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Parliamentary Representation

Volume 538: debated on Thursday 12 January 2012

[Relevant documents: The Final Report from the Speaker’s Conference (on Parliamentary Representation), Session 2009-10, HC 239-I, the First Special Report from the Committee, Session 2009-10, HC 449, and the Government response, Session 2009-10, Cm 7824.]

I beg to move,

That this House welcomes the fact that there are now more women hon. Members and hon. Members from Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities than in any previous Parliament; notes that the need for greater diversity in the House has been accepted by the leadership of the three main political parties at Westminster; is concerned that increased competition for seats at the 2015 General Election may leave under-represented groups more poorly represented among approved candidates, and in the House thereafter, unless mechanisms are employed to tackle continuing inequalities during candidate selection; and calls on the Government and political parties to fulfil commitments made in response to the Speaker’s Conference (on Parliamentary Representation) in 2010, including the commitment to secure the publication by all parties of diversity data on candidate selections.

I thank you, Mr Speaker, and the Backbench Business Committee for allowing us time this afternoon to debate the important issue of the representation of this House. If Parliament and, indeed, the Government are to be successful and to be able to make the best decisions for the country, the people taking those decisions need more closely to reflect the society we purport to represent. I make that point because the desire for a Parliament made up of Members from a wide range of backgrounds comes not from some political correctness, but from the belief that a Parliament that does not reflect society will not be effective.

The proposal in the coalition agreement to give anonymity to people charged with rape horrified female MPs from all political parties, who united to force the Government to back down. If only one or two MPs had objected, would the coalition have changed its mind? Probably not—but the critical mass of female MPs, speaking with a common voice, made the Government realise they had got things badly wrong.

There should be a place in this mother of Parliaments for individuals from all sections of society. We should ask ourselves why certain groups are under-represented. The reason is not that the electorate will not vote for women, people with disabilities, people who are gay or people from ethnic minorities—they clearly will; otherwise many of us would not be here—but that political parties do not choose enough candidates from diverse backgrounds to fight winnable seats. Furthermore, if not enough of those candidates want to become an MP, we must examine how we do our business and how we run our politics and our Parliament to identify the barriers. Many of those people would make excellent MPs, and the loss of their expertise and talents results in a diminished Parliament. Such a Parliament could lose legitimacy; indeed, it might never have had legitimacy because it had never been properly representative.

Why are we having a debate on this subject, more than three years away from the next general election? The timing is pertinent for three reasons. Two years ago yesterday, the final report from the Speaker’s Conference on representation was published. One of its recommendations was that there should be a debate on the Floor of the House every two years to review progress. Well, we are one day out, but in parliamentary terms I think that that is pretty close.

The second reason for holding the debate is that, although this Parliament is more diverse than previous ones, we still have some way to go before the House of Commons reflects the population more closely. Only 22% of MPs are women and only 4% are from an ethnic minority, and the proportion of those who have a disability or are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender falls far short of the numbers in society. Establishing a lasting improvement in the diversity of Parliament, however, requires cultural change. There is no quick fix: it is necessary to keep making the arguments and to keep refocusing people’s minds on the need to tackle under-representation.

The third reason for the debate is that the gatekeepers to the selection of MPs, the political parties, have already begun to select their candidates for the 2015 general election. That election will be accompanied by a reduction in the number of MPs, and it is therefore important that the leaders of the political parties are reminded of the commitments that they made to the Speaker’s Conference to take action to improve the diversity of candidates. At the 2015 election, established MPs will have to fight each other for their seats, and those who lose in the selection process could be promised a vacant seat elsewhere. The parties might therefore be tempted to suspend their attempts to select candidates from different backgrounds, preferring instead to look after existing MPs. It could therefore be harder for candidates from under-represented groups to be selected. As a result, the next Parliament could be even less diverse than this one.

Members who do not think that could happen need look only at the 2005 election in Scotland, when we faced the abolition of 13 seats. The Labour party’s use of all-women shortlists was suspended in Scotland, and the number of women MPs dropped. At the UK election that year, however, for the first time in history more than 50% of the new Labour intake were women. That shows that mechanisms such as all-women shortlists work, and that when they stop operating the number of women who are selected, and consequently elected, drops.

As someone who benefited from an all-women shortlist, I wonder whether my hon. Friend would go further and address the issue for working-class women. Does she support my view that we should have a ceiling on the amount that a candidate can spend during the election process, and that they should have to declare donations?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. There are enormous economic barriers that prevent not only women but people from lower socio-economic groups from getting into Parliament. The political parties should certainly look at her suggestion in relation to their selection process, and consider capping the amount that can be spent. At the moment, it can get into the thousands, and that can rule out many candidates.

I want to add some statistics to those that my hon. Friend has given. In Wales, in 2001, when all-women shortlists legally had to be suspended, the Labour party had to select 10 candidates for seats in which the sitting Member of Parliament was retiring. In every single case, it selected a man. Does not that highlight the problem of what happens if there is not an all-women shortlist?

Indeed. That ties in with my fear for the 2015 election—that the advances we have made could start to be reversed. While huge advances were made on the representation of women in the 1997 Parliament because of the use of all-women shortlists, the number of women in Parliament dropped after the 2001 election. That happened not just in Wales but across the whole country, because this mechanism was not available to the Labour party to use in its election process.

Our constituents tend to be interested in the skills and experience of Members of Parliament and candidates, and they are interested in their occupational background—perhaps even more than in their membership of particular social groups or minority groups. In that regard, why does the hon. Lady think that the number of MPs from manual worker groups and from professional groups has declined since 1979, and what can we do about it?

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. This is a problem not just for the lower socio-economic groups, for whom the economic costs of putting themselves forward as a candidate can be prohibitive. Those working in the professions are often too busy doing their daily work, so they might not have enough time to invest in politics, making it difficult to build up the reputation they need to become the kind of candidate of whom the “selectorate”—the party members—would approve. The professionals might not have been seen knocking on doors or delivering leaflets, which puts them at a disadvantage in the selection process.

I strongly believe that we should have a Parliament of all the talents, with people from different and varied backgrounds. Although this Parliament might be more diverse in terms of ethnicity and gender, there might have been a narrowing of the routes whereby people are able to get into Parliament—perhaps a drift towards the professional politician. Those involved in politics are more likely to be selected than those who have been getting on with their life by doing another job.

I believe that the key to getting more people from under-represented groups into Parliament is to improve the supply side, which perhaps answers the question of the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison). This means identifying and encouraging people from these groups to think about a life in politics. Some welcome progress has been made in dealing with some of the supply-side barriers—for example, the establishment of the Commons nursery, making Parliament more accessible both physically and culturally and the Government’s commitment to develop a strategy for access to elected office. Further progress is still required, however, on the House’s sitting hours and on recognition of family life in the rules operated by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. Normal people with normal family lives have to feel that they, too, could be an MP. I think we are still some way from achieving that.

A key recommendation of the Speaker’s Conference that remains unresolved is on political parties publishing diversity data relating to candidates’ selection. It is worth setting out again the reason the conference thought this was so important.

We recommended the creation of a formal monitoring scheme, requiring political parties to publish anonymised data on the gender, ethnic background and other characteristics of candidates selected. The work people did before putting themselves forward might be one of those characteristics. Knowing that the parties already hold this type of information, the conference gathered it from them and published it in the six months preceding the general election. We are very grateful for the support of the parties and their leaders in enabling this to happen, which shows that it can be done easily.

We also secured an amendment to the Equality Bill—now section 106 of the Equality Act 2010—to make such monitoring permanent. Since the election and the end of the conference, however, the central publication of data has stopped. Section 106 of the Equality Act has not yet commenced, and the Minister might want to reflect on that. I still believe that a formal publication scheme for this data is essential. Transparency forces the issue up the agenda as it enables the parties to compare their performance and challenge each other to do better. The mechanisms of publication require comparatively little effort, and there is a consensus that greater transparency would be helpful. To make the process effective, the monitoring scheme needs to be structured so that it is clear that the data from each of the parties is directly comparable, that precisely the same information is given in each case and that it is reported within the same time scale.

I have been trying to obtain information from the political parties for nearly six months, with few results. An honourable mention should go to the Green party, which provided information following the initial request, although the fact that the party has only one MP may have made that easier. My most recent letter was sent to the party leaders just before the Christmas recess. I thought that if I went to the top I might receive an answer, but to date I have received only one substantive reply, from the Deputy Prime Minister: all credit to him.

Given that, I am sorry to say, the Liberal Democrats’ record in terms of the diversity of the MPs is the poorest among the main political parties, it is heartening to know that the Deputy Prime Minister is taking seriously the need to rebalance his party’s parliamentary representation. It is also good to know that the Liberal Democrats finally recognise that work needs to be done on the supply side, and that mechanisms are needed to encourage people from a variety of backgrounds to put themselves forward. I hope that the 40 candidates identified by the Liberal Democrats will eventually be selected for seats where they have some prospect of being elected—for it is not good enough to select candidates for all the unwinnable seats; they must be selected for the winnable ones as well—and I hope that, having been named and shamed, the other party leaders will respond soon with commitments to do all in their power to demonstrate that they too are taking the issue seriously.

Given that the Speaker’s Conference no longer exists, central management and guidance are required in regard to the provision of this information. It would be helpful if the Minister could tell us what progress has been made in that regard, and whether her Department might be able to act.

I believe that parties must adopt specific mechanisms to improve the diversity of their MPs. Although I think the Labour party has proved that all-women shortlists have been effective, I appreciate that that may not be the way in which other political parties wish to proceed—which is fine as long as they develop their own mechanisms to address the shortfall, rather than arguing that candidates from the under-represented groups would somehow suddenly appear if only they were good enough.

As has already been mentioned, one category in particular is still under-represented in this House. I refer to members of the lower socio-economic groups. It is likely that disabled people will also belong to that category. The cost of putting oneself forward for selection is prohibitive for anyone who does not have a reasonable income, and I urge the political parties to address that issue as well. I hope that some suggestions will be made later this afternoon.

Does the hon. Lady agree that both people with manual backgrounds and those in the professions are discouraged from putting themselves forward by awkward economic considerations? Those in manual trades cannot afford the whole process of campaigning, taking time off and so forth, while those in the professions cannot afford to give up the salaries to which they have become accustomed.

That is an excellent point, which may explain some of the narrowing of the backgrounds of some of the people who are now trying to stand for Parliament. It is crucial for work to be done to deal with that. We, as political party animals ourselves, should be spotting people’s talents and encouraging them. Many people out there have never dreamt of being Members of Parliament, but we know that given the right chances and the right encouragement they would make excellent MPs, and we diminish this place by not giving them such encouragement. Some women are a bit more diffident than many men, and may need that extra push. Once they have bitten the bullet and put themselves forward they may make excellent candidates and excellent MPs, and be a credit to their parties.

I congratulate the Government on going some way to helping disabled people to overcome the financial barrier which may exist by means of their access to public life fund, which I understand is due to be launched next month. The Minister may want to say something about that as well. However, although the fund will provide financial help with the extra costs of having a disability, there will still be the basic cost of becoming and being a candidate, which can be prohibitive for many people.

