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Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) has done us a favour by moving amendment No. 4, if only because this debate allows us to test on the Floor of the House some of the proportionality issues that we did not fully explore in Committee. He described his amendments as a pre-emptive test of proportionality. I think that such a test is valuable and I hope that the Minister will respond to it.
It is slightly ironic that, in legislation that is short, simple and permissive, the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire wanted to be more restrictive. Having described the Labour party as much more centralist and directive, he tried to represent the Conservative party as more decentralised and liberal. That is not a description that I recognise, having fought the Conservative party for over 30 years.
As both earlier speakers said, at several points in Committeeand, indeed, on Second ReadingI was at pains to point out that there was already evidence suggesting that the Bill was likely to cause more legal wrangling rather than less. Knowing the sort of expense that the parties might have to incur, I felt that the House had a responsibility to try and pass legislation that was, as far as possible, invulnerable to excessive legal challenge and interpretation. The issue of proportionality is clearly the key issue in terms of interpretation.
My normal response to legislation is this: the simpler it is, the less likely the lawyers are to get at it. That is why I have a real problem with the amendment. For reasons with which the Minister may, I suspect, agree, it is likely to cause more trouble rather than less. The references to legal advice made this afternoon and in Committee are entirely appropriateand, as I said on Second Reading, Labour is likely to be first in the dock. Although the party may have access to a certain distinguished lawyer at No. 10 Downing street, which may give it preferential terms, the process will still be expensive. Nevertheless, I think it right for us to consider the question of balance.
We should pay particular tribute to all the preparatory work done by Meg Russell and the constitution unit. Meg Russell's 2000 and 2001 reports set out, in effect, the options open to Parliament and Government. I am struck by the fact that she even anticipated this issue in dealing with the Badeck case, mentioned by the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May). She stated succinctlyhow beneficial it is to learn of the feminine attitude to these matters:
The Minister has a problem. He must try, either here or in the other place, to give some assurances that his partyand perhaps others, in due coursewill not run into difficulties. I think that we were led down a false path, and that the issue of locality was a red herring. The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire did not bring out as vividly and as succinctly as the hon. Member for Maidenhead the inclusivity, as opposed to exclusivity. I happen to live about 500 yd outside my constituency, but I have spent all my adult life in Cornwall. Indeed, where I live used to be in my constituency before the boundary commission came along and moved the boundary. Does that still give me a geographical connection?
I feel that the amendment lays too much stress on that issue; there may well be others just as important. For that reason, I suspect that, in due course, we shall find that the amendment does not really achieve what we wish to achieve. That, however, does not absolve the Minister of his responsibility to deal with a specific problem that his party and, no doubt, others may face. I hope that he will give us reassuring answers.
As was established in Committee, there is widespread support for the Bill's principles, and its attempt to improve women's representation in Parliament. It is important that we get it right, however. The amendment reflects the series of cases, referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), that established the basis on which positive action could be taken.
One of the cases that gave rise to the Bill was Mr. Jepson's legal action against the Labour Party. In Committee, there was much discussion about whether a legal challenge to the Bill could succeed. In this month's edition of The Parliamentary Monitor, Mr. Jepson raises his head again, saying that he believes the Bill will
I want to refer to my experience in finding a seat before the general election and the issue of people with a local link. Contrary to what Government Members have said about their experience of being selected, I know that some people put forward their name to represent solely one seat, and no other. When I was selected to fight Fareham, there were people who wanted to represent only that seat.
In taking any measure to increase the representation of women in Parliament, we should be careful not to exclude people who want to represent the seat in which they live or for which they have another criterion that makes them especially suitable. In my area, someone with a military background might be highly appropriate to stand in seats in Portsmouth or Gosport, but might be precluded from doing so by the adoption of a particular kind of shortlist.
We need to have an objective assessment of who should be considered for adoption as a candidate and there should be guidance in law to ensure that parties can frame their procedures to take proportionality into account. It is not Parliament's job to frame laws that will lead people to incur unnecessary legal costs because the drafting has not taken into account the full range of circumstances that might exist and the framework of recent European Union legislation. The cases referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead set a clear trend: we must consider objectively the merits of all candidates when taking positive action, and we should not prefer a female candidate if all the other criteria match. All candidates should be able to set out the criteria that make them suitable to represent a seat.
David Winnick (Walsall, North): I apologise for coming in late, but I have found the arguments fascinating and that is why I have stayed. I understand the reasons for the amendment, but are the hon. Gentleman and his
Mr. Hoban: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would have benefited from being here to listen to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire, who gave a clear exposition of the case. We are saying that, in any attempt to redress the gender imbalance in the House, we should not prefer female candidates in all cases, and that where candidates are ostensibly of equal merit, we should think about objective criteria that make one of them more particularly suited for the seat. That is not solely limited to the fact that someone is local, but that may be a factor. We are talking about selecting a candidate for one seat, not a group of seats, and we need to be proportionate in our response.
Mr. Lansley: Selection for parliamentary constituencies often consists of national candidates and local candidates. We do not say that local candidates should be given preference: the issue is whether they are to be debarred from being considered.
Mr. Hoban: Indeed. We should certainly not, by any measures that we take to change the composition of the House, debar local candidates from selection. That is the crucial point of the amendment. The Minister should take it seriously, to ensure that the Bill is not subject to legal challenge once it is enacted.
Glenda Jackson: I felt I must speak against the amendment and Opposition Members' arguments, which have demonstrated a failure to remember why the Bill was introduced in the first place. It is not dedicated to absolute equality of opportunity: it is designed specifically to redress the gross inequalities that prevail against women who believe that they have a part to play in the political life of their country and find that the selection processeseven before we get to a decision by the electoratepreclude them from stating their case.
It took the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire a long time to get around to the basis for the amendment, which is to stop the Labour party adopting all-women shortlists, but that is something for the Labour party to decide. If we waited for the proposals that the Conservative party has been pushed kicking and screaming into acknowledging that it has to introduce in relation to the selection of women, there would be even fewer women on these green Benches.
There is something fundamentally confused in the thinking on this subject, as we saw when the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) referred to the necessity of selecting candidates with a military background for constituencies close to his. Such thinking may be replicated throughout the House. The obvious response is that he does not seem to realise that there are women in our armed forcessome in positions of great responsibility. The assumption is that if it is military it is automatically masculine.