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Session 2001- 02
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Standing Committee Debates
Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Bill

Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Bill

Standing Committee A

Tuesday 6 November 2001

[Mrs. Irene Adams in the Chair]

Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Bill

10.30 am

The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Nick Raynsford): I beg to move,

    That—

    (1) during proceedings on the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Bill the Standing Committee do meet on Tuesday at half-past Ten o'clock and on Thursdays at five minutes to Ten o'clock and at half-past Two o'clock;

    (2) proceedings on the Bill shall, so far as not previously concluded, be brought to a conclusion at Seven o'clock on Thursday 8th November.

First, Mrs. Adams, I welcome you to the Chair. On behalf of the Committee, may I say how much we look forward to serving under your chairmanship. It may not be a lengthy process; you will have observed that a limited number of amendments have been tabled and that the Bill is small, though extremely important. We therefore hope that our proceedings will be expeditious but constructive. The resolution provides for the Committee to meet this morning and, if necessary, to meet on Thursday morning and afternoon. I hope that that will be more than sufficient time to ensure adequate consideration of the Bill.

This short but important Bill gives effect to the Government's commitment to make it easier for political parties to put right the clear imbalance that presently exists in the number of women Members of Parliament, of the European Parliament and of devolved Assemblies and in local government. It is an extremely important and necessary measure; I hope that it will receive the Committee's full endorsement and that it will proceed rapidly through Parliament so that it can be put into effect at the earliest opportunity.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead): I echo the Minister's comments in welcoming you, Mrs. Adams, to the Chair. This is the first time that I have had the opportunity to serve under your chairmanship and I look forward to it.

As the Minister said, although we have limited time to debate the Bill, it is short and has a limited number of amendments. However, we need to explore some issues to ensure that consensus opinion across the House prevails. We all share the Bill's aim of increasing the number of women in Parliament, but we need to ensure that action taken under the Bill cannot be challenged.

I hope that the Minister will recognise that, in the subjects that I and my hon. Friends have chosen to raise, we wish to be constructive—he said that he hoped that our proceedings would be expeditious but constructive. We intend to explore some options to ensure that action taken under the Bill cannot be challenged at a later date. I agree with the Minister that, as was made clear on Second Reading, the Bill is important because it will ensure an increase in the number of women in Parliament. That view has been echoed outside as well as inside the House.

The fact that the Bill is short shows that significant legislation can have a real impact, not only on the House but outside, without being lengthy with lots of clauses and subsections. It is possible that short legislation can nevertheless have a significant effect.

I echo also the Minister's comments on the importance of ensuring that the Bill goes through Parliament in an expeditious fashion, although properly scrutinised. It is important that we put it on the statute book in good time, because political parties are starting their selection procedures for forthcoming elections; they are looking forward not only to the next general election but to other elections. It is important that political parties should be able to take the opportunities presented by the Bill.

I support the programme motion, which will give us sufficient time to explore the issues that we need to explore, and to challenge the Government when they need to be challenged. We want them to be absolutely clear about the effect of such an important Bill; we also want to ensure that our consensus continues.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): I entirely endorse the Minister's comments and those of the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May). I hope that certain elements on the Conservative Front Bench will not take exception to my use of the word ``consensus'', which they find deplorable, if not obscene. However, there is a consensus about the need for the Bill.

I endorse the view that it is important for us to make the Bill as clear and precise as we can so that it will not be open to challenge. For the reason given by the hon. Lady, challenges and delays are likely, and I give the Minister due warning, as I did on Second Reading, that the issue will be carefully examined in the other place by my noble Friend Lord Lester, who is an international expert on human rights and discrimination.

I endorse the hon. Lady's view that we should deal with the Bill as expeditiously as possible, but she and I still want it to be as strong as possible when it leaves this end of the building so that it will not be open to challenge. It was made clear on Second Reading that the Bill was permissive, but there will be opportunities for challenge and I suspect that the Minister's party will be first in the dock.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham): I join previous speakers in welcoming you to the Chair, Mrs. Adams. The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) thinks that Conservative Members consider the word ``consensus'' obscene, but I assure him that we do not. It is obvious from comments by previous speakers that there is a consensus, and I hope that all parties share the ultimate aim of allowing more females to represent the citizens of this country. In that sense, the word ``consensus'' is welcome.

