Speaker's Conference

Modernisation of the House of Commons (Standing Orders) – in the House of Commons at 7:34 pm on 12th November 2008.

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Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Minister of State (Government Equalities Office), The Leader of the House of Commons , Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Party Chair, Labour Party, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party 7:34 pm, 12th November 2008

I beg to move,


(1) There shall be a committee to be known as the Speaker's Conference which shall consist of the Speaker, who shall be chairman, and up to 17 other Members appointed by the Speaker one of whom shall be vice-chairman;

(2) The Conference shall consider and make recommendations for rectifying the disparity between the representation of women, ethnic minorities and disabled people in the House of Commons and their representation in the UK population at large; and may agree to consider other associated matters;

(3) Notwithstanding any Standing Order of this House, the Conference shall conduct its proceedings in such manner, and have such of those powers which the House may delegate to select committees, as the Speaker shall determine;

(4) The Conference shall have power to report from time to time;

(5) The quorum of the Conference shall be five;

(6) This order shall have effect until the end of the current Parliament.

Anyone watching our debates today will have seen Members from all parts of the country. As Members of this House, we represent 646 different constituencies in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. However, it is not enough to have a geographical representation. For people in this country, their identity comes not just from where they live, but from whether they are men or women, whether they are disabled, whether they are black or white and whether they are gay or lesbian. Society has changed and we must recognise that the House of Commons needs to change, too.

As women in this country, we now regard ourselves as equal citizens, yet we are not equal in numbers in this House. We are out-numbered by men by five to one. This country is ethnically diverse now—indeed, it has been for many decades—but of 646 Members, only 15 are black or Asian. To be representative of our population, we should have more than four times that number. All of us argue that a disability should not exclude someone from the mainstream of life in this country. There are 10 million disabled people in this country, yet although my right hon. Friend Mr. Blunkett and my hon. Friend Miss Begg exemplify the fact that many disabled people work alongside those without disabilities, what is normal outside the House is still exceptional within it.

If we believe that women are equal; if we are to take account of the fact that the citizens of this country are black and Asian, as well as white; if we acknowledge that someone's ability not their disability is what counts; and if we abhor the prejudice that discriminates against people on the grounds of their sexuality, we should accept that for the House of Commons to command greater public confidence and have more legitimacy it needs to be more representative of this country than it is now. How are we to convince young black and Asian men that they are genuinely included in our society and our democracy when they still see so few black and brown faces on our green Benches?

Perception matters. The first non-white MPs were elected to this House in 1987. They broke new ground. I want to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend Keith Vaz, my hon. Friend Ms Abbott and the late Bernie Grant. They were pioneers. I will never forget the huge impact that Bernie had on my constituents of African origin when he took part in the Queen's Speech debate dressed in his African robes. I spoke for them as their constituency MP, but as a black man of African origin like them, Bernie spoke for them, too. He made this their House of Commons, too. No law that we could have passed on that day could equal the pride that my constituents felt in their black MPs. That was a step forward for our democracy.

How could anyone doubt the importance of diversity of representation after the election of Barack Obama? Even before he has set foot in the White House as President, he has reaffirmed and re-legitimised democracy in America. He said, "Yes we can." We should say, "Yes Westminster can too."

We are talking not just about perception—how our House of Commons looks to the people of this country—important though that is, but about our reach and our ability to debate. When I first came into the House of Commons more than 25 years ago, it was into a House of 97 per cent. men. It was hard to have a sensible debate about domestic violence, which remained firmly swept under the green carpet. Child care and the balance between work and family were simply not regarded as political issues at all. The women Members who came into this House in 1997 have begun to change not just the face of Parliament, but our political agenda. But we need to make further progress.

There are issues of importance that our lack of diversity makes us unconfident to debate. How can we have a sensible debate about issues such as the veil when there are no Asian women MPs here? Mr. Speaker—I am sorry, Madam Deputy Speaker; there we go, a moment of irony. Despite the decriminalisation of gay sex in 1967, up until only a few years ago, lesbians and gays felt that they had to hide their sexuality if they wanted to get elected to this House. I am glad to say that, following the lead of Chris Smith, we now have a number of MPs who speak to and for lesbian and gay people in this country. That is yet another regard in which the House has become more representative of wider society. I am sure that, as well as MPs, organisations such as Stonewall will make an important contribution to the Speaker's Conference, and I know that Mr. Speaker will welcome that contribution. Although it will be for each party in the House to put forward Members for the Speaker's Conference, and for the Speaker to choose them, I would hope that it will include at least one gay Member of Parliament.

The Government have taken action to make the House more representative. We have brought forward legislation to allow all-women shortlists for parliamentary selection. We have legislated to outlaw discrimination on grounds of disability and sexual orientation. In the equality Bill, we will change the law to enable political parties, as part of their process of selecting candidates, to take positive measures to bring on candidates from under-represented groups, including black and Asian people. But Government action is not enough, and that is why we need a Speaker's Conference. We need a whole-House approach.

