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30 Mar 2010 : Column 172WH—continued

10.29 am

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) on securing the debate. She and the hon. Members for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) and for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) demonstrate dramatically the benefit of having women in the House. All three contributions exemplified the importance and benefits of diversity, and they were truly extraordinary.

At this point, I also want to mention those of my colleagues who were at the Speaker's Conference. My hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) is more than committed to the cause of creating a more representative Parliament, as is my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris). In the House of Lords, my noble Friend Lord Lester has certainly been very involved in these issues, and he introduced the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Bill.

The Liberal Democrats very much welcome the Speaker's Conference and its report. Many of its conclusions and recommendations are necessary steps towards creating a more representative Parliament, and it has to be that way. It is ludicrous that so many representatives do not represent and are not involved in some of the issues that arise. As good as we are at representing our constituents on everything, and that is what we do for them, the explicit knowledge of being something, rather than observing and understanding it, makes a qualitative difference to debate.

The Speaker's Conference found that the main onus was on the political parties to ensure wider representation. The Liberal Democrats are challenged in this regard, and although we are working hard, we clearly do not have ethnic minority candidates, and we are short on women and those with disabilities. The hon. Member for Aberdeen, South gave an eloquent and distinguished speech about the importance of demonstrating that people with disabilities are not disabled in any way, other than because the House of Commons itself is not appropriately or seemingly welcoming, even though it has changed. The barriers are absolutely huge, but those with disabilities who are coming forward are more than able to be as good as, if not better than, most of the other people in Parliament. They can put their case and be the role models that the Minister mentioned.

My colleagues and I acknowledge that we are short on representatives from all the strands of equality. By implementing many of the report's recommendations,
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and building on many of the procedures we are using, we hope to make ourselves more inclusive and more representative. I would add that we do very well at other levels of government-councils, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the London assembly and Europe-but we have found things difficult in Parliament. We have identified that the reason for that is not our party's selection meetings, where women are more likely to be selected, but getting women to put themselves forward for selection despite the great barriers they encounter.

My colleagues and I welcome the recommendation that all political parties should appoint diversity champions. The Liberal Democrat leader, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg), has written to all our regional party chairs asking them to appoint diversity champions, and I am pleased to say that many of these champions are already in place. For example, seven champions have been appointed in London, one for each of the equality strands identified in the Equality Bill. These champions have been tasked with supporting individuals from under-represented groups to help them find their way through their role in the party and towards being elected.

The Liberal Democrats are committed to ensuring that the route into politics is as open and as transparent as possible, and we are proactively reaching out to those who do not necessarily follow the traditional route, which is sometimes difficult. There need to be numerous routes into Parliament, and we have recently started sessions on "planning your political career" to help those from non-political backgrounds to chart their way ahead in the political sphere.

If someone comes from a background, as I did, with no books on, history in or expectation of politics-no "in"-it is unusual for them to make the leap into politics. There was no one to chart my way for me, and I simply had what the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South called an overdeveloped sense of wanting to fight injustice and change the world. I did not think that someone like me could be a politician, because I do not look like one; there is something about politics that is very alien.

I came into politics late. I joined the party at 40. I hope that hon. Members will forgive me for sidestepping, but I am a woman and I made it in. I did not take a traditional route; I did not study philosophy, politics and economics at university-I was a designer. When we talk about diversity, we are talking about people from all walks of life. When we look around the House, we see people who are used to standing up and talking, such as teachers and lawyers, and they feel more confident doing such things. Someone who comes from a background where they do not have to speak to anyone other than boards of directors or suppliers is taking quite a different route in.

I was a designer, and there are not many designers in politics. We need all sorts of diversity, and the routes into politics should be diverse. We should encourage and help people who do not think of going into politics, as the hon. Lady said. Some people do not necessarily think about making the jump between working in a voluntary organisation and going into politics, and the same is true for people from all walks of life.