My hon. Friend is clearly immensely passionate and knowledgeable about this subject. She mentions the different socio-economic backgrounds of people entering Parliament, and she will be aware that nowadays one of the main routes to becoming an MP is working in Parliament, perhaps on an internship, many of which are unpaid. Does she therefore support the access to public life fund, which could offer financial assistance to help people to come and work in Parliament?

I am aware of the work my right hon. Friend has been doing in encouraging people from lower socio-economic groups to put themselves forward, which does, of course, take money. I would like to see how the access to public life fund works for disabled people. Perhaps the Minister will tell us a little more about how it will work in practice. All these routes should be open, but that is not a responsibility of Government alone; political parties might also look at how they finance candidates, and they might be funded in order to do that work. We suggested that in the Speaker’s Conference report.

There is some good news to report, but there is still a long way to go in achieving a fully representative Parliament in this country. It will not happen by accident or because large numbers of people from disadvantaged groups suddenly have a burning desire to be an MP and will be able to leap over all the economic and practical barriers to get selected as a candidate for one of the political parties, which to many remain secret societies, and then arrive here in Parliament in a blaze of glory.

Does the hon. Lady agree that one of the biggest disadvantages a man from a working-class background in one of our large inner cities might face is the existence of all-women shortlists, as they may well feel that their route to joining us in this place is closed before they even start?

I would accept the hon. Gentleman’s argument if every seat had an all-women shortlist, but only 50% of Labour seats has an all-women shortlist, so the man to whom he refers has access to 50% of the seats. This issue is not just about women or people from ethnic minorities; it is also about people with different backgrounds and life experiences. The political parties should therefore be encouraging that man and helping him, and perhaps providing some funding to allow him to get selected in the seats that are available. That is not happening at present, but it should happen.

My hon. Friend might also say to the hon. Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) that historically it was the practice of the Conservative party to have all-male shortlists. What was the disadvantage to the men with manual skills in those all-male shortlists?

Indeed, and work has been done on the all-male shortlists of all political parties in the last general election.

It will take a culture change and a lot of hard work before the people out there can look at us in here and say, “They represent me.” I hope Members will agree that that work needs to continue.

In view of the extensive interest in this debate, I have had to limit the time for Back-Bench speeches still further, from eight minutes to six.

First, may I thank you, Mr Speaker, for convening the Speaker’s Conference and giving it your support? I think that has made a huge difference. I also thank the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg) for the careful tone in which she presented the conference findings and for recognising that parties may strive in different ways to achieve the outcome that all Members want, which is a more diverse, representative-looking Parliament. That Parliament might not be proportional to the exact numbers of the various groups in society, but we must have a Parliament that is in touch with the people it serves and that is able to understand and feel the issues that are important to the public.

I made a pledge to myself that I would seldom talk about issues of race, ethnic minorities and diversity in front-line politics, and I made that commitment for two or three key reasons: first, and not least, because I do not think that race actually exists in biological, genetic or evolutionary terms anyway. Above that, categorising people into clear groups can often be more divisive than allowing things to evolve to begin to reflect a nation over time.

I have broken that pledge today because, as the first black Conservative MP in the party’s history, I thought I would share one or two insights into my journey here, the barriers and obstacles I have met, and the approach that can be adopted by political parties and Parliament in future. I shall try to do so as quickly as I can within the six-minute limit. I am happy to take one or two interventions—which may help to some degree.

I congratulate my hon. Friend. He does a fantastic job for his constituents and I hear fabulous reports about him at all times.

I am sure I would flush up if I was able to; I thank my hon. Friend very much for his intervention.

As I said, I want to share some insights and experience, but if the House will bear with me I will make a couple of points very crudely because I do not have time to put them more subtly; I hope the House will understand that they are well intentioned, and that if I had more time I would elaborate slightly further.

A key reason why I joined the Conservative party, about which I will say a few words in a moment, is that I felt that during the ’80s the Labour party was quite patronising towards ethnic minorities. There was a sense on the part of the incumbents in politics—those with power—that ethnic minority groups were somehow hapless and weak and needed all the support and help they could get, and all sorts of extra support in order simply to compete. I rejected that prognosis—[Interruption.] Please bear with me: I am putting this very briskly; with more time I would put it more subtly. I rejected that notion because, irrespective of which group in society one comes from—whatever one’s physical or socio-economic characteristics, whatever one’s background or heritage—everybody is equal. It is a question of whether the opportunity exists to get involved in the political process and to be recognised for ones innate, equal abilities. That is part of the reason why I joined the Conservative party, and something to reflect on.

By way of counterpart, I joined the Labour party because I found that the Conservative party was not just patronising about homosexuals, but downright dismissive and aggressively so, and used the full force of the law and of Parliament to legislate that homosexual relationships were nothing other than “a pretended family relationship”.

We live in a wonderful world where both parties have progressed enormously.

The Conservative party is interesting, in that it tends to take slightly more time to respond to society and to the change in social mores, which is partly because we are conservatives by nature—with a big C and a small c. However, over time the party does seem to progress quite rapidly, once it gets the gist of things and begins to respond to and reflect the society around it. It is interesting to note that the Conservative party was the first party to elect a Jewish Prime Minister, and a bachelor as a leader of the party; and of course, it elected the first female Prime Minister and leader of the party. We will see what the future holds, but interestingly, despite some of the criticisms of the party, in many ways it has been quicker to reflect the make-up of society, certainly in its leadership.

I wanted to help the hon. Gentleman slightly by pointing out that he omitted to mention that his party was also the first to elect an out gay woman as the leader of any party within the UK. It became that when Ruth Davidson was elected as the Scottish Conservative leader.

That is absolutely spot on. Sometimes the image projected is not quite the same as the reality of how the Conservative party functions and, more importantly, the results it delivers.

At the last election, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara) and I were the only two ethnic minority—if hon. Members wish to box us in in that way—Conservative Members of this House, but our number has now increased significantly to 12. That occurred not through positive discrimination—it was not done through all-black, all-black-and-ethnic-minority shortlists or all-female shortlists—but by an organic process; it was an evolution that gradually reflected the society around us, and I am delighted at those results. There are now 49, rather than 17, women representing the Conservatives in this place, which is a huge step forward, and it has been made without the need for those draconian, divisive and often counter-productive measures.

However, there is a generational lag, which we must, to some degree, accept. Equally, if any hon. Member here was to move to another country and seek, as an adult, to become a Member of the Parliament of that nation, it is unlikely that that would happen or it would be exceptional if it did. There are so many ways in which we can split society into groups—by gender, skin colour, sexuality, disability, socio-economic background and so on. Hon. Members from all parties in this House have a joint desire to see this place be more representative of the country we serve. My biggest plea today is that we do not rush in and embrace quotas—all-women or all-black shortlists, or shortlists with only people with disabilities on them—because such an approach is counter-productive. In a way, it ingrains a sense that there is an elite and that somehow these hapless groups have to have this extra special support, and it alienates others. That form of “groupism” in society is, in many ways, more dangerous than a short-term under-representation over a period of a few years.

I do have a dream that this place will be more representative of the nation at large—that is happening at a rate of knots in most parties and I hope it will continue. But if I was to urge anything, from my own experience, I would urge us not have a knee-jerk reaction and have exclusively feature-based shortlists at this time.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg) on securing this debate. May I say to the hon. Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie), for whom I have great respect, that the Fawcett Society estimates that at the current rate of progress it would take 14 Parliaments—nearly 70 years—to get equality, so he may need to reconsider his view?

I understand that there have been 4,897 MPs since 1918, of whom just 366 have been women, including the 142 serving today. When I was elected in 1987, this place was not a comfortable place for women. Sexist behaviour and intimidation were rife, as was documented by the redoubtable Tory MP Teresa Gorman, who had to put her age back by 10 years to get selected. There were no shrinking violets in the 1987 intake, but there was no women’s agenda either. The House was clearly deeply unrepresentative of society as a whole, and I often said that it was a cross between a boys public school and a working men’s club.

So some of us were very much committed to making great changes, and we encouraged others to stand. During the 1980s and 1990s the number of women candidates did rise significantly, but of course they did not get elected because they were in the unwinnable seats. We Labour women knew that we had to get our hands on the seats where sitting Members were retiring or the seats that were targets for our party and likely to be won. For that sole reason, we adopted the all-women shortlists. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg) said, when they were challenged, the number of women MPs of course fell back in 2001 after the tremendous progress of 1997.

Following the 2001 election a report was produced by Laura Shepherd-Robinson and Joni Lovenduski, and I want to refer to their findings as they are so relevant. They stated:

“Although fewer women than men come forward for selection, women are not selected in proportion to the numbers…Instances of overt discrimination…occurred to a greater or lesser extent in all the political parties…There exists a self-perpetuating male candidate syndrome whereby selectorates choose candidates that match their pre-conceived idea of what an MP ‘should be like’—i.e. like the last one…‘Favourite sons’ who are virtually guaranteed selection before the process even starts were reported as a problem in all the political parties…Ethnic minority women faced additional problems…Justification for this was…that voters would discriminate against the candidate and selecting them was therefore ‘too much of a risk’.”

Those findings are highly relevant today, because we still have female representation of only 22% from a population of 51%, and ethnic minority representation of less than 5% from a population of more than 10%. People with disabilities are hardly represented at all, even though they are provided with the incredible role models of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South and my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett).

As the motion says,

“increased competition for seats…may leave under-represented groups more poorly represented”

in future. It is more than likely that under the pressure for places, parties will revert to the type described in the study I cited, and there will be an expectation that progress on equality should be delayed.

What can be done to increase the representation of women, ethnic minorities and people with disabilities? First, this House must continue to reform itself so that it becomes a place in which ordinary people feel that they can be productive, effective and able to sustain a private life alongside a parliamentary and constituency life. Further reform of the hours, the calendar and procedures must be undertaken, and I am glad that we will have an opportunity to do that this year.

We must also ensure that our parties remain resolute in the aims they have all espoused of greater equality of representation. That means constant vigilance and analysis of how selections are progressing, financial help for those who need it, and the creation of level playing fields so that people from diverse backgrounds can come forward, attend all the selection conferences and stand a fair chance.

As a new Member, I sat in the Members centre and beside me was another new Member, from the Opposition. I watched and was alarmed that she spent two and a half hours on the telephone from the Members centre trying to find accommodation and failing. In the end I said, “What’s the problem?” and she said, “I’ve just got no money left and I can’t live.” That is wrong and we must put it right as soon as possible.

I support the hon. Gentleman absolutely. Of course, we had the MPs’ expenses scandal and of course there were abuses, but we have gone in a direction that means that it is very difficult for people of ordinary means to support a second home and everything that goes with being an effective MP. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that that is yet another reason why it will be increasingly difficult to get the equal representation in this House that we all seek.