The proposal for a Speaker's Conference arises out of a raft of suggestions put forward by the Prime Minister under his governance of Britain agenda. In agreeing to a Speaker's Conference, Mr. Speaker has taken what I believe will be an historic step forward in the drive to bring Parliament into the 21st century, and I hope that all Members on both sides of the House will support him in doing so.

Speakers' Conferences are convened only very rarely, and this one will follow in big footsteps. It was a Speaker's Conference established in 1916 which secured cross-party agreement that women should have the right to vote. That was an historic and major change. I hope that we can vote today to set up this Speaker's Conference, and that it will set its sights high. The motion before the House today will establish a Speaker's Conference that will be able to meet in public, to be cross-party and to take evidence from a wide range of organisations and individuals. It will consider the disparity of representation between the Members of this House and the country at large. It will report before the end of this Parliament, and it will make recommendations.

The Prime Minister is committed to equality of representation, and so am I, but I move this motion to engender progress on a cross-party basis. Through this Speaker's Conference, and with Opposition Members, I hope that we can all work together to address a shared belief in the importance of tackling the lack of legitimacy that is inevitable until the House becomes more representative. There is a democratic deficit: the missing faces on the green Benches, and the missing voices in the Chamber. This is not a criticism of any individual Member. It is a recognition that this House has a problem that we need to change. I ask for the support of the House, not just in passing this motion but in actively supporting what I believe will be an historic Speaker's Conference.

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Photo of Shailesh Vara Shailesh Vara Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons 7:43 pm, 12th November 2008

We support the proposal for a Speaker's Conference. I note that the Leader of the House said that the conference would report before the end of this Parliament. Perhaps she would like to tell us when that is likely to be, as I am sure that many of us would like to know the precise date for that, or even simply to have an indication.

Previous Speakers' Conferences have looked at fundamental issues, as the Leader of the House has already said, including issues of electoral reform. Whether they related to extending the franchise, to the number and distribution of parliamentary seats, to methods of election, to election law or to election expenses, the Speaker's Conference has been the method of choice for Parliaments to debate key elements of our electoral process. Throughout all those processes, the impartial leadership and guidance of the Speaker has been essential, allowing for cross-party support for the measures.

The fact that such conferences are held so rarely—including only five times in the past century—demonstrates the importance of the topics, and the need to galvanise all involved into taking action rather than just using words. The motion before us allows us to debate the important issue of under-representation of women, ethnic minorities and disabled people in the House of Commons.

It should be noted, however, that when the Prime Minister first spoke of having a Speaker's Conference, he indicated that the remit would be much broader. In his speech to the National Council for Voluntary Organisations on 3 September 2007, he said:

"Today I am proposing to the Speaker that he calls a conference to consider against the backdrop of a declining turnout, a number of other important issues such as registration, weekend voting, the representation of women and ethnic minorities in the House of Commons, and that he should also examine in parallel with the Youth Citizenship Commission whether we should lower the voting age to 16 so that we build upon citizenship education in schools and combine the right to vote with the legal recognition of when young adults become citizens of our country."

Today's proposal, however, is principally confined to discussing greater representation for ethnic minority people, women and disabled people.

I appreciate that paragraph (2) of the motion allows the conference to

"agree to consider other associated matters", but the word "associated" limits the scope for further discussion to matters specifically mentioned. Nevertheless, despite its limitations, we support the motion. It would be helpful if the Leader of the House explained in her concluding comments why the proposed Speaker's Conference has been truncated to a version that is substantially less than the one originally proposed by the Prime Minister. Will she also enlighten us as to whether the issues of voter registration, voting at weekends and so forth are likely to be looked at in some other forum?

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Photo of James Arbuthnot James Arbuthnot Chair, Defence Committee, Chair, Defence Committee

I am listening carefully to my hon. Friend and agree with everything that both he and the Leader of the House have said. Might not the motion be limited in order to focus on the matters of greatest importance? The inequality of representation in the House is a scandal that must be addressed and it is right to concentrate on that. If we widen the debate too much, we might end up not having an answer to anything.

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I beleive that we should ensure that parliament is in the hands of the most capable rather than seeking diversity for its own sake. However, if the committee is to seek wider representation, by concentrating on the issue of the declining vote they could...

Submitted by Robert Whittle Continue reading

Photo of Shailesh Vara Shailesh Vara Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

My right hon. Friend makes a relevant point and I suspect that Government Members would agree that that was indeed the reason for the limitation. I would nevertheless like to hear from the Leader of the House whether other forums will be established to discuss the other important matters raised by the Prime Minister in his earlier comments.