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Discriminatory behaviour at selection is not permitted under the rules of the Liberal Democrat party. As I said, the composition of the selection committee must reflect the constituency's make-up. Furthermore, diversity awareness training is a major part of our training for the selection of committee members. In priority seats, all members must be trained in diversity, and at least two people must be trained in all other seats.

I am a bit of a secret admirer of all-women shortlists, and that is well known in my party. While the Liberal Democrat party supports the legal right of parties to use the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 to enable the use of all-women shortlists, such shortlists would not necessarily address the underlying issues in my party, which are about getting women to come forward at all.

Maria Eagle: I am glad that the hon. Lady is a secret admirer of all-women shortlists. Perhaps she should tell the leader of her party, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg), that he should be an admirer, too. One thing we can say about all-women shortlists is that they produce results-they work. The Labour party has been trying to deal with this issue for 100 years, and all-women shortlists are the only thing that actually guarantees a result. Some of the people who come in do just as well as anybody else.

Lynne Featherstone: There has been a remarkable step change in the Labour party and the composition of the House because of Labour's all-women shortlists. My party's leader has said that if there is no step change in the methods we are using, he will look at a mechanism after the next election. Using a mechanism is quite a step forward for Liberals, but in the end we have to look at the outcome.

My party is doing mentoring and other work at the moment, and we have brought another 140 women through on the shortlist. We have a high proportion of women in winnable seats. Four of the eight male MPs stepping down are being replaced by women, so we expect an improvement after the election, but we are talking about a longer route. I am sure the Labour party wishes that it did not have to use a mechanism and that the world was a different place, but I agree with what has been said.

However, I am running out of time, so if the Minister will forgive me, I will continue. A third of the Liberal Democrats' most winnable parliamentary seats now have women candidates. We acknowledge that we still have some way to go, but as I said, our leader has said he will review the need for a mechanism when we see the results.

I want briefly to touch on the atmosphere in the House. I was born into politics in the Haringey council chamber and forged in steel at a time when there were three Lib Dem and 57 Labour members, but that is not everybody's cup of tea. In coming to the House, I have tried hard not to get embroiled in things in the way that hon. Members have described. I have tried not to score political points in the jeering, bullying way that we see. The Minister looks surprised, but I think it is possible to change things. If we simply join in the old-fashioned, adversarial stuff that the public see at Prime Minister's questions, that is incredibly off-putting. It is a shame the microphone often does not pick up some of the Back-Bench remarks that are made about one's appearance
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or contribution. I think that that would be off-putting and would expose those who make such remarks to the public gaze, which might be good for their behaviour.

The problem of getting a seat is not the easiest thing for women-or men, for that matter. I am a single parent and faced a huge Labour majority because I could not go anywhere else. I did not have parents or support, and my children were in school. I am lucky that I have a London seat because as a single parent, I would not have a chance in any seat but a London seat; I would not even have begun to think about coming to Parliament. What has happened about expenses would put that opportunity even further from me. The Solicitor-General has said, "Why not?" However, it is obvious why not. It is not possible to manage as a single parent, with no support, living in two places, and based distant from London. That will just be a barrier to women. I welcome the recommendations in the Speaker's report on greater support and pastoral care for candidates, because the sheer mental and financial costs of standing for any office can be off-putting. We have the opportunity to transform the political culture, and all the parties must take advantage of that.

10.40 am

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Illsley. I, too, want to offer support to the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) for her work as vice-chair of the Speaker's Conference, and I congratulate her on securing the debate. It is welcome that she secured it before the Dissolution of Parliament, because, as she said, we have not had a chance to discuss the conference in any other forum. As a result of timing problems, we did not have a chance during consideration of the Equality Bill to talk about clauses on diversity in this House. There was a good, constructive debate between the parties in the other place, but we did not have a chance to have one here, and it is welcome that the hon. Lady has given us that.

I shall slightly alter the focus of my remarks, because hon. Members have said one or two of the things that I wanted to say. There were 71 recommendations and conclusions from the Speaker's Conference, and I shall not try even to skate over a significant number of those. It is worth putting on the record-the hon. Lady dealt with this very fairly-that although my party acknowledges that we do not have many women MPs, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), the leader of my party, made it clear that he wanted to change that when he became leader.

