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Women In Parliament

Volume 622: debated on Wednesday 28 February 2001

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2.44 p.m.

When they expect to publish the conclusions of the Home Office study into the legislative options to increase the representation of women in Parliament.

My Lords, the work is only at a preliminary stage. I am not yet in a position, sadly, to give a timetable for it.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer, although it is rather disappointing. Does the Minister agree that if there is a need for legislative change to achieve the best opportunities for women to play their full part in public life and in elected public office, we cannot afford to let the issue drag on any longer than absolutely necessary? The study plus the legislative programme will take us well into the next Parliament, by which time people will have begun to make their selections and so on. Have terms of reference for the study been drawn up? If so, do those terms of reference include looking at the way in which other countries—in particular those of the European Union—manage to ensure that they have a much more equal representation of women?

My Lords, this is a complex area. As a Home Office committed to reviewing election laws in order to find a way to allow political parties to act positively in favour of women, we have made it plain that if we need to change the law we will. We are in the process of designing our approach to this issue and the methodology to be adopted. We have announced that the study will be carried out and we will announce its conclusions in due course. We want to ensure that we get the best possible advice, and we have received some extremely helpful guidance from the Equal Opportunities Commission. We will bring the matter back when it is at its most appropriate developmental stage. I am sure that the noble Baroness will accept that, sadly, we are not in a position to do anything before the likely date of the next general election. I appreciate the need to ensure that the work is well advanced before the next round of elections for the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament; there is some urgency.

My Lords, following the example set by the Conservative Party of having the first woman Prime Minister and, indeed, the first woman Leader of this House, does not the Minister agree that women do not need to be patronised by special legislative measures but can manage very well on merit?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is a member of a party which should be congratulated. Not only did her party produce the first woman Prime Minister but also, as I understand it, the first woman Leader of your Lordships' House. However, the Conservative Party's record generally in promoting women in political and public life is not good. Perhaps that is not surprising when it has spokespeople such as Roy Barnes, the deputy chairman of the Reigate Conservative Association—this is a good one—who said:

"I don't believe that women should get into parliament or be considered as parliamentary candidates until they are say in their forties and they have made their way and have established their families".
With that kind of encouragement, I do not hold out great hope for the party opposite.

My Lords, as women far outnumber men on the electoral roll and as members of the population, is there not a serious need for a co-ordinated campaign of educating women?

My Lords, I would be in trouble if I hazarded the suggestion that that may be the case—not only in your Lordships' House but in my own.

My Lords, we should be grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, for encouraging the Government to inform us that work has started on this issue in the Home Office. Women in this country are well educated in the ways of government and opposition. Can my noble friend tell the House what the Government have done so far as concerns encouraging women into public office and the decision-making process during their term in office?

My Lords, we have done a great deal, particularly in regard to public appointments. I am extremely pleased that that is the case. We set ourselves a goal of ensuring equal representation of men and women in public appointments, and at present the proportion of women is around one-third. Clearly, we need to do more, and steady progress is being made. We need to give the process active encouragement. We can do that through the education system, as we are doing. I am sure also that the Electoral Commission will wish to encourage more women to come forward into political life, and so on. The Government have a good track record. We have more women in the Cabinet than ever before. There are more women in ministerial positions than ever before, and more female MPs. That is a good base on which to work. On this matter the Government's record is second to none.

My Lords, in view of recent A-level results, does the Minister agree that the noble Lord, Lord Marsh, should be persuaded to educate young men? Secondly, does he agree that virtually every country that has proportional representation has a higher proportion of women in its legislature than either the United States or the United Kingdom?

My Lords, I know that this is a vexed question. I look forward to receiving the noble Baroness's urgent researches on the matter. I shall study them with great care and consideration. As for educating men—yes, I am sure that we all need educating.

My Lords, if we take the wording on the Order Paper seriously, the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, is asking for increased representation of women in Parliament. Do not male MPs say that they represent women?

My Lords, I am sure that MPs. male or female, and regardless of the party from which they are drawn, would claim to represent all of their constituents.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that although it is regrettable that some women are not selected simply because they are women, it is equally regrettable that some women are selected simply because they are women?

My Lords, I hesitate before venturing on to the territory of other political parties. Perhaps I may quote the words of Sheila Gunn, former press secretary to John Major. In reference to selection on the basis of Conservative Party approved lists, she said:

"Sometimes some of the older members have difficulty understanding how a woman can juggle family and career responsibilities and how it's actually quite commonplace these days".
That is an interesting observation—not least since the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, was just 34 when she became an MP and had twins at the age of six—

My Lords, I think this is one of those "Sorry, I'll read that again" answers! Her twins were aged six when she was elected to Parliament.