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7.57 pm

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald): As ever, it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock), who has spoken with much feeling and made a significant contribution to the debate. She will not be surprised to hear that I do not entirely agree with her.

I have always advocated greater numbers of women in Parliament. I have always wanted to see more women succeeding, not only in getting into this House but in holding positions of responsibility. I earnestly look forward to the day when we have a second woman Prime Minister.

Virginia Bottomley: A Tory.

Miss Widdecombe: Quite right.

The Bill is fundamentally wrong. I must ask this question; are all the men in this place sound asleep? Do they realise what the Bill means for them? Have they thought that positive discrimination for women can entail negative discrimination for men?

I am often quite sorry for men. There are lots of injustices with which they have to put up. For example, they do not live as long as we do, but they have to work longer in order to get a pension. That will not be put right for some time. Some 50 per cent. of young men getting married today will not be able to see their children through to maturity in the same household. Whereas in the past women have had it very hard, there are now a few injustices for men. This Bill will create one more.

The Bill says that it will be permitted, that one could have—apparently we should be grateful that we are not being coerced into it—out of all the methods that could be chosen, an all-women shortlist.

What would that mean for a man in that constituency who had given to his local council the same lifelong service that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough

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(Helen Jackson) gave to hers, and who had lived in the constituency all his life? Let us say that the man had worked there and escaped from there, and that he wanted to apply for the seat when it fell vacant. He would not be able to represent the constituency if all-women shortlists were in operation.

That would be the reality for men under this pernicious Bill, yet hon. Gentlemen welcome it as a great step forward. It is a massive step towards inequality for men, and the poor souls just let the women walk all over them. They do not appear to care what will happen to them.

Mrs. Fitzsimons: Does the right hon. Lady accept that some of the hon. Gentlemen may be intelligent enough to realise that that has been the experience of women over the 700 years for which our alleged parliamentary democracy has existed?

Miss Widdecombe: Women have been able to apply for seats anywhere in the country, but the Bill would mean that no man could apply for some seats, no matter how strong his claim to consideration.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon): Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Miss Widdecombe: Yes, I shall be equal and give way to a man this time.

Dr. Evan Harris: I am grateful in many ways to the right hon. Lady, and take her admonitions to heart. However, does she accept that the justification for affirmative action and positive discrimination is that it would remedy the effects of the negative discrimination that exists in the selection process? Is she prepared to condemn the special discriminatory treatment meted out by some parties to some women when they tell those women that they should not put themselves forward—and that they will not be selected—unless they have sorted out their child care responsibilities? Such questions are not put to men with children who apply for selection.

Miss Widdecombe: I can tell the hon. Gentleman that when I entered a constituency selection committee and saw that most of the people there were women, my heart used to sink. We should not get the idea that discrimination against women is performed solely by men. It is not.

I do not believe that the Bill will do little more than deny some deserving men their basic human rights. The hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson) said that there was a bet about when the word "patronising" would first be used. It is now 8.3 pm, and the time has come. If I had been in a selection committee anteroom with two men who had got there by beating off all the competition yet I was only there because a place had been reserved for a woman on the shortlist, I would not feel helped. I would feel humiliated, insulted and patronised. I am glad to say that my party never did that to me.

I do not believe that the proposal behind the Bill is what was intended by the equal opportunities legislation of the mid-1970s. I remember that legislation, because I

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belonged to that minority in my party that believed it was necessary. However, feminists in the 70s said, "Give us equality of opportunity and we will show you that we are as good as, if not better, than most of the men." Now, a quarter of a century later, we whinge and whine and demand special treatment because we cannot make it otherwise.

If that is not an insult to women, I do not know what is. Positive discrimination is always negative discrimination against someone. I want every woman in this House to be able to look every man, from the Prime Minister down—or up—in the eye and know that she got here on exactly the same basis as he did. She must know that she has defeated all the competition, and that her path was not artificially smoothed by the removal of inconvenient male competition.

That is the sort of Parliament that I want, and an example of the sort of women's rights for which I have always stood. I firmly believe that the Bill would create two groups of women in the House. One group would be here on the same basis as everyone else, but the other group would be patronised, helped along and specially provided for. That would create two classes of woman MP—and that would be just about the biggest danger to the standing of women in the House.

Mrs. Fitzsimons: Would it not be a bigger insult if we had to wait another century for equality? That is how long it would take if the current rate of change in the Conservative party were applied to the House.

Miss Widdecombe: There is no reason for the House to wait another century. There are other ways in which women can be encouraged to come forward. In the Conservative party, they will not want to do so on the basis that they will be second-class citizens in the House.

With great respect to my hon. Friends on the Front Bench, I am afraid that I oppose the Bill. I think that it is misconceived and an insult to women. It would also be terrible for the future of men, and the poor souls just cannot see it. They need to wake up.

8.6 pm

Caroline Flint (Don Valley): It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe). This is my 23rd year as a member of the Labour party, and I know that the right hon. Lady is a longstanding member of the Conservative party. I am sure that, like me, she has engaged in discussions for many years about how women's representation can be increased. I have been at many conferences and meetings where all the people attending, male and female, have agreed on one thing—that there should be more women MPs and councillors. The only problem is that some men have not woken up to the fact that more women MPs and councillors would mean fewer men in those positions.

