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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

Thursday 8 November 2001

[Mr. David Amess in the Chair]

Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Bill

Clause 1

Exclusion of candidate selection from 1975 act

Amendment proposed [6 November]: No. 2, in page 2, line 3, at end insert—

    `(f) elections to the Greater London Assembly;

    (g) elections to any body which may replace those listed in this subsection.'—[Mrs. May.]

9.55 am

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are taking the following amendments: No. 3, in page 2, line 3, at end insert—

    `(h) any elections to the House of Lords;

    (i) any elections to any regional assemblies in England.'.

No. 8, in page 2, line 28, at end insert—

    ``(e) elections to any body replaying or succeeding bodies referred to in paragraphs (b) and (d) above.'.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Amess. It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. This is my first opportunity to work under what I am sure will be your fair but firm hand.

We had a lengthy debate on Tuesday about amendments Nos. 2, 3 and 8. We debated the extent to which it was necessary to specify in the Bill other elected bodies to which the provisions should apply, and to make provision for bodies that replace or are created in addition to those in the Bill. In response, the Minister for Local Government said that we need not worry about future bodies because the Government would ensure that the Bill applied to them.

On amendment No. 3, we had slight difficulties about elections to the House of Lords because the Minister was speaking about the then forthcoming White Paper, which was issued yesterday. Having seen it, I understand why he was reluctant to talk about such elections—it requires a telescope to see those provisions. That takes nothing away from the argument that we should ensure that the Bill applies to other elected bodies. The Government cannot get away with saying that they have introduced the Bill to cover elected bodies, because they or succeeding Governments might later omit to ensure that new bodies are covered.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): Paragraph 35 of the White Paper on the composition of the House of Lords refers to the desirability of representativeness embracing gender, faith and ethnicity. My hon. Friend might, however, be as interested as I am in paragraph 66, which deals with the requirement for the appointments commission to secure the appointment of women. Two points arise from that. First, the White Paper mentions legislation providing for representativeness in appointments to the House of Lords, but not in elections to it, as intended in the Bill. Secondly, it is curious that the White Paper suggests that 30 per cent. of new appointments should be women and 30 per cent. should be men and that we should move towards gender balance over time. Given the imbalance at the moment, the House of Lords will never reach anything approaching gender balance if only 30 per cent. of new appointments are women.

Mrs. May: While my hon. Friend was reading those figures, I began to wonder what on earth the other 40 per cent. would be if 30 per cent. were women and 30 per cent. were men.

Mr. Lansley: I love Departments' drafting skills and have occasionally displayed them myself. I understand the desirability of being even handed. I also recognise that a figure of at least 50 per cent. would have been difficult to achieve because the total would have been more than 100 per cent., so the figures were rounded down equally on both sides. None the less, the result is nonsense.

10 am

Mrs. May: Had the White Paper not come from a different Department, I would be tempted to say that the mathematics of the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions were behind it.

My hon. Friend is right. In yesterday's press coverage of the White Paper on reform of the House of Lords, the point was made that the Government were concerned with gender balance among elected representatives to the reformed Chamber but they have not followed that through to the appointed representatives. That point ties in with an intervention that my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) made when I spoke to these amendments on Tuesday. She asked whether I thought the Prime Minister was as committed to the achievement of a gender balance as the introduction of the Bill would suggest, and wondered whether he would ensure that his appointments reflected that balance. It would appear from the White Paper that the Government are not as committed on those appointments, and that Tony simply wants to ensure that he has his cronies the other place, regardless of gender balance.

We need to ensure that the provisions in the Bill, which enable positive action to be taken to achieve a greater gender balance in elected bodies, apply to other bodies, whether they replace existing bodies or are newly created. Amendment No. 3 refers not only to the House of Lords but to regional assemblies. I have made it clear that we do not share the Government's support for regional assemblies, but those assemblies should be included in the Bill if the Government are so committed to them.

I listened carefully to the Minister's comments on amendment No. 2. He said that elections to the Greater London Assembly were implicitly covered by the Greater London Authority Act 1999, which amended the Representation of the People Act 1983. I would have preferred that body to be specified in the Bill, as that would have represented a commitment from the Government.

