I beg to move amendment No. 4, in page 1, line 1 after ``(1)'', insert ``Subject to subsection (2A),''.
With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 5, in page 1, line 15, at end insert—
``(2A) Nothing in this section shall be construed so as to permit questions to be asked of a woman of a discriminatory nature which otherwise would be unlawful under this Act.''.
No. 6, in clause 2, page 2, line 11, after ``(1)'', insert ``subject to paragraph (2A),''.
No. 7, in clause 2, page 2, line 22, at end insert—
``(2A) Nothing in this article shall be construed so as to permit questions to be asked of a woman of a discriminatory nature which otherwise would be unlawful under this Order.''.
The four amendments are rightly grouped together. Amendments Nos. 4 and 5 relate to clause 1 and amendments Nos. 6 and 7 have the same effect in relation to clause 2. There are two similar clauses in the Bill because the second one relates to application of the Bill in Northern Ireland. The object of moving the same amendments to both clauses is for the legislation to have the same effect in Northern Ireland as in the rest of the country.
I would like, through the amendments, to address an important issue that underlies the question of the process of selection of women for winnable seats, which would, in due course, increase the number of women in Parliament. The meat of the matter appears in amendments Nos. 5 and 7. Amendments Nos. 4 and 6 are consequential amendments that ensure that the Bill reads correctly and makes proper reference to the proposals in amendments Nos. 5 and 7.
The Bill's aim is to ensure that positive action can be taken by political parties in the selection process for candidates for a variety of elections. The Bill takes that process out of employment law and out of the operation of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 in relation to employment law. The purpose of the amendments is to explore the full effect that taking that process out of the Sex Discrimination Act will have in relation to the treatment that—apart from the operation of positive action—women can expect to receive in the selection process.
To explain further, I should like to quote a MORI poll that was published on 24 October. It was conducted for the Equal Opportunities Commission, which felt that it was useful to make a proper survey of the experiences of women going through the selection process. The poll found that 29 per cent. were aware of prejudice or sex discrimination at some stage of the process. That is not positive action to encourage women; it is action that leads to women who have been approached in that way not being selected and therefore not swelling the numbers in Parliament.
Will my hon. Friend address a problem of mine? I have read the book, ``Shephard's Watch'', by her colleague, the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard), which addresses some of the problems that she has mentioned. I wonder whether there is an inherent genetic problem within her party, because one of its members recalls being asked, on attending a selection committee, whether she thought that she was too short to be an MP. A second lady was told that she would need to spend a lot of time in London and was asked whether she was up to that. A third member, a Conservative activist now representing her party in the House of Lords, was asked whether her husband knew that she was applying for the seat, to which she very quickly replied,
``Yes, and so do my Mummy and my Daddy.''
In her book, the right hon. Lady mentions the interview of the late MP, Judith Chaplin, who served for 10 months after the 1992 election, having been a local councillor and political adviser to two very prominent members of her party. The person introducing her to the selection committee said that she was divorced and was there with her second husband, who lived and worked in Norfolk, and that they had nine children between them. She was invited to address the assembled throng from behind a lectern so high that it obscured all but her eyes. As she said afterwards, ``I was not at my best.'' What would my hon. Friend do to eliminate such prejudice?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, as those quotations reinforce the point that I am about to make. The attitudes taken to women in the selection process are a problem. I note that he called me his hon. Friend. I am not sure whether that was simply for the purposes of the Bill, given the consensus among all parties. The results of the MORI poll complement his comments, to which I shall respond as they relate to my amendments.
Nearly four in five—78 per cent.—of people polled by MORI agreed that selection committee members should receive equal opportunities training. Half those polled strongly agreed with that, and four in 10 agreed that selection committees in their parties tended to look more favourably on male candidates.
Many have written about experiences of the Conservative party's selection process, but there are two examples from selection processes that I especially enjoy. One is about a candidate who was asked what her husband would do for sex when she became a Member of Parliament, and the other is about a candidate who was told that she could not be selected because people could not help thinking of her in her underwear when she stood up to make a speech. One of those examples was from the Conservative party and the other was from the Labour party, so such attitudes do not exist only in the Conservative party.
As I understand those examples, the Conservative one was made during the selection process, but the Labour one was an aside made after the selection process. In the hon. Lady's party, as in ours, is there not, during the selection conference, a party official whose task is to enforce equal opportunities practice during the interview process?
The hon. Lady is correct—party officials are present at the selection process—but she has touched on an issue that women in my party have often considered. I have discussed with many of our female candidates the equal opportunities training of selectors and its impact on the selection process.
Questions on family—how a female Member of Parliament will cope with her children—might be more normal. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) will not object to my using her phrase; she described such questions as hot-button questions, and my party has made a clear ruling on them. If someone asked a hot-button question, such as how the candidate would cope with her children if she became a Member of Parliament, would it be better for her if party officials stepped in and said that the question could not be asked? They may have made it clear to selection committees in advance that such questions could not be asked, but someone might still ask them. Is it better for the candidate if someone effectively intervenes on her behalf to stop the question, or for her to answer it and show that she can cope? Many women on the candidates' list who have been through my party's selection procedures have said that, at that point, they would prefer to answer the question. That does not negate the fact that the subject of questions that can be asked should be raised with selection committees in advance.
