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Joan Ruddock: I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving way. I believe that when there is a time limit on Back-Bench speeches hon. Members no longer lose time by allowing interventions. Does the right hon. Lady

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not see a distinction between elected office and paid employment in other professions? It is the representative nature of the job that we do that sets us apart.

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

Although I want Parliament to do much more on the issue, I recognise that we have already come a long way. Margot Asquith, a Liberal Prime Minister's wife, said:

Margot Asquith died in 1945. One of the people who most influenced me in my parliamentary journey was the late Baroness Seear, who was bitterly opposed to special measures for women. Her view was that, as the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson) said, an hon. Member's job is to represent their constituency, including men, women, the able-bodied, the disabled, the young, the old, the rich and the poor. The next step may be to establish special measures for those who are over 60, under 30, able-bodied or disabled. We are setting a very sensitive precedent.

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

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

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

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Could we keep interventions quite short? Time is very limited.

Mrs. Fitzsimons: My constituent said that she now watches the House's proceedings because there are more

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women in this place who look like her. Now, as she thinks that our proceedings have something to do with her, she is engaged in the political process for the first time.

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

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

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

7.46 pm

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

In my question, I said that I was concerned that all the people who had been brought together to form a post-Taliban Government were men. I asked the Prime Minister if he would examine the mechanisms that had truly enabled women's voices to be heard in the political transitions in South Africa and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson) said, in Northern Ireland. The knee-jerk reaction from Opposition Members was very important and very telling, as was the parliamentary sketch in the following morning's edition of The Independent, which joked about

The brutal suppression of women in Afghanistan is designed to make them invisible in that society. For political commentators to express incredulity at the

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prospect of women taking any part in a future Afghan Government only demonstrates how successful that regime has been.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The publicity that that engendered attracted the usual spate of male responses. One man wrote on the subject of all-women short lists:

I reckoned he had to be a Tory.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The correspondent I quoted earlier asserted that there were plenty of "intelligent and achieving ladies" out there. Like the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey

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(Virginia Bottomley), I have absolutely no doubt about that. Remarkable women are everywhere. The problem with the political parties is that they do not find them and they do not recognise them.

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

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

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