If we win the election with a small majority, we shall have about 60 women MPs, which will be a significant step forward from the 17 we have now. I am perfectly happy to acknowledge that there is still more work to do, but that would be a significant step. Just to have a bit of fun with the Minister, it is worth saying that there are six female members of the shadow Cabinet, which is more than there are in the Cabinet. That is my opportunity to bring about a bit of balance, and to get one over on the Minister, in a small way.

I welcome the clause in the Equality Bill about reporting-particularly, in the first instance, with respect to gender, and to black and minority ethnic candidates-so that we get a clearer idea of the progress being made
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across the parties. However, I wanted to touch on one point that the hon. Lady mentioned. I am pleased, incidentally, that she spent a fair amount of time talking about disabled candidates, because sometimes, in the media, diversity issues focus on gender and ethnicity, and the issue of getting more disabled candidates is forgotten. The hon. Lady, and the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), highlighted one of the difficulties: many disabled candidates, apart from those who have an obvious and visible disability, do not think of themselves as disabled, as the hon. Member for Slough suggested, or do not want to disclose their disability, either for fear of others' reaction, or because they do not think that it is relevant.

One of the challenges for us all, therefore, is to assess how many disabled Members of Parliament there are already. I think that it is more difficult for candidates who are trying to get selected, or trying to persuade the electorate to vote for them, to take the step of saying that they have a disability. Many do not want to be pigeonholed as caring only about that. As a result of the prejudices that people still have about whether people with a disability are up to the job, candidates do not want to show a sign of what they think others might perceive as weakness. Sometimes, therefore, it is only when people get here-once they have established themselves-that they can be more open about having a disability.

The issue makes a difference. In a Westminster Hall debate last week, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), who is Minister for disabled people, and I were talking about the number of people with a disability working in Government, and I highlighted the relatively small number-about 3.6 per cent.-with a declared disability. He said that in anonymous surveys in the Department for Work and Pensions, the figure is about 13 per cent. That suggests that something in the culture of organisations leads people not to be comfortable with openness on that issue. We must think about that. There are role models who have visible disabilities, but we need to think more creatively about how to get people with an invisible or hidden disability or health condition to talk about it more openly.

There are a few recommendations in the report about accessibility. One is about making campaign documents more accessible, and I am pleased that in this election and future elections, the Conservative manifesto will be available in a range of formats-Braille, large print, audio and easy read-to ensure that people with learning disabilities can read about our policies and make a judgment about them. I do what I can, country-wide and in my constituency, to encourage people with learning disabilities to take part in the political process by coming to debates, meetings and question and answer sessions with their elected representatives, and by voting. I am sure that that is something that all Members of Parliament do.

One specific recommendation that the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South, mentioned was an "access to public life" fund; that draws on work by Scope. I am pleased to tell her that the Conservative party is signed up to the idea. We published our commitment to it in January, and have said that if a Conservative Government were elected, we would put in place such a fund for disabled people seeking elected and appointed office, in
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recognition of the fact that increased costs are involved. That is about levelling the playing field, not giving advantage. The hon. Lady mentioned some of the extra costs, and we are keen to make sure that people from all sorts of backgrounds have an equal opportunity to take part in the process. It is very expensive, and those seeking office need to be dedicated, but those who are disabled should not be further disadvantaged.

The hon. Lady discussed section 141 of the Mental Health Act 1983, and the hon. Member for Slough talked about it at length. I agree with them. We have made some progress, but it is disappointing that we did not have the opportunity to change the law when the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill was going through Parliament. I tabled new clause 1 to that Bill, but after a number of conversations with Ministers and the Justice Secretary, I found I could not quite persuade them to go all the way in backing it. However, the Government have formally agreed that the current situation is untenable. My party has agreed that we should change the position.