If a level playing field existed that meant that candidates were selected on merit, that would lend merit to the argument of the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald. However, that is not the reality, and later in my remarks I hope to outline why.

I am also pleased to speak in this debate because I was chair of the Brentford and Isleworth Labour party. That was of one of the constituencies cited by Mr. Peter Jepson at the employment tribunal considering his case for

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overturning the Labour party's position on women-only shortlists. My constituency party volunteered to have a women-only shortlist, and I was pleased that we subsequently elected a woman MP.

I represent the Don Valley constituency, and I was elected on a mixed shortlist. I do not consider that my role—as a woman Member of Parliament and a woman involved in politics—is to lead the vanguard that all women should follow. My position and circumstances mean that I am an exception to the rule, and I feel that I should do something to ensure that other women have better opportunities to be represented in this place.

We should recognise and welcome the steady increase in the representation of women in public life and politics generally, although it may not be as great as we would prefer. As someone who has worked in the trade union movement, I take issue somewhat with my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson). There is no doubt in my mind that the increased voice won by women in the labour and trade union movement has led to the minimum wage, rights for part-time workers, statutory holiday pay, better child care provision and increased child benefit.

Men lead on the Front Bench on some of these issues. For example, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has done much to tackle poverty in families on low pay, but it is the unsung women in our movement who have done so much to make those policies part of the Labour manifesto and the Labour Government's policies. It is no surprise that when male membership of trade unions was on the decline, unions turned to part-time women workers to become members. They have effected enormous change. My trade union is the General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trades Union—the GMB—and I was pleased to speak at an equal rights conference not so long ago. I paid tribute to all those invisible women, many of whom could have been general secretaries or Members of Parliament but did not have the opportunity.

I was delighted that, because of women-only shortlists, in 1997 a large number of Labour women entered Parliament. Policies such as the minimum wage, the working families tax credit and increased child benefit have been part of our vision for what we could achieve in government. It is predominantly women, particularly those in low-paid jobs, who have benefited from those outcomes.

Whatever the outcome of the debate to tackle inequality in representation, we must recognise that inequality still exists in the wider community, in this country and abroad. Job segregation, particularly in the manual sector, means that women earn 80 per cent. of men's hourly pay rates. Women still find it difficult to juggle child care and carer responsibilities and to be valued for it.

When I go to economic regeneration meetings in my local community in Doncaster, I am faced with a sea of men, whereas the child care partnership meetings are peopled predominantly by women. The value that is placed on both those important activities is distorted and unfair. It is a sad fact that if a male candidate has been involved in economic regeneration and a woman in creating child care places, the person with the economic regeneration experience may score more points of value than the woman whose contribution has been to child care.

Even the way in which the media portray women says something about the different ways in which men and women are judged. A radio programme the other day

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referred to research done by major private companies into why women without any child care responsibilities were not getting promoted. The conclusion was that different judgments were still being made. It was said that women get promoted on performance while men get promoted on potential. Merit is not necessarily why people get selected. Too often, people say that a man will go a long way and that even though he has made a few mistakes he has potential and the right kind of face.

Women continue to gain ground in traditional areas. There is a woman bomber pilot on duty in Afghanistan. We have seen the professionalisation of women's sports. Women have broken through in areas we had never thought possible. However, the fact remains that men run our armed services; they dominate our major sports and will continue to dominate politics for quite a while.

The achievement of equality of representation in the House of Commons is only part of the picture. My colleagues and I also want to see more fundamental changes in the wider society, to ensure that the experience of men and women is reflected and equality is sought.

What is so good about the Bill—and I might have liked it to be more prescriptive—is that it tries to find a way forward in which we can reach agreement across the House. Ultimately, political parties will have to choose how they want to address these issues.

The Labour party did not take the decision to have women-only shortlists lightly. It did not happen overnight. For many years, every conceivable way was tried to ensure that women got the chance to be selected. We have had the coaching, the makeovers, the training; we have had one woman on every shortlist. At the last round, we even had 50 per cent. of women on our shortlists. However, women candidates who got in touch with me have said that the male networks operated to try and put weaker women candidates on the shortlists, excluding some of the stronger ones. I say that without any problem, because women have different merits, and not all are as good as each other. We all have differing points of view, including political points of view.

The decision to ask constituents in marginal seats to choose women-only shortlists was a means to an end and was taken after much consideration. As some of my colleagues have said most eloquently, when we worked out the figures, we did not see how we would make any progress in our lifetime.

We like to believe that this mother of Parliaments is at the forefront of democracy, but that is not true. We are far behind some other European countries in terms of women's representation. Indeed, the agreement at Harare in 1991 to try and ensure that 30 per cent. of representatives in national Parliaments are women has been eagerly embraced by many countries in the developing world. I was fascinated when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development said today that in Pakistan 33 per cent. of those elected in recent council elections were women. We have fewer women representatives in England, Scotland and Wales, and it is ridiculous to suggest that we are leading the way.

The political parties have to consider how to operate. Let us consider the last two elections. Of those seats which raised our total gains in 1997 to 146—and from seats like my own, in which a new candidate replaced a retiring Member of Parliament—we added only another

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10 women MPs. The women-only shortlist, where the outcome was at least 50 more women selected, was the main reason for the change. Little were we to know that the endorsement of new Labour would lead to us exceeding our expectations in terms of numbers of seats won, but in fact, it reverted to type without—

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