Race Relations (Election Candidates)

Point of Order – in the House of Commons at 1:10 pm on 6th February 2008.

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Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Chair, Rt Hon Keith Vaz Committee, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Chair, Rt Hon Keith Vaz Committee 1:10 pm, 6th February 2008

I beg to move

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to exclude from the operation of the Race Relations Act 1976 and the Race Relations (Northern Ireland) Order 1997 certain matters relating to the selection of candidates by political parties.

The United Kingdom is a diverse nation. A snapshot of what it means to be British today would surely provide us with a mosaic reflecting the many cultures, ethnicities and religions that make up our population. Post-war and post-colonial migration flows have enriched our country with more than just numbers of people. Every town, city and region has benefited from Leicester to London, from Wembley to Wigan and from Sunderland to Southall. It is not only the composition of our population that has changed, but the composition of our national identity—our Britishness.

The change in our national identity must be reflected in the way we think of ourselves as a country, represent ourselves to others and, most importantly, in the composition of our Parliament. It is that change that must be reflected, and I intend to address it in my Bill. I am delighted to see the Leader of the House of Commons, who is also the Minister for Women and Equality, on the Front Bench because she has championed the cause of equality throughout her long political life.

There are currently 15 ethnic minority Members of this House: 13 Labour Members and two Conservatives. As the House knows, the 2001 census reported a 50 per cent. increase in our ethnic population over the last 10 years. The lack of such representation in Parliament is therefore truly disappointing. If Parliament were to reflect adequately the population of ethnic minority citizens, there would be 58 ethnic minority Members of this House. At the current rate at which ethnic minority Members are taking up seats in Parliament, it would take 75 years to achieve a proportion that would reflect the ethnic minority population of our country.

Since 1987, when I was elected along with Ms Abbott, Mr. Paul Boateng and the late Bernie Grant, progress has been painfully slow. There were two more ethnic minority Members in 1992, three more in 1997, two more in 2001, four in 2005, and five in by-elections over the last 21 years. It is not that there is a lack of talent, numbers or desire to come to this place, but it is clear that ethnic minorities still face proportionately more hurdles than others in getting elected to this House. This Bill seeks to address the problems of imbalance in representation through the democratic decisions of our political parties, but there is no miracle cure.

The race issue does not have to be divisive; race can be used in a positive way to electrify the political process. Striving for the Democratic nomination in the United States, we have a candidate who embodies the multi-ethnic, multicultural and international character of its society: Barack Obama. Born to a Kenyan father and an American mother, and having spent part of his childhood in Indonesia, Senator Obama is a poster boy for the integration and amalgamation that has taken place globally—the mixing of cultures and consequent reforming of identities.

The American system is, of course, different from ours. An individual in that country can seek and win their party's nomination at a local, state, and national level through their force of personality and their ability to secure funding. The party structure cannot stop them. In Britain, that is not possible; we have a strong party system. However, so far that system has delivered just 23 ethnic minority Members of this House in the history of British politics. Those dismal facts speak for themselves. We need to change our attitudes and the law so that a new vision can be made a reality.

I would invite Members to look at what a change in the law did for the representation of women in Parliament. A few years ago, Parliament legalised all-women shortlists in elections. The result was that for the first time in history, there were more women in the new intake than men—65 per cent. were women. All women-shortlists were described at the time as a "hammer to break the glass ceiling". That ceiling now needs to be broken for ethnic minorities. The changes in 2002 highlighted how shortlists allow us to take a step ahead on the road to a more equally representative Parliament. Since the election of Nancy Astor as the first female Member of Parliament, 290 women have taken up seats. That is, as I am sure the House will know, not even half of a single parliamentary intake.

The Bill proposes to allow for the creation of shortlists on the grounds of ethnicity in the selection of parliamentary candidates. It will be a voluntary, optional means of addressing the imbalance we see today, and it will not oblige or compel parties in any way. Positive action is achieved by exempting the selection of candidates from the provisions of the Race Relations Act 1976. Clause 1 will insert a new clause in the 1976 Act, exempting registered political parties from the main provisions of that Act, provided, of course, that that process is adopted for the purpose of reducing inequalities for the different ethnic groups from which individuals are elected. Clause 2 allows for the exact same provisions to be made in Northern Ireland, aside from one difference, namely that it allows for this process to apply to the Northern Ireland Assembly and to district councils, as well as to elections for the Westminster and European Parliaments. Clause 3 is a sunset clause, which provides that the Act will expire in 15 years' time, unless extended by an order of the Secretary of State.