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Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

My hon. Friend is making a typically courteous speech, which the House appreciates. For the avoidance of doubt, however, I put it to him that our right hon. Friend Mr. Arbuthnot is likely to command considerable support for what he said. If we focus this Speaker's Conference on a narrow number of very important matters, we have a much better chance of eliciting a decent and focused result, which must include greater representation of women, members of the ethnic minorities and people with all sorts of disabilities, including communication disabilities.

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Photo of Shailesh Vara Shailesh Vara Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I agree with my hon. Friend, whose comments are, as always, relevant and pertinent. I certainly agree that we should have no poverty of ambition in respect of what we seek to achieve.

Before I move to the substance of the issue, I express my support for conducting the conference along the lines of a Select Committee. That will allow for the reporting of proceedings, the taking of oral evidence from relevant people and so forth. This will be welcomed and it will contribute to producing a more effective conclusion at the end of the conference.

On representation in the House of Commons, there has certainly been an improvement in recent years, particularly for women and people from minority communities, but it goes no way as far as we would like. Clearly, much more needs to be done if we are to be truly representative of the people of Britain. That being said, may I put on record the fact that although the Conservatives have only 17 women Members—we are trying to improve the position—we are pleased that we had the very first woman Prime Minister? We are also pleased to say that we have had two party leaders of Jewish origin, one of whom was Prime Minister, and that ours is the only major party to have had a Roman Catholic leader. Although we recognise the present deficiency in the number of Conservative women Members of Parliament, we have certainly played our part in the attempt to provide role models in the context of other issues.

It is important for any methods used to change selection patterns and increase representation to be long-term measures, not just quick fixes. It is vital for selection guidelines and processes to be reviewed to allow a genuine step change in representation. What matters is for people to have the requisite skills and competences to do the job. That is something that Conservative Members have been working hard to achieve in our own selection processes. I am pleased to say that, in recent times, we have had a good deal of success in increasing the number of women candidates selected to fight winnable seats in the next election. As a result, it is likely that if an election were held tomorrow and we had a majority of just one Member of Parliament, we would see an increase in the number of Conservative women Members from the present 17 to between 50 and 60.

Let there be no misunderstanding. We recognise that there is much more to be done. That is not to say, however, that we should not also recognise that we have done a lot in the past two years, which will pay dividends both at the next election and, we hope, in the years ahead.

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Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

I agree with much of what my hon. Friend is saying. He will have heard the Leader of the House use the election of Senator Barack Obama—who will become President of the United States in the middle of January next year—as an example of what has been done in America. Senator Barack Obama won that election deservedly, and I personally welcome it, but does my hon. Friend not accept that he did so without any positive discrimination? Is it not important for us, in the House and in the country, to seek not to manipulate results, but to achieve them on an open and transparent democratic basis?

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Photo of Shailesh Vara Shailesh Vara Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I shall deal with that point later in my speech, but let me put on the record now that Senator Obama has exceptional qualities, and has got where he is on merit.

I very much hope that the experiences of all political parties in grappling with the problem of putting more minority groups, women and disabled people in Parliament will be discussed and dealt with at the Conference, and that all of us—members of all parties—will be able to learn from each other's experiences.

Let me now turn to the parliamentary representation of people from ethnic-minority backgrounds. Of course an increase in representation is necessary: we all agree on that. We need to engage positively to encourage more people from minority backgrounds to enter politics in general, not just Parliament. That means their standing for the membership of parish councils, district councils, city councils and county councils, as well as the European Parliament. However, it is important for us also to ensure that those of us from such backgrounds are not pigeon-holed into what are deemed to be ethnic-minority seats or areas, for reasons of political expediency or otherwise. It is important to break down barriers of that kind in selection processes.

My hon. Friend Adam Afriyie represents a seat with a very small ethnic minority population, as do I. Both our constituencies can hardly be described as diverse in their demography. That fact is very significant, as it moves the issue of representation away from ethnicity alone and makes such elections mainstream. It helps to create an atmosphere less of "them and us" and more of the selection of people on merit, regardless of ethnic background, to represent any part of the country. To that end, I am pleased to say that my party has selected a number of ethnic minority candidates, to fight seats such as Witham, Chippenham and Maidstone, all of which are comprised of a predominantly indigenous population. Those selections are breaking down barriers and have led to the recent positive comments of Sir Trevor Phillips about the Conservative party's work in this area. Moreover, Simon Woolley, of Operation Black Vote, has said:

"Credit where credit is due: the Conservative leadership is doing its level best to...ensure the party becomes more inclusive and representative."

I would like to make a suggestion for the Speaker's Conference: that it not only considers how to increase ethnic minority representation in the Commons, but tries to ensure that the new ethnic minority Members of Parliament represent mainstream Britain, and not only certain communities within it. That has to be the way forward.