However, I do not want to let the programme motion pass without noting that it is heavy handed. There is a lesson for the Government: programme motions are over the top and, indeed, otiose when the Front-Bench Members of the different parties are in agreement. Once again, we could have scrutinised the Bill rationally and properly to come up with something that was as near perfect as we could make it; there was no need to resort to a motion to limit the time spent on the Bill. There is no dispute between Committee members about the programme motion, but it is unnecessary and it was a waste of time to include it in the amendment paper.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): I am sorry to interpose. Front-Bench Members are agreeing with each other, and I do not want to dissent; I simply want to echo one or two remarks.

I appreciate having the opportunity to appear in a Standing Committee under your chairmanship, Mrs. Adams. I have not had that pleasure before; indeed, I have not had the pleasure of sitting on a Standing Committee for a considerable time, and I look forward to it.

I appreciate that the Government want their Bills to be introduced in due time, but, like my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan), I find it regrettable that they should continue to impose their own timetable when the parties agree about the Bill's principles and objectives. We shall see in due course whether it was necessary for them to press for it to be out of Standing Committee by Thursday evening. We shall see, when it is introduced in another place, what delays ensue. I understand the necessity for the Bill to receive Royal Assent reasonably early if it is to influence the selection of candidates for the next general election, but that need not happen in the coming days or even weeks. It could easily be in the coming months. The Bill could easily have come to Standing Committee slightly later—perhaps a week on—once people had had a chance to examine it in more detail. The Bill might be simple, but as colleagues have said, it is important to get it right. Examination of the Bill by experts and others might have informed our understanding, had we had a little more time.

I have observed that, of the Labour Members present, there are men and women in equal number, but the Front Bench is composed entirely of men. From the Conservative party, there are men and women in equal number, but all the women are on the Front Bench. It seems to me that at least we men in the Conservative party know our place.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1

Exclusion of candidate selection from 1975 act

Mrs. May: I beg to move amendment No. 4, in page 1, line 1 after ``(1)'', insert ``Subject to subsection (2A),''.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 5, in page 1, line 15, at end insert—

    ``(2A) Nothing in this section shall be construed so as to permit questions to be asked of a woman of a discriminatory nature which otherwise would be unlawful under this Act.''.

No. 6, in clause 2, page 2, line 11, after ``(1)'', insert ``subject to paragraph (2A),''.

No. 7, in clause 2, page 2, line 22, at end insert—

    ``(2A) Nothing in this article shall be construed so as to permit questions to be asked of a woman of a discriminatory nature which otherwise would be unlawful under this Order.''.

Mrs. May: The four amendments are rightly grouped together. Amendments Nos. 4 and 5 relate to clause 1 and amendments Nos. 6 and 7 have the same effect in relation to clause 2. There are two similar clauses in the Bill because the second one relates to application of the Bill in Northern Ireland. The object of moving the same amendments to both clauses is for the legislation to have the same effect in Northern Ireland as in the rest of the country.

I would like, through the amendments, to address an important issue that underlies the question of the process of selection of women for winnable seats, which would, in due course, increase the number of women in Parliament. The meat of the matter appears in amendments Nos. 5 and 7. Amendments Nos. 4 and 6 are consequential amendments that ensure that the Bill reads correctly and makes proper reference to the proposals in amendments Nos. 5 and 7.

The Bill's aim is to ensure that positive action can be taken by political parties in the selection process for candidates for a variety of elections. The Bill takes that process out of employment law and out of the operation of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 in relation to employment law. The purpose of the amendments is to explore the full effect that taking that process out of the Sex Discrimination Act will have in relation to the treatment that—apart from the operation of positive action—women can expect to receive in the selection process.

To explain further, I should like to quote a MORI poll that was published on 24 October. It was conducted for the Equal Opportunities Commission, which felt that it was useful to make a proper survey of the experiences of women going through the selection process. The poll found that 29 per cent. were aware of prejudice or sex discrimination at some stage of the process. That is not positive action to encourage women; it is action that leads to women who have been approached in that way not being selected and therefore not swelling the numbers in Parliament.

 
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