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Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North): Does my hon. Friend agree that great progress has been made in this country in setting up the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament? A positive mechanism was used by a political party to ensure that the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament have some of the best representation of women in Europe. In fact, there are more women than men in the Cabinet of the Welsh Assembly.

Joan Ruddock: I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. She is absolutely right, of course. The difficulty was that that was a one-off mechanism. The selection of women has fallen back since then, and we need to return to the point that she so rightly describes.

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If the French measures that I have mentioned were adopted here, there would be rioting in our constituency parties and some hon. Gentlemen would adopt a policy of never retiring. Action is urgent. The progress made by the Labour party, which my hon. Friend has just outlined, in adopting twinning and all-women short lists before 1997 has been abruptly halted as my party's membership has reverted to type in the selections for the general election. Other parties in the House have made little or no progress, with the notable exception of the parties in Northern Ireland, which have returned three women after a gap of 30 years.

On present trends, it would take more than 30 years to reach parity in the House. That is absolutely unacceptable. Time is of the essence. It is likely that the selection of candidates for the next general election will begin in 2003, making legislation in this Session a necessity for those parties that will need to present rule changes to their annual conferences in 2002.

No one disputes that there are men in this House who have championed women's interests, but men cannot bring a woman's perspective to the whole range of political concerns. Women Members contribute to the House through different life experiences and from different perspectives. Furthermore, women voters believe that women Members of Parliament better understand the realities of women's lives. Perhaps if the House were more representative, in gender and colour, of our contemporary society, we might make an impact on voter apathy. I urge my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to introduce legislation to allow positive action in the selection of candidates as soon as possible, and I ask the official Opposition to make it very clear that they will support that legislation when it is debated in the House.

8.12 pm

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): I want to concentrate on constitutional issues, especially on one that has been raised by several hon. Members--the sadly low turnout at the general election.

First, I want to note the fact that the Gracious Speech refers to consultations on further reforms to the House of Lords. It seems clear that the Government do not know how to proceed to stage 2 of House of Lords reform. Despite the warnings, which we in the Conservative party issued four years ago, that stage 1 should not be implemented until stage 2 was agreed, the Government went ahead, as they have done so many times, in an arrogant way, removing most of the hereditary peers and replacing them with their own Labour party cronies. More Labour life peers have been appointed in four years than Conservative life peers were appointed in 18 years. That demonstrates the need for a significant change in attitude.

The Government have the effrontery to suggest that the present arrangements are somehow better and more democratic than those that preceded them. The Prime Minister has consistently opposed the granting of honours for political work. It is a moot point as to whether that it right or wrong. Yet having made that announcement over and again, the Prime Minister has used peerages as a currency to buy vacancies in safe Labour constituencies to put in his own appointed men--often those who have crossed the Floor of the House from another party.

I congratulate those Labour Members who have refused to be bought in that way, and I respect their integrity, but that is just one aspect of an arrogant attitude to power that

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goes much further in snubbing convention and tradition. The Parliament Acts were improperly invoked during the previous Parliament, yet barely a murmur was raised against that. Even the Chancellor, in his petty way, continues to refuse to wear the appropriate dress for his Mansion House speech. [Interruption.] The fact that Labour Members think that irrelevant is precisely my point. It is not irrelevant; it is not only a gesture of the Government's arrogance to be different, but it is downright bad manners not to accommodate the wishes of one's hosts in attending any function. That is one more example of how the Government's arrogance of power shows itself.

As several hon. Members have said, there has been an absolute abandonment of any semblance of accountability to Parliament. That has largely been achieved with the connivance of supine Back Benchers. I do not pretend for a moment that that all started in 1997; it did not, but it has certainly grown inexorably worse under the Labour Government.

