Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Bill

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Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford): What leads the hon. Gentleman to believe that such challenges—I speak of challenges rather than of people's views—are inevitable? No European country that has adopted similar rules has suffered a successful challenge to the legislation that he cites.

Mr. Tyler: I am usually an optimist, otherwise I would not be a Liberal Democrat, but on this occasion I believe that the hon. Lady is being over-optimistic. The so-called zipping arrangements that my party put in place for the European elections resulted in legal exchanges, which were extremely expensive, even though they never reached the courts. The expense and difficulty of obtaining legal advice was such that we ended up going to a very well-respected—indeed, the foremost—lawyer. She is not unknown to the Prime Minister; and she is not cheap.

Joan Ruddock: Surely, the hon. Gentleman appreciates that the Bill is designed to overcome such problems.

Mr. Tyler: I would be delighted to continue this duet with the hon. Lady, for whom I have great respect. I agree that the Bill is designed to do that, but the qualifications that the Secretary of State, the Minister and others have made on the Government's position suggest that it will not be plain sailing.

Stephen Hesford (Wirral, West): Is not the hon. Gentleman making a party point under the cover of seeking legal advice? I do not doubt that legal advice was taken, but are not the Liberal Democrats getting their retaliation in first because they know that they have a problem with all-women shortlists as a result of a conference decision?

Mr. Tyler: Far from it. As I explained on Second Reading, it is likely that the Labour party will be first in the dock. If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I shall say in a moment why it is appropriate for this Committee and this Parliament to take a view about the provision of legal advice.

My Liberal Democrat colleagues and the party generally did not want to pre-empt the legislation; we wanted to see whether progress could be made before the legislation came into being. However, it is likely that my party will have to find some way of making the maximum use of the Bill. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mrs. Calton) takes that view, as does our parliamentary party, but the Labour party is most likely to be first in that position and it is only right and proper that we should examine the issue carefully.

The regulatory appraisal made no reference to obligations and expenses imposed by the Bill on political parties. There is no guarantee that the Bill will prevent the eruption of yet more attempts to litigate or to claim that discrimination is taking place. In those circumstances, there is a precedent for the Government at least being prepared to provide legal advice to the parties. The precedent is simple. The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 made specific provision: if Parliament legislated to impose new burdens on political parties, it would be appropriate for the Government to take some responsibility for the cost of taking legal advice.

That is a useful precedent. It is much better that the Government should be prepared to live with their legislation rather than using the weasel words that we heard last Tuesday, such as ``in our view'' and ``the political parties will have to take advice''. The Government should live up to their obligations and be prepared to provide suitable legal support for all the political parties on a consistent basis. In the precedent provided by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, which implemented the Neill recommendations on the registration and regulation of funding, the Act had a specific regulatory impact on the political parties. This situation is similar and I hope that the Minister will at least be able to give some assurance that the Government will be prepared to re-examine the matter between now and the passage of the Bill through the other place.

10.15 am

Mrs. May: As I said at the beginning of our discussions and on Second Reading, we support the Bill in principle. We have tried, through amendments, to improve it, but we agree with its basic principle. Its aim is to ensure that we get a better balance of representation in the House and in other elected bodies. It is designed to ensure that women get a fair crack of the whip—a chance to get elected. In all political parties, there are good women whose talents would add to the strength of Parliament. Such women find themselves, through no fault of their own—there are no problems with their abilities or talents—but because of the way in which the processes operate, not being selected and therefore not being given the opportunity to be elected as Members of Parliament. To remind the Committee, only 18 per cent. of Members of Parliament are women. The figures are much higher in other Parliaments, ranging from nearly 43 per cent. in Sweden to 25 per cent. in Namibia. Namibia is the 20th highest in the list of Parliaments in terms of the representation of women.

I referred to the Equal Opportunities Commission MORI poll earlier. It found that three in 10 of the parliamentary candidates who were polled were aware of prejudice or sex discrimination at some stage during a selection process. Having examined the results of the poll, the Equal Opportunities Commission made it clear that it was important that a Bill was introduced to enable political parties to take the positive action that is necessary. The crux of the Bill is in clause 1, which contains the provision for political parties to take positive action. As the chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission said,

    ``This Bill will be decisive in enabling the political parties to increase the number of women MPs—an ambition they all share. Research . . . has shown that use of positive action measures is the single most significant factor in increasing women's representation.''

We have had a debate about the sort of positive action measures that the Bill would enable political parties to take. I am sure that there will be a difference in practice and approach.

I share some of the concerns of the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler). There are still questions about the Bill's legal aspects. It was telling, in our debate on amendments to the clause, that both the Minister and the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Alan Whitehead) took great pains to point out that political parties would have to take legal advice. In other words, a political party cannot simply rely on the Bill and take positive action purely because it has been enacted. Parties will have to take legal advice about the nature of the positive action that they take.

I associate myself with the comment made by the hon. Member for North Cornwall, because, like him, I suspect that, if any political party is going to find the positive action it takes subject to legal challenge, it will be the Labour party if it goes down the route of all-women shortlists. The hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) has made the point on several occasions that experience elsewhere suggests that that will not happen. However, that is not to say that it will not happen in the circumstances we are considering. The Labour party might have difficulty over the key issue on which the Minister was questioned by my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley)—proportionality. Would all-women shortlists be proportionate to the problem? Some issues remain to be dealt with from, dare I mention it, our debate about the impact of European legislation, and they may be teased out later in the Bill's passage.

Clause 1 is the heart of the Bill; clause 2 repeats its provisions for Northern Ireland. Clause 1 would enable political parties to encourage women and to do what is necessary to ensure that more are elected. It is important to note that not only institutions such as the Equal Opportunities Commission—which is chaired by Julie Mellor, whom I quoted in my remarks—support that aim. It is supported by the Fawcett Society, whose history is of trying to ensure better representation of women, particularly in Parliament. I believe that other members of the Committee have received a letter from Soroptimist International. I mention it because it shows that interest in getting women elected and in ensuring that they are part of the decision-making process goes wider than those groups that might naturally be assumed to support those aims.

The Soroptimists are clear about their view. They urge Governments to offer support services and guidance to women on affirmative action, and also refer to the implementation of the platform for action that was adopted at the Fourth United Nations World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham was one of the United Kingdom's representatives there.

Mrs. Gillan: I was the Minister who signed the document.

Mrs. May: I apologise for demoting my hon. Friend and congratulate her on being the Minister who signed the document.

As the Soroptimists point out, two of the 12 critical areas of concern from that platform of action are particularly relevant: first, the inequality between men and women and sharing power and decision making at all levels; and, secondly, the insufficient mechanisms at all levels to promote the advancement of women. The Bill goes some way to redressing those problems, with respect to elected bodies, by providing for political parties to take the necessary positive action to encourage women—and to show a face to women that says, ``We actively want women to be selected and elected.'' The parties will take different approaches to that. My party believes that the number of women in Parliament can be increased without all-women shortlists. Other methods can achieve it.

I am disappointed that the Minister has, while perhaps agreeing with us in principle, not accepted some of our amendments, which were aimed at making the Bill practical and not open to legal challenge of the sort that some of us fear. Nevertheless, we support the principle and aims of clause 1.

 
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Prepared 8 November 2001