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6.55 pm

Mr. Lansley: I shall try not to disappoint the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) by being too long-winded on this occasion.

In contrast to my earlier remarks, I do not want to cavil about the Bill, to question it or even to oppose it. As the Minister for Local Government and hon. Members will know from Second Reading, my intention is to support the Bill. I hope that my effort to amend it was understood as an attempt by the Opposition to strengthen and validate the purposes of the Bill.

I share the questioning approach of my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Surrey (Virginia Bottomley). That is why I question the Labour party's desire to go all the way to women-only shortlists. The way in which the Government have structured the Bill suggests that we may be able to switch it off by 2015 and that there will have been a culture change: but how do we get to that point? Can we reach it without the imposition of women-only shortlists? Many Labour Members think that we cannot: Conservative Members think that we can.

As my right hon. Friend said, such change is happening in other professions. She rightly drew attention to the fact that, in 1975, 16 per cent. of hospital consultants were women; at present, the figure is 34 per cent. More to the point, over 50 per cent. of those entering the medical profession are women. By 2015, it would not surprise me if more than 50 per cent. of consultants were women.

Nineteen per cent. of the accountancy profession are women, but 45 per cent. of current entrants are women. Women make up 51 per cent. of current entrants to the legal profession. However, there is a difficulty—a culture problem. As a House, it is not merely the fact that, historically, we are overwhelmingly male, and that if those entering it are disproportionately female the balance will shift over time: we have to deal with the beam in our own eye. My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) is in the Chamber and offers abundant evidence of the merits of women candidates, but she is the only woman among the 35 new Conservative Members elected in 2001. That is not remotely acceptable.

We should have changed that situation and might have done so if more of the suggestions made by my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Surrey had been taken on board. However, although I cannot go along with my right hon. Friend's view that measures such as recruitment, mentoring and training will be sufficient, there is a large gap between her proposals and women- only shortlists. That is the area of balanced shortlists.

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As a party, we insist on going out from the centre and recruiting in the expectation that constituencies will be obliged to select from balanced shortlists. Given the nature of the system that we have adopted, even if constituencies do not deliver the necessary outcome, they will increasingly see more suitably qualified women candidates than men. By the expedient of not reaching the point where we insist that an individual constituency cannot consider the merits of a male candidate, we shall not undermine the case for the positive measures that we in the Conservative party should take. My hope and belief is that we can achieve the necessary change in culture relatively quickly and demonstrate that the form of discrimination by which some Labour Members seek to achieve that objective is counter-productive and unnecessary.

At the risk of delaying the House for a second, I want to mention another issue. The Bill is intended to apply to a specific range of elections, and the Minister has made it clear that it will also apply to elections to the House of Lords. I look forward to that, not least because the House of Lords is intended to complement the House of Commons, yet in this respect it does not—only 16 per cent. of peers in the other place are women, as are only 22 per cent. of life peers created since 1997.

Leaving aside elections, the White Paper provides that at least 30 per cent. of the new life peers will be women, yet in the same paragraph it states that at least 30 per cent. of those appointed will be men. By extension, if we start with 22 per cent. and the fact that at least 30 per cent. of the new appointments will be women, it will be many years, perhaps decades, before the House of Lords approaches anything like a gender balance under such a dispensation. That is absurd, because the House of Lords should recruit from the professions and the walks of life that are under-represented in this House. Talent could be brought into the House of Lords that has not been accessible previously in our law-making procedures through election to this House. That will, if anything, disproportionately involve women on the basis of historical experience and the current situation.

I do not understand why the Government have not been bolder in the White Paper and said that, from the beginning, at least 50 per cent. of those appointed to the House of Lords will be women; nor why they have not made it clear that the Bill will allow political parties similarly to take positive action to secure the election of women to the House of Lords in due course.

Finally, I have tried to work out what has restricted the selection and election of women to the House. I listened to a description of research into why something of a glass ceiling still exists in relation to the promotion of women in business and industry. There is probably a parallel, in that those involved in the selection of women to sit on the main boards of companies are not keeping up with those who genuinely select people on merit, as seems to be the case in the professions and with qualifications.

Researchers concluded that men were, by and large, assessed on their potential. That happens in constituencies, where people look at candidates for selection, such as hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban), and say, "This man will go far." However, women are selected on performance. Women candidates will be asked, "What have

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you achieved? How can you prove that you are good enough?" We have to change that culture, and I hope that in the three-year run-up to the next election the Conservative party will use the Bill to change the culture and use women's potential to boost the standing of the Conservative party and the reputation of the whole House.

7.4 pm

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden): I am pleased to have a few minutes in which to contribute to the latter stages of the consideration of the Bill. It is interesting that we are debating the Bill on a day of very fast-moving geopolitical events. The question of female representation in a new Administration in Afghanistan has formed part of the discussions that have taken place today. That geopolitical context is pertinent to this debate, for General Musharraf reminded hon. Members at Westminster last week that a third of the Members of Parliament in Pakistan are female. We are contributing to the debate in the knowledge that the mother of Parliaments perhaps has a little catching up to do.

I entirely take on board the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Member for South–West Surrey (Virginia Bottomley) about being adverse to the concept of social engineering, but I would say to her that the Bill is perhaps more about gearing up. In the same breath, I thank my right hon. Friend personally, because one of the first conversations that I ever had about embarking on a parliamentary career was with herself. The encouragement that I received set me on my course to the House.

The purpose of these debates has been to refine the Bill and make it more robust. I pay tribute my hon. Friends the Members for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) and for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) for undertaking the lion's share of the work. I have read the reports of the debates in Committee, and I have felt that my hon. Friends have definitely borne the brunt of debating the workings of the Bill in practice. Many of the attacks that they bore in those exchanges were about history and the way in which things have been done in the past, but the fact that the Bill is permissive enables the political parties to look forward. Although what has gone before guides and chastens us, we shall see a great deal of change in every party as a result of the way in which we have chosen to interpret the Bill.

The Minister said that he could not give an absolute guarantee about the robustness of the legislation if it were challenged in the European courts, but the right hon. Gentleman was a little churlish towards the Opposition, especially in relation to the suggestion made by the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) that the Government, with their greater resources and the civil service at their disposal, were surely better placed to undertake an absolutely thorough investigation into the legislation's robustness. However, the debate has teased out the fact that the Labour party is most likely to bear the brunt of the challenge. As other hon. Members have said, Dr. Peter Jepson has made an advance declaration of war on that point.

I certainly should not like to conclude without paying tribute to the work that the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) has done over many years. It is relevant in that context to say that, not content with trying

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to advance the cause of women at Westminster, she is very active in trying to advance the cause of women's representation in Afghanistan. That is a good illustration of how current political events tie in with what we are attempting to do in our own national Parliament. We will rise to the hon. Lady's challenge to achieve the outcome, which she describes as resolving the democratic deficit, of seeing more women on the Conservative Benches. That is the fundamental reason why we support this change in the law.

We need to remind ourselves of the stark lesson that the overall turnout at the 2001 general election was only 59.4 per cent. Although there is no specific research relating the small number of women in Parliament to voter apathy, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that that is a very important factor. That is why we share the common goal of succeeding in attaining more women representatives at Westminster. We all have a duty to encourage them to come forward, and the Bill should tell women that we want them.

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