Recent experience from all parties demonstrates that only determined positive action can produce the results that we need. When sitting MPs are displaced as a result of the boundary changes and the reduction in numbers, that will be much more difficult. All-women shortlists will have to continue in the Labour party and, frankly, I think it must be obvious to the other parties that that is the only mechanism to have delivered really big numbers.

There are two possible ways in which a group’s interests can be represented—by the presence of its members in the decision-making process or simply by having its interests taken into account in that process. History shows that the interests of women, ethnic minorities, other minorities and those with disabilities have not been fully taken into account at any time, and if we do not continue to assert our rights to direct representation, our numbers will fall and our democracy will be much the poorer.

It is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Dame Joan Ruddock), who has long been a campaigner on this issue. I warmly welcome the debate, which comes at a timely juncture two years after the publication of the Speaker’s Conference report. I was proud to serve as a member of the Speaker’s Conference and would like to place on record my thanks to you, Mr Speaker, and to your predecessor, for your chairmanship of it. I thank also the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg), who was a marvellous vice-Chair and did so much work to produce the report and body of work that resulted.

It is absolutely vital that we address these issues of representation, for some of the reasons that have already been outlined, such as the legitimacy that this Chamber can have in the real world out there. There is also the loss of talent from which we suffer because there are people out there who would make fantastic Members of Parliament but who at the moment do not think they could come here. The evidence from business and elsewhere shows that diverse teams work better, and that is as true here for MPs on Select Committees and in Government and Opposition teams as anywhere else.

Let me touch on some of the developments we have seen since the Speaker’s Conference report and highlight some of the areas that have not yet been acted on. A few Members have spoken about the background of people who come to this place as Members. In 1979, 3% came from a political organiser background, but that figure rose to 14% in 2010.

Thanks to the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears) and the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw), whom I have worked alongside, there is now the Speaker’s parliamentary placement scheme. We are grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for supporting the scheme and to the House of Commons Commission for finding some initial seed funding, which has been backed up by generous support from the private sector. Of course, we would still encourage more private sector companies to get on board and support the scheme, which is enabling us to open up internships and parliamentary placements to people who would not otherwise have the means to come here and experience working in Parliament. I hope that some of those individuals will go on to work in different roles within politics. Indeed, I look forward to the day when one of them sits on these green Benches.

I am fortunate to be participating in the scheme and I have a wonderful young woman in my office, Nyree Barrett-Hendricks, who is bright, personable and hugely enthusiastic, but who would never have had the opportunity to come and work in Parliament otherwise. I very much hope that the scheme will be able to expand in future and be part of the solution to dealing with the issue of background. Clearly, however, much more needs to be done.

Will the hon. Lady also pay tribute to organisations such as Operation Black Vote, which does a very similar thing to help people gain experience who might then consider standing for Parliament?

The hon. Lady makes a very good point; I certainly pay tribute to Operation Black Vote, with which I have also worked in previous years and had people shadow me, and I know that many other Members have done the same.

There has been a lot of progress that we should celebrate. Recommendation 56 that civil partnership ceremonies should be allowed to be held in the House has been actioned. Indeed, I think the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) might have been the first to take advantage of that change. [Interruption.] Perhaps he was not the first but there have been several, which is great.

Recommendation 51, about having a nursery and crèche within the House of Commons, has been implemented. That facility is used by many Members I know, and is very welcome. Even the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, which does not always have a good reputation in the House, has implemented recommendation 52, which allows Members to take part of their salary in the form of child care vouchers. Previously, that option had long been open to other members of staff in the House but not to MPs.

There has been progress through the coalition agreement on the establishment of a disability democracy fund, but I hope the Minister will say more about where exactly that has got to. I know there was a consultation last year and it would be good to know when that will come to fruition.

There is also the recommendation that section 141 of the Mental Health Act 1983 should be abolished to prevent discrimination against Members who have mental health problems and have been sectioned, who currently are not able to retain their seat. I understand that there is a private Member’s Bill before the other place, but I should welcome any response from the Government about their commitment to the issue.

I welcome the points the hon. Lady is making about what Parliament as an institution should be doing to lower the barriers for entry to the House, and to teach people who want to be Members of Parliament the rules of the game, but does not the prime responsibility fall on political parties? They need to make sure that they improve representation. On the Conservative side the numbers of women, and certainly of non-white candidates, increased substantially at the 2010 election, but that was because of the efforts of the party rather than of Parliament as an institution.

The hon. Gentleman is right. That point is vital, and I shall refer briefly to parties later.

Progress has been less good on other recommendations. Recommendation 4 is that Parliament’s education service should have its objectives changed so that it explicitly encourages a wider range of people to become candidates. Unfortunately, that recommendation has not been accepted by Parliament; a response to a parliamentary question was that it could be effected under existing objectives. That does not go far enough. When someone comes here for a tour of the House it is one of the most opportune times to ask them why they do not consider standing for Parliament and becoming an MP. That is the moment when there may be the most inspiration, and we should make that an explicit objective of the education service.

The hon. Member for Aberdeen South touched on recommendation 5; she talked about political parties being honest in publishing exactly where they are at in terms of candidate selection. That monitoring data should be in the public domain so that researchers can analyse it and use it to show where some of the issues are. That still has to be put into action by all the parties, although some have made more progress than others. I hope that today’s debate may encourage more movement, although we should congratulate the hon. Lady on managing to say something positive about the Deputy Prime Minister—I hope she did not find it too difficult—and I am delighted that he responded in full to her letter.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way; I could not resist intervening. She will be aware that the Speaker’s parliamentary placement scheme has been included by the Deputy Prime Minister in the coalition’s social mobility strategy. On that basis, does she agree that if the Government wish to take some credit for that, they might also consider making some financial contribution?

As usual, the right hon. Lady puts her point eloquently. I believe there is an event for the social mobility strategy this evening, so I may have the opportunity to bend the ear of individuals about it.

I want to talk a little about what the Liberal Democrats have been doing, because I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Aberdeen South that we do not have good enough representation. I have been working on the issue in the party for 10 years, with some success, but equality guarantees are not always guarantees of seats. In the last Parliament, half the seats where a Lib Dem MP was standing down selected a woman candidate, without positive discrimination mechanisms, but that did not result in the election of those individuals. That is certainly one of the difficulties with the measures that are implemented, but I am looking forward to attending, on Sunday, a candidate leadership programme weekend to meet 40 inspiring candidates, whose biographies I have read. I am sure that will help to yield results in future.

What next? I shall briefly make two points, because I know time is pressing. First, recommendation 54 of the Speaker’s Conference urges changes in our sitting hours. Over the next few months the House collectively has the chance to do something about that, when the Procedure Committee report comes before us for debate. I very much hope that Members will bear that recommendation in mind and vote accordingly.

Secondly, as well as a debate every two years, we need to go further and think about a mechanism for regularly holding the Government, the House and the parties to account. For example, we might consider something like the questions we have in the Chamber to the Electoral Commission and the House of Commons Commission on a five-weekly basis.

I apologise to you, Mr Speaker, to the Minister and to the House if I am not able to be here at the conclusion of the debate.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg), not only on securing the debate but on the work she did under your patronage, Mr Speaker, leading the Speaker’s Conference. Some of us in the House today spent well over a year of our lives—not full-time, but it seemed a lot—on the Speaker’s Conference and I hope that the recommendations can be followed through and that it will be possible to make progress.

In order to avoid repetition, I say at the beginning that the issues surrounding the next general election, not only the lower number of Members of Parliament, but the dramatic boundary changes, present a challenge for all political parties. We need to appeal to them to take the matter very seriously if we are not to take a step backwards on gender, on sexuality, on ethnicity and on disability. I am genuinely deeply worried. I hope that the access to public life fund and the initiative of my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears) on internships will assist.

On a lighter note, I think that we have made progress in the 25 years since I came to the House. I was asked when I first came in with my dog whether there would be a problem with animal noises, and I gave an assurance that the dog would not be disturbed at all by the kind of thing that he was likely to hear in Prime Minister’s questions at that time. I did, however, face the enormous problem of persuading people that additional resources would make it possible to work on equal terms. It was a fiasco. We had a working party between the two Houses under the chairmanship of Lord Jenkins, as he became. The recommendations had to be voted on on the Floor of the House. We have come a long way since that terrible embarrassment. One Member, who is still in the House, said to me, “You’re very lucky to get these extra resources.” I said, “I’ll swap you any time.”

My right hon. Friend may be interested to hear that when I was helping to organise the memorial service for John Smith at Westminster abbey and I said that we would need a bowl of water put out for my right hon. Friend’s dog, the usher said, “I’m not putting a bowl out for any bloody socialist’s dog.”

All I can say is that I wish he had not discriminated on political grounds.

There are major challenges facing us. The nature of the Palace of Westminster has changed to some degree, but not enough. It is not quite the old boys’ club that it was when my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Dame Joan Ruddock) and I joined in 1987, but people still have in their minds a major psychological barrier about what they will experience here. There are also practical barriers, which have been referred to, in the procedures of the House. I hope that we can be more radical in the next three and a half years than we have been in the 25 that I have been here. Unless we change the way we vote, the knowledge about votes, the way in which the day is organised and the support for families, we will not have the diversity and the reflection of society that all of us in this House want.

I congratulate those who have broken through even bigger barriers than I have been able to challenge in my life. To win a by-election as a member of an ethnic minority is a real step forward. Reflecting on the years gone by, I think that it has been shown that the way in which society gradually changes is reflected here, but we have a role in accelerating that change by the way we behave.

The thing that I have probably done best in my public life and am most proud of is not something from my eight years as a Cabinet Minister or from my time as leader of a council. It is having changed attitudes outside— the way that people perceive not only others but, sometimes, themselves. That is a comfort when things go badly wrong.

I agree that we need to revisit the way in which we encourage diversity in supporting Members. I have to pay tribute—I know that it is not fashionable—to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority in relation to disability issues. It has been extremely understanding and helpful in a way that I hope will be reflected in further revisions to support family life, particularly in terms of gender challenges. I look forward to IPSA responding to that challenge.

It is important that the Government are able to respond too. I think that Departments have improved. I hope that the Office for Disability Issues will continue and will be able to make progress, along with the access to public life fund. However, there are still ingrained challenges in terms of covert discrimination. There is no question but that people are sometimes grumpy about being expected to go the extra mile to help those facing a challenge that is perfectly manageable and can be overcome with a bit of thought. People do not like to talk about it; they do not even like to think about it; but, believe me, they do behave in quite extraordinary ways.

What I want to emphasise this afternoon is that we must go right back to the way we develop an understanding of citizenship in schools and persuade the Secretary of State for Education, even at this late stage, not to downgrade the programme we put in place 10 years ago and instead to build upon it. It would be an irony indeed if newcomers to this country who were becoming naturalised were more savvy about politics and better able to get to this House than the population as a whole because they had experienced the necessity of passing the dreaded test. Once we have done that and we have continued to change the nature of our politics and the way we speak to each another, we might get even more progress within political parties.

My hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) has kindly indicated—I have no buzzer—that I have only a few seconds left, so I will bring my comments to an end. Political parties have made progress, as has been mentioned this afternoon, but, my goodness, there are still major blockages. Unless the political parties take a lead, how can we expect the nation as a whole to do so?

I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak in this important debate. I feel very strongly, as I know do many fellow Members, that it is important to raise diversity issues constantly in the House in order to get a better outcome for everyone. I saw a very good film this week about a young woman who was very clear and focused on what she wanted to achieve, despite the obstacles in front of her. She became a Member of Parliament and then Prime Minister. As we reflect on the issues we can address in order to raise diversity in the House, I feel certain that many people who see that film, whatever their politics, will be as shocked as I was at the sight of one woman among so many men. The film shows very clearly the difficulties she faced but nevertheless overcame. [Interruption.] I now have to put my glasses on—my diversity is something to do with age as well as gender.

We have come a long way since Lady Thatcher, but there is still a lot to do, which is why we are having this debate. Each party is addressing diversity in its own way, but it is absolutely clear to me, having listened to the debate this afternoon, that everyone is committed to it. It is important to say that it is not right to think that there can be one solution for all parties. Each party has different political philosophies and it is inevitable that we will have different ways of approaching the diversity issue. The Labour party has dealt with it through all-women shortlists and quotas and has had its success as a result—of course it has; they are all-women shortlists—but I do not believe that that is a desirable way of introducing more women into Parliament.

In all frankness, had there been all-black shortlists or anything of that sort in the Conservative party, I can honestly say that I would never have applied and made my way to this place, because one’s whole life is based on achieving things through one’s own abilities, talents and effort, and I would have found it very difficult indeed to have been put on a list based on a physical characteristic.

I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution—it is always nice to have one’s views confirmed in so eloquent a way.

Where are we now? Some 16% of Conservative MPs are women. Only 12% of Liberal Democrat MPs are women, but it is nice to hear that the Deputy Prime Minister has that in his sights. The figure for the Labour party is 32%, which brings us to an average of 22%. I believe that the figures for the parties masks a very significant success for the Conservative party in introducing more women. It was suggested earlier that the Conservative party effectively had all-male shortlists before, and those of us who have followed party selections and elections to Parliament for some time were slightly surprised at the 2001 general election when only one of the 26 new Conservative Members elected was a woman. However, from that very low base the party has made a tremendous change, and I think that the evidence for that change is the fact that we could achieve it by persuasion, nudge and training.

Between 2005 and 2010, we had a clear strategy to deal with the issue. We had an organisation called women2win—

It was ably supported by my hon. Friend—who is here and a man; it is always nice to have a man stand up in support of more women in Parliament—by Baroness Jenkin and by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), who is of course the Home Secretary. That organisation did an enormous amount in mentoring and training and, if I may say so, in persuading the Conservative party to improve the training of those who make the selection, because they also need to understand that there are different types of MP.

I appreciate that all-women shortlists are not for the Conservative party, and that great strides forward were taken at the general election, but the lesson from the Labour party is that if such pressure is not kept up, and if the mechanisms that the hon. Lady describes, which the Conservative party put in place ahead of the 2010 election, are not repeated at the next election and the one after that, the danger is that things will go backwards.

I agree. It is absolutely essential that the item remains at the top of the agenda for all political parties, but my point is that my political party will not, I believe, be introducing all-women shortlists. Most of my colleagues agree with that, because it is not the only way to achieve this much-needed increase in the diversity of representation.

After the 2010 election, we had 147 new Conservative MPs, of whom 36—or 25% of the new intake—were women. Now, 25% representation is a big step up from the 9% that we had before 2010, so that approach has been a tremendous success, and we have achieved it without the undemocratic approach of all-women shortlists.

The problem that we are trying to address is not just to do with Parliament, however, because there is a problem with women’s representation not just at Westminster but, as we have discussed in previous debates, in public companies, at the top in boardrooms and in different elements of life. I picked up a copy of The Guardian recently, and it stated that

“78% of the UK’s newspaper articles are written by men, 72% of Question Time contributors are men, and 84% of reporters and guests on Radio 4’s Today show are men.”

Women and ladies, we need to do something about that.

I wonder whether my hon. Friend noticed on the “Andrew Marr Show” at the end of last year its review of 2011. It was a wonderful canter through all the year’s political highlights, and approximately 20 politicians featured—but not one woman.

I am so grateful to my hon. Friend for improving on my case.

My point is not to hide from the important problem that we have to address in Parliament, but to say that it is a wider problem that the Government as a whole need to address in order to ensure that we get all women to the top of the ladder, and to demonstrate to young women that they, too, can achieve and get to the top. As we have heard, it makes good business sense, and in public life it is absolutely essential, because if we want to be truly democratic we have to reflect the diversity of the whole country. It is more important in Parliament than anywhere else.

It is an incredible privilege to be a Member, but we have a responsibility to ensure that Parliament as a whole reflects the diversity of the country. We should not, however, have a system of mandatory quotas beyond each individual party deciding to make its own case for them, because each party must have its own approach.

To me, and to my colleagues in the Conservative party, all-women shortlists are a form of surrender, because what do we admit if we introduce them? We admit that somewhere the problem is so ingrained that we have to impose a shortlist. It is far better to ask, “What is the problem? Why are we not getting more women, more people from ethnic minorities and more disabled people? And what can we do to support them so that they are equally valued and equally selected in a selection process?” Let us not surrender. Let us not approach the matter in terms of quotas. Let us look at the root of the problem and, in that way, try to encourage more people to come through and, like us, become Members of Parliament.

I was proud to serve as a member of the Speaker’s Conference. I apologise to the House for the fact that I will not be here at the end of the debate, because I shall be chairing a charity function.

All hon. Members have agreed that a more representative Parliament is better for politics, above all because of the issue of justice and so that everybody has an equal chance of being elected. It builds people’s confidence in democracy to see people such as me in Parliament. It also, and I do not think that we have talked enough about this, leads to better decisions. That is at the heart of the matter.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) told me that when she was first elected child care was not regarded as a political issue and Parliament never debated it. She and my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Dame Joan Ruddock) were among those who made sure that the issue was normalised in politics.

Shortly after I was elected in 1997, I telephoned the Clerk of the Select Committee on Defence to research how much of a difference women had made in politics. In its 17-year life, that Committee had never had a woman member. There were two women members after the 1997 election. The Clerk said, “Fiona, of course there is a difference. We always used to talk just about weapons and ammunition, and now we talk about the families of the soldiers.” We know now how critical the family members of those who are fighting in battles overseas are to their success. Having different voices in Parliament changes the terms of the debate.

In the 1997 Parliament, which recorded the biggest difference in the number of women, we saw our effect in the Budgets. In the Budgets of ’97, ’98 and ’99, the amount of money in women’s purses increased by £5.30 a week, compared with an increase of £2.30 in men’s wallets. Having more women does not automatically bring that result. We can see, depressingly, that the cost of recent Budgets and the last comprehensive spending review to women has been £8.80 a week, compared with a cost of £4.20 for men.

This issue is not just about representation but about power. Women can have power, but we need to ensure that we have it. One thing that I admired the Prime Minister for saying in opposition was that he aimed for 30% of his Cabinet to be women. There is not enough progress on that aim. In Parliament, one has much more power when one is a Minister. I am shocked that 11 out of 24 Departments have no women Ministers. I urge the Minister for Equalities, who will respond to the debate, to take action on that. Many of the women Ministers are in the other place. There is a shortage of women’s voices in Departments, and not just in the little Departments. In the Ministry of Justice, the Department of Energy and Climate Change, the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office there are no women Ministers. I urge the women on the Government Benches to do whatever they can to change that. If they do not, we will carry on having stupid decisions.

This debate has been partly about the problem of women-only shortlists. I do not regard them as a problem. The only person who has ever called me a quota woman is the woman who stood for the party that held the seat before I took it. Nobody has called me that since. Women shortlists are a tactic, but that does not mean that people who have got here in that way are diminished. There are other tactics that can work, but I do not share the optimism of the women on the Government Benches about the progress that their parties have made.

The hon. Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) has something to be proud of in the representation of ethnic minorities on the Conservative Benches, which has changed enormously. I respect the Conservative party for that change. It did not happen through quotas or anything like that, but through a psychological change in the Conservative party, which I genuinely welcome.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears) for her work on the internship programme. We need to consider the fact that, as The Daily Telegraph put it, the main qualifications of people in this House are having gone to public school, having gone to Oxbridge and having been in a profession. Two of the three apply to me, although the representation of my profession, school teaching, has reduced. We need more progress on getting more people from manual occupations into the House.

In that regard, I would say that Conservative Members tend to disrespect not only women-only shortlists but the trade union movement. The working-class members of the House have overwhelmingly been able to come here because of the work of the trade unions, and we need to respect the ability of the movement to bring people into politics. It will be one of the ways in which we can get change in the future.

I am very glad to have an opportunity to participate in the debate, and I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg) on helping to secure it. I support the motion, although I must express slight disappointment that it omits to mention one fact that we should celebrate, in which I declare an interest—that in this Parliament we have a record number of Members who are openly gay or lesbian.

The remit that was given to the Speaker’s Conference did not specifically include that matter—it included “other connected purposes”, but interest in the issue was implied in everything that we did.

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady, and I acknowledge that she mentioned the matter in her speech.

Relatively recently, declaring one’s homosexuality was completely taboo. It is only just over 25 years since the now Lord Smith publicly declared himself as the first out gay Member, although I think there were quite a number of Members of that persuasion before that who chose not to say so, especially on the Conservative Benches. It is significant that for the first time the majority of LGBT Members are on the Conservative Benches, which represents an enormous transformation for our party. It would not have happened even relatively recently.

There is still sometimes a stigma, however, and some negative campaigning still goes on. Although all parties are signed up publicly and at leadership level, at constituency level there can sometimes be discrimination in subtle or unsubtle ways. I personally had no problems at all in my campaign in Milton Keynes. My opponents did not make any reference at all to my sexuality, and we had a completely fair and open contest. However, I know that in other constituencies where there were openly gay candidates, some fairly nasty comments were made. Other candidates would proclaim their family credentials, or there would be mentions on commuter trains that a particular candidate happened to be gay. Little things like that still represent a barrier, and we all have a job to do to ensure that such prejudice is stamped out.

I agree with much that has been said in the debate about how we can widen the diversity of this place so that it is representative of the nation as a whole. One of the most powerful things that we can be is role models. That applies to people who are of a visible minority and those who represent diverse backgrounds, be they professionals, carers or people from modest council house backgrounds. People who might be inspired to go into politics need to be able to see that there are people like them in Parliament. That is one of the most powerful ways of getting more people involved in politics.

We should not underestimate the role of individual Members in being ambassadors in our constituencies and encouraging people to engage in politics and come forward as candidates. I do a lot of work going around schools, both primary and secondary, to make pupils aware of politics and Parliament. Sometimes that can lead to some awkward questions in primary schools—I went to one school and the first question I was asked was, “Why are you here?” The supplementary was whether I had met Doctor Who. We have to be prepared for such eventualities. Engaging with schools, being visible as an MP and talking about the role of Parliament are incredibly important. I also organise a schools parliamentary debating competition each year and bring the finalists here to give them experience of Parliament.

