit.

The culture of male-dominated councils also affects council staff. The number of women chief executives stands at less than 10 per cent. Room at the Top, a study published in May this year by the University of the West of England's business school, reveals, a discomfiting picture of institutionalised sexism in local government in England and Wales". It led Julie Mellor, chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission, to respond by calling for a new public sector duty to promote gender equality. The Government could help hugely by including local government in any positive action that they are considering.

My experience as a local councillor in Somerset—where we have a decent number of women councillors, chairs and now executive members, and a history of women leaders—is that we are good at developing partnerships and strong policies and services in the areas that are of particular concern to the community.

But in the area that we are discussing tonight the Government must ensure that their new Bill includes local government, whose services impact especially on the lives of women.

Critics of positive discrimination—women-only shortlists —will say that able women will make it anyway over time. Of course, some do, and some stick it out. I look forward to the day when the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, need not feel the way that he does, when there are enough women at local government level and national level. But in the meantime—

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, perhaps I may briefly interrupt the noble Baroness. It is not a question of "feeling the way that I do". All I said was that it was not the Government's business to affect and influence who stands for Parliament.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, I agree with the noble Earl that when we arrive at a rough parity—around 50 per cent of women and 50 per cent men—it will not be the business of government. But until that day arrives, it remains the business of government. I shall listen carefully to the Minister's reply.

6.45 p.m.

Baroness Gale

My Lords, I want to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, for raising this matter. It is a subject in which I am particularly interested. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, on her appointment as Minister for Women. I worked with the noble Baroness for a number of years. I know of her dedication and her determination in any task that she undertakes. I know that she will bring those same values to her ministerial role. I look forward to hearing her maiden speech.

I was very pleased to see that this topic was to be debated this evening. I was delighted that women's representation was mentioned in the gracious Speech. I believe that it is a shame that we have to resort to such legislation. But I believe also that it is the only way in which we shall see an increase in the number of women Members of Parliament.

The main reason why there are so few women in the House of Commons is that members of political parties consistently refuse to select women candidates in seats which are held by their party or which it is likely to win. There is no evidence to indicate that the electorate is unhappy in voting for women candidates. People neither discriminate nor are they prejudiced against women who stand for Parliament.

Over a period of years some political parties have attempted to address the under-representation of women in political life. I can speak with authority only for my own party, but I am aware that some other parties have made efforts to address the problem. The Labour Party uses quotas at all levels to ensure that women hold office, attend conferences and are allowed to play an equal part with men in the life of the party. This approach has worked and it has given women many opportunities that they would not otherwise have had. Without quotas, party members would generally select men rather than women.

What all political parties have failed to do is to break through the log-jam of selecting women candidates for elected office at all levels, whether it be at local council level, in the House of Commons or at European level—although the Labour Party made a big effort in the run-up to the 1997 general election by using all-women shortlists until it was prevented from doing so under a ruling by an industrial tribunal.

There were no special measures in place in the Labour Party—or, so far as I am aware, in any other party—in the run-up to the last election. As a result. there are fewer women MPs than there were in 1997— proving that without special measures in place women will have great difficulty in being selected in seats held by their party.

During our debate on the gracious Speech I mentioned the fact that in Wales 10 male Members of Parliament had retired: seven from the Labour Party, two from Plaid Cymru and one Liberal Democrat. Male candidates replaced all 10. I know that capable women put themselves forward for selection in the Labour Party, and I am sure that the same happened in the other two parties. But not one was selected, proving that without special measures in place the chances of women being selected in seats that their party can win is zero—at least in Wales.

The gracious Speech mentioned that legislation is being prepared to improve women's representation in public life. I welcome this measure, but in order for it to be effective for the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament elections in 2003 legislation must be brought forward as early as possible. That will allow the political parties which wish to do so to have all women shortlists in seats where they have to find new candidates. Without this, all the good work carried out in the first elections in 1999, where so many women were elected, could be undone.