The constitution may not be a popular political issue, but from the Government's attitude to it, we can divine their attitude to anyone who takes a contrary view on any of their policies. Indeed, not only will they not enter into reasoned debate, but they will often not even recognise the fact that there is an issue to debate. Other hon. Members have mentioned the West Lothian question, yet the Government firmly refuse to accept that there is an issue, let alone consider how to address it. So is it any wonder that the electorate are increasingly cynical about politicians and that so few people voted three weeks ago. The election result was disastrous not only for my party, but for democracy and even for the Labour party, which, despite the translation into seats, obtained 3 million-odd votes fewer than before.

I want to concentrate for a moment on the Opposition and on my party's role. My party has to regain its standing with the electorate, not just to win power--important as that may be--but to restore its credibility as an Opposition in the meantime. True parliamentary democracy needs a credible and robust Opposition, but it also needs an end to permanent confrontation. It is no wonder that the public are disillusioned when all that they hear is our criticising each other, rather than having reasoned debates. If there were ever any doubt in my mind that that was the public's view, it was removed on the doorsteps of my constituency during the election. Over and again, the people of Britain demanded a new style of non-confrontational politics.

What can my party do to restore public interest in Parliament and in our democracy? I have always believed that the Conservative party's principles represent the natural, gut instincts of the British people. That is why I am a Conservative, and it seems that the Prime Minister agrees, which explains his rhetoric. Of course, the reality is that what he does totally belies his rhetoric, but the rhetoric seeks to appeal to the same gut instinct.

I recall my first job as a full-time employee. When I was 17, I worked on a farm with a large number of other farm workers. They thought that it was not worth working overtime because of the tax that they would have to pay. I know full well from our discussions that they all voted Labour, as did millions of other manual workers, because they thought that the socialism on offer would look after them. However, beneath the surface, they were

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red-blooded capitalists who sought profit from a deal and a reward for their efforts. If we listen to the Government, we are all capitalists now, but the seam of Conservative principles goes much deeper into the hearts and minds of the British people.

Our party has consistently stood for the rule of law and the maintenance of order, regardless of provocation or even sympathy with the cause. The Conservative party truly believes in choice and has sought to provide it in office. We believe in individual responsibility, not just to make decisions in the expectation that the state will help, but one in which people accept that if they get it wrong, they must accept the consequences. There are many other ways in which the Conservative party's principles go deep into the instincts and inheritance of the British people. Our challenge is to make people understand that. I know that that is of little consequence to Labour Members. Indeed, many of them will disagree with what I say, but ultimately what is right for my party is right for democracy and for the standing of politics in this country.

The Conservative party has always recognised our responsibility to help others. Not for nothing did it used to be said that the Church of England was the Conservative party at prayer. In those days, Conservatives ran local charities and gave their services to the communities and sought nothing in return. Yet after all that, we have allowed ourselves to be seen as a different type of party--a party of hard men; selfish, dogmatic and greedy. None of those things is true, but it is hardly surprising that we are seen that way when we do not explain our principles; when we do not explain that lowering rates of tax can often increase tax yield. If we are worried about funding public services, it is tax yields rather than tax rates that matter.

We allow our views on Europe to be portrayed as polarised or isolationist, rather than spelling out the vision that I described in the House some years ago of a kaleidoscope of nations working together but each retaining their identity. When we talk about public services, we sometimes sound as if they are for other people, whereas in reality the vast majority of Conservatives, like myself, use the state education system and national health service. I believe that people expect from our public services quality, a service free at the point of use and a service that is reasonably convenient.

No one other than those wedded to socialism really cares who owns the bricks and mortar or who pays the nurses and teachers. It is the quality and availability of the service that matters. That is why the debate about privatisation is obsolete. The debate is not about selling off or charging but about the means of delivering a service to the general public. The Conservative Government began to move down the road of making available a range of provision which included the role of charities and religious bodies. Despite the rhetoric of the past few days--we heard it again this afternoon--much of that provision has been removed by the Labour Government.

The Conservative party will not redeem itself by trying to turn the clock back or by explaining our policies more clearly. We need to re-engage with the people of this country. My party has its part to play in restoring the status of politics and politicians. That is essential for my party's interests, but not just for us as a--

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