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Women: Under-Representation in the Political System

Volume 718: debated on Monday 8 March 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of how other countries address the under-representation of women in the political system, including India.

My Lords, we welcome the range of initiatives and progress that many countries have made in promoting women’s political participation. Experience demonstrates that increasing the number and effectiveness of women parliamentarians requires a combination of different approaches. Progress in Rwanda, and in India at the local level, provides evidence of how this can be done.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer, and wonder why we do not address the single greatest obstacle. I remind him that, in the list of countries with democratic Parliaments, the United Kingdom comes 68th; the United States comes 82nd. Is he aware that, in the top 20 democratically elected Parliaments in the world, those elected by proportional representation take 19 out of the top 20 positions, and those who seek to stick by the first past the post system fall to the lower levels I have already described in the case of the United Kingdom and the United States?

My Lords, I might have guessed that proportional representation would come into this. However, my statistics say that the United Kingdom comes 62nd rather than 68th, although that is nothing to boast about. In essence, the evidence seems to show that where quotas are the chosen vehicle to increase participation of women in Parliaments, that is the most successful endeavour. In the largest democracy in the world, and one of the greatest—India—a piece of legislation supported by the Cabinet will go before Parliament which, if passed, will mean that the representation of women in the Indian Parliament will reach 33 per cent, or one third. We can make progress, but the noble Baroness is absolutely right: we should be celebrating today the cause, not the success. We still have a lot more to do.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, on which there is a woman from every nation in the world? Many years ago I represented this country on that commission, and very useful it was because you then knew a woman from every country, including from this country a representative from the trade union for prostitutes.

My Lords, I have been to 140 countries in the world and I think I know a woman in every one, but so far as I know, none was in the occupation represented by the trade union mentioned by the noble Baroness. What is more important is that we have an effective United Nations agency that can put forward, represent and press women’s issues. That is something which the UK Government support, and while we are making progress in this and in many other areas, it is not as quick as we would like. The only certainty is that greater perseverance will make things happen sooner.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, on this day in particular, we should acknowledge that in this non-elected House we are led by a woman, we have a woman in the Speaker’s place, and the opposition Chief Whip is a woman?

My Lords, I would go further and say that in this House we are represented to the extent of around 20 per cent by women of distinction. Perhaps I may transgress parliamentary procedure and answer a question put earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale. We will have equality when women have to be equally adequate to men, not superior.

My Lords, in my acknowledgment of the distinguished Members of your Lordships’ Chamber, I have taken the point on board.

My Lords, for the sake of accuracy, perhaps I may point out that the English Collective of Prostitutes at King’s Cross is not a trade union.

My Lords, will the Minister join me in welcoming the example of Rwanda, which he mentioned earlier, where over 50 per cent of the national parliamentarians are women, and that of Oman, which has had a woman Minister for higher education for quite a while? She is the first woman Cabinet Minister in the Gulf region. What assessment have the Government made of how such political representation might be translated to work in other societies?

The noble Baroness has made an important point. Our efforts through DfID mean that we support whole systems of empowering women. It is a matter of culture, history and prejudice that women do not hold a greater proportion not only of positions as Members of Parliament but also of positions of power within Parliaments. However, successes have included countries such as Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Mozambique, Namibia and the large, important country of South Africa. We seek to support organisations involved in education, networking and preparation in order to ensure that our female population does not experience the sense of being denied, most importantly by the sector of the population which denies them: men.

My Lords, has the noble Lord noted that three countries, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland, have moved beyond even needing to use quotas, having done so for many years? Following on from the Question put by my noble friend, even if it is not in his brief, does the Minister welcome, as I do, the Government’s late conversion to proportional representation, and does he not agree that that, coupled with quotas, will transform our political system?

I think I answered the original Question by talking about a combination of different approaches, and it is important that those approaches sit well with the country. It is easy to advise and to offer assistance, but what we must not do is seek to preach or determine other people’s ways of arriving at greater representation. In that sense, countries which have moved beyond quotas are to be welcomed. They will find their own salvation, as we will, and the sooner that happens, the better.

Is my noble friend aware that the Parliament of the United Kingdom with the largest percentage of women is the Scottish Parliament? However, the largest percentage of those were elected not through proportional representation but by the first past the post system?

My Lords, for the past few minutes I have stoutly avoided entering into an argument about the form of participatory democracy; I shall continue to resist.