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Women (Political Life)

Volume 469: debated on Thursday 13 December 2007

The Government are committed to ensuring that our democracy is representative, and that means in local councils, the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament, the European Parliament and the House. The most effective policy for increasing women’s representation has been making it lawful to have women-only shortlists for selection.

My right hon. and learned Friend will be well aware that considerable strides have been made on this side of the House in increasing the representation of women in this place. However, unfortunately, large parts of Britain have still never had a woman representing them directly in this place, in a devolved Assembly or at council level. I should be grateful for her thoughts on what further can be done by Government and Parliament to ensure that women are better represented.

We are committed to extending the legal provision that allows political parties, if they so choose, to increase women’s representation in our democracy by allowing all-women shortlists. When I was first in the House of Commons, there were only 10 Labour women Members of Parliament, but because we used all-women shortlists we now have 96 strong Labour women Members of Parliament, who speak up for women in this country and champion issues such as child care and tackling domestic violence. The Conservative party, which eschews all-women shortlists, has increased its number of women Members of Parliament from 13 when I was first elected to the sum total of 17 now. I want to see more women Members on both sides of the House, but until the Conservatives have all-women shortlists, they will be doomed to fail.

Perhaps the right hon. and learned Lady would like to congratulate the council in my constituency. After the recent local elections and a stunning Tory victory, nearly half the Conservative councillors are women—without using all-women shortlists—a woman leads the council and there is an excellent female chairman. Will the right hon. and learned Lady congratulate the Conservatives in Forest of Dean on that excellent performance?

I do want to see more women in local government. I warmly support all the women in local government, who work not only in the economy and public services and among their families, but in the community as local representatives.

I will congratulate them. My hon. Friend the Minister for Equality and I are concerned to ensure the proper representation of women of black and Asian ethnic origin. Black and Asian women are chronically under-represented. There are something like 176 women black and Asian councillors in the whole of England and Wales; if black and Asian communities were properly represented, there would be nearer 1,000. We have to ensure that there is proper gender representation in our councils, in Parliament and in the devolved Assemblies, but we also have to ensure diverse ethnic representation, so that this House reflects the communities that we seek to represent.

My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware that next year is the 90th anniversary of women’s suffrage, which you, Mr. Speaker, are generously hosting a reception to mark. Will she publish proposals for using the 90th anniversary to highlight the contribution that women have made to public life and the initiatives that she will take to increase the number of women in public life?

I welcome my hon. Friend’s suggestion and I will do exactly that. It is not just the numbers that are important. The women Members of Parliament who were elected in 1997, and also in 2001 and 2005, have made a difference to the political agenda discussed in the House. I can remember when there was virtually no discussion of maternity leave, domestic violence, or support for families caring for older relatives. Those things are particular preoccupations of women and their families. Women’s representation has meant that people’s lives are reflected much more accurately in the House of Commons.

Some women are put off becoming MPs because they think that the House has a rather sexist, male-dominated culture, and that the job is all about making speeches and engaging in aggressive debate, although that is actually a small part of the job. Does the Minister agree that, although all parties must continue their own efforts to get more women elected, there is also a need for a cross-party initiative to communicate better the fact that elected politics can be incredibly enjoyable and rewarding, and to change some of those negative perceptions?

I think the important thing is to say to women and men that they should recognise that it is a great honour and privilege to be a Member of Parliament, to represent a constituency and to work for progressive change. It is important that the House should be a team of women and men working together, as the Government are.