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Life Peerages (Appointments Commission) Bill Hl

Volume 614: debated on Friday 7 July 2000

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Read a third time.

Clause 1 [ Appointments commission]:

moved Amendment No. 1:

Page 1, line 21, at end insert ("which shall include the need to secure proper representation of women and minority ethnic groups").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I added my name to this amendment because, unfortunately, my noble friend Lord Lipsey cannot attend the House this morning. However, it appears that my name has not been added to the Marshalled List.

I can assure noble Lords that I shall be brief in my explanation of the reasoning behind the amendment. We should like to place on the record how important we believe it is for this House in the future to become truly representative of the society for which it legislates. That means that we should increase the representation of women and ethnic minorities in the House. The amendment would place a statutory duty on the Appointments Commission to secure that representation.

While supporting, in principle, the view of the Royal Commission on the House of Lords that steady progress should be made towards gender balance, we do not agree with the recommendation that a minimum of 30 per cent of new Members should be women and 30 per cent of new Members should be men. Rather, we believe that the target figure should be 40 per cent women, for the reason that, all too often, minimum targets eventually become the maximum attained.

An examination of the current composition of your Lordships' House by gender and party shows that one in seven Conservative Peers are women, one in five women Members sit on the Labour and Liberal Democrat Benches, but only one in 10 women Members represent the Cross-Benches. I hope that the interim commission will take note of that. Those figures indicate that there is a long way to go before the Royal Commission's target of 30 per cent women membership is achieved. It is my genuine belief that we shall achieve that target—or even the target of 40 per cent—only if a real attitudinal change takes place and understanding is fostered of why women should be at the centre of policy making.

Briefly, I believe that women bring to this House diversity and greater experience of different occupational backgrounds, as well as the distinct experience of balancing work and home responsibilities. As a consequence, they often bring a different perspective to bear and suggest different solutions and strategies to the issues under discussion. It is unfortunate that we feel that better representation will be achieved only through statute rather than by an automatic process developing through better understanding of the issues.

I appreciate that the Government do not support the Bill because they hold the view that the interim commission should not be formed on a statutory basis. However, as I said earlier, I hope that the interim commission will take note of our comments and will ensure that any appointments suggested by it will aim to be truly representative of the population as a whole, not only in terms of gender but also in terms of ethnicity. I beg to move.

My Lords, I shall oppose this amendment, not because I do not recognise the full contribution made by women and members of ethnic minorities as they play their part in your Lordships' House—that is not an issue in this House—but because of the nonsensical idea that the composition of your Lordships' House should reflect the social anti economic et cetera composition of the population as a whole. That is not the function of a parliament.

Perhaps I may offer an example. We are told that something like 20 per cent of the British population is illiterate. Is it therefore to be suggested that someone should represent that group in your Lordships' House? Given that, if such a person, after arriving in this House, is then fortunate or perhaps unfortunate enough to learn to read and write, would it then be necessary to recruit an additional illiterate person?

I think that this is absolutely the wrong way to proceed. The only way in which to move forward is to ensure that the membership of your Lordships' House is composed of people of merit and excellence who will be able to make a contribution to the work of Parliament. Of course that will include every kind of person, but it will not come about through tokenism—which, I believe, is what underpins the amendment.

My Lords, the suggestion that a quota should be applied by statutory amendment is extremely derogatory towards women. Of course I agree that whoever is ultimately responsible for the selection of people to be nominated to become Members of this House should consider the whole range of the population. I believe that that goes without saying. Indeed, my fear is that it will be difficult to nominate people of sufficient quality because they may not have the time to attend your Lordships' House—but that is a separate issue.

For women to form part of a statutory quota would, I believe, always raise the question of whether they would have been good enough to be selected had a quota not been put in place. That is true throughout the professional world. For that reason, I believe that the notion of quotas simply diminishes women and I shall oppose any such move with my last breath.

My Lords, I, too, should like to support my noble friend and the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, on the basis that I believe that many women are certain to be nominated because they are good potential Members of this House. However, they should not be nominated because of their sex. That matter should be a total irrelevance. People are either good at what they do or they are not good at what they do. Everyone knows that a great many women and a great many members of ethnic minorities are extremely able. I have every faith that the normal processes of selection will bring such people forward.

I agree in particular with the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, that it is derogatory towards women to impose a quota. A quota is not necessary.