With my colleagues in the constituency, I have set up a community engagement group to make myself accessible to the different minority ethnic and religious groups, so that they feel that I have direct contact with them. Through that, they can be inspired to come forward as council or parliamentary candidates. There is a lot that individual MPs can do.

I am listening to my hon. Friend with great interest. He is absolutely right that MPs have a role and responsibility to encourage others to get involved in politics. Does he agree that asking a women whether she wants to be a parliamentary candidate is perhaps the sole occasion when if a woman says no, it does not always mean no? Sometimes people need quite a bit of nudging and encouragement before they feel they have the confidence to stand for election to this place.

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. Another way we can do that is by bringing young people into our offices, whether that be for a short period of work experience or for a longer period as interns, to give them an insight into what we do.

The hon. Gentleman mentions parliamentary internships. Does he recognise that it is often difficult for people from working class backgrounds who do not have money or financial backing, or people who do not have parents who live in London, to be interns in Parliament? Would he support a campaign to ensure that there is sufficient financial support so that we can redress that balance?

I agree with that—and it leads me very neatly to my next point, which is on support for people who want to stand for Parliament.

I was very lucky. I was a candidate for three general elections before I got in—[Interruption.] I got here in the end. I was lucky as I did not have a family to support, and I had a relatively well paid job and an enlightened employer who was willing to give me the time to do all the work a parliamentary candidate must do. Many people who would come forward as parliamentary candidates are inhibited because they do not have the financial wherewithal or the time because of their employment. That is an important aspect.

I am running out of time, but let me highlight one thing that we should do and two that we should not. Parties should use professional head-hunters more to encourage people who might not otherwise think of a parliamentary career. I used to be a head-hunter, but no longer, so I do not have to declare an interest. Part of my role was to find people for commercial companies and the charity and public sectors to make boards more diverse, so that they reflected society as a whole. That should be extended to the political arena.

Let me quickly put on record a couple of things that I do not think would be helpful. Although I accept that it should be for each political party to decide, I do not agree with quotas. I would hate to be here because I was elected from an LGBT-only shortlist. I would find that incredibly patronising. I got here on my own merits, because I competed with anyone else who wanted to go for the seat.

In my last few seconds, I should sound a discordant note on reforming the hours of the House to make them more family friendly. Such reform is a red herring. If we want to tackle the hours of the House, we should look at the resources we have and the work that Members have to do, not at chopping and changing the order in which we do that work.

Order. I should point out that it is a coincidence that I am in the Chair for this debate, but I guess it could not be more appropriate.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) and to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg). I have rarely been in the Chamber when there has been such agreement and such good-humoured and good-tempered debate. It is very encouraging to see that, because we want to make progress.

I was thinking about why it is important for Parliament to look like the communities we represent, which is something we have been talking about for what seems like decades. It is important in terms of fairness and justice, but, more and more, it is about good governance, competence and making the right decisions for the future of this country. I have always believed, including in every job I held before I came to Parliament, that if we get a good range of people with different life experiences around the table, we often make the right decisions.

If we think about some of the decisions we make in relation to politics, education, social services, transport, jobs and the economy, it is clear that nothing can be more important to the lives of individuals, communities and families than political decisions. That is why I feel passionately about the fact that this House is not representative. It will take us a long time—decades, we have heard—to get where we want to be in terms of equality between men and women.

We should talk about these issues, and the report provides an excellent anchor which will enable us to do the monitoring and the evaluation and really to push this agenda. However, we can talk all we like—what we need is practical action to make sure that we make progress on this agenda, and that is what I want to talk about.

It is important that we recognise how far we have to go. Research at the last election showed that 10% of the 2010 intake of MPs came from just 13 schools, while 33% of all MPs were privately educated, compared with just 7% of the total population. All three party leaders were educated at Oxford or Cambridge, which is no fault of theirs. The Government contain a preponderance of people from a very similar background. I am not criticising the Government, because the same applies to all political parties, and we have seen that trend increase in recent years. That is one reason people outside think Parliament is not full of people like them or a place where they can go and make their contribution.

Another trend is making politics even more exclusive. During the past 20 years, one route to becoming an MP has become increasingly common. People come to work for a Member of Parliament in Westminster and perhaps go on to become a special adviser, before being selected for a safe seat in pretty short order. Of course, it took some of us 12 years to get to Parliament, which is something I have in common with the hon. Member for Milton Keynes South. After that, people might become Ministers, before ending up in the Cabinet. That means that a very narrow group of people make some of the most important decisions in this country.

Three years ago, when I was in the Cabinet, I made a Hansard Society speech, in which I said I was very worried about the health of our democracy because of the growing trend I have described. In 1970, 3.4% of MPs said they had a background as a political adviser. In 2005, the figure had gone up to 12%. In 2010, it was 24%—a quarter of Members of Parliament, from all political parties, had come through this political route.

One thing people do is to get internships in Westminster, but that is difficult for those who do not live in London or do not have parents to provide financial backing, because many internships are unpaid. Recommendations 15 and 16 of the Speaker’s Conference report say that there are several problems. Often, internships are not advertised, and people find out about them by word of mouth—it is about who you know. If internships are unpaid, that is difficult. It is also difficult for people to plan things, because internships are sporadic, and it is not clear when they will arise.

I have therefore spent the past year with the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson)—she is my hon. Friend in this context—and the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) working on fundraising so that we can have a paid internship scheme in Parliament. We have the enthusiastic backing of Mr Speaker, who has been marvellous. The Speaker’s parliamentary placement scheme has a small seed fund of £25,000 from the House of Commons Commission. We have now raised several hundred thousand pounds from organisations such as Morrisons supermarkets.

I am fortunate enough to have one of those interns in my office. He is a huge asset to the office, so I congratulate the right hon. Lady and the other hon. Members who have pulled this off, because it makes an incredibly important contribution to democracy in this place.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that comment. I am also grateful to hear of the excellent role model in her office. All the reports I get back are positive.

As I said, we have had support from Morrisons supermarkets, which has been great. We have also had support from Clifford Chance lawyers, Prudential, AXA, Aviva insurance, Diageo and Sahara Group. We are constantly on the lookout for more people who would like to support us, so if any hon. Members are aware of possibilities, it would be helpful to hear about them. We have had help with housing from the Broxbourne housing association. It is virtually impossible for people to come and work here in Parliament if they do not have housing. We also have a firm of head-hunters, Ellwood and Atfield, helping with CV-building and interview techniques.

The interns work with their MPs from Monday to Thursday, and the House authorities are providing a brilliant training programme for them on Fridays. They are working in education and outreach, and in statistics and research. They are learning how the House works, and how we get a Bill through the House, for example. It is a fantastic, life-changing experience for them.

May I also add my congratulations to the right hon. Lady on working so tenaciously on that important scheme? Would it be possible for MPs to top up the scheme with any left-over Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority allowances? I have a bit of money left, but it is not enough to employ a full-time intern. However, I would like to contribute to the pool. Is that a possibility?

That is an excellent idea. The more innovative ideas on this agenda we have, the better. Money is tight, and Members of Parliament often have hardly enough money to run their offices, but if any small amounts are left over, it is a great idea to use them to enable us to create more placements.

We have 10 interns this year. They started in November, and they are amazing people. They have been through a rigorous selection process. The Social Mobility Foundation is administering the scheme for us, and I want to place on record my thanks to David Johnston, its chief executive, and, in particular, to Katharine Sanders, who has gone above and beyond the call of duty in organising housing and passes, for example, and giving pastoral support and genuine personal support to the interns. Neeta Patel, who is working on the House training scheme, is also doing a marvellous job. All the interns will also get placements within the sponsor companies, which will give them commercial and business exposure. The Deputy Prime Minister has also agreed that they can have placements in Government Departments, which will give them experience of what it is like to see Ministers at work, as well as learning about the work of the House.

I want to mention a few of the people on the scheme. They might well be watching the debate. Deborah has a background in retail—she has worked in Marks & Spencer—and she has worked in the charity sector. Abdul, another of our interns, was kidnapped at the age of eight in Liberia and forced to be a child soldier. He has since worked his way through university and now wants to make politics less brutal than the politics that he has experienced. James was an unemployed joiner in Glasgow, and he is now working with the Leader of the Opposition, so his life has changed quite dramatically as well.

The scheme will change people’s lives. Some of those involved might want to work here full time; others might want to stand for office. It is a small scheme, but we are hoping to take on more people next year and the year after. I want to put it to the Minister that, as the Government have put the scheme into the social mobility strategy, they should have a responsibility to provide at least matching funding for it. The private sector contribution should continue—it is a great way of getting industry and commerce involved—but the Government need to stand up and get behind the scheme. I would very much welcome the Minister telling us today that it is their intention to do so.

Order. We have exactly half an hour left for Back-Bench contributions, so, in the spirit of this consensual debate, will Members please remain conscious of the time?

It is a pleasure to speak in this important debate, and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg), and to the Speaker’s Panel as a whole, for putting the report together. I also note, as have others, that we have had a general election since it was published, and that that has given rise to a more diverse Parliament.

I have listened carefully to the concerns about what might happen in 2015, but I have to say that I do not share them. I have tremendous respect for the Labour party as an institution, but I have never attended a Labour party meeting. I pray to God that I never will! Culturally, Labour has a very different attitude to the Conservative party, and I think it is fair to say that what works for Labour would probably not work for us. I love the Conservative party dearly, but I sometimes think that, in regard to candidate selection, there is a bit of push-me, pull-you involved. The more people try to tell us what to do, the more we rebel against them. My hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) made it clear that there was a sea change on this side of the House at the 2010 election, and I do not think that we will go backwards from that point. We are an evolutionary party. Changes occur gradually and then suddenly, whoosh, they start to occur very rapidly. I therefore have much more confidence than some hon. Members.

I am reluctant to serve up cold maiden speeches from two years ago, so I will not do so, but I made the point that, although I did not want to dwell on my physical disability, my cerebral palsy or my epilepsy, I was likely to end up as a role model, whether I liked it or not. That has certainly been the case.

Many people come to me saying that they want to get more involved in public life generally. I think this is a fundamental issue that has been missed in the debate so far, as it is not just about getting more diverse Members of this House. I was at a RADAR—Royal Association for Disability Rights—reception at Downing street, and I pay tribute to the work it does in this field. It told me that it wanted more leaders in public life as a whole, not just in this Chamber. It is vital that more diverse people act as counsellors, as these are the people who will be acting on selection panels to select our successors and our candidates. By broadening the political base, we are contributing to broadening the membership here.

I echo what the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) said about section 141 of the Mental Health Act. People might think that it is a rather abstruse measure or small print in legislation that needs to be tidied up at some point. However, I think it is fundamental, and the longer I think about it, the more strongly I become convinced of that viewpoint.