I rather agree with the hon. Member for Slough; I do not really see why we need to have a process in place for dealing with people with a physical or mental incapacity before we get rid of section 141. I would rather get rid of it and then assess whether a process is needed for dealing with incapacity, but the Government took the view that they would rather put the process in place first. I have written to the Chair of the Select Committee on Justice, and asked for the matter to be considered. He said that it will be on the agenda for urgent consideration by the Committee in the new Parliament, and I hope that that will happen, and that a process will be set out for dealing with situations in which someone has either a physical or mental incapacity.

We deal well with physical incapacity informally. Parties have mechanisms for ensuring that constituents are still represented, that parliamentary work can be done, and that Members' staff can continue their work. It would not be awfully difficult to make those mechanisms work equally for mental incapacity. It may be that we simply need to get that written down, and establish a process. I hope that whoever wins the general election will take the first available opportunity to change the law, to make it clear that we welcome people in this House who have a physical or mental disability, and do not discriminate against those with mental health problems.

Finally, I want to touch on the issue of ensuring that Parliament is relevant and that we connect with people. I find from talking to young people in my constituency that, despite what people say, they are very engaged with issues and care passionately about their local environment, their country and many global issues. Often, however, they not do connect their concern, their passion and their wish to change the world with this place, or with politics. They do not connect the campaigning and the wish for change with getting involved with a political party, or standing for office. The hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) touched on that when talking about women's groups. Perhaps that is one of the things that we need to change.

Finally, I agree with what has been said about the expenses regime. I was not quite sainted by The Daily Telegraph, but I was cleared by Legg and did not have to pay anything back. Although I do not tick some of the
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diversity boxes, I do not come from a wealthy background. My father had a manual job, and my family has no history of politics; I would not be here if there were not financial arrangements to permit it. We do not want to go backwards. Remarks made today about ensuring that the expenses regime allows a diverse set of candidates, taking account not only of gender and colour but of financial background, are a welcome reminder that the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority should bear those issues in mind.

10.50 am

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Maria Eagle): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) on securing this debate. She will have gathered from the reaction of the House that we are all grateful for the work that she and her colleagues working on the Speaker's Conference have done. Today, she set out some important points that we need to take into account when implementing the conference recommendations; we all need to work together, whether as political parties, as a Government, or as a Parliament.

I was heartened to hear the general acknowledgement across the parties that we all have an interest in dealing with the matter. Diversity is not merely political correctness for its own sake, or some kind of game, but is a fundamental part of ensuring that our democracy is as representative as it can be, and does the job that it needs to do as well as it can. Ensuring diversity should take us closer to the people who send us here, because it would make us more representative of them.

This is not a matter of arithmetic correctness; it is not that we want 50 per cent. of those in Parliament to be women because women are 50 per cent. of the country. It is about properly representing the lives and experiences of all our constituents in a way that enables our democracy to see our society, and to change it according to the needs of those who live in it. One does not often read about the issue in newspapers, which sometimes categorise it as political correctness gone mad, but as we heard today, all parties recognise that diversity is important, because it improves, strengthens and deepens our capacity to represent the people. I welcome the acknowledgement of that by all parties.

We obviously want to see improvement across all parties. I am proud and pleased that the Labour party has pioneered improvements to increase diversity, and the Government have an excellent record in that respect. I do not pretend that we are there yet; indeed, the numbers indicate that we are not. After all that we have done, women still form only 19.5 per cent. of the total membership of the House. That is nowhere near good enough, as all of us recognise.

I have been a member of the Labour party for a great many years, and my experience is that these issues have to be addressed, and then addressed again; that pressure has to be kept up. The changes do not happen naturally. It is not enough to change behaviour in a one-off way, and then expect everything to work out. The issues need to be worked at, and the Speaker's Conference acknowledges that. I hope that those who respond to the conference findings recognise that, as do the Government. Political parties and Parliament itself should realise that ongoing work is needed. Only through ongoing work will we be able to tackle the problem and get to where we wish to be on diversity.

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