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Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that I was first elected to this House 21 years ago, and I consider myself to be representing mainstream Britain; I remind him also that indigenous Britons now come in all classes and all religions. It is tiresome, 21 years later, to hear people talking about making people MPs on merit, because when my right hon. Friend Keith Vaz and I were selected 21 years ago there were many black and Asian people of merit, and that remains the case to this day. We want due speed in tapping into all the talent and all the ability in our wider population that could be here on the Benches of the House of Commons.

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Photo of Shailesh Vara Shailesh Vara Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I agree entirely with the hon. Lady, and I fail to see where the misinterpretation has been. She is a shining example of what merit can do and of how far people such as herself and the other three Members to whom the Leader of the House referred in her speech can rise on their abilities to represent people. What I mean when I talk about mainstream representation is that it is important that we do not have a selection process whereby ethnic minority candidates are perceived, as they are in some quarters, as being suitable or more suitable for representing seats where there are more ethnic minority people. That is where I am going, and all I am saying is that we have reached the stage where British people are sufficiently able and fair-minded to select people on ability and merit.

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Photo of Shailesh Vara Shailesh Vara Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I hope that the hon. Lady will forgive me for not giving way. I am mindful that there is a limited time for this debate and that many people wish to speak. I am sure she will have an opportunity to come in later.

As for disabled people being in the House, that issue must be examined. We must ensure that the opportunities for their selection as candidates and election as Members are the same as those for non-disabled people. We must address something else if we are to have more disabled people in the House: we must ensure that the House itself is more easily accessible for them. It is bad enough that there are barriers to getting elected to the House, but worse still is the fact that the House itself is so difficult to get about for those who are disabled.

I am mindful of the woefully short time that has been devoted to debating this important motion, so I conclude simply by welcoming the motion, which I very much hope will help to pave the way to having a 21st century Parliament that represents 21st century Britain.

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Several hon. Members:

rose —

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Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. There is little time for this debate. May I ask Members to be self-disciplined in their contributions, so that the debate can be more representative?

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Photo of Parmjit Dhanda Parmjit Dhanda Labour, Gloucester 7:58 pm, 12th November 2008

I shall be very brief, Madam Deputy Speaker.

As I sit on this Bench today, it feels as though I am witnessing history in the making, and it is a delight to be here. I shall tell a short story about the culture shock I felt when I first came here. For a number of years, I tried to get into this place as a researcher, but no MP would have me, so I had to get elected in order to come here. I remember coming through the Carriage Gates on my first day in the little two-seater red sports car that I had back then. I was 29-years-old, I had the windows down and the music quite loud, and I thought, "This is fantastic. I am a Member of Parliament now." I walked into the Chamber—the House was not sitting at the time—and I was asked who I was and where I thought that I was going. I took the little green and white badge out of my pocket, showed it and everything was okay. I can clearly recall that what I really wanted to do was to quote Eddie Murphy in a film called "48 Hours". I wanted to say, "I am your worst nightmare. I am a black man with a badge." I paraphrase—that is not actually what he said.

I do not think that these people—either the Doorkeeper on the gate, or the journalist who first wrote about my selection in Gloucester—are intrinsically racist. However, I agree with some of the things that Trevor Phillips said over the weekend. Dealing with institutionalised racism, to go back to the definitions from Macpherson, is about accepting that there is discrimination in all public bodies and institutions. We have to be brave enough to say that none of us—no political party—is immune from that. It is a case of how we challenge it and how we move on.

When journalists wrote about me in a newspaper, saying that the people of Gloucester had not reached a sufficiently advanced state of consciousness to accept a foreigner as the local MP and that the Labour party in Gloucester had made the same mistake as the Tories did in Cheltenham when they chose a black barrister, John Taylor, as a candidate, they were fundamentally wrong. When it comes to one member, one vote, to balance in the Labour party and to our electorate, I do not think that the British people are any different to the American people.

I am pleased to welcome the Speaker's Conference, and I pay tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House for pushing the proposal forward. I hope that we learn one thing over the next 12 months. When I speak, Y'know, it is okay for me to say "Y'know". I grew up in the constituency of my hon. Friend Mr. Sharma, so rather than, "Y'know", I might say, "Hanna", at the end of every sentence. I hope that the conference takes into account the fact that that does not make me any less of a person. It comes from where people grow up and is part of what they are—it does not make them any less intelligent or less able to do a job in this House. I hope all Members will take that on board over the course of the next 12 months.

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Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Party Chair, Liberal Democrats 8:02 pm, 12th November 2008

I am pleased for Mr. Dhanda. People will note and applaud what he said and how he said it. It is a great pleasure to have people such as him in the House and to see the change that has happened since the Leader of the House and I were elected.

I pay tribute to the Leader of the House. We have had our differences on other matters earlier today, but she has made it absolutely clear that this place needs fundamental and wholesale reform of its membership. I have shared that view since the moment I came through these doors, a couple of months after she did.

We live in a country where the majority of people are women. Parliament should reflect our country. In other countries in Europe, in Latin America and in Africa—for example, in Rwanda—there are Parliaments that have almost an even balance between women and men.