The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Nick Raynsford): Before I remind the hon. Lady of something, I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Amess. This may not be the longest-running Committee over which you will preside, but I hope that at least it is enjoyable.

I remind the hon. Lady that I did not say that the Greater London Assembly was implicitly covered, but that the Greater London Authority Act 1999 explicitly included the Greater London Authority within the definition of local government, which guarantees that it is covered by the Bill. I also made it clear that a similar procedure would be appropriate in respect of all future bodies. That is the correct constitutional procedure, so I hope that she will not use it as a device to justify pressing a defective amendment.

Mrs. May: If the Government shared the point of principle that lay behind the amendment but thought that the wording was faulty, they should have tabled an alternative amendment.

Mr. Raynsford: I remind the hon. Lady of my final remarks in our last sitting, when I said that I had

    ``made it clear that we wholly supported the hon. Lady's objective in wanting the principles to apply, and that it was only the mechanism, not the principle, on which we disagreed.''——[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 6 November 2001; c. 40.]

I hope that that clarifies the point, and that she recognises that we are wholly committed to the principle that she has advocated.

Mrs. May: I say again to the Minister that if he is as committed to the principle as he says, he should give us greater support than he has shown so far by putting it into practice. The Committee is not the final stage of the Bill. If an amendment were passed today that the Government felt was inappropriate, they would be able to return to it later.

The reference to the Greater London Assembly is important because existing bodies should be referred to in the Bill. I hear the Minister's comments on the constitutional arguments about the Greater London Authority Act 1999 and the Representation of the People Act 1983. I assume that if the Government establish regional assemblies they will describe them as local rather than regional government.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham): I was impressed by the Minister's interventions on my hon. Friend. Perhaps the Minister is suggesting that, rather than trying to avoid voting, should we press amendment No. 2 to a vote, Members on the Government Benches will vote with us.

Mrs. May: My hon. Friend is right. The Minister's certainty that Members on the Government Benches support the principle of the amendment suggests that, should it come to a vote, they will be willing to join us.

We have had a lengthy debate on the amendments. I am disappointed that the Greater London Assembly is not referred to in the Bill, and that the Government have not shown a willingness to move on the issue. An indication in the Bill of future intention would guarantee that future elected bodies such as should be covered by the Bill were covered. That would be better than allowing the matter to be decided when a Government—of whichever complexion—established such bodies. In that light, I should like to press amendment No. 2 to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 7

Division No. 1]

Calton, Mrs. Patsy
Gillan, Mrs. Cheryl
Hoban, Mr. Mark
Lansley, Mr. Andrew
May, Mrs. Theresa
Tyler, Mr. Paul

Gibson, Dr. Ian
Gilroy, Linda
Hesford, Stephen
Raynsford, Mr. Nick
Ruddock, Joan
Whitehead, Dr. Alan
Woolas, Mr. Phil

Question accordingly negatived.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): This is an appropriate moment to mention the concerns of Liberal Democrats about the new burdens that will be placed on political parties as a result of the legislation. I believe that those concerns are shared by other hon. Members.

On Tuesday, the Minister, on a number of occasions, used some interesting qualifying words about the way in which the legislation is to be imposed on the political parties. Perhaps the secret is that it will not be imposed—it is permissive. Its permissive nature enabled the Minister to state a number of times what he thought will happen ``in the Government's view'', whereas at other times he made the point that the political parties will have to take legal advice. I do not have any legal qualifications or experience, which is why I have a modest income. I know that lawyers are not cheap. That is especially true when it comes to complicated issues of human rights, to which much reference was made in our sitting on Tuesday and on Second Reading.

Having taken advice from my legal friends—free, I must stress, as we are impecunious—I know that it is the opinion of many lawyers that this issue will be a legal minefield. The permissive nature of the Bill will not reduce the burden on political parties; it will increase it. Its provisions will be open to legal challenge at various levels, including under European legislation made in compliance with the equal treatment directive.


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Prepared 8 November 2001