I am one of two MPs who have announced in the Chamber that they have epilepsy. This is the first Parliament to include MPs who have been open about that. In the past, for reasons I have never quite understood, people were concerned not to talk about it. Because my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Laura Sandys) and I have been able to talk about it, we have seen a more rapid change in Government attitudes towards epilepsy. When I spoke about my own personal experiences in a Westminster Hall debate—not just about my epilepsy, but about speech therapy, cerebral palsy and all sorts of other issues on which my life gives me a unique perspective—I was surprised when other Members came up to me afterwards to say, “That’s a really useful contribution you made.” It struck me that what I said was utterly unexceptional and that I was just filling time in the parliamentary schedule, as it were, yet others were saying, “That was fantastic; that was wonderful.” It really makes a difference. If more people are able to talk about their experiences, it will improve policy. I think that echoes a point made by the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears).

The hon. Gentleman raised an important point about the contribution of diverse communities to public life as a whole. I was involved in running a cross-government diversity programme aimed at increasing the contributions from all communities to our public boards. Does he agree, however, that the focus has to stay on increasing diversity in Parliament? According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, our Parliament ranks joint 49th in the world when it comes to the number of women in Parliament. Should not all parties try to maintain our goal of making our Parliament more representative of Britain as a whole?

I thank the hon. Lady for that thoughtful contribution. It brings me back to what I said earlier—that it is for each party to find its own path towards the greater diversity that we all wish to see. Conservative Members will have their path; the hon. Lady and her party will no doubt have their path—but we all want to get to the same destination.

My bigger concern is that in 10 years’ time, a Speaker’s Panel will be aiming not for a more representative Parliament, but for a Parliament of people who are not independently wealthy. My big fear is that what is really happening in politics at the moment is that people from ordinary backgrounds, like me, who have struggled to fund their own campaigns and to make ends meet are going to be excluded. I am not trying to say that I am poor by any means, in view of my salary, but I was a candidate who lost his job before the election and was not quite sure what to do. It was a genuine struggle to make ends meet. Thank God I had a credit card!

We have a problem. There will increasingly come a time when unless candidates are of independent means, having made their money before they chose to enter politics, politics will not be a practical option for them—no matter what their family circumstances, no matter what their skills and no matter what minority or political party they seek to represent. We will have a much narrower democracy. That is why I welcome the internship scheme that the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles mentioned. That is why, in Blackpool, I am trying desperately to explain to people why Parliament is relevant to them. It is also why I want more schools to come here. I am delighted that next week the first primary school from my constituency will be coming. It has been a battle, but at last the schools are starting to come down to Westminster. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart), I go around schools trying to explain what I do, and I get more pleasure out of my politics every time someone comes up to me and says “I would never dream of voting for you—I cannot stand your party—but I like what you are doing as a human being.”

I want the general public to see in their MPs people who they feel are just like them. That, to me, is the most crucial thing of all.

I slightly disagree with the last remark made by the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard). If we are honest, we are all a bit weird, are we not? After all, by definition, we wanted to come here. The hon. Member for Devizes (Claire Perry) is pointing at me. That is not very kind. I could point back, because I do not think that she is any less weird than I am.

There are two fundamental principles. The first is that we should never judge people according to the colour of their skin, their gender, their sexuality, the school that they went to or the accent with which they speak. We should only ever judge people according to the strength of the convictions that they hold, the strength of their personal character, and whether they are able to see their convictions through in their lives. Surely the political system should embody that principle.

The second principle is that, broadly speaking, Parliament should look like the country that it is meant to represent. There are several reasons for that, some of which have already been given today. First, it makes Parliament more effective and efficient, and we end up with better legislation. People can spot some of the holes in an idea that is being advanced because they know from their own lives whether it works or not, and how it affects them. The advent of women in Parliament undoubtedly meant that a whole raft of legislation was improved, because, frankly, men simply did not know what they were talking about. I can see hon. Ladies thinking that perhaps that happens all the time generally.

Secondly, Parliament is more likely to embrace the people’s priorities. Rather that its being obsessed with a few things that might have interested a self-chosen elite, the views of the whole of society are expressed on its Order Paper and on the agenda for political action, and that must surely make it better.

Thirdly—this has not been mentioned yet—it is all very well in politics to legislate, to pull a lever, but if the legislation has no effect out in the country because it has no public support, it will have no real chance of effecting change. A Parliament that looks more like the society that it is meant to represent is able to carry that society with it more effectively, and that means that can effect change more convincingly.

We are, I think, nowhere near being able to meet either of those two principles. A number of Members have reminded us today that for many centuries no women were allowed to vote or to sit in here. Of the first two women who were allowed to sit in here, one was a countess and the other was a Lady—not that I have anything against Ladies, or against Dames, who seem to be multiplying on the Opposition Benches, or even against pantomime dames. Similarly, I believe that two of the first women to arrive in the House of Lords were the daughters of viceroys, and that one was married to a viceroy. The change needs to be far more substantial.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) for what he said about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Members. It is significant that we now have more out gay Members of Parliament than ever before. Indeed, sometimes when you go into the Strangers Bar you feel as though you are in Rupert street. It is virtually a gay bar now, and my husband sometimes worries about whether I should be allowed in there any more.

Even the numbers that we have, however, do not come near matching the numbers in the country in terms of the percentage of the population. It is a great sadness to me that there are still only two out lesbians in Parliament, because two prejudices have been, as it were, tied together to form one. I pay tribute to those who have come out. That is difficult however, as not every gay person wants to be out, and I do not think they should have to be. I disagree with what the hon. Member for Milton Keynes South said about role models. I hope to God nobody will ever think of me as a role model in relation to anything whatsoever at any time. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman says that I should not worry about that, because nobody does. That is very generous of him. I was once described in the Daily Mail as an ex-gay vicar; I just want to point out that I am an ex-vicar, but my gayness is extant.

Turning to disabilities, it is important to remember that not every disability is visible. There have been disabled MPs for many centuries, including Philip Snowden, Labour Chancellor in 1924, and the first Earl of Salisbury, who was profoundly disabled and a Secretary of State. The barriers for many people with disabilities are still great, however, such as in terms of this building itself and the way in which we do our business—the way we vote and so forth.

As the Member of Parliament for the Rhondda, I would also like to point out that the biggest difficulties of all face working-class people who may want to enter the House. That is partly because of finances, as standing for Parliament is prohibitively expensive. Ironically, there is now also a problem at the other end of the scale, in that the pay and conditions in Parliament seem prohibitive to people in professional jobs who expect to earn £100,000, £120,000 or £150,000.

This issue is not just about being representative; it is also about representing, and we should do that with courage and determination.

Five Members still wish to speak, and we have just over 15 minutes left, so according to the maths if each of them speaks for about three minutes everybody will get in—a bit of moral blackmail there.

First, I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg) on securing the debate, and on the important contribution that she makes to this whole subject area.

The main parties have each in their own way done a great deal to reduce discrimination in the candidate selection process. The difference that the Labour party made in 1997 was phenomenal. Although I do not agree with all-women shortlists, I certainly do not have a closed mind on the subject when I see what they have achieved for the party. The difference for Conservative women just between 2005 and 2010 has also been amazing. In 2004, when I was applying for a seat in Berkshire, I was given an interview and told in a letter that were I to make the final round, I would be welcome to bring my wife to drinks beforehand—and I do not think that its authors were so forward-looking that they were taking into account future gay marriage legislation.

One of the main reasons why still not enough MPs are women or from minority groups is that they do not come forward for selection in adequate numbers. There are many reasons for that, several of which have already been mentioned. I would add that the personal, and sometimes sexist, coverage of women MPs in the media is also a factor, as is the general level of aggression in some aspects of political debate. Moreover, the opprobrium that is heaped on MPs who make a misjudgment or get something wrong is often out of all proportion to the seriousness of the supposed offence. We have already seen that this year in respect of one hon. Member. The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority is another factor, but I will not dwell on that.

Those factors put many people off entering public life, but they put off a higher proportion of women and people from minority groups. There are certain things we can do, and some of them are in the gift of the Prime Minister. I was delighted to hear that he is intent on having one third of his Government made up of women by the end of this Parliament. The hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) has drawn attention to some of the many Departments that have no woman Minister. It is breathtaking that not one of the 15 Ministers in the Departments of State that face the outside world—the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development—is female. What message does that give to women who are struggling for the most basic human rights in the developing world?

Returning to the broader issue of diversity, I want to place on the record my gratitude to the Prime Minister and the previous but one Prime Minister for the amazing progress made since the turn of the century in the area of gay equality. The number of openly gay MPs in my party increased sixfold or sevenfold, as we have heard, at the last election. That is testimony to the legislative changes introduced by the Labour Government under Tony Blair, and to the cultural change in the Conservative party brought about by the present Prime Minister. I would not be standing here today without them, and I am deeply grateful to both of them, and to others such as the chairman of the Stourbridge Conservative association when I was selected, Councillor Liz Walker. These people have made possible a journey that I embarked on at the age of 16, and I am deeply grateful.

I believe that when political parties are selecting candidates, what most people want to see is that they are selected purely on merit and not according to a given particular characteristic, be it gender, faith, disability or what sort of relationship they may be involved in. Everyone should have an equal opportunity to apply to become a candidate, and by all means, we should be encouraging as many people as possible to come forward for selection. However, personally, I do not want to see the imposition of quotas, which in reality mean fixing the result of the selection process before it has even begun. By their very nature, the use of all-women shortlists, for example, discriminates not just against men as a whole, but, by extension, against men belonging to a group under-represented in the House, such as those from a working-class background.

It is entirely wrong that those who seek to remedy what they perceive as discrimination against women should adopt as their solution the practice of all-women shortlists, which discriminate against men. We should oppose all forms of discrimination and not seek to legitimise it, as happened with the passing of the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002.

Good candidates will always rise to the top. As has been mentioned, Margaret Thatcher became leader of our party, and Prime Minister, without the need for any special help. As she said in her book “Statecraft”,

“the use of quotas applying to the appointment or promotion of individuals because of their collective identity or background is an unacceptable incursion on freedom, however well-intentioned the motives. Nor does it help those who are its intended beneficiaries. Individuals from these groups may well feel patronised; their professional reputations in posts which they would anyway have attained on merit are diminished, because they are thought to occupy them by special privilege; and they are likely to become the targets of resentment and possibly even ill-treatment.”

The report of the Speaker’s Conference stated:

“at present few people think that members of Parliament understand, or share the life experience of the people they represent (their constituents). Building and restoring public faith in Parliament is of crucial importance to the future of our democracy.”

One certain way to alienate voters up and down the country is to put forward as candidates to be their potential representatives people chosen on the basis not of merit but of their gender.

I thank the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg) and the Speaker’s Conference for reminding us of the importance of this issue by holding this debate. The comments made by hon. Members from across the Chamber have shown that this is about improving our democracy and recognising the contribution that a more diverse group of Members can make to this Chamber.