We live in a country where significant numbers of people are black and from other minority communities. The Leader of the House's constituency, and mine, have large African communities, which improve where we live and make them different, better and more interesting.

We live in a diverse, exciting Britain, but it does not always feel like that in this House. Why? Instead of having 10 per cent. black and minority ethnic Britons in the House, which would be about the right ratio, we have nothing like that. It is frustrating for me and my colleagues. Our party had the first non-white MP, elected to Finsbury in the 1880s, but we have not been able to sustain that. There was a long period when no party had any black, Asian or minority MP at all, until Ms Abbott, Keith Vaz and others came. They made it very clear that it should not just be them, but that others should be allowed to follow in their wake. Have we begun to be alert to those things?

I shall be very brief, as it is important that a diversity of people contribute. The amendment tabled by Dr. Wright has not been selected for debate but, like Mr. Vara, I hope that its sentiment is accepted. This debate should not be only about women, or people from black and ethnic minorities, or disabled people. It should also be about gay people and young and older people, and about having a diverse Parliament. Unless we see that in the broad spectrum, we are not fulfilling Parliament's expectations of us.

I join those who say that the Speaker's Conference is significant and welcome, and I hope that it is as groundbreaking as many of us hope and want it to be. It is urgent that we change. By electing Barack Obama, America showed what can be done if politics is opened up. It showed how more people—young people and those who have never voted—can be engaged in voting. We need people to look at Parliament and say, "I could be there, there are people like me there." That is the difference that it makes when there are young people and old people, as well as able bodied people and ones with disabilities, and so on.

I shall end with two final points. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Jo Swinson, who chairs an organisation in our party called the campaign for gender balance. Like the rest of us, she has worked to make sure that we do not just sit passively by and let selections happen. At the last general election, our party doubled from five to 10 the number of women we have here. For the first time, in most of the seats that we hold where Members are standing down—and I think that there are six of them—most of the people selected to take over are women. We have to work at these matters all the time, as nothing happens automatically. That is why we need to look at the broader canvas.

Like my party leader, my right hon. Friend Mr. Clegg, I support the initiative taken by the right hon. Member for Leicester, East, which has been used by the Labour party. The right hon. Gentleman has said that in certain circumstances positive action has to be taken, and that positive discrimination should be adopted for a limited period, because one sometimes has to break the glass to make the breakthrough. That does not always happen unless really dramatic action is taken to make it happen.

My final point is an obvious one. I know that people bristle when this is mentioned, but we have to look at the fact that our electoral system militates against representativeness. I am not a theological purist for the single transferable vote. That is not where I come from, but I know that a proportional system of election such as operates in other Parliaments in this country and elsewhere provides a better balance of representation. That has to be on the agenda for us to discuss, and it is clearly included in the remit of the motion.

I hope that no one will have any no-go areas in this debate. I hope that all of us will go into it with open minds and be willing to look at all options. I believe that the wish of the Leader of the House and of many of the rest of us is that, when we finish our duties in this place, we leave it as somewhere that looks, feels and sounds like Britain. I think that Parliament will make much better decisions as a result, because the mix that is Britain will be contributing to them.

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Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Labour, Islington South and Finsbury 8:08 pm, 12th November 2008

As a representative of an inner-city seat, I represent mainstream Britain. When I was a child in the 1970s, I remember my stepmother saying, "We are fighting the battles of women's liberation not for ourselves, but for you, Emily. We won't see equality, but you will."

Unfortunately, of course, I have not seen that equality. It is said that women hold up half the sky, but when one looks around this place it cannot be said that women make up half of Britain's decision makers. Women make up only 20 per cent. of Members of Parliament, although this evening just over 50 per cent. of Labour Members present are women. That is a healthy mixture.

There are 94 women Labour MPs, which compares with the Tories' 17 and the Liberal Democrats' pitiful nine. That is still not good enough, and it is not democratic. In the international league table of the representation of women, the UK comes a shameful 59th—behind Rwanda, Afghanistan, China and Honduras.

It is about time that we did something about the problem. At the present rate of increase in women's representation, not only will I not see women's equality in this place, but neither will my daughter—nor her daughter, nor her daughter, nor her daughter, nor her daughter, nor her daughter. But her daughter might, by the time that she retires. That will not do. We must do something. I want to be able to tell my daughter that the battle I am fighting is a battle for her, and to be able to deliver that for her. I want us to win this battle for us all.

I wholeheartedly support this initiative, but with one reservation. The proposed Speaker's Conference should expand its remit to consider the increased representation of lesbians, gay people and bisexuals, because to have only one out lesbian in this place of 1,300 politicians is not sufficient to be able to speak about the lived experience of Britain's 1.8 million lesbians on their behalf.

