Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Bill

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Mr. Lansley: I rise to support the amendment moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead. She explained well the concern that gave rise to the group of amendments, with which I very much agree. In removing the selection of candidates for various offices from the field of employment discrimination under the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, we risk re-importing an opportunity for people to commit discriminatory acts that otherwise would have been regarded as unlawful, particularly given how the law has developed during the past 25 years.

In particular, we must ensure that some of the guidance that is given to constituencies, certainly in the case of the Conservative party, can be retained and strengthened while ensuring that it remains consistent with the law. The risk is that otherwise we could not refer to discrimination law in such guidance. The rules and best practice for the selection of candidates published by the Conservative party contain a substantive reference to discrimination law in section 10, even though they might not have been entirely satisfactory in their application. The intention is to deliver the non-discriminatory approach in selection committees referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead.

As has been referred to elsewhere, it is important to note that Conservative party selection committees often see candidates at an initial stage and perhaps at a second stage, but the decision is made by all members of three months' standing at a special general meeting. That is unusual. We are not, as would be the case in normal employment practice, dealing with people who are experienced in undertaking employment selection, or with a small number of people who could be trained. We are potentially dealing with the whole membership of a Conservative constituency association, many of whom will have had no previous experience of selection and who come to it with their own views and, inevitably, prejudices. It is therefore important that we do not simply have the ability to retain the present guidance, whose cutting edge is to try to achieve non-discrimination in the forms and administration of the process, the questions asked of candidates and the way in which candidates are presented to committees. We must also be able to take action to remove discriminatory questions at general meetings of Conservative associations, which decide the selection of candidates. If the Bill is not amended as my hon. Friend proposes, we may lose the opportunity to prescribe to Conservative associations the questions that cannot be asked.

11 am

Joan Ruddock: I am somewhat confused about the position described by the hon. Gentleman. He seems to be saying that the existing law and guidance has been completely ineffective and that the amendment is necessary for the law to be effective in future. Will he not acknowledge that the Conservative party must change its method of selection if it is to overcome the overt and covert discrimination that is obviously happening in his party as it is in mine? The difference is that we are prepared to tackle it.

Mr. Lansley: The hon. Lady and many of her colleagues have a view about introducing women-only shortlists for the Labour party, as she made clear on Second Reading. As the hon. Member for Wirral, West (Stephen Hesford) said in an intervention, if one has women-only shortlists, one cannot by implication engage in sex discrimination in the selection of candidates. However, the purpose of the legislation—as I understand it, and as the Minister will no doubt confirm—is not to impose on political parties a structure geared to women-only shortlists. It is intended simply to permit parties to introduce women-only shortlists--not to require that. The legislation is not constructed around that assumption.

Rosemary McKenna (Cumbernauld and Kilsyth): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Lansley: I will complete my point before I give way.

The working assumption that I would make is that the Conservative party does not intend to introduce women-only shortlists. I am happy with that. We want constituency associations to be able to go on selecting candidates on merit, with the possibility of selecting a man if he is exceptionally well qualified for a constituency.

Rosemary McKenna: Methods exist for selecting women other than all-women shortlists. For example, in the Scottish Parliament, constituencies are twinned and a man and a woman may be selected. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that changing the law will make no difference unless political parties introduce a mechanism that will change the face of Westminster? It is necessary to change the law to allow political parties to bring in that mechanism, which may not involve all-women shortlists.

Mr. Lansley: The hon. Lady makes several interesting points. She refers to elections to the Scottish Assembly in which proportional representation applied. For the purposes of the debate, we can park proportional representation elsewhere and say, simply, that special measures can be taken and have been taken.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Lansley: Special measures have been taken successfully and without challenge, even since the 1996 Jepson case. Although we are focusing on legislation that is intended to have wider application, its principal benefit will come about if parties take measures that lead to a representative selection of women as candidates for election to this House. That is the most important potential outcome. This Parliament is elected on a first-past-the-post basis.

Rosemary McKenna: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Lansley: I shall give way in a moment. We cannot but focus on the circumstances of selection in individual constituencies.

Julie Morgan: The hon. Gentleman is not aware that the twinning mechanism used in Scotland and in Wales has nothing to do with proportional representation. It was used for the first-past-the-post seats. Constituencies were twinned, and one man and one woman were elected from those twinned constituencies. Proportional representation has nothing to do with the mechanism referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, West.

Mr. Lansley: The hon. Lady is absolutely right.

Exactly what the Minister thinks that the legislation will permit that is not currently permitted is a debatable point. We did not discuss that in any detail on Second Reading but it is interesting when one considers the detail of the Bill. Twinning, zipping and all those entertaining terms, special measures, and indeed, quotas—a proportional representation element of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly elections—seem to have been used without challenge since 1996 and the Jepson case. That is not to say that they would not be subject to challenge in the future, even up to and including the cases mentioned by the hon. Member for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth (Rosemary McKenna) relating to the Scottish Parliament.

Mr. Tyler: I wonder if the hon. Gentleman knows that there was an intended challenge to the zipping system that the Liberal Democrats used for the European elections. The zipping system is applicable only when a list system is used, although I am not in favour of list systems for other reasons. I understand that the hon. Gentleman is saying that he intends to explore that field further. I look forward with great interest to hearing what he has to say.

Mr. Lansley: The hon. Gentleman tempts me but I will resist at this stage.

Joan Ruddock: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Lansley: I should at least attempt to reassert some structure over what I am saying before giving way.

The hon. Member for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth is saying in effect that parties must use women-only shortlists to deal with the problem. My point is that special measures have been used in other assemblies and circumstances, but the most intractable set of circumstances has concerned the Westminster Parliament and the decisions taken in individual constituencies. My view, and that of my colleagues, is that we should find a form of legislation that allows us to take positive action to secure the selection of women as candidates; that process might otherwise be a possible subject of legal challenge employing some of the principles in the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. However, that does not mean that we should go as far as imposing women-only shortlists on constituencies, because individual constituencies have a powerful desire to select candidates on merit, although recognising that they have a responsibility to contribute to the selection of a proportionate and representative number of women in the party generally and to select accordingly.

Joan Ruddock: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman because he has repeated the very point on which I wanted to base my own—the question of selection on merit. He said that it would be the Conservatives' intention to continue the process of selecting on merit. Does he honestly believe that selections on merit are responsible for the fact that 92 per cent. of the Members of Parliament on the Conservative Benches are men?

Mr. Lansley: I am shocked that the hon. Lady clearly did not listen to my speech on Second Reading. I do not accept that that is how the process works. In the Conservative party, if I recollect the figures correctly, 18 per cent. of the people who have gone through our initial candidates list procedure were women and 15 per cent. of those selected as candidates were women, including candidates in 15 per cent. of the top 50 seats. We know the nature of the problem that we have to tackle: far too small a proportion of the candidates presented to constituencies were women. We will test the proposition—successfully, I hope—that by achieving a proportionate number of candidates on the central candidates list, and by ensuring that constituencies treat their potential local candidates in a non-discriminatory fashion, 50 per cent. of our candidates will be women if we make women 50 per cent. of the candidates list. That would be our objective, and I hope that the Conservative party and individual constituencies can achieve that on merit.

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Prepared 6 November 2001