Some may argue that a problem exists regarding which boundaries and terms can be used to define an "ethnic minority". I can assure the House that ethnic minorities know exactly who they are, and so do the political parties; they will be well able to identify them. The creation of ethnic minority shortlists will undoubtedly see more ethnic minorities taking up seats in Parliament, which will mean a Parliament that mirrors the society it represents, a Parliament that citizens can identify with and a Parliament that better reflects their needs. It will encourage many more to engage in civic society and afford them a greater sense of belonging.

In the 21st century politics of our country no one must be left out. The Bill will allow parties to be more creative in the way that they choose parliamentary candidates, while remaining an optional, not compulsory, measure. The Conservative party already has a fast-track system, called the A-list, which, only two weeks' ago, produced a black woman as a successor to Miss Widdecombe. Organisations such as the 1990 Trust and individuals such as Simon Woolley of Operation Black Vote have long campaigned for more equal representation, and on the need to address this deficit in our democracy. The Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, my hon. Friend Mr. Lammy has also informed me that he supports the Bill.

This Bill is merely the beginning. I do not pretend that it is a long-term solution but it is the one thing we can do today that will bring about a speedy change. We must target both ends of this problem. The ball is now firmly in the court of the Prime Minister, the right hon. Members for Witney (Mr. Cameron), for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) and for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley), the hon. Members for Moray (Angus Robertson) and for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), and their respective political parties. With the selection of parliamentary candidates for the next election well under way, the Bill is a wake-up call for the political parties. We have waited long enough. It is time for more action and less talk. Let us begin the process of change, and let us start now.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley 1:19 pm, 6th February 2008

I do not wish to detain the House unduly, but I must oppose the Bill. I am a member of a fine organisation called the Campaign against Political Correctness. In my maiden speech, I made it clear that, in my time in Parliament, one of my aims was to try to speak out as often as possible against the scourge of political correctness, which is taking over too much of our country.

Keith Vaz knows that I like and respect him in equal measure—[Hon. Members: "But?"] There are no "buts". I hope that he will reflect on the irony of the fact that he, as a campaigner for many years on racial equality, has stood up in Parliament today and asked the House to exclude matters from the Race Relations Act 1976 and the Race Relations (Northern Ireland) Order 1997. He goes against something for which he has campaigned for many years.

We must imagine our reaction if a Member of Parliament tried to introduce a Bill to provide for exempting the selection of candidates from the Race Relations Act so that we could have white-only short lists. The right hon. Gentleman would rightly be up in arms about any such proposal. I do not see any legal or moral difference between a white-only short list and an ethnic minority-only short list. The Bill constitutes good, old-fashioned positive discrimination, which is just that: discrimination.

The right hon. Gentleman may argue that people from an ethnic minority have, in the past, faced discrimination in the selection processes of all political parties. I do not know much about selecting candidates for the Labour party.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

I apologise to Sammy Wilson.

I am sorry if the right hon. Member for Leicester, East claims that people from ethnic minorities face discrimination from Labour party selection committees. That is a sad reflection on today's Labour party.

If people from ethnic minorities have faced discrimination in the past, that is unacceptable, but my solution would be to remove the discrimination. Surely the answer cannot be to discriminate against other people in favour of those from ethnic minorities.

I believe in equality. Surely true equality should mean selecting people on merit, irrespective of their racial background. Selection meetings should be colour blind and people should not think, "Shall I pick this person simply because of their colour?" I believe in equality of opportunity, but I do not share the right hon. Gentleman's desire for equality of outcome.

The right hon. Gentleman talked of a Parliament "that mirrors the society it represents." I hope that he understands what that means. Part of our society is made up of dangerous criminals. Is he arguing that a proportion of Members of Parliament should be dangerous criminals? The Bill constitutes a slippery slope.

The measure would make race relations in this country worse. It would build up needless resentment that otherwise would not exist. All hon. Members should get here under the same process. The right hon. Gentleman would do well to speak to Mr. Davies, who is, as usual, in his place. That once safe Labour stronghold was obliterated in one election simply because the Labour party insisted on picking a female candidate rather than drawing up a short list that would mean selecting the best person for the job. Consequently, the Labour party lost the seat. The Bill may be counter-productive rather than helping to achieve the right hon. Gentleman's objective.

I hope that the Government will not follow the route of political correctness and try to gerrymander selection processes to provide a specific outcome. I strongly believe in the principle of selection on merit, on a colour-blind basis. Once we start picking people on the colour of their skin, we have a big problem in our society.

Question put, pursuant to Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business">Standing Order No. 23 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business), and agreed to.

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Chair, The Rt Hon. the Lord Martin of Springburn Committee, Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, The Rt Hon. the Lord Martin of Springburn Committee

We now come to the main business— [Interruption.] My apologies—I have been too quick. Who will prepare and bring in the Bill?