As far as concerns the Welsh Assembly, women are playing a leading role. I believe that the same can be said for the Scottish Parliament. They achieved so much because the special measures put in place by their party allowed them to be elected. This must not be allowed to dissipate. Prejudice and discrimination against women in political life must end. The proposed legislation will go a long way towards making this possible. After all, this measure is not a giant step forward for womankind, but just a small, albeit welcomed, helping hand.

6.50 p.m.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords, my noble friend Lady Thomas of Walliswood deserves our gratitude for introducing this timely debate. I am proud that I was an architect of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, and a founding member and trustee of the 300 Group. I am particularly glad to be speaking this evening because the noble Baroness, Lady Lockwood, is sitting on the Woolsack as Deputy Speaker. She has been an example to all of us in our struggle for equality for women.

I regard this debate, and the legislation, as surely the business of Parliament. I do not understand the objection of the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, to the idea that Parliament should help to encourage women to become Members of Parliament. However, as a lawyer, I should like to say something by way of a cautionary speech to indicate that even the important end, which I entirely share, of promoting women in Parliament would not justify the use of means if they were rigidly inflexible or disproportionate. That is because European law and international human rights law anchor everything in the principle of proportionality.

A political party is not just a private association. When it selects candidates for public office, it acts as a public authority. It is bound by Section 6 of the Human Rights Act to act in a way compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. That convention guarantees the individual's right to stand for election without discrimination, but it recognises an exemption for positive measures if they are proportionate.

In Jepson's case, not to my surprise, an industrial tribunal decided, without relying on the convention, that the Labour Party's policy of all women shortlists constituted unlawful sex discrimination. The Labour Party wisely accepted the verdict without an appeal. I say "wisely" because Jepson was approved in a race case, called Sawyer, by the Employment Appeals Tribunal.

If the Government were to introduce a very wide exemption from the scope of the Sex Discrimination Act for the selection of parliamentary candidates, whether in the French or the Scandinavian style—or, indeed, old Labour style—it would remain open to serious challenge under the Human Rights Act, as well as under European Community law, by disaffected, excluded male candidates. Our courts and, if necessary, the European Courts would have to decide whether the measure, as applied, was necessary in a democratic society: was it proportionate to the aim of increasing the representation of women in public life? The courts would have to consider how far positive measures for women were compatible not only under the convention but also under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees the equal right and opportunity of individuals to take part in the conduct of public affairs, and everyone's equal right and opportunity to have access to public service. Again, provided that the measure was proportionate, there would be no problem.

Moreover Article 4.1 of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women says that only "temporary special measures" can be adopted, aimed at accelerating de facto equality between men and women … but shall in no way entail as a consequence the maintenance of unequal or separate standards". I congratulate the Minister on becoming a Member of this House and on her appointment as an equality Minister. I cannot think of a better choice for her maiden speech, to which we all look forward, than the topic of this debate. I hope that the noble Baroness will confirm that, whatever measure the Government introduce, it will not permit political parties to act disproportionately by maintaining unequal or separate standards for would-be parliamentary candidates based upon their sex, because that would lead to the kind of mess illustrated by the Jepson case.

There are difficult political, as well as legal, issues involved here. One has to think, for example, about ethnic minorities and their gross under-representation; and the consequences if one took similar steps to promote ethnic minorities as regards access to Parliament. Indeed, that could be divisive. However, if one did not include ethnic minorities, that might seem to suggest that one values racial and ethnic equality less than sex equality.

Those considerations give rise to difficult issues beyond the scope of this debate. But, in my view, the wisest approach would involve, first, applying the full force of the sex and race discrimination legislation to tackle the existing indirectly discriminatory practices by political parties—that is not being done and should be done for a start; secondly, as my noble friend said, introducing a positive duty on public authorities under the Sex Discrimination Act, as has been done in the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000; thirdly, introducing a fairer and proportionate system for electing MPs that would encourage greater pluralism and diversity; and, fourthly, introducing a carefully-tailored exemption that would allow positive action that was both necessary and proportionate. Those measures would tackle the under- representation not only of women but also of ethnic minorities. They would tackle the causes of that under-representation in a proportionate way.

