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Women in Public Life

Volume 448: debated on Thursday 6 July 2006

21. What assessment she has made of the level of representation of women in public life; and if she will make a statement. (82788)

Women are well represented at local level, holding 43 per cent. of appointments to NHS trusts, 49.4 per cent. of magistrates’ appointments and 54 per cent. of school governors’ appointments. Women currently hold 35 per cent. of public appointments overall—an increase from the figure of 32 per cent. in 1997. I look forward to working with Janet Gaymer, the new commissioner for public appointments, to make further progress on this issue.

In this, the week of the Local Government Association conference, does the Minister share my concern at the fact that just 27 per cent. of Conservative councillors, 29 per cent. of Labour councillors and 32 per cent. of Liberal Democrat councillors in the UK are women, with far fewer in some areas, such as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland? If so, what steps is she taking—and what steps would she encourage others to take—to address this imbalance and to encourage more women into local government?

The hon. Lady will be aware that we introduced the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002 to allow political parties to make their own arrangements to encourage more women to stand in local and national elections. Our focus is on all-women shortlists, which we are using in some local elections, and I would be delighted if other parties joined us in that regard. I know that the hon. Lady’s party is struggling to get such a proposal through, and that the Leader of the Opposition is also struggling. In fact, the number of women selected since the introduction of his A-list has gone down, not up.

Last year’s intake of new Labour MPs was historic in that, for the first time, it included more women than men. Most of those women were selected from all-women shortlists. Unfortunately, our sisters in Opposition parties have not fared quite so well—[Hon. Members: “Sisters?] Yes, sisters. What policy does my hon. Friend think would be most helpful in encouraging more women to come forward for election to this place? Would it be all-women shortlists or the employment of bikini-clad women to serve drinks at a £400-a-head summer ball?

The evidence is clear: it is only the Labour party that is making real strides on this issue. We are doing that through all-women shortlists—[Interruption.] I know that the Opposition are not very happy about that, but they are all talk and no action.

The Minister and the Liberal Democrats really must not worry about those of us on the Conservative Benches because in a very short time we will fill the Government side with many Conservative women—[Interruption.] That seems to have produced a reaction.

What guidelines have the Government laid down for the contracts of employment of women in public positions to allow flexible working conditions for high-achieving women, so that those at the very top of their professions, whatever they might be, will have the opportunity to work flexibly and therefore to fulfil their family and caring duties, as well as having the chance to break through the glass ceiling?

My tennis partner calls me sister. The hon. Lady talks a good talk, but she promised before the last election that there would be many more Conservative women MPs. That did not happen because they did not get selected in safe seats. As I said, the proportion being selected for safe seats has fallen since the introduction of the A-list. I am pleased to tell the hon. Lady that the proportion of women in the more senior grades in the civil service has continued to increase. On 4 April 2007, it had increased to 34.8 per cent. from 32.7 per cent. Individual Departments are introducing work-life balance champions who can ensure that staff have the opportunity to work flexibly up to the highest levels. We certainly want to see that happen in more Departments.

Does the Minister agree that child care facilities are key for any women who wish to put themselves forward for all aspects of public life and work generally? What message are we sending to women when, in the 21st century, the Westminster estate still lacks a crèche and other appropriate child care facilities for hon. Members and our staff?

The hon. Lady will know that the Government have given a high priority to child care and have invested in much more provision. It is a matter for discussion whether child care provision is most appropriate at a person’s place of work or near their home. That is a real issue for both women and men. I do not oppose considering the issue that the hon. Lady raises and that is something for the House authorities to do, as much for the employees here who have to work the same unsocial hours as we do, as for the Members of Parliament.