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Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham 8:10 pm, 12th November 2008

This is a far-sighted and progressive initiative, upon which I congratulate the Government. May I begin by agreeing with the suggestion of Emily Thornberry that it would be a useful addition to the robust terms of reference that have been established to consider how we might ratchet-up the representation of lesbians, gay men and bisexuals in this representative House of Commons?

I want briefly to make two points, as I am conscious that other Members wish to speak and they should have the opportunity to do so. First, this is, of course, about doing the right thing by people who have suffered too much for too long with too little done to help them—people who, on the basis of their ability, in a discrimination-free society would have been in this place for some years already, but who have not been elected and who probably will not come to be elected if we do not change the social mores of this country. Therefore, there is a sense in which we are seeking to cater to the interests of those individuals—be they gay, lesbian, members of ethnic minorities, women or people with disabilities—for their benefit. Secondly, and critically, as Members have mentioned—including Mr. Dhanda in his excellent speech—we are seeking to do this because it is for the benefit of the country as a whole. We should not be defensive about it and think it is something we have to do to satisfy a fashion or in accordance with the dictates of a particular plaything of a given politician. It is not about that. Our democracy will be richer, stronger, more diverse, healthier and broader if we go about this process.

Of course, people will have their own views about the particular policies that should flow from the conference, and it is right that we should let the evidence take us in the direction it takes us. For my own part, I think that the conference must consider—and I feel sure that it will—the implementation of positive discrimination measures, because the evidence is that without them we might achieve progress, but we will do so at a snail's pace. We owe it ourselves in this House, and to the people in the country at large, to do better. It is a fine initiative, and I wish it well.

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Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright Labour, Cannock Chase 8:12 pm, 12th November 2008

I, too, very much welcome this initiative, and I think it promises much. I agree with everything that has been said, and I will not repeat Members' comments as that would be a waste of time. Instead, I shall be extremely brief.

Let me explain what I would have liked to have happened—and as the motion includes the phrase "other associated matters", I hope it will happen. I am making a plea for "other associated matters" to be considered. In doing so, I would like to refer to an interesting speech made last week by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. The speech was widely reported, largely because it was seen to be attacking bloggers. I agree with her on attacking bloggers, who exchange argument for vitriol, but that is not the argument I wish to highlight now.

My right hon. Friend also sought to describe what she thought was an exclusion from political life in this country, and which means having to talk about a word that has not been mentioned at all in our discussions so far: class. The Labour party was born to bring working-class people into political life. That is what the party was about. It came into existence because the Liberals were refusing to choose working-class candidates, so the trade union movement and others said, "We will set up our own party to ensure that working-class people can enter Parliament." It would be odd to talk about the problem of under-representation in public life, and to set up a Speaker's Conference at which we could think about those issues and come up with remedies, without mentioning class at all. As my right hon. Friend said in her speech last week, it is pretty clear that we have a huge problem with the exclusion from political life of people who live at the sharp end of society.

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Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright Labour, Cannock Chase

I will not, if my hon. Friend does not mind.

There are all kinds of social reasons for the problem, but to think that it is not an issue, and simply not to include it in the terms of reference of the Speaker's Conference, would be unfortunate. There is at least an argument to be had about whether middle-class women or working-class men are most under-represented, although they are both under-represented. That issue should be included.

When we talk about under-representation, we have to talk about over-representation, too. We know that former public schoolboys are vastly over-represented in the House of Commons. I think that they are the majority element on the Conservative Benches. Is that primarily a statement about gender, or class? The truth is that it is a statement about both, so both have to be included. I hope that we shall not forget that issue, and will consider it with all the other subjects that I would like to be included in "associated matters", as it goes to the heart of what our party is about.

I now come to my second point on class, which, again, was mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State last week, although it has been mentioned by other people, too. If we are seeing the creation of what one might call a political class—a class of people whose only trade in life has been politics—we are creating a political class that is exclusive, and whose members live in a kind of bubble and are disconnected from the rest of society. There are major trends in that direction. I absolutely accept that we want to increase the representation of women and ethnic minorities, although I am outnumbered on this Bench, and the representation of people with disabilities and other people, too. However, if we simply finish up with a political class, in which there are more women, more people from ethnic minorities, more people with disabilities and so on, we shall not quite have attacked the problem of an exclusive political class. That is why I hope that we can smuggle some of those issues in under "other associated matters".

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Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs) 8:17 pm, 12th November 2008

I feel passionately about our democracy. I believe that it is good thing for people to participate in democracy, and that it is essential that they do so if we are to have a successful democracy. We have a problem if lots of groups of people feel alienated when they turn on the television and see what goes on in this place, and realise that it does not represent society or them. That is the case whether we are talking about women, people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, people who are disabled, people who are gay, or people from different faith groups. I just mention to the shadow Deputy Leader of the House that at least one other major party has had a Roman Catholic leader; my right hon. Friend Mr. Kennedy certainly falls into that category.

