Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum from the Equal Opportunities Commission


  1.  The Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) has a statutory responsibility for promoting equality between men and women. One of the specific areas in which the EOC is currently working to promote equality is women's participation in public and political life. Our aim is a society with balanced representation of women and men, including disabled people and people from ethnic minorities, in all political and public institutions. This is both a matter of equity and of ensuring that public policy- and decision-making are informed by the experience of as wide a range of members of society as possible. This requires change to the way in which people become members of institutions and the EOC is currently working with the main political parties to improve the fairness of candidate selection procedures. In addition, achieving balanced representation often also requires institutions to adapt their working practices.

  2.  It is important that any increase in the representation of women, people from ethnic minorities and disabled people in the House of Commons is sustained. Reform of Parliamentary working practices is a pre-requisite to achieving this objective. The work of the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons, and in particular the Committee's consideration of the memorandum proposed by the Leader of the House in December 2001, offers an opportunity to improve the way in which the House of Commons and its members work. As the memorandum says, the suggested changes are not about making the lives of MPs easy, but should enable them to do a more effective job. If barriers to effective participation are removed, a wider variety of people may in the future seek election to the House of Commons, enhancing the democratic process by better reflecting the distinctive experience of different sections of the UK population in policy and legislation.

  3.  The EOC welcomes the memorandum's proposals on improving the scrutiny of legislation. More time for consideration of legislation, in draft and during a Bill's Parliamentary stages, would allow a greater opportunity to ensure full consideration of the impact of change on different groups in society, and whether a different impact, for example, on men and women, is justifiable.

Research findings

  4.  In January 2002, the EOC published research carried out for it by MORI Social Research Institute Man enough for the job? A study of Parliamentary candidates ("the candidates' survey") in which 408 would-be candidates, candidates and new MPs from all the main parties at Westminster and from the two most recent general elections were interviewed about their experience of the selection process, enabling comparisons to be made between men's and women's experiences.

  5.  The research showed:

    —  male and female candidates have very similar levels of political experience;

    —  women are far less likely to be selected in safe or winnable seats;

    —  both men and women say that family responsibilities can be a barrier to entering politics and there should be more support for people with children—although generally only women report being asked in selection interviews how they will balance family and political life.

  6.  As part of the research, candidates were asked how important a series of factors were in discouraging them from standing for selection, including family commitments and financial cost. For each of the factors mentioned, more people said it did not discourage them than said it did—unsurprisingly, given that the interviewees were those who had decided to try for selection, so had not been sufficiently discouraged by any of the factors to prevent them putting themselves forward.

  7.  However, around two in five candidates (43 per cent) said that their family commitments discouraged them from standing either "a great deal" or "a fair amount", while just over half (57 per cent) said that they did not. Overall, women were no more likely than men to say that family commitments discouraged them from standing; however, people—and particularly women—with children under 16 were far more likely than those without to say they were discouraged by this factor (64 per cent against 32 per cent), with a similar figure for those with dependants with disabilities (69 per cent) and a lower one for those with elderly dependants (52 per cent).

  8.  The House of Commons' working hours and methods discouraged almost one in four candidates (23 per cent). Overall, women were more likely than men to say that this had discouraged them; 27 per cent of women compared to 19 per cent of men. Many of the candidates suggested that the hours should be brought more in line with business hours, though this was thought to have potential benefit for both women and men. Those who lived in Scotland and Wales were most likely to favour a change, primarily because of the distance that Scottish and Welsh MPs have to travel. Some also commented favourably on the working methods of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly.

Making more use of the mornings

  9.  The EOC welcomes the suggestion at paragraph 32 that the morning start to the Parliamentary day should be extended to Wednesdays. However, we would like to see a move towards earlier starts on every sitting day, while recognising that Monday sitting times would need to take account of the needs of MPs whose constituencies are a long way from London. The candidates' survey showed strong support among both men and women for this change, with 64 per cent of all candidates backing a move towards a nine-to-five working day.

  10.  As the memorandum points out, Parliamentary practice has changed over the centuries, adjusting to reflect the society of the time; in particular, the current afternoon start on the floor of the Commons chamber in the past enabled MPs to continue other careers alongside their Parliamentary duties, something no longer necessary now that the great majority of MPs are full-time Parliamentarians.

  11.  Instead, with the considerable work MPs now undertake, in constituency casework, surgeries and correspondence, committee activity and correspondence with Ministers, together with participation in debates in both the main Commons chamber and in Westminster Hall, the need is to find ways in which MPs can balance their Parliamentary duties with other aspects of their lives, particularly family responsibilities.