I want the focus of my few remarks to be the issue of women. The issue of female representation arises not only in Parliament, but in the boardroom, where the level of representation is just 15%. In addition, the level of female entrepreneurship is less than half of that for men, so there is still a lot of work to be done. However, like my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd), I watched the scenes from “The Iron Lady” this week and I can tell the House that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) said, role models are important. The first female British Prime Minister inspired me and many others to get into Parliament, as she showed that women can believe in themselves and achieve the highest office. We have made a difference, because whereas female MPs made up 3% of this House when Margaret Thatcher came to power, the level is now 22%. So some progress has been made and, although there is room for improvement, a third of coalition female MPs have a Government role, including Parliamentary Private Secretaries. Defence has been mentioned, and we certainly have a great PPS in defence with my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry).

In the world rankings in this area, the UK comes 49th in the national Parliaments list, below Cuba, Uganda, Afghanistan and Iraq. That puts things in perspective and it is why I set up the all-party group on women in Parliament. It is important that this House reflects the vitality and modernity of our democratic processes.

On the international point that my hon. Friend makes, does she accept that in some of those countries a lot of the women who fill those quota places are, sadly, place women and often they are not there on any particular merit other than their connections to—mostly male—members of the establishment in those countries?

I agree with my hon. Friend. There is certainly more work to be done in communicating with Governments elsewhere about what else they can do to increase female representation in their Parliaments, and not necessarily by using things such as women-only shortlists, with which I do not agree.

I wish to make a point about the importance of media coverage in politics, a subject that has been mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for Hastings and Rye and for Stourbridge (Margot James), as it does play a part in the perception of women. How can we increase the number of women in Parliament? We have to start with people who are at a very young age; it is about teaching politics in school, and engaging these young people in community projects and on local issues. We need to show them that they can make a difference, even as a young person, to their local communities. The hon. Member for Aberdeen South talked about the importance of making a continuous rather than a one-off effort. The Conservative party is maintaining that approach by continuing the encouragement and support of female candidates, stretching out and finding new and great people who can represent our country in the future.

In conclusion, we might in future need to examine the challenge of the “gang”, hostile culture in the Chamber. I sometimes think that it would not be accepted in the classroom or the boardroom, so why is it accepted in the Chamber? Women are a growing force in employment and in public life, and it is incumbent on each of us to encourage and inspire the next generation of people in this country, from all backgrounds, to shape the future of our country.

I recognise the merits of a diverse Parliament, both in the quality of what we do and in the perceived and actual relevance to the country of our work. However, I do not think that being middle aged, middle class, white or male are disqualifications for this job, any more than they are recommendations. I am not in favour of all-women shortlists or quotas. If I were, perhaps I would be asking today why we should just stop at measures focused on would-be candidates and why we should not just ask half the white male MPs to vacate their seats at the next election. I think that would strike most people as unfair, but it is no less unfair than a measure that seeks to remove prejudice on the basis of skin colour or gender by denying a generation of candidates their chance because of the particular colour of their skin or their particular gender. The only sort of under-representation about which we should be concerned is the under-representation of talent.

As we have heard, the three things that principally stand in the way of the talented minority candidate are money, prejudice and process. For example, a friend of mine who was a would-be candidate was lucky enough to get through to the latter rounds of several constituency selection panels, but unfortunately for her they were all on the same weekend. She had to spend in excess of £700 to transport herself and her husband around those meetings and on child care, so Members can imagine her despair when she received the ironic feedback that she had not been selected and that the only blemish on her impeccable score sheet was that her husband had not bought a raffle ticket. Even worse than such petty reasoning is open prejudice. The way to tackle any instinctive opposition to female, BME or other candidates is not to deny local associations their liberty to chose or to constrain them to pass over a generation of talented men in the name of all-women shortlists, but to bring the process out from the dusty backrooms and into the light of day. There should be much more training, advice and education for selection panels on how to score candidates against one another properly.

Parties must also recognise that candidates cannot fund themselves to the nth degree. Travel and other reasonable costs incurred by candidates seeking a seat should be paid from central party coffers. That would not only encourage the less well-off to come forward but focus the minds of those who decide who makes it on to the approved lists. In tackling that financial burden, the central parties should also assume responsibility for co-ordinating selection meetings. Local associations should be able to choose their agendas, but they should have to fit in with a national grid on which all associations should block their selection meetings. For example, a prospective candidate with a caring responsibility who was therefore tied to a particular geographical location might be unable to take up the handful of opportunities to be selected for such a seat because all the selection meetings had been scheduled on the same morning. A bit of basic organisation would substantially increase that person’s opportunities.

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to make what might be my shortest speech for a long time, which might be a consolation to many people.

A friend of mine called David Buxton, who stood to be a councillor, was the most profoundly deaf person ever to become a councillor in England. He taught me a long time ago how difficult it is for someone who comes from a disadvantaged position to be treated equally and given equal opportunities. The debate has shown phenomenal consensus in Parliament and between the political parties about where we go next. The messages are clear: a more diverse Parliament gives us better decisions, better debates, better information, better credibility and more interest in Parliament. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), who made that point so effectively.

We need to send out an appeal: in this House we need more young people, more old people, more women, more people from the black and minority ethnic communities, more people with disabilities, more people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender and more people from the faith minority communities. We also need more people from working class backgrounds, council house backgrounds and lower income groups. We need to go on with that agenda until half the House is made up of women and until we reflect fully the ethnic minorities of our country.

I promised that I would sit down at 5.33 pm, so let me end with the following point. Above all, we must ensure that every one of our political parties has a membership base in its constituencies that reflects the constituency and a councillor base that reflects the constituency, too. If we have a proper base, we can have a Parliament, chosen from the people, of whom we can be proud in the years to come.

It is a pleasure to respond to a debate which, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears) said, has been characterised by so much harmony. Across the board, beginning with the welcome opening speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg), we have seen a recognition that a Parliament that is unrepresentative of the make-up of the country is, by definition, a failure of democracy. Although we can all be proud of the progress that has been made, no one can doubt that we still have a great deal to do.

Important points have been raised by hon. Members across the House about party processes and procedures for encouraging, preparing and selecting parliamentary candidates. Important points have also been made about the experiences of Members and their staff in carrying out their parliamentary duties and about the barriers that might need to be dismantled. I hope to touch on a number of the comments on those areas, which were addressed in the recommendations of the Speaker’s Conference. The recommendations covered party practices and processes to promote diversity among candidates, issues to do with meeting the costs of candidacy, on which a number of hon. Members have rightly commented, and ways of working in Parliament.

Let me start by picking up on comments about the processes to encourage more women to apply to become parliamentary candidates on the all-women shortlists. I am proud that Labour introduced all-women shortlists and I am proud of the significant improvement in female representation that we achieved as a result. I am also pleased that we took the opportunity in the Equality Act 2010, at the end of the previous Labour Government, to extend to 2030 the possibility of parties’ using all-women shortlists. However, I remind hon. Members that that is a choice for political parties and there is no sense of imposing on any party the use of all-women shortlists within the political process. None the less, it is undoubtedly a tactic that has produced a significantly improved outcome not just for my party but in setting the tone that other parties have been able to pick up and follow in seeking to meet the success we have had.

I am proud to have been selected on an all-women shortlist for my constituency. I have never felt that I needed to apologise for that or that it suggests I am in some way less capable of doing the job than any other parliamentary colleague. Indeed, I strongly suspect that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) said, few Members would be able to identify which women had been selected through an all-women shortlist once they were in this place.

There has been progress in other areas, as well as on improving the diversity of the membership of this House, and I pay tribute to the House administration for the improvement we have seen there. I particularly welcome the establishment of the workplace equality networks, which are proving effective and successful for parliamentary staff and visitors to Parliament. Other hon. Members have commented on the work of the Select Committee on Procedure in consulting on parliamentary hours and the parliamentary calendar, and I was very pleased that my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) pointed out that even the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority has done its best to be more supportive. I pay tribute to a number of hon. Members in that regard, including the hon. Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie), who has done a great deal to encourage IPSA to take a wide-ranging and imaginative view of the family responsibilities that hon. Members face.

There has been progress, but there is much that we need to do to offer to MPs and their staff a working environment that bears greater resemblance to the normal working world outside Parliament. I am often told, and by no means just by those who have spent many years in the House, that that is not an apt comparison, but I strongly beg to differ. An unhealthy, dysfunctional and non-family-friendly working environment is not good for hon. Members or for our effectiveness and it is simply off-putting to many people outside Parliament who might otherwise aspire to join us. It provides a poor exemplar of good, modern behaviours and practices in employment more generally and I am very pleased that the Speaker’s Conference took notice of that specific issue.

I want to spend a couple of minutes discussing the recommendations of the Speaker’s Conference that deal with stimulating and supporting individuals from a diversity of backgrounds to come forward and be successful in seeking selection—a subject that a number of hon. Members have touched on this afternoon. The motion is right to highlight concerns about the impact of the Government’s planned changes to parliamentary constituency boundaries. I hope that all political parties and Parliament itself will take the opportunity to conduct an audit of the impact of that change so that we can be informed collectively about the steps that might need to be taken in light of those changes to secure and promote the greater diversity that might be at risk as a result.

Even if that is not a worry, the continuing under-representation in Parliament of minority and protected groups must concern us. As many parliamentary colleagues have said this afternoon, the legitimacy and effectiveness of Parliament depend on its diversity and representativeness. Political parties, parliamentarians and Parliament itself must therefore pay attention to how we attract future parliamentary candidates. As others have said, for many people in our country, the idea that they could ever enter Parliament is simply unimaginable. The consequence is that we have a Parliament that still looks too much like a place for a narrowly drawn and privileged elite.

That is the case for all political parties. It is not to say that we lack empathy or that we are not doing a good job, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South said in her opening remarks, we all bring our life experiences to Parliament. Perhaps the most eloquent contribution we heard this afternoon, which highlighted why that is important in the way we act as legislators, was the speech of the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard). He showed us powerfully how important it is that a diverse range of life experiences is reflected in the House. If those life experiences are not adequately reflected, if they are too limited, we shall inevitably have less insight. We risk making poor and poorly informed decisions, and we shall lack credibility as legislators. I hope that careful note will be taken of the recommendations of the Speaker’s Conference which will help to make entry to Parliament a real option for people from a much greater diversity of background.

In that context, I endorse the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough about education and citizenship. There is an opportunity to do more in schools and, as the Speaker’s Conference recognised, with social and community groups. Like others, I suggest that it is important that we get in early and work more proactively with young people. In that regard, I am pleased that we continue to welcome the Youth Parliament to the Chamber—I do not think that has been mentioned this afternoon. It is a great opportunity to open up to more young people the concept of representative democracy and the possibility of being part of this Parliament. I hope we continue to do that in the years to come.

I endorse the points alluded to by both the hon. Members for Blackpool North and Cleveleys and for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) about what is going on in other legislatures and Chambers. What we do in Westminster should serve as a model for local government, the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament, for the election of police and crime commissioners, for our MEPs and, for that matter, for the Youth Parliament. Indeed, as the hon. Lady pointed out, in some cases they are already outstripping us, which is not something we should be proud of.