My Lords, for much of my life I have heard people speak in the way that the opposers of the amendment have done. In parallel, I have seen little change in many areas, including in this House. If we do not get a grasp on this issue and make some real changes, this House will not reflect British life generally.

Women do not see this House as representing their views; they see it as male-dominated—which it is. People from ethnic minorities with whom I have the privilege to come into contact feel the same. We continue to employ platitudes: "Of course, there are many people out there with great merit who should be able to come through on their merit and ability". The fact is, they do not. Unless we make some structural changes, in many years' time we shall be exactly where we are today. I hope that Members of this House will reflect on that.

My Lords, the motives set out in the amendment are certainly admirable, and I add my support to the remarks of my noble friend Lady Dean. The amendment is right to draw attention to the fact that certain criteria may well be biased against certain sections of the population and in favour of others.

In the context of the House of Lords, the criteria that have traditionally been used to determine someone's suitability for a life peerage have certainly been biased against women and ethnic minorities. That is partly because they have tended to require track records, which people in these groups cannot demonstrate because earlier discrimination has prevented them from reaching the standing that would now be available to them. But it sometimes goes deeper than that.

We have no quarrel with the sentiment underlying the amendment. Indeed, we entirely agree with it. It is one of the issues over which we have charged the independent Appointments Commission that has already been set up to take particular care.

However, I am less convinced that such a provision needs to be included in the Bill. When we debated the Bill in its earlier incarnation as an amendment to the House of Lords Act, we resisted the idea of singling out particular groups for special mention as worthy of membership of the House. The amendment deals with women and ethnic minorities; but other economic groups are currently under-represented. What about regional representation, for example? On balance, I believe that the amendment is unnecessary and I hope that my noble friend will withdraw it.

My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken. I very much share the sentiments expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, on the correct approach to these amendments; and I was particularly grateful to the noble Lord the Minister for his remarks about the first amendment, which seeks to add to Clause 1(1)(c) the expression,

"which shall include the need to secure proper representation of women and minority ethnic groups".
I have no doubt whatsoever that, when the selection criteria are published, proper consideration will be given to the position of women and minority ethnic groups and all the other groups referred to by the Minister. With great respect, I entirely share his view that, simply to single out these two groups would be, by implication, to exclude others. That would be unfortunate. For that reason, I oppose the first amendment.

So far as concerns the second amendment, I should also not be happy to include it in the Bill. The question of quotas is in any case controversial, both politically and legally. I sought, in casting the text of the Bill, to obtain as wide a consensus in your Lordships' House as possible.

I also share the view of those noble Lords who have hesitations about the principle of quotas. The noble Baroness, Lady Gould, herself said that one of the problems with quotas is that what is intended as a minimum often ends up as a maximum. Whatever quota one chooses, I suspect that that might well be true in this case—whether it is the 30 per cent recommended by the Royal Commission or the 40 per cent that the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, has sought to insert in the Bill.

The noble Baroness, Lady Gould, referred also to the role of women at the centre of policy-making in your Lordships' House. I hope noble Lords will agree that noble Baronesses are indeed at the centre of policy-making. One has only to address the composition of the Government Front Bench to realise what an important role they play in formulating legislation and in dealing with the great political issues of the day. So, with respect to the noble Baroness, your Lordships have already satisfied that particular criterion which the noble Baroness sought to assert as important but said was not yet achieved.

I entirely understand the sentiments behind both amendments; but I hope that noble Lords will share my view that, in all the circumstances, it would be inappropriate to amend the Bill to their effect.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Dean for her intervention, which I support. I also thank the Minister for indicating that he has no quarrel with the principle underlying what we say. That is encouraging.

I find the concept of having someone who is illiterate in this House a strange example. However, it might be helpful to have someone in the House who knows what it means to be illiterate even if they are not illiterate themselves. That is what we mean by having representation: ensuring that we have a better understanding of what society is about.

I have enormous admiration for our Front Bench and the women on it. But we need more women on the Back Benches too.

No country in Europe has managed significantly to increase the number of women elected without some form of quota or positive action. I hope that attitudinal change will be sufficient and that we shall not have to return to this issue, but we may have to do so. However, at present, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 2 not moved.]

An amendment (privilege) made.

My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill do now pass.

Moved, That the Bill do now pass.—(Lord Kingsland.)

On Question, Bill passed, and sent to the Commons.