6.56 p.m.

Baroness Uddin

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, for bringing this matter before the House. I also welcome my noble friend Lady Morgan to the Dispatch Box and look forward to hearing her maiden speech. I say this with a song in my heart: many of us dreamt that the day would come when the Labour Party manifesto would state that it was, committed through legislation to allow each party to make positive moves to increase the representation of women". Every one of us involved in that last effort to recruit 101 women to Parliament is relieved at the prospect of this new journey.

The use of all women shortlists in 1997 swelled the ranks of women MPs, but without positive action the past four years will come to be seen as a blip. Labour's selection of fewer women to replace retiring MPs in 2001 is a mockery of modern democracy. The result of this election sadly indicates that point, and the fact that political parties will not select significantly more women candidates without a change in the law to allow them to use positive action.

Nevertheless, with all the will in the world, the number of women MPs still represents only 18 per cent, as compared to the figure 35 per cent in relation to senior managers in the public sector. That demonstrates that all of our political parties are well behind the rest of society. Even at this stage of world history, women occupy only approximately 25 per cent of Parliament—the recent respectable appointments of baronesses represent just 15 per cent of these Benches. I believe that the United Kingdom stands at 33rd position in that respect. The proposed Bill is the only credible option and way forward.

The Labour women who have been fortunate to come through to Parliament via all women shortlists have faced enormous criticism. They have been sneered at and accused of asking "patsy" questions and not rebelling enough. Their loyalty has been questioned and, worst of all, they have been accused of lacking sisterhood. Anyone with an idea about politics should know that brotherhood is left at St Stephen's Gate. So I ask: why are there different standards for women?

The concept of "Blair's Babes" has become a casual insult to 101 new British legislators. Noble Lords may have noticed the number of exchanges since 1997, particularly between journalists, about the effectiveness of the new intake, on the presumption that the 101 male legislators they may have replaced were the crème de la crème of British politics. Labour women have been bracketed in this way because other parties did not take part in this exercise. That is why I believe that the obligation for all political parties to act now through the law is critical.

Change through legislation gives us an opportunity to examine how we shall ensure that parliamentary and local democracy is truly representative of British people. No one will have failed to notice that the previous Labour effort on that front produced more than 100 women MPs but failed to produce one single Asian woman on those green Benches. We had to depend on the PM's patronage to make up some of the democratic deficit. I, of course, declare an interest in t hat regard.

This debate will consider issues such as the way in which ethnic minority candidates are treated by their good comrades during selection processes. My experience of some 25 years with my party is perhaps a good example to share with your Lordships' House but time does not allow me to do that. However, my experience is certainly typical of that of many Asian women who have sought parliamentary seats and public office. It seems that as a member of a party one is good enough to knock on doors for one's Member of Parliament, be a councillor or even become a deputy leader, but if the question arises of leadership, control or sharing power a whole host of the usual rank and file discriminatory practices creep in.

Not too long ago in my party good, caring, intelligent comrades were heard to comment that my constituency would not tolerate an Asian woman—even worse, a Muslim woman—as its representative and that such a proposal would jeopardise the seat. As a Muslim Asian woman I should like to see a Bill introduced to rectify the gross injustices of oppression perpetrated by party mechanisms which have prevented many being selected. That applies to all parties. I hope that this debate will be a catalyst for change and will have an impact not only on parliamentary but also on local government selection processes. There is no doubt in my mind that Britain's ethnic minorities feel that they are cut off from the mainstream political process. Asian women have not been a part of that for a long time.