Another group of people for whom I would like to make the case is young people. I declare an interest as the only Member of the House currently under 30. I enjoyed the story that Mr. Dhanda told about his experience when he arrived in the House; he was basically asked who on earth he was and what he was doing there. That reminded me of my early experiences in the House. It took quite a long time for people to stop asking me which MP I worked for.

At 28, the House is one of the few places where I ever feel young any more. I speak to teenagers in my constituency, and it is quite clear that I am no longer one of the young people. If we think about people who are in their late 20s out in the country, they are running successful businesses, performing operations in hospitals, and taking cases to court as barristers. They are involved at a high level in every other aspect of our society. We should hope to have more young people involved in elected politics, especially in this House. I look forward to the opportunity to pass on the title of youngest MP after the next election.

I pay tribute to the Leader of the House for her many years of campaigning on the issue of women, which is one of the most glaring inequalities of representation in the House. She has truly fought hard, and on a personal note as a new woman MP, I must say that she went out of her way to be a friendly face and to have a friendly word, and I am sure that I am not the only woman MP who can say that about her behaviour.

My hon. Friend Simon Hughes mentioned my work as chair of the Liberal Democrat campaign for gender balance, and I strongly believe in encouraging many more women to get involved in politics. It is something that they would actually enjoy, because, despite what we are doing today, it is not all about getting up and making speeches; most of our job as politicians is about listening to people, understanding our communities and making things happen—activities that women are good at and enjoy. I very much look forward to seeing after the next general election many more women MPs—I hope—from all parts of the House. I particularly hope to see more women on the Liberal Democrat Benches, because I have been working with many talented women who have been selected as candidates for seats that I very much hope that we will win at the next election.

My party has taken a view on positive action, encouraging, training and, crucially, finding women to be candidates, because, looking at the numbers, it is there, rather than in selection, that we have the problem. But I defend the right of other parties to use positive discrimination, because every party must examine the problems that they need to solve to achieve better representation. I noted the comments of Sir Nicholas Winterton, who is no longer in his place, but we must shy away from parties telling each other about the only way to achieve success. We should have legislation that enables parties to make their own choices, and give parties the freedom to choose.

Other Members want to speak, but, in conclusion, the Speaker's Conference is a fabulous opportunity to address the issues of under-representation, and I sincerely hope that it is the start of real change in Parliament.

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Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Chair, Home Affairs Committee, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Chair, Home Affairs Committee 8:21 pm, 12th November 2008

I shall speak briefly, first to thank the Leader of the House for her kind comments about myself and my hon. Friend Ms Abbott. I am nervous about sitting next to my hon. Friend, however, because the last time that I did so we were discussing the issue of 42-day detention, and she heckled me throughout my speech.

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Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Chair, Home Affairs Committee, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Chair, Home Affairs Committee

My hon. Friend heckled me, too. However, on this occasion, my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington and I are on the same side.

The Leader of the House is a true campaigner, and although I am absolutely certain that she has many years ahead of her in government, I think that this issue will represent her place in history. The way in which she has clearly put her footprint on the equality agenda, by ensuring that we have an equality Bill, and by moving such issues forward, is a terrific tribute to her, and it is paid not just by me but by Jo Swinson, who has just spoken, and by others.

It has been great to hear contributions to the debate by others from all parts of the House. Simon Hughes is a great champion of equality in the ethnic minority communities, but may I say to Mr. Vara, who spoke from the Conservative Front Bench, that he does not have to be defensive about the issue of being pigeonholed? His party should be very proud of him. When my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington and I entered the House, I never thought that we would see someone from the ethnic minority communities speaking on behalf of the Conservative party from the Front Bench. He does it with great dignity and he is there on merit, and the fact is that he is only the third ethnic minority person ever to serve the Conservative party as a Member.

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Photo of Shailesh Vara Shailesh Vara Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

It is not that I fear that I am pigeonholed, because I am not. I simply want to clarify the point that if Parliament is to progress in the 21st century, we must have a Parliament in which ethnic minorities do not represent constituencies where, on the whole, there are large ethnic minority communities. In the same way that white Members can represent ethnic minorities, ethnic minority Members can represent substantially white seats.

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Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Chair, Home Affairs Committee, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Chair, Home Affairs Committee

My hon. Friends the Members for Preston (Mr. Hendrick), for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Sarwar), for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Sharma), for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington and for Brent, South (Ms Butler), and the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend Mr. Malik, and the Minister of State, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, my right hon. Friend Mr. Lammy do not represent just the ethnic minority communities. [ Interruption. ] I understand what the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire is saying, but anyone elected to this House—woman, man, ethnic minority—represents their entire constituency, and that is why we should be very proud of the fact that we have such a large representation.

