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8.52 pm

Lady Hermon (North Down): I am sorry that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson) is no longer in the Chamber, as I should have liked to thank her for her kind words about how active women are in communities in Northern Ireland. I want to add to her remarks by bringing a Northern Ireland perspective to our debate and registering the Ulster Unionist party's deep concern that the Bill may result in positive discrimination. We in Northern Ireland have just embarked on a form of positive discrimination that we find deeply divisive and counter-productive; I shall speak about that in due course.

I am one of only three women in Parliament who represent constituencies in Northern Ireland out of a total of 18 MPs in that part of the United Kingdom. Of course, that is a deeply unsatisfactory state of affairs, but it is a great improvement when one considers that for the last 30 years or so all our MPs were men. However, the House might also note—this gives me no pleasure—that the total of three is inflated, as the Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Michelle Gildernew) achieved her 53-vote

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majority only with the aid of intimidatory tactics in a polling station. Those tactics were described only last Friday by Lord Chief Justice Carswell in an electoral court in his home town of Belfast as "extremely reprehensible".

There is little doubt that women are grossly under-represented in political life in Northern Ireland, particularly when compared to other regions of the United Kingdom. I understand that 42 per cent. of Members of the National Assembly for Wales are women. The figure falls to 37 per cent. for membership of the Scottish Parliament. Much worse is the figure for the new Northern Ireland Assembly, where just 13 per cent. of Members are women.

I am glad to see the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough back in her place, and I thank her.

Fortunately, the Belfast agreement was not silent about the role of women in public life. As a strong supporter of the agreement, I was pleased that it enshrined, among many things, a clear commitment by all the parties to

That is a commitment which the Ulster Unionist party greatly welcomed and still does.

The agreement also included a provision whereby all the parties affirmed

Given the central themes of equality and non- discrimination which run through the Belfast agreement, which I repeat that I welcome, my party would be strongly opposed to any legislation that ran counter to those themes. We in the UUP are opposed to all forms of discrimination, including positive discrimination.

I alluded earlier to a recent example of positive discrimination. It relates to the recruitment process for the new Police Service of Northern Ireland. For the benefit of right hon. and hon. Members who might not be aware of the fact, I should explain that the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 incorporated a provision which legalised religious discrimination in recruitment, so that 50 per cent. of recruits would come from the Roman Catholic community and the other 50 per cent. would not. In practice, that means that Jewish, Protestant, Chinese, atheist and Muslim recruits who have made it through all the tests on merit may nevertheless be rejected on the grounds of their community background—their religion.

My party shares the desire to make the Police Service of Northern Ireland much more representative of the entire community, but we emphatically do not believe that the discriminatory recruitment policy is the way forward. We believe it to be counter-productive and divisive for the new Police Service, and that is not what I wish to see. Likewise, we believe that if the selection of political candidates were brought about by positive discrimination, it would be counter-productive and divisive.

I have listened carefully to the debate and the contributions from other right hon. and hon. Members. We need a much clearer understanding of the reasons behind the low numbers of women in political life throughout the United Kingdom. I therefore commend to the House the work of the recently established centre for the advancement of women into politics. I must declare that I sit on a voluntary basis as a member of its advisory board. The centre was launched last month,

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on 28 September 2001. It is based in the school of politics in Queen's university, Belfast, and aims to foster an appreciation of women's contribution to politics, government and public decision making in the United Kingdom and Ireland. I believe it to be the only centre of its kind in Europe.

The centre considers women's political participation as having two important dimensions: the proportion of women in decision making, and the inclusion of women's perspectives in Government policies and programmes. I take the opportunity to pay tribute to its director, Yvonne Galligan, and also to the lady who opened the centre, who is no other than Mary McAleese, formerly of Queen's university and now the President of the Republic of Ireland. I think that President Mary McAleese's well- deserved rise to become her country's elected Head of State demonstrates that the correct blend of determination and ability can bring political dividends for a woman in these islands.

I appreciate that the Bill is permissive, as opposed to prescriptive. However, although the Ulster Unionist party will always support equality we shall not be persuaded to support positive discrimination.

9 pm

Stephen Hesford (Wirral, West): I am conscious of the fact that I may be the only male Back Bencher to contribute to this debate. In that respect, I bear a heavy responsibility. I hope not to speak for my 10 minutes, because I do not want to be accused of promoting male domination, especially as others who are present have much more relevant and serious experience of prejudice and loss, which they can eloquently bring to this debate.

I was going to start my speech with a quotation from Peter Riddell, the columnist on The Times, but when I heard the speech of the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) I thought that it would be irrelevant. Fortunately, however, I was rescued by the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe). I respectfully suggest that she represents more of what the Tories think about the Bill than the hon. Member for Maidenhead, however seriously and honourably she expresses her views. She shakes her head, but we may see in future weeks and months that that is a truism.

In 1993, Peter Riddell reviewed women's progress in Parliament up to the 1992 election. He wrote:

That was true then, and it is still true now. If there is any doubt about the argument—I shall come to some statistics in a moment—we must remember that that is the principle that we are debating. By giving the Bill its Second Reading and then enacting it, I hope that we will defeat it in this place—and not before time. We are considering an issue of principle, which, as other hon. Members have made clear, is about equity for that 51 per cent. of the population who are vastly under-represented in this place. It is also a question of the balanced representation that people who would otherwise be women MPs could bring to this place.

The Bill is short, but it will have a significant effect on our political body. Many people fear that change, even though they do not expressly say so. I am sorry to say that Labour Members do not come to the debate with

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clean hands in that respect. I hope that my colleagues will forgive me for saying that the fears that I describe are shared on the Labour Benches. We must grasp that reality.

Let me read some statistics on women's representation after the 2001 election. Eight per cent. of Conservative MPs were women, and women accounted for 23 per cent. of Labour MPs and 10 per cent. of Liberal Democrat MPs. The Government have done all they could to bring representation of women to the fore in this place by appointing them as Ministers, of whom 30 per cent. are women. In terms of the overall proportions, women are over-represented as Ministers.

I am pleased to see that that is the case. The Government have done as much as they could. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on looking to bring forward role models to say to the public that this place and this Government in particular are not as irrelevant to their lives as they sometimes perceive. Some 26 per cent. of Cabinet members are women, which is six people out of 23. I would enter a small caveat in relation to that figure, as it takes into account members of the other place. My point, however, is that if there is a political will within the party or parties, progress can be made.

The Inter-Parliamentary Union compared democracies around the world, and I am grateful to the House of Commons Library for providing this information. Of the 179 members of the IPU, Britain comes in a very sorry 39th in the list of democracies. To put that in stark relief, and with no disrespect to the countries that I am about to mention—in fact, in some ways I applaud them—we are behind Turkmenistan and Vietnam. We cannot look with equanimity on that fact.

There is a party political element to this issue. Although I welcome the agreement among the Front Benchers of both Opposition parties, one must look at the reality. The proportion of women Liberal Democrat candidates has fallen since 1992. I have to ask—perhaps rhetorically—whether, in the light of their recent conference decision, they come to this debate with entirely clean hands. However, I welcome their support, if support it is.

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