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

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

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

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

7.26 pm

Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough): I am delighted by the introduction of the Bill, and delighted to have an opportunity to speak.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7.35 pm

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

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

I feel passionately about women playing an active part. Much more can be done. The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) talked about the Government's failure to deliver on their objective to appoint more women to the public sector. One of the measures that I

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took when I became a Minister at the Department of Health was to insist that the NHS joined Opportunity 2000—the biggest employer of women in the world should be the best employer of women in the world. To a degree of ribaldry, particularly from my own colleagues, I insisted that we joined and set targets. Those targets were monitored and for the most part delivered.

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

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

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

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

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

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