I agree with John Bercow: I know that it is dangerous to prejudge the outcome of the Speaker's Conference, because it has not actually started, but he is right that we need to look at the issue of positive action. That is why I strongly favour the political parties themselves taking action. The reason why Parliament has to take action to improve the number of ethnic minorities and women in the House is that so far the political parties have failed to do so. That is why I favour the establishment of all-ethnic-minority shortlists. Look what they have done for women's representation. Look at this single Bench before me, Madam Deputy Speaker—seven fine women are sitting on it. I cannot say how many of them were selected by all-women shortlists, but the majority of them probably were.

Only if the political parties decide to take action themselves will we get more ethnic minorities into the House. I hope that the Speaker's Conference will encourage them to do so and that it will fully engage with the communities outside. I welcome the fact that it will meet not only in Westminster, but in different parts of the country, which is important. I disagree with the Chairman of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, who is wrong to say that the Labour party is institutionally racist, because those of us who represent it would not belong to such a party.

We should consider the reasons why, on trends thus far, it will take 75 years for the number of ethnic minority people in the House to reflect their percentage among the population. My hon. Friend Emily Thornberry represents the constituency for which the first ethnic minority MP was elected. As she asked, how many generations of her daughters, granddaughters and great-granddaughters will it take for women to be equally represented in the House?

As the hon. Members for Buckingham and for North Southwark and Bermondsey have said, we have to think positively and make sure that we make the radical changes. Then we will be able to be proud of a House that is a mirror of the country.

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Photo of Fiona Mactaggart Fiona Mactaggart Labour, Slough 8:26 pm, 12th November 2008

I rise to make the point that getting better representation for those who are currently under-represented is a matter not only of fairness to people who want to be in Parliament, but of better government. The lack of research on the difference that a substantial increase in the number of women and better representation of ethnic minorities has made in Parliament is shocking. After 1,000 days of the Labour Government, I did a bit of cod research that made it completely clear that not only the debates had changed—the Defence Committee was talking about soldiers' families, Budgets were putting money into women's pockets and we got rid of the tax on sanitary protection. Those things would simply not have happened without the voices of women here.

One of the important reasons why we have to improve the situation is that all sorts of other things are not happening. For example, family visits cannot happen in a reasonable way under our immigration system, but that is not enough of an issue here because not enough of us have the daily experience of the degradation and exclusion involved. It is a shocking fact that, for the first time in 10 years, three Departments have no women Ministers. There has been great progress, but it must get better.

I want to challenge a point made by Mr. Vara. Were there to be a majority Conservative Government, he is proud that there would be 50 women on the Tory Benches. Frankly, that is pathetic. At the last election, 65 per cent. of the new Labour MPs were women. That is the kind of difference that we need if this place is to represent the country that we claim to represent.

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Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington 8:28 pm, 12th November 2008

In the past few days, I have had the privilege of being in the United States. I cannot stress enough to the House how the election of Barack Obama has electrified ordinary people there—I mean not only black people, but Hispanics and white people. They have been electrified and reassured that the system and democracy work. Increasing representation for ethnic minorities and women is not just for the benefit of the individuals who might get a parliamentary seat but for the benefit of the political process—to make it look like a living and real thing to our electorate.

We hear a lot of talk about positive discrimination. Having debated this issue over 21 years, I deplore that term, because it implies that we are taking under-qualified people and making them Members of Parliament. I prefer the phrase "positive action", because that is what I want to do—to tap the talent and ability of the qualified persons out there and bring them in here to enhance our democracy.

A few weeks after I was first elected 21 years ago, I was at a meeting in my constituency where I met a woman I had never met before who looked at me and said, "When I saw that you were elected as a Member of Parliament, I felt big." What she meant was that she felt enhanced, she felt part of civil society, she felt proud, and she could see the possibilities for her children. It is easy for this to dissolve into party political bickering and point scoring, but there are so many people out there in our constituencies who want to be able to look at the House and know that it offers a promise of hope and advancement and a future for their children.

I hope that the Speaker's Conference, in which I hope to play a part, will come up with an outcome that means, just as the election of Barack Obama means that many millions of American children of different colours and classes can aspire, that our children, in all our constituencies, and whatever their colours, religions or races, feel able to aspire, too.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered, ,


(1) There shall be a committee to be known as the Speaker's Conference which shall consist of the Speaker, who shall be chairman, and up to 17 other Members appointed by the Speaker one of whom shall be vice-chairman;

(2) The Conference shall consider and make recommendations for rectifying the disparity between the representation of women, ethnic minorities and disabled people in the House of Commons and their representation in the UK population at large; and may agree to consider other associated matters;

(3) Notwithstanding any Standing Order of this House, the Conference shall conduct its proceedings in such manner, and have such of those powers which the House may delegate to select committees, as the Speaker shall determine;

(4) The Conference shall have power to report from time to time;

(5) The quorum of the Conference shall be five;

(6) This order shall have effect until the end of the current Parliament.

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