I have talked to friends who aspire to membership of this House. Many will see the current lack of progress in facilitating the aspirations of Asian women as a proof of latent racism within party mechanisms. Others will say that not enough women put themselves forward. I believe that there is truth in both statements. The selection process is besotted with networks which exclude Asian women. Good, active candidates continue to be excluded. I have run out of time. I hope that any proposed legislation will address the fundamental issue I have mentioned as well as the issue of attracting and facilitating women's parliamentary aspirations. Time does not permit me to comment on the remarks of the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, and on the debate of 1957. I hope that all noble Lords will read that debate.

7.3 p.m.

Baroness Maddock

My Lords, I, too, welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan of Huyton, to her new post in the Cabinet Office as Minister for Women. Given her background in the Prime Minister's Office and in the Labour Party, we look forward to hearing her contribution to this important debate which was introduced by my noble friend Lady Thomas of Walliswood.

It has been a wide-ranging debate. The problem is clear: women are under-represented in our Westminster Parliament and indeed throughout the whole of our political system in the UK. Currently 18.2 per cent of our Members of Parliament in Westminster are women. That figure is extremely low compared with the rest of Europe. We are 20th in the table. Speakers have touched on why we want to increase the representation of women. The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, said that government should not be involved in the selection process. My noble friend Lady Walmsley and the noble Baroness, Lady Gibson of Market Rasen, explained why we should be concerned about the matter. We cannot claim to be an inclusive and universal democracy if we do not have equal representation. Only when women are represented in legislatures in proportion to their presence in society will women share equal citizenship with men.

Opponents of the issue say that women can have equality of representation but only on the same terms as men. However, political recruitment procedures were devised by men to select other men. That lies at the heart of our problem. As we have heard this evening, a system which has as its representa lives mainly men has resulted in women still earning less than men and with poor recognition of their roles as carers and family makers. I refer to the financial rewards they get for those roles. My noble friend Lady Walmsley and the noble Baroness, Lady Gibson of Market Rasen, referred to that matter.

Many have mentioned the reasons why we have fewer women in our Westminster Parliament. There are problems of resources. It costs money to involve women in politics. Lifestyle restraints have been mentioned. There is also the matter of the number of vacancies in Parliament. Sometimes not many people stand down at elections. Women are rarely selected to stand for seats that are winnable. I declare an interest in that I am at present part of a commission of the Electoral Reform Society which considers candidates' selection by the political parties. We have examined masculine selection procedures and selection by people who espouse traditional attitudes with regard to who should be their parliamentary representative. Many people complain that selection procedures are biased.

The main parties—this applies to some more than others but I shall try not to be too political in this matter—have tried to tackle some of those issues. There has been much awareness-raising of the opportunities in public life available to women. My party has instigated special training to try to increase the number of women coming forward. I say to the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, that part of the problem is that women do not put themselves forward for selection. My noble friend Lord Newby mentioned one of the reasons for that. I refer to my horrible experiences when I first entered another place. I believe that I am the only person taking part in the debate who has been a Member of both Houses.

People have tried to take positive action. We know what happened in the Labour Party with regard to the all-women shortlist. My party tried quotas on shortlists. Under a different electoral system, we had 50 per cent men and 50 per cent women elected in the previous European election. There are legal problems associated with this matter. My noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill is an absolute expert in this area. I do not beg to differ from him on these matters. I do not believe that the legal problems are insurmountable.

We should consider what has happened in the rest of Europe, as others have mentioned. In Denmark, quotas were examined as early as the 1970s. Women there have 37 per cent representation. The noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, mentioned what is happening in France. In France some state funding is withheld if women's representation is not facilitated. European political systems tend to comprise a higher proportion of women representatives. However, tonight we are considering how our Government can address the decline in the number of women Members of Parliament. My noble friend Lady Thomas of Walliswood asked about the timing of legislation. My noble friend Lord Lester also made some points in that regard. Someone asked what Home Office research had revealed in this area. The other day someone said to me that women will achieve equality when there are many mediocre women Ministers in Parliament—then women will know that they have achieved equality. I look forward to that day.

7.9 p.m.