  12.  Unless a better balance can be achieved, it will continue to be difficult for women in particular—since women continue to take the primary role in caring responsibilities—to pursue a Parliamentary career while their children are young. If this occurs, the House of Commons will continue to be unrepresentative of the public, even if more women become MPs, because MPs will not share the day-to-day experience of their constituents who do have young children and whose experience of the impact of policy and legislation is shaped by this aspect of their lives. While recognising the unique responsibilities MPs carry, it is unhelpful in engaging voters in the democratic process if the impression is given that becoming an MP is incompatible with family responsibilities.

  13.  Business and industry leaders have also in the past pointed out the irony in a situation where Government Ministers and other MPs speak to them about the advantages of investing in work-life balance policies (particularly in terms of improved business effectiveness), while current Parliamentary practice makes it impossible for Ministers, their officials and Parliamentary staff at all levels to experience the benefits of such policies themselves.

Making time for constituency work

  14.  The EOC welcomes the suggestion at paragraph 34 that the current Friday business should be transferred to Wednesday evenings. Although the EOC is generally unenthusiastic about late sittings, we consider that, on balance, this is a sensible compromise that allows better planning of MPs' workload while ensuring that Parliamentary time is not significantly reduced.

  15.  The current practice of scheduling contentious private members' Bills on Fridays, with changes to business often taking place at short notice, is unhelpful to MPs' planning of their schedules, whether for constituency work or family activities. Removing Friday sittings altogether and transferring the business to another time, allowing MPs to have this as a constituency day would enable MPs to obtain a better balance between their work at Westminster, their constituency work and the time to which they are entitled for their family commitments, making them more effective.

Making the Parliamentary calendar more predictable

  16.  The EOC welcomes the suggestion in paragraph 40 that sitting weeks and recess dates should be published in advance, enabling MPs to plan their working and family lives with greater certainty.

  17.  The more far-reaching proposal in paragraph 44 that the Parliamentary term dates should more closely match those of schools is also clearly to the advantage of MPs with families, as well as enabling better planning of Parliamentary business and answering criticisms about the length of the summer recess when (however unfairly) compared with the holiday entitlement of the majority of the population.

  18.  However, the current proposals do not mention making provision for half-terms, particularly raising the question how the autumn half term fits alongside the proposed three-week Conference recess. This relatively minor detail requires further thought.

Related issues

  19.  Another issue which received strong support in the candidates' survey as a means to increasing women's representation in Parliament was the provision of better child care facilities in the Palace of Westminster, with 70 per cent of candidates saying they strongly supported this and 87 per cent supporting the measure overall. Male candidates were in fact more likely to express support than women. As one MP questioned said, there is a link between the provision of child care and the long hours worked by MPs:

    "There is more we can do in terms of facilities The family room feels more like a formal sitting room . . . Obviously most workplaces don't have family rooms with Playstations, but you would expect to find cre"ches. In this case if you are expecting people to work very long hours, then I think it is reasonable to have some facilities for members of their family of all ages so they can spend some time there."

Male, Labour MP

  20.  We understand that at present a number of different committees (though not the Modernisation Committee itself) are examining the issues around childcare facilities; to reach a conclusion effectively, the EOC considers there needs to be a single body taking responsibility for examining the issues and taking decisions. Urgent consideration should be given to how change in this area can be better co-ordinated; the EOC suggests this might be made the responsibility of the Modernisation Committee. While recognising that the solution to issues around MPs' family responsibilities is likely to be more complex than simply making these facilities available to MPs, the EOC would welcome an early examination of how MPs can be provided with better facilities within the Parliamentary Estate to enable them to maintain a better family life during sittings, whether or not the hours change as the memorandum suggests. It is possible that a solution to provide appropriate childcare facilities for all potential users across Parliament, including peers and the more than 3,500 staff who work in both Houses (including MPs' staff), might be welcomed by all those concerned and lead to more rapid change.

  21.  The EOC would also welcome an opportunity to discuss more radical solutions to the problem of the unrepresentativeness of the House of Commons when compared with the balance of the population as a whole, including those that require primary legislation, such as the possibility of permitting election to Parliament on a job-sharing basis.

Modernising the scrutiny of legislation

  22.  The EOC welcomes the memorandum's proposals on improving the scrutiny of legislation. In our experience, legislation is often drafted without full consideration having been given to whether it will impact differently on different groups within society, such as men and women, minority ethnic communities, and disabled people, and, if so, whether such differences in impact are justifiable. The current Parliamentary timetable allows few opportunities for full examination of these issues.

  23.  The publication of more Bills in draft, a longer timescale for a Bill's Parliamentary stages, and greater use of the Special Standing Committee procedure, together with post-legislative monitoring by Select Committees of the impact of new legislation, would improve the opportunity to ensure that new laws take into account the desirability of promoting equality and, where appropriate, recognise the needs of particular groups.

April 2002

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