Second Reading (Continued)

Part of Equality Bill – in the House of Lords at 9:50 pm on 15th December 2009.

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Photo of Baroness Gale Baroness Gale Labour 9:50 pm, 15th December 2009

My Lords, I welcome this Bill very much. It covers many aspects of equality. But as I am one of the last speakers tonight, I will not go through them all, but instead concentrate on Clauses 104 and 105, dealing with all-women shortlists. The Bill allows political parties to adopt all-women shortlists when selecting candidates for elected office. It is a sunset clause, set to end by 2030. This measure was originally planned to end by 2015, and I am pleased to see it extended to 2030, although in some ways I am not so pleased as it is an admission that in no way will there be anything like an equal number of women in the political life of this country by 2015. But I welcome the extension of this measure, which is needed, as today we see in the House of Commons only a small number of women MPs-126. That is 19.8 per cent of the total, two less than were elected in 2005, because of by-elections. So the numbers are going backwards.

Since 1918, 292 women have been elected to the House of Commons and, in that same period, 4,378 men. I think that explains why I believe that we should have all-women shortlists. If it was possible to put into the Commons Chamber today all the women who have ever, in the whole of that period, been elected to the Commons, they would still be in the minority. It has been estimated that, at the present rate of progress, it will taken up to 200 years or 40 general elections for women to achieve 50 per cent in the House of Commons. This clause is in place until 2030. If we have general elections every five years up until 2030, starting with the general election in 2010, I estimate that that is five general elections up to 2030. Going on the present rate, we will be nowhere near 50 per cent of women elected by 2030. That is why I advocate having this clause as a permanent feature, at least until there is good evidence that members of political parties will select women without all-women short lists. It is prejudice against women in society, which is then taken into political parties by members at local level, that prevents women getting selected. That is the biggest problem to overcome. However, the clause will work only if all political parties use it. Only the Labour Party has used this legislation so far, which is why Labour has 94 women MPs, more than all the other political parties put together.

This clause means that political parities can implement this policy without worrying whether or not they are in breach of the law, as the Labour Party had to put up with when it tried to implement this policy pre-1997. I would also advocate using similar measures to appoint women to your Lordships' House, as we fare no better than women in the Commons. Women have been able to sit in your Lordships House since 1958 and, to date, 1,044 men have been appointed and 198 women- 84 per cent men and 16 per cent women. So whether elected or appointed, women are a minority in both Houses. To put things on a more equal basis, perhaps only women should be appointed as Peers until 50 per cent is achieved. I think that would be a good idea, myself. Think how different this House would look if we could do that. Perhaps we could use quotas.

I am pleased to note that the Government have set targets on new public appointments-on gender, ethnic minorities and disability. This was launched in June 2009. By 2011, the aim across government is for 50 per cent of all new UK public appointments to be women, 14 per cent disabled people and 11 per cent people from ethnic minorities. Such appointments are regulated by the Commissioner for Public Appointments. To underpin this, Ministers announced a cross-government action plan, Opening Doors-Increasing Diversity, which sets out action over the next year to increase the visibility of the appointments system, ensuring transparency and accountability and tackling the barriers that people face in putting themselves forward. This is a very good initiative which we hope will produce good results.

I am keen to have more women in elected positions, but not just for the sake of it. Where we see a large number of women in a legislature, there is a different agenda. If one looks at the first elections of the Welsh Assembly in 1999, for the first time a large number of women were elected because the Labour Party had adopted a policy of having an equal number of men and women candidates, using the system which we call twinning. By their second elections in 2003, a record-breaking number of women were elected to the Welsh Assembly: there were 30 women and 30 men. If Wales can achieve this, it can be achieved anywhere-believe me, I know.

Having so many women in a legislature means, first, that it reflects the general population, and secondly, that it can pursue a different agenda. For example, the first Children's Commissioner was in Wales; now England, Scotland and Northern Ireland have one. The Commissioner for Older People for Wales, Ruth Marks, is the only one in the world. Again, Wales takes the lead in these things. These and other innovations have been tried in Wales because of the influence of women politicians, making the difference. That is what is needed. Women can bring that added dimension, providing there are enough of them, as in the Welsh Assembly. While I welcome the measures in this Bill, I believe that it will take a very long time. Women are generally very patient, but perhaps our patience is running out.

Let us look at what other countries in Europe and in Africa are doing to increase the number of women in political and public life. Quotas are used to address this problem. Rwanda now has the highest number of women parliamentarians-57 per cent-by using quotas. It seems to work there and in other countries, but of course it has never been suggested here. I am in favour of such action, but the measures are not in this Bill at the moment. Nevertheless, I welcome the measures in this Bill which I believe will bring about a more just and equal society.