Baroness Buscombe

My Lords, I begin by congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, on introducing the debate. I welcome her tenacity on this subject. I also warmly welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan of Huyton, to the House. I very much look forward to hearing her maiden speech. I congratulate her on her appointment as Minister for Women. That is a difficult appointment. I say "difficult" because the mere fact that in the 21st century we are even discussing the need to address the imbalance of women in Parliament and all related issues which will occupy the noble Baroness is depressing. Quite frankly, in comparison the Committee stage next week of the Land Registration Bill, a very dry subject, is welcome. Then I and probably the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, and other lady Peers will simply get on with the complex task without any thought or mention of our gender or ability. I believe that no one need look further than this House for reassurance that women are more than capable of fulfilling key roles as parliamentarians.

When I became Vice Chairman of the Conservative Party, responsible for women, after the general election of 1997, having fought a seat, I was quite sure that women should make it to Parliament on merit alone. Indeed, while I wish to pay tribute to my predecessor in that role, my noble friend Lady Seccombe, who did so much over a period of 10 years to encourage women, including myself, to stand for Parliament and who gave us that confidence to stand which is so important, I was also determined to change my role from Vice Chairman for Women to Vice Chairman for Party Development. I believed firmly that the way to attract more women to Parliament was not by separating them on the ground of sex and thereby compartmentalising them but by looking for new ways to encourage young men and women to connect with politics—in ways that would appeal to them and through initiatives which are relevant to them and their lives today.

I still believe that I was right to change my role to that of party development. I am pleased to say that we are attracting many more women to our party. However, following my very active term as a vice chairman of our party, and with more experience of the issue under my belt, I changed my view that women can and should succeed on merit alone. With some considerable sadness I and the Conservative Party now believe we cannot continue to hope that in the short term women will make it to Parliament by relying upon traditional routes. That said, I believe that we must be incredibly careful about the way we move forward. I entirely agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, that any legislation should be permissive. We must all listen with care to and re-read the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, in particular with regard to the question of proportionality.

The concept of all women short lists is tempting. However, it is believed that it does diminish women and we have witnessed, albeit from the sidelines as a party which has not taken part in such an experiment, a serious backlash in some quarters and constituencies where women have been compulsorily imposed as candidates. I recall that my New Labour opponent in Slough was one such candidate and there was a great deal of unhappiness which must have been tough for her. However, I must concede that she is now the honourable Member for Slough and I am not. That said, I am glad to report that the Conservative Party in Slough selected a woman again in preference to a large number of men who applied to fight the recent general election. I wish that I were able to report that she had made it this time on merit.

Indeed, I want to use this opportunity to congratulate all those women who fought in the recent election and in previous general elections. It is a tough, lonely business. The difference for me was that, having failed to secure the seat, my party then gave me the chance to succeed by a different route. While I will not discuss the selection process of our party, I think it is right to say that the biggest stumbling block for us all is prejudice coupled, albeit to a lesser extent, with too few women prepared to make the commitment.

It is now clear that there needs to be a two-pronged approach. First, we need to find a way in the short term of overcoming prejudice and thereby witnessing more able women in Parliament who are already trying to make it i n all our parties. Secondly, we need to encourage many more women with real calibre seriously to consider a life in politics. That brings me back to party development and the need to encourage the new generation into politics and to treat them in the same way as in every other walk of life: that is, with gender a non-issue. I cannot agree with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Tessa Jowell, MP, when she said in a recent speech to the Fawcett Society commemorating women winning the vote: For the 21st Century, I believe that we need to ensure that we achieve a tot ally different kind of politics—a gendered politics". I cannot think of a faster way to turn both women and men off than that kind of political correctness.

Surely it should be our goal to take gender out of politics. In most other spheres and professions gender is not now an issue. Parliament and those given the important role of choosing our candidates just need to catch up with the rest of life. It was recently suggested that in politics women need more training and mentoring than men. I agree with mentoring perhaps because, as I have already said, politics is a lonely business. But with regard to the idea that women need more training than men for politics, I should love to see the reaction of any women in any other walk of life or vocation accepting such an absurd and insulting suggestion.

