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9.21 pm

Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands): In the United Kingdom, the watershed for women parliamentarians was the election of the Labour Government in 1997 and the election of 101 Labour women to Parliament. Before that, women had never made up more than 10 per cent. of all UK Members of Parliament. But we cannot rest on our laurels. We have just 118 women MPs now. Less than one in five MPs are women, which is well below the record of our European neighbours.

I am particularly pleased that the Bill extends to local government because it is often at local level that women are most active—for example, as school governors, tenants, representatives or representatives of church organisations. It is a natural step for many women to stand for council and find a route to wider political involvement. However, that route to empowerment locally and nationally can be blocked for women. Only one quarter of local councillors across England are women, despite women's traditional involvement in grass-roots politics. I do not think that anyone in their right mind would suggest that that is because women are less able than existing male councillors.

Local government can be a valuable training ground for politicians, but my concern is that we are failing to attract young recruits, just as we are failing to enthuse young people about voting. I recently visited a sixth form in my constituency for a political debate. I was particularly impressed by the articulate and well-informed girls who quizzed me. A few years ago, when I visited schools as a local councillor, it was difficult to get girls to be vocal and to participate. Now there is no holding them back. It is the boys who are less forthcoming.

If my constituency is anything to go by, we have talented young women interested in politics, but how do we transform that interest into involvement? The Bill will do a lot to help, but we must do more. Putting citizenship on the curriculum is a step forward but democracy should be a real part of young people's lives. All schools should have school councils that mean something—not talking shops but forums to listen to pupils' views and to act upon them.

We must involve young people in their communities, giving them a stake in those communities. Then they will want to vote and to involve themselves in community politics. I know that that is easier said than done, but it has to happen if we are to have a healthy democracy. Let us be in absolutely no doubt: ensuring that women of

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all ages are involved at every level of government is about building a healthy democracy. We cannot afford to exclude over 50 per cent. of our population from political representation, but that is what we have done. Since 1918, of Members who have served in the House of Commons, only 6 per cent. have been women. That is shameful.

The trade union movement is another traditional training ground for Labour Members. All too often, however, as Fawcett Society research has demonstrated, good intentions on women's representation are often sidelined in the desire to get favourite sons into safe or winnable seats.

My experience with Unison has been rather different from that. Prior to the 1997 general election, Unison created a parliamentary panel of 12 members, 10 of whom were women. It provided training, advice, support and assistance with printing, and four Unison women were elected. I am delighted that another woman from Unison, my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Anne Picking), joined us in 2001. Unison's use of a small panel enabled it to give support to women candidates which helped them to be selected. I believe that unions have a proud record in promoting women's rights in the work force, by training and by representation. If they have the political will they can do the same for women parliamentarians.

The selection process itself is central to the promotion of women candidates. It is vital that parties adopt rules that are clear and very much in black and white. Any perceived bias in the selection process must be eradicated if women are to believe that they have an equal chance of selection. There must be a level playing field for all applicants on access to membership information, the use of conduct rules, postal votes and contact with party members, and also concerning the types of information that candidates can circulate.

I support women-only shortlists because too many women have been put on shortlists simply to reach a 50 per cent. quota. Women-only shortlists helped to break the logjam back in 1997, and they can help us to make further progress now. They are not an insult to women.

In my selection, I defeated five men. In the mid-1960s, when my father was selected as a candidate for Preston, North, he was chosen from an all-male shortlist. However, he did not feel patronised because he was not taking on allcomers. At that time, women were not even considered for selections. No one batted an eyelid that he was selected from an all-male shortlist because it was traditional, old-fashioned sexual discrimination. It was not positive discrimination to secure a Parliament that properly reflects the experience and skills of the whole population.

9.27 pm

Adam Price (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr): I shall keep my speech short.

It is a great pleasure to speak on behalf of Plaid Cymru—the party of Wales—and the Scottish National party on this very important and welcome Bill. It is a pleasure also to add another Welsh voice to the debate. As the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) said, we come from a country that has elected only seven women to this place from the more than 1,500 Members

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that we have returned here since the Act of Union. Now, however, in the excellent record of the National Assembly, Wales is leading the debate on structures of representation for women.

As we have heard today, the evidence shows overwhelmingly that the problem lies not with the voters—who are only too happy when given the opportunity to elect women Members—or with women, but with parties and institutions. That is the clear message that I am taking away from this debate. As we heard, many women find the culture of the political arena alien, unfriendly and sometimes even hostile. Consequently, many of them reject politics entirely. Other women face more practical obstacles in juggling personal and political commitments.

