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Women’s Representation

Volume 473: debated on Thursday 20 March 2008

The law that we introduced to allow political parties to use women-only shortlists for selection has been one of the most effective ways of increasing women’s representation. On 6 March, I announced our intention to legislate in the new equality Bill to extend the right of political parties to have women-only shortlists until 2030.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that answer. On the Labour Benches in this House, more than a quarter of our representatives are women. In Holyrood, one in two Labour MSPs are women. Those overall averages, however, are unfortunately brought down by the representation of women in other parties. Only 25 per cent. of the SNP’s representatives in Holyrood are women—

Order. A supplementary question must be short. The Minister might try to answer the question.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We want improved representation of women so that the issues of concern to women in this country are reflected not only in the House of Commons but in our local councils, too, in our devolved Parliament in Scotland, in Wales, and in London. It is notable that although we have fewer Labour Members in the Scottish Parliament than the Scots Nats, we have twice as many women Members. Women in Scotland are properly represented by Labour women. The other parties say that they support women’s representation but they must get their act together and do something about it.

If it is so important for the Labour party to have more women in Parliament, can the Minister tell us how many male Labour MPs have agreed to cut short their parliamentary career to give up their seat for a woman? If, as I suspect, the answer is none, can we abandon all this political correctness regarding getting more women into Parliament and just concentrate on people being selected on merit?

The hon. Gentleman raises the question of merit. Does he think that this Chamber was meritorious and representative when it was, as it was when I was first elected, 97 per cent. men? Then, it was said that it just so happened that all the men in the country were the best people, and they had to be in this House of Commons. The fact is that we have to bring about change so that women are fairly represented. We have made progress on that in our party. We now have 96 Labour women MPs, and the hon. Gentleman’s party still has only 17. It is in the interests of everyone in this country and of our democracy that there is fair representation in this House of Commons.

In Wales, 47 per cent. of those in the National Assembly are women, which is one of the highest records in the world. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that this was achieved only by the efforts of Labour in Wales, by bringing in twinning, and by being bold and acknowledging the fact that we need people who actually represent the communities whom they represent?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, and there are three really important issues here. First, it is only with positive action that there has been a difference and an increase in women’s representation. Secondly, it is Labour that has taken the lead—whether in Scotland, Wales or other parts of the UK. Thirdly, women’s representation has made a difference for women in this country, ensuring that women representatives have been able to put issues of concern such as domestic violence, child care and flexibility at work on our political agenda.

What message does it send that, of the Ministers who are women, a disproportionate number of them are not paid, compared with that of male Ministers? Should my right hon. and learned Friend not have a word with the Prime Minister, saying that there should be parity of treatment—equal pay for work of equal value—or is the real question whether Ministers should be paid at all?

The message that it sends is that, while we have made progress, a great deal more still needs to be made.

Historically and regardless of political parties, local government has attracted proportionately more women to participate in it than this House has attracted. What lessons does the Minister think we can learn from that, and why does she think that that has been the case?

In fact, the representation of women in local councils is only about the same as that of women in this House. Historically, there have always been more women in local councils than in this House, but because of the positive action that we have taken, and which has been taken in Scotland and Wales, this House has overtaken that figure. Many of the people who work for local councils are women, providing important local services, as are many of the people who depend on local councils’ services because they are caring for young children or older relatives, or are involved in schools or local social services. Because such services are so important to women in local communities, it is quite wrong that we still have so few women in local government. We need to make progress on that, too.