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Mr. Tyler: May I tell the right hon. Gentleman that she voted for me?

Mr. Raynsford: I am delighted that someone feels that the hon. Gentleman at least is woman-friendly in that otherwise women-unfriendly bunch.

The hon. Gentleman raised the question of European treaty law and the European convention on human rights. I hope that my response to the hon. Member for Maidenhead deals with that point. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the concerns expressed by Lord Lester as to the need for a regulatory impact assessment. We shall consider that and I am sure that it will be raised in the upper House.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson) gave an entirely apposite description of her experience when she first announced her intention to stand as a candidate for election and was greeted by incredulity in her own locality. That was a telling example of the problems faced by women wanting to stand for Parliament. My hon. Friend also spoke movingly of her experience in Northern Ireland, where she made an important contribution, liaising with women's groups to advance the peace process.

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The right hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Virginia Bottomley) was one of three Members who did not support the Bill. She referred specifically to public appointments and expressed concern about that field. I am pleased to be able to tell her that, since 1997, the number of women on health authorities has increased from 40 per cent. to 50 per cent. as a result of measures taken by the Government which I am sure she will support.

The right hon. Lady is confused in thinking that the Bill applies only to Members of Parliament. It applies to people seeking elected office in the United Kingdom—whether to Parliament, the devolved Assemblies, the European Parliament or local councils. The measure is comprehensive and covers the full range of elected posts.

The right hon. Lady raised the issue of ethnic minorities. That is a fair issue and an important one to consider. However, there are very different considerations. The right hon. Lady knows well that the distribution of ethnic minority groups around the country is varied; in many areas, they make up a relatively small proportion of the total population. It would thus be extremely difficult to set up a simple, national system of universal application to enable that particular discrimination to be tackled by legislative means. By contrast, we know that throughout the country, area by area, give or take about one percentage point, there is equal representation of men and women in every constituency.

Virginia Bottomley: The contrast that I was making is with teachers. Would a primary school with an all-female staff who felt that it would be right to appoint a male teacher because it was important for the children to have a male role model be prohibited from drawing up an all-male shortlist?

Mr. Raynsford: As an experienced Member of the House, the right hon. Lady knows that there is a fundamental difference between people who are appointed to paid employment and people who are selected as candidates and then stand for election. That is a fundamental distinction recognised in the Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford, in an eloquent and moving speech, set out the strong case for the Bill and for ensuring more effective and extensive representation of women. I pay tribute to her for all the work that she has done to ensure that the issue has come before the House. She has been an assiduous and persistent campaigner for the measure.

The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald was the first person, predictably, to use the word "patronising", which she did at 8.03 pm, as forecast by some of my colleagues. She also referred to a phrase used by a member of her party in the past: "whingeing and whining". The fundamental problem that the right hon. Lady must face is that her recipe would leave the Conservative Benches continuing to be overwhelmingly occupied by males—91.6 per cent. to be precise.

The right hon. Lady suggested that she had other ways of dealing with the problem. She did not specify them but, given that she was in full flood as she put forward

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that view, it reminded me of nothing less than King Lear. Towards the end of the tragedy, as his wits began to go, King Lear said:

The right hon. Lady's ideas will be the terrors of those on the Opposition Front Bench.

My hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) explained the impact of women-only shortlists in redressing the imbalance. Hers was an important contribution.

The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) supported the principles behind the Bill, but raised questions about compatibility with the equal treatment directive. He referred to the Abrahamsson case but—and he will be aware of the significance of this—that case was brought in relation to the appointment of a candidate for an academic post. There is an appointment distinction, which I have already made, between the appointments to paid posts and the selection of candidates who stand for election. That is why we are confident that the equal treatment directive will not apply.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) opened her speech by paying tribute to Val Feld for her important work on equal opportunities in Wales. I would like to add to that, because I worked closely with Val Feld when she represented Shelter in Wales many years ago. I knew of her sterling qualities. My hon. Friend also commented on the difficulties that women had encountered in being represented in Wales, and referred to the important advances that have been made recently.

The hon. Member for Cheadle (Mrs. Calton) referred to problems of the male club in the House of Commons, and my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) highlighted the important contributions that women have made as Members of the House, particularly in promoting private Members' Bills and as Ministers and Parliamentary Private Secretaries.

The hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) was one of three Members who did not support the principles behind the Bill, but she conceded the difficulties that face the women in Northern Ireland who seek selection. I trust that, as she considers the Bill—it is a permissive one—she will realise that it moves in a direction which, I hope she will be able to support.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, West (Stephen Hesford) approved of the Bill, and the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) gave us an entertaining account of the past 150 years of history, including a reference to an obscure blimpish MP in the 1920s. The hon. Gentleman drew a veil over the party affiliation of that obscure military man, but I wager that he was not describing a member of the Labour party.

My hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) gave a robust defence of all-women shortlists, and the hon. Member for East Carmarthen and Dinefwr (Adam Price) referred to the proud record of the Welsh Assembly, where 41 per cent. of Members are women. That would not be the case, however, if more than 50 per cent. of the Labour Members

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in the Assembly were not women. My hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Sandra Osborne) made a parallel point about the important contribution that women have made in the Scottish Parliament.

We have had a very good debate. We have heard much about issues of representation and about the unacceptable levels of discrimination under current arrangements. A fundamental problem needs addressing, and most of us will agree that something must be done, and done soon. The Bill is permissive and aims to open up for political parties the options that are available. It will give them the flexibility to pursue options that will advance women's representation in the way that the parties think is most appropriate. In doing so, they will have to consider carefully how women and men are represented at all levels of government. Our proposals are proportionate and are designed to be appropriate to the problem that they seek to resolve.

The Bill will remove the excuse provided by the Jepson case for not facing up to our responsibilities. It will enable political parties to adopt appropriate measures. I believe that it will make an important contribution to improving our democracy. It is a short, simple and elegant solution, which will seek to redress a fundamental imbalance that has marred our Parliament for far too long. I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.


Motion made, and Question put, pursuant to Order [28 June],

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The House divided: Ayes 322, Noes 70.

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