Despite the welcome changes in recent years, the sitting hours of the House and the parliamentary programme have still not been adjusted fully to take into account the dual burden carried by many women and also by many men. I draw hon. Members' attention to the family- friendly hours that are operated by the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales. We could learn much on the issue from those institutions.

Lack of confidence is one of the key reasons for women's under-representation in formal political institutions, and this shows the importance of a supportive culture within parties and institutions in nurturing women's political self-confidence. In this regard, I pay tribute to the exemplary record of the Scottish National party, which has had a strong record over the years in terms of women's representation in this House. The party achieved a representation of 43 per cent.—17 women MSPs—in its Scottish parliamentary group without mechanisms. That shows the health and strength of that party's commitment to gender equality.

We as a party in this House do not have such a good record; that is why, in the 1990s, we instituted a gender balance commission and placed the women candidates for the National Assembly elections at the top of the regional lists. Together with the decision of the Labour party in Wales to operate twinning arrangements, that ensured the excellent result that women made up 41.6 per cent. of representation at the National Assembly for Wales. It should be noted that, throughout Europe, that level of representation is surpassed only by Sweden at 42.7 per cent; it is an excellent and creditable result.

It is because of the great advances achieved in the devolved Administrations in recent years that my party welcomes the legislation and urges the Government to ensure that the Bill receives Royal Assent as soon as possible, to facilitate still further the selection processes for the National Assembly for Wales. I am pleased to tell the House that our equal opportunities director is currently developing proposals on ensuring fairness and gender equality in the choice of candidates, and these are to be passed at a special constitutional conference in November.

We welcome and support the Bill, although, in passing, I should point out that the Labour Government might have saved some parliamentary time if they had had the courage to challenge the Jepson ruling, as the Equal Opportunities Commission asked. At least they have given us a valuable opportunity to have a necessary debate, and to look not just at the issue of representation but at the issue of culture and the attitudes that too often exclude people from the mainstream of modern politics.

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9.32 pm

Sandra Osborne (Ayr): I want to concentrate my remarks on the Scottish Parliament, because I believe that its success in selecting women can teach us many things.

The sixth of May 1999 was an historic day for the political representation of women in Scotland with the first elections to the new Scottish Parliament when 48 women entered the Chamber as elected Members. The representation rate was over 37 per cent. and that broke all records for the representation of women in politics in Scotland at local, Westminster and European level. We were only beaten by Wales in that respect, although that was welcome. The significant difference between the parties in terms of the number of women MSPs is directly related to the action or inaction that the parties took to encourage women candidates, either in constituency seats or in the list.

The Scottish Labour party had a 50:50 gender balance; 28 female and 28 male MSPs were elected. Some 43 per cent. of the Scottish National party's MSPs were female; the figures for the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives were 17 per cent. and 12 per cent. respectively. The election results demonstrate that even with a newly elected Parliament—where there is no incumbency barrier—equal representation of women cannot be taken for granted. It can be argued that the results provide evidence that political campaigning and specific policies and mechanisms are essential to ensure that women are represented in significant numbers in political life.

The increase in the number of women elected to the Scottish Parliament is due in part to sustained campaigning by women's organisations and civic society in Scotland, and reflects the different approaches taken by the different political parties in Scotland. Prior to the election, all parties stated their concern to see more women in politics and their intention to encourage women to come forward for selection. But the Labour party was the only party to operate a specific mechanism to achieve that. Recognising that, under the additional member system, most Labour seats would be gained on a constituency basis, a scheme was devised to twin constituencies to allow both men and women to stand for election.

The Liberal Democrats signed the electoral agreement published in the Scottish Constitutional Convention's final publication, entitled "Scotland's Parliament, Scotland's Right". They committed the party in principle to gender equality in the new Parliament. They initially proposed a so-called "zipped" system to get women on the lists at a reasonable level. However, they later reneged, and the party, at its annual Scottish conference, voted against the proposal. The fact that nothing was done contributed to the fact that Liberal Democrat party has so few women in the Scottish Parliament.

The Scottish National party also proposed a zipping system. Although its conference rejected that proposal, the party put women high on selection lists with the result that its level of women's representation has reached a respectable 40 per cent. However, I argue that the party's use of a specific mechanism—in this case not women- only shortlists, or twinning—was absolutely necessary to produce that outcome.

The Conservative party continued to express its opposition to special measures, saying that it would select people on merit. I make no comment about the

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Conservative men who are Members of the Scottish Parliament. I have beaten one of them twice in elections, but I welcome the apparent turnaround in the party's approach to these issues. I am surprised, and gratified by it. I hope that it will be reflected also in the Scottish Conservative party.

The Scottish Parliament proves that a specific positive measure is the only way to get more women into politics.

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