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Lord Thomas of Gresford: We on these Benches entirely support the sentiments expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas. We are fortunate in the Liberal Democrats in Wales in that we have many young candidates and many female candidates. What we do question is whether this is something that requires statutory authority. We feel in the Welsh Liberal Democrats that we have the necessary procedures in place which will ensure gender balance. We agree with the noble Lord that that is an aim which we should seek to achieve.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I am never very sure when we come to these matters whether people want to be purist and have a balance which is 50-50. That of course means that they have to manipulate the system in various ways: both the democratic system and the selection system. It will not surprise your Lordships to hear that I am always pretty nervous when I hear the case put for manipulation of the system in order to get what is now called gender balance.
It seems to me that it is treating at least some women as if they were the "token woman". I think we in the Conservative Party can speak with some strength in this matter because we are the only political party that has actually been led by a woman; my noble friend Lady Thatcher. I imagine that if I suggested for a moment that we elected my noble friend as a token woman, I would, in the phrase, have my head in my hands to play with. My noble friend was elected because she was seen to be the best person for the job, and she turned out so to be. She was elected entirely on her own merits and, as some of your Lordships who were in the other place at the time will recall, she was elected largely on her skills, shown during the passage of a Finance Act. Clearly, my colleagues in the other place then saw that she was head and shoulders above anybody else. They did not look upon her as a woman but as the most formidable person they could choose in order to oppose the Labour Party and to win the subsequent election. They were right in that.
I am not happy with the idea that we should look for balance in a kind of tokenist way. I would hate to think that when I was a government minister any of the four or five lady private secretaries I appointed thought of themselves as "token". I appointed them because in my view when I saw them at interview they were the best person--she in this case--needed to do the job. I did not do a mental calculation on the lines of "my last one was a male and so this one ought to be a female." I do not believe that political parties should be forced to do that. If they wish to do that then it is up to them, but the rules for political parties on choosing a candidate are entirely matters that they should attend to.
It is interesting to note that, if one allows democracy, the electorate, whether it be the narrow electorate of the party membership or the wider general electorate at large, may not always decide to go along with the rule
The Labour Party has the problem. When it introduced women-only shortlists for parliamentary elections it was found to be acting unlawfully under the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. Jepson and Dyas-Elliott v. the Labour Party and Others in 1996 showed that and the Labour Party did not appeal. I understand that the legal position is still somewhat unclear. Several leading lawyers argue that parliamentary election processes are not subject to the Act.
The new clause introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, in order to try and help the Labour Party--such generosity of spirit does him great credit--would exempt the selection of candidates for the assembly from the provisions of the Sex Discrimination Act. As regards the Government's reply, we cannot lose; either we have the Solicitor-General or the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn. Either way, we shall have extremely good legal advice tonight and I trust that we shall have it free. I understand that the noble and learned Lord the Solicitor-General is to reply. Perhaps he will turn his mind to whether the amendment might contravene the EU equal treatment directive. In 1995, in the case of Kalanke v. Hansestadt Bremen, the European Court of Justice ruled that positive discrimination was unlawful. However, in 1997, the court ruled that where there are fewer women than men in a particular public sector post it was not unlawful to give priority to a suitably qualified woman so long as a better qualified man could still be chosen. That would seem to me to leave the matter open for political parties. That was the case of Marschall v. Land Nordrhein Westfalen.
It is worth noting that in January the Equal Opportunities Commission issued a consultation document which sought views on possible amendments to the Act, including changes to allow for positive discrimination. The Conservative Party has laid out its selection procedures. As I indicated earlier to the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, who was interested in my political well-being, we in Scotland are selecting the panel from which the constituencies will choose. I am happy to say that we have a significant number of extremely well-qualified women. I should like to think that on their own merits they will beat some of the men on the short list. I would hate to think that I had to point to a woman and say, "This woman must be taken, good, bad or indifferent, just because she is a woman". I should like to think that all the women I have interviewed would tell me what to do with my nomination if I suggested that.
The Labour Party put itself into more difficulties because it decided to twin constituencies for the purposes of selection of assembly candidates. A selection board appointed by the Welsh party executive will interview prospective candidates for an all-Welsh pool, from which two men and two women will be chosen by each pair of constituencies. I am not sure whether the constituencies are paired in equality of
However, a spanner was thrown in the works by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor when on 21st April he told a private meeting of MPs that in his view such twinning would be unlawful. One cannot get better advice than from the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor. Although he is an English lawyer, he is a Scot, so he must be a cut above the others. I mean most of the others; just in case the two Ministers opposite have to do me a favour one day I put in a small caveat. In any event, if that is the view of the Lord Chancellor I would bet on the fact that it is unlawful. I understand that the Labour Party is still considering its position.
Why should I interfere in a private fight in the Labour Party? Why should the noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, interfere? He has chosen to interfere in a helpful way and I hope that my suggestions, too, have been helpful to the Government. If I were the Government I would take the advice of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor because I cannot think where they would find better.
Lord Islwyn: It is not often that I am slightly sympathetic to the point of view annunciated from the Front Bench opposite. I was slightly inflamed by the references made by my noble friend and colleague Lord Elis-Thomas to the situation in particular in South Wales relating to the male dominated political scene as he portrayed it. Of course, that had everything to do with the fact that there was a heavily industrialised society dominated by mining and steel and the men went out to work. They in turn participated in trade union and political affairs. From the point of view of political success, the Labour Party benefited from such a society.
I am a little nauseated by all the gender arguments that have been put forward. I believe that women should be encouraged in every way to participate in the political scene and every other social organisation in society. However, I resent such arbitrary mechanisms. I recall that during my 31 years in another place, particularly in the latter years, when one voted for the shadow Cabinet one first had to vote for four females. In other words, if we did not vote for the four females, our ballot paper was declared void. I always thought that was a load of rubbish.
I recall too a situation which I witnessed firsthand, although I never took any part in that kind of argument. In my old constituency of Newport East, there were a great many what I would call, with great respect, working-class women. They were dead against the idea of any sort of arbitrary mechanism to ensure that they were elected. In fact, if the records are looked at, it will be found that just over two years ago at the annual conference of the Labour Party, there was a resolution from the Newport East constituency which was put forward largely, as I know, by the women members who opposed such an arbitrary mechanism.
I think of the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher. She did not need any assistance nor did my noble friend Lady Castle, Jennie Lee, Joan Lestor and so on. They fought their own corner. As I say, with the rise of feminism, that will surely happen generally. When we go to Swansea this weekend for the Labour Party Welsh Conference, I hope that the delegates there will reject the idea of twinning. I entirely disagree with it and I speak as a member of the Labour Party for over 50 years. We want a democratic system, by all means, but with women as they are. They can put their own point of view so clearly and concisely that I believe that they can certainly stand on their own two feet now. I hope that that democratic system will prevail so that the constituencies will choose the best person available.
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