I want finally to say a couple of things about money. Hon. and right hon. Members are right to refer to the substantial barrier it presents to people coming into this place from not just low but typical incomes. Like other Members, I very much welcome the efforts of my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles in establishing the parliamentary placements initiative; it is a great opportunity for us to bring more people from low-income backgrounds into Parliament at an early age.

There are many other financial obstacles to be faced by those seeking selection, so I hope that in her response the Minister may be able to update us on the Government’s intentions in relation to the recommendation that a consultation should take place during this Parliament on the proposal for the introduction of a scheme enabling local parties to apply for funding linked to their receipts from membership subscriptions. As others have said, I also hope she will tell us what progress is being made on looking at the possibility of a public fund to support disabled Members.

This has been an important debate. We all bear responsibility for making progress on the issue. Others have commented on the old saying that what gets measured gets done, which is why the publication of diversity data, as highlighted in the motion, is important. Perhaps we could add that what gets debated gets done, so I am very pleased that we have been able to hold this debate and I pay tribute to every hon. Member who has taken part.

We have had a fulfilling debate. It makes one proud of the House when all the contributions—every one, across the Floor—work in the same direction. We might work in different ways, but there is not a single person who does not believe that we would be much better off if we were more reflective of society and the people we represent. I assure the House that equality is at the heart of the Government’s agenda, and it is central to building a strong economy and a fair society. If we are to achieve that, as so many have said, it is vital that our democracy is representative of the people we serve.

Although this might be the most diverse Parliament ever, it is clear that there is some way to go. That is why the Government welcome the report of the Speaker’s Conference and support the broad thrust of its recommendations. We have, to date, implemented the provisions in the Equality Act 2010, which enabled political parties to use positive action, should they wish. As was pointed out, it is not mandatory but optional, because clearly there are different views in different parts of the House. The measure is there to be used by those who want to make a difference in that way, to encourage participation in politics among under-represented groups. Obviously, within that, all prospective candidates should be considered on their individual merits. I add that because, whatever the selection, it is quite obvious that one should select the person with the most talent, but if the group of people in question is not diverse, by definition it is not the best group to choose from.

We have extended to 2030 the ability to use women-only shortlists, a point made by the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green). I sat here this afternoon and listened to points being batted to and fro. Members on opposite sides of the Chamber say, “We are fantastic, but they are dreadful.” That is the whole point. Political parties can choose to become more representative in their own way. I congratulate Labour on its all-women shortlists. That caused a step-change that was admirable. I congratulate the Conservative party on its methodology, which has certainly delivered results. Had we won what we thought were the winnable seats in which we had women candidates, I would be able to congratulate the Liberal Democrats, but we did not win them.

Following last year’s consultation, we have announced our plans to support disabled people in accessing elected office, and I hope shortly to announce a detailed plan of action, including new funding. I shall go into that in a moment. We have made a start, but there is much more to do.

Three areas are crucial to achieving equality: young people, political parties and the public sector. Hon. Members mentioned young people, and those in all parts of the House are doing a good job, going into schools to spread the message that politics is life and that we are human beings, which is a good start. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) is not sure about that. He says that we are weird. I think that we are all human, and it would be a good thing for the House if we showed a bit more of our human side and a bit less of our automated side. I shall now go into automated-speak.

Engaging young people is central to increasing diversity in Westminster. Without that, we miss a vital opportunity to change the political landscape. We have to look to the future and inspire the younger generation. We hear people complaining that young people are not engaged, but I do not think that is true. The hon. Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) was present the evening I spoke to the girl guides. The 2011 results of Girlguiding UK’s annual survey of girls’ attitudes showed that they are perfectly aware of global events. They care about them hugely; they are passionate about them. However, the survey highlighted that they often feel powerless to be part of world events. Representation here is part of empowering those girls to feel that they have a voice and a place. As I said to them that night, “Be a person. Speak up for yourself, in politics or out of politics. That is what counts.” We must encourage today’s young people, girls and boys, to have aspirations and confidence in themselves.

There must be leadership by political parties. More than ever, political parties need to reach out to young people, engaging their interest and encouraging them. There are simple things that we can do to achieve that. I note what has been said about internships, which are fantastic. I shall go on to praise the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears). A recent report by the Institute for Government found that one of the factors that helped to encourage women and other under-represented groups to stand for election was simply being asked to stand.

That was my own experience. I wandered late into politics. I am a sort of accidental politician. Somebody said to me, “You should think about standing for Parliament.” I said, “Who, me?” That sparked a thought and, gradually, a belief that perhaps I could do that, although I did not go to university, do not have a degree and do not have “the right background”. Somebody had a belief in me; they saw something and said, “You can do this.”

The report also pointed to the need to make the selection process more transparent and make it easier for people to understand how to become an MP. My officials will hold a round-table meeting with representatives of the political parties later this month to see how best to do this, and that will include a voluntary approach whereby the parties would publish data on the diversity of their candidate selection. I know that the Liberal Democrats do that, but I think that the parties need to work together on this. Someone called for central control and command, but I am not sure that we need that and think that ultimately the parties must move forward first.

Lastly—I want to get on to responding to Members—the Speaker’s Conference rightly pointed to the importance of leadership by public sector organisations. Public bodies must lead by example, which is why we now require them, through the public sector equality duty, to publish equality data every year and set equality objectives.

There have been many thoughtful contributions, not all of which I will be able to respond to, but first and foremost I want to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg), who gave a tour de force on this agenda. I am pleased to be able to pay tribute to the work she has done for the Speaker’s Conference and in her own way, fighting for things and being seen in a wheelchair in Parliament. Although Members have said that they do not want to represent what they are or are seen to be physically, those role models are nevertheless vital. When a person sees that someone who looks like them can do it, that changes the world.

The hon. Lady asked about diversity data. The Government support the principle that parties should publish diversity data but believe that in the first instance we should pursue a voluntary approach. As I have said, we are holding a round-table meeting on that.

The recommendations of the access to elected office for disabled people strategy—a number of Members referred to access to public office—are being taken forward. The public consultation ran from February to May 2011 and sought views on a range of policy proposals. The Government published their response on 13 September, setting out our intention to take forward five of the six proposals. We are currently working with political, disability and other stakeholders to take forward the proposals, which include: the establishment of a dedicated fund to help individual candidates with disability-related costs; new training and development opportunities; proposals to raise awareness; and work with political parties to share good practice on disability and explain legal obligations. We will make a further announcement relatively soon on how the funding is to be distributed.

A number of Members referred to the boundary review and the impact it will have. The motivation behind the boundary changes was to create fairness in numbers, because there is a huge differential between some constituencies. For example, Arfon in north Wales has around 40,000 voters, but East Ham has more than 90,000. It would be a terrible irony if, in our efforts to introduce fairness in what our votes are worth, we suddenly found that we were being unfair in other respects and that our diversity representation was getting worse as a result. I simply say for the record that I would expect all political parties to look at this most carefully when the dust settles on exactly where the boundaries will be, look at the impact in their own parties, take note and, more importantly, take action to ensure that we do not, ironically, increase unfairness in that area.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), who also gave a tour de force on this agenda, referred to section 141 of the Mental Health Act 1983. The Government support the proposal in principle and on 3 February 2010 announced our intention to repeal that section, which sets out the process by which an MP’s seat is vacated if they have a mental health condition and are authorised to be detained under mental health legislation for six months or more. The Government supported Lord Stevenson of Coddenham’s private Member’s Bill, the Mental Health (Discrimination) Bill, at its Second Reading on 25 November, but we wish to retain the option to introduce a Government amendment at a later stage. Given the timing of the Bill’s Second Reading, it will be extremely difficult for the measure to gain Royal Assent in this Session, so if necessary Lord Stevenson intends to reintroduce his Bill in the next Session, in which case the Government will be pleased to support it.

The hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) is no longer in her place, but she raised some really important points, with which I agree wholeheartedly. She said that women—my attention is on women at this point—need to get their hands on levers, on budgets and on power in order to deliver real change, and she highlighted the lack of women Ministers in the Government ranks. I can say without declaring an interest, as I am already in the Government, that such change would only be of benefit—and is promised by the end of this Parliament. I am sure that the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister are listening very carefully and taking note as I speak.

My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) referred to the stigma that still exists subliminally in political parties: we say things, but then push comes to shove. In political parties, probably across the board, we will have all encountered the nod, the nudge, the wink—that sort of thing—and we all must work to eliminate it.

I pay tribute to and congratulate the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles on her internship scheme, which is hugely important. Recently, the Deputy Prime Minister called for all internships to be advertised to stop the “who you know” culture, because some have been about not just access, which is absolutely right, but the idea that if one knows somebody one will be given an internship, and it is vital that internships are open to all.

In my constituency office, I have another way. I take part-time interns, some even for one day a week, so that they are able to work the rest of the week and, therefore, support themselves, because not everyone has parents who can help them, and not everyone is from London.

I do not know whether the right hon. Lady wants to intervene, but I have only one minute left—unless it is something new.

I am not looking for any praise at all for the scheme; I am looking for a Government commitment. They praised the scheme in their social mobility strategy, so I should like the Minister to say whether that will result in the Government providing some support.

I apologise. I forgot about the funding, which was the right hon. Lady’s essential point. I am sure that she is being listened to, and I shall find out whether there is any such intention in the Government. I have no inkling at the moment, because it has not been discussed—with me at least.

We obviously have Government internships, too, with which we are progressing. The right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) asked how well we are doing with our equality agenda in Departments, and that is a very important aspect. Last night I was at the Stonewall employer of the year ceremony, and—[Interruption]I cannot talk any more, but—the Home Office came second, and was first last year.

The hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) summed the issue up extremely well when she said that what we in this House should be concerned about is the under-representation of talent. For decades, talented individuals who would have made excellent MPs have not made it into the House, either because it was never suggested that they would be very good at it, or because the barriers were too high for them to overcome. We do not get the best person for the job if the best person does not even apply for it.

It has therefore been important today to reflect on the fact that political parties have to have a mechanism to encourage people of talent to come forward and make it into this place. For the Labour party, all-women shortlists have certainly worked and created a critical mass; for the Conservatives, it has been their A list, their support and mentoring and the changing of party members’ attitudes. But the mechanisms have been put in place.

The Speaker’s Conference identified that the case for widening representation rests on three principles: justice, effectiveness and legitimacy. We have to keep up the pressure. Without that pressure, we could start to slip backwards. That is why I hope that the House will support the motion.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House welcomes the fact that there are now more women hon. Members and hon. Members from Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities than in any previous Parliament; notes that the need for greater diversity in the House has been accepted by the leadership of the three main political parties at Westminster; is concerned that increased competition for seats at the 2015 General Election may leave under-represented groups more poorly represented among approved candidates, and in the House thereafter, unless mechanisms are employed to tackle continuing inequalities during candidate selection; and calls on the Government and political parties to fulfil commitments made in response to the Speaker’s Conference (on Parliamentary Representation) in 2010, including the commitment to secure the publication by all parties of diversity data on candidate selections.