There are so many more things that one could say on the subject, but of one thing I am sure. I look forward to a time when we refer to all parliamentarians simply as Members of Parliament and Peers, not women MPs and lady Peers. It is not that we want women in Parliament just to make it look as though there is equality. We believe that it contributes genuinely to the democratic process. In addition, the truth is that women tend to make excellent Members of Parliament. Women are capable of fulfilling a number of roles at the same time. We always have. We are multi skilled. We are also on the whole rather good at listening and, more often than not, possess a natural ability and tendency to show real humility. It was a French woman politician who said not so long ago that men seek power for its own sake, women seek power so that they can get things done. How true.

7.17 p.m.

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Baroness Morgan of Huyton)

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, for securing the debate this evening on the subject of women's representation. We have had an excellent debate and, given the constraints of time, I shall endeavour to reply to as many noble Lords as time permits and beyond that, if noble Lords will permit it, I shall write to them.

I take this opportunity to express my thanks for the kindness shown to me by Members and officials of this House since my introduction two-and-a-half weeks ago. It feels like six months! I regard my new post as Minister for Women as a daunting but great challenge and I am proud to have been given the chance to build on the work of my predecessors as Ministers for Women—the noble Baroness, Lady Jay of Paddington, and the right honourable Tessa Dowell, MP.

I also feel privileged to be chairing the new Cabinet sub-committee on equality which will co-ordinate the Government's policies on equality issues and is, I believe, a real step forward. Women's involvement in politics is a subject close to my heart and one with which I have been concerned since I dealt with women's issues as Vice-Chair of the British Youth Council—now 20 years ago—as a former secondary school teacher and throughout my political life, as a local councillor, as an official in the Labour Party and as political secretary to the Prime Minister. I was involved in the introduction of all women short lists and other measures to attempt to increase the representation of women in the Labour Party—not always easy, I have to say. I find the fall in the number of women MPs in the last general election especially depressing. However, we have made real strides. We now have 30 per cent of women Ministers and women comprise 30 per cent of the Cabinet, so all is not lost. But it is clear that we have to move forward.

This Government want to encourage women to take their rightful place in public life and it is clear that many Members of this House share our aspiration that in the 21st century women should have an equal chance to be part of the institutions that govern our country. I know that many noble Lords also share the Government's determination to make sure that our society offers equality of opportunity to everyone, using legislation if necessary, and to make use of the country's full wealth of talent. This is a subject on which Members of this House have often taken a lead.

And I am pleased to note the support that the proposed legislation on women's representation is now attracting from all parties, notwithstanding the concerns expressed by the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers.

It is encouraging that Members of all the main parties in the other place have expressed support for the legislation and that a leading contender in the Conservative leadership debate has also been positive. I welcome the support that has been expressed around the House this evening, particularly the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe.

The Government have made clear their determination to take action in their election manifesto and in the recent Gracious speech. The reason for the proposed legislation is simple: all-women shortlists, which were introduced by the Labour Party before the general election in 1997, were deemed unlawful under the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 by an employment tribunal. Therefore, any political party that tried to bring in positive measures of any sort to increase women's representation could face a legal challenge.

However, the legislation that we propose will be permissive. Its purpose is to remove the risk of a legal challenge where parties choose to introduce positive measures. It will be up to the parties themselves to decide the best action to take, if any. The Government are not forcing change on anyone.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and my noble friend Lady Gale have explained, we have much to learn on the subject from the experience in Scotland and Wales. Some 37 per cent of Members of the Scottish Parliament and almost 42 per cent of the Members of the Welsh Assembly are women. That compares with only 17 per cent in this House and the other place. The Government will build on and learn from the experiences of the devolved administrations.

Experience in Wales suggests that proportional representation is not necessarily the solution, as some have suggested, because more women were elected in the constituencies on the first-past-the-post system than on the list system. There is scope for further discussion on that.

The noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, asked whether the legislation would cover local government elections. That is an important issue. Many women get involved and end their political life at that level. We are looking at details of how our commitment to legislate should be taken forward, including which elections should be covered. We have to consider carefully the implications for devolved administrations.

The legislation is intended to encourage women from a wide range of backgrounds. I share the particular concern expressed by my noble friend Lady Uddin about the representation of black and Asian women. However, the legislation is just part of our package of measures to build an inclusive society and increase opportunity for all. For example, last year the Government introduced the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000—the most radical race relations legislation in 25 years. The Government have also set up the Disability Rights Commission, which is a major step forward in helping to secure civil rights for disabled people. We also recognise the important role that public bodies and public appointments play. We are taking action to improve the fairness of representation, but we have a long way to go.

We shall all benefit from the increased representation of women, not least because of the experiences that they bring with them and the interests that they have. They are able to bring a different perspective to policy debates. As a wife, and particularly as the mother of two primary school-age boys, I know only too well the everyday challenges of trying to juggle work and home life, especially towards the end of the summer term. Those experiences that women bring to political life will enhance and enrich all our lives.

On a practical level, there are many examples of issues pursued by women Ministers and Back-Bench Members of this House and another place. I shall give two examples in addition to those highlighted by the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, and others this evening. Debra Shipley, a Member of another place, brought forward a Private Member's Bill in the last Parliament which is now the Protection of Children Act 1999. It requires the keeping of a list of people considered unsuitable to work with children. The noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, brought forward a Private Member's Bill to provide for the licensing and regulation of private hire vehicles in London which is now the Private Hire Vehicles (London) Act 1998. It helps to provide greater security and reassurance for women travelling alone. If women are excluded from the political process, for whatever reasons, we are less likely to have a full range of needs and interests addressed.

I understand the concern expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Newby, about working practices. It is a subject of discussion in this House and the other place. Let us hope that there is progress on that.

I welcome the comments from my noble friend Lady Gibson. I know that my party will need the support of the trade unions to move representation forward. I know of the hard work that she has put in over many years on the subject. I am also delighted that our proposals have attracted such support from a range of women's organisations, including some members of the Women's National Commission, which is so ably chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley. I look forward to involving all those organisations further as our work on the legislation progresses.

The Government are keen to maintain the momentum behind the legislation. I know from the debate that many noble Lords want to hear about progress. We have made our commitment clear. The issue is not whether we legislate, but how. The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, raised concerns about timing. We recognise the importance of introducing the legislation as soon as possible, particularly in order to meet the needs of Scotland and Wales as well as of the next general election. However, we also wish to ensure that it is fair and carefully considered. To that end, we are working hard on the detail now. That includes the question of whether the best way forward is via electoral or employment law. I shall stay in touch with noble Lords on that issue.

My noble friend Lady Gould explained that other countries have already increased women's representation. Some of those measures are covered by EU law. In Sweden, 43 per cent of the national Parliament are now women; in Norway, that figure rises to 48 per cent. In Germany, it is 31 per cent. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Lester, and others that the Government intend that any measures introduced to promote equality of opportunity between men and women will be compliant with the United Kingdom's EU and human rights international obligations.

There is a wealth of knowledge and expertise in the House on some of those difficult issues. I have heard some of it this evening. The Government are keen to draw on that expertise. I look forward to the contributions of many noble Lords in developing the legislation, both in the Chamber and in outside discussions.

I thank your Lordships for the courtesy you have shown me and the patience with which you have listened to what I have to say this evening. The Government are confident that, without being prescriptive in any way, the proposed legislation will usher in a more equal society, allowing greater representation of women in Parliament in the future. I hope that your Lordships will feel able to support it.

Baroness Buscombe

My Lords, I appreciate that this is out of order and I hope that noble Lords will forgive me, but I wanted to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan of Huyton, on her excellent maiden speech.

House adjourned at twenty-eight minutes past seven o'clock.