Seats with a long-standing MP—perhaps someone who has held the seat for 15 years, 20 years or even longer—can be a problem in the Conservative party and, I imagine, in the Labour party. Many of those on the selection committee for such a seat will not have interviewed for it for a considerable time. Many may not have interviewed someone for employment recently and so may not be aware of some of the implications of legislation. My amendments are on precisely that point. The questions that women can be asked in the selection process are an important issue.
At the moment, as we have discussed, practice has not always measured up to theory. However, the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 is in force, and a party official or someone else can intervene and say that a question is not permitted. Training can be given to selection committees about what questions can legally be asked under equal opportunities legislation. However, under the Bill the selection process would no longer be affected by that aspect of legislation. I do not want the improvements that we make to women's lot to result, inadvertently, in reinforcing an existing problem in the selection process by treating selection in the way that is envisaged and by permitting positive action. That is why my amendment would reintroduce into the Bill the provisions of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, which would give women in the selection process the relevant support by not permitting
``questions to be asked of a woman of a discriminatory nature which otherwise would be unlawful'' under the Bill.
I describe the amendment as a probing amendment because I want to tease out to what extent the Government think that the problem that I have outlined could arise; perhaps they take the view that human rights legislation would enable the questions I am concerned about to be stopped and permit selection committees to be trained so that they would not ask them. The issue is important. We all laugh at the examples that are quoted. I was never asked any questions that I thought pertained only to me as a woman, but my colleagues have had different experiences. Many people, including, certainly, people on our candidates list who have not become Members of Parliament, have been asked inappropriate questions that would not be permitted in an employment interview.
They might not, because even on an all-women shortlist one woman might have children while others did not, and the question about children could still be asked. I do not think that that approach would entirely avoid the problem. I know from Second Reading that the hon. Gentleman thinks that all-women shortlists are an important way forward, and his party may well, once the Bill is enacted, choose to follow that route, as it did before the legal challenge. We do not think that all-women shortlists are the only answer. Other positive action can be taken. However, even where they are used, it is important that the wrong questions, which might for example disadvantage women with children—that is one of the key contexts for inappropriate questions—are not asked.
As I discussed with the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), much has been written recently about questions asked in the selection process, including examples given by my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk in her book and other examples in recent articles. The MORI poll has clearly shown that women feel that discrimination takes place against them in selection processes. As I suggested, that is not a problem for the Conservative party alone; we should explore the whole issue. We want women and men to be treated on their merits in the selection process and without the stereotype of women that leads selection committees or general meetings to ask the questions that we have heard about.
I am worried that, in improving the lot of women in one respect, we might inadvertently increase their difficulties. Therefore we should explore how the Government think the Bill would affect the use of discriminatory questions, and I tabled the amendment in that context.
You will forgive my inexperience in these matters, Mrs. Adams; I do not know when I am supposed to stand and when I am not. I have a problem with the amendment and I seek reassurance from the Minister. All parties have a problem with this issue, not just one of them. We can all score points off each other and we all know of circumstances in which inappropriate questions have been asked. Clearly, all parties have a job of education to do.
I seek reassurance. Other issues are involved, and to focus on this particular issue is to seize on what looks easy. There is a raft of much more complex issues, such as that of the boys' club, of how Parliament is perceived, and the fact that women do not put themselves forward because they believe that they are unlikely to get through the process. The Liberal Democrats seek assurance about whether the legislation is necessary, because we are not convinced that it is. We also believe that it focuses on a particular point of sex discrimination and should be broadened.
I rise to support the amendment moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead. She explained well the concern that gave rise to the group of amendments, with which I very much agree. In removing the selection of candidates for various offices from the field of employment discrimination under the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, we risk re-importing an opportunity for people to commit discriminatory acts that otherwise would have been regarded as unlawful, particularly given how the law has developed during the past 25 years.
In particular, we must ensure that some of the guidance that is given to constituencies, certainly in the case of the Conservative party, can be retained and strengthened while ensuring that it remains consistent with the law. The risk is that otherwise we could not refer to discrimination law in such guidance. The rules and best practice for the selection of candidates published by the Conservative party contain a substantive reference to discrimination law in section 10, even though they might not have been entirely satisfactory in their application. The intention is to deliver the non-discriminatory approach in selection committees referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead.
As has been referred to elsewhere, it is important to note that Conservative party selection committees often see candidates at an initial stage and perhaps at a second stage, but the decision is made by all members of three months' standing at a special general meeting. That is unusual. We are not, as would be the case in normal employment practice, dealing with people who are experienced in undertaking employment selection, or with a small number of people who could be trained. We are potentially dealing with the whole membership of a Conservative constituency association, many of whom will have had no previous experience of selection and who come to it with their own views and, inevitably, prejudices. It is therefore important that we do not simply have the ability to retain the present guidance, whose cutting edge is to try to achieve non-discrimination in the forms and administration of the process, the questions asked of candidates and the way in which candidates are presented to committees. We must also be able to take action to remove discriminatory questions at general meetings of Conservative associations, which decide the selection of candidates. If the Bill is not amended as my hon. Friend proposes, we may lose the opportunity to prescribe to Conservative associations the questions that cannot be asked.
I am somewhat confused about the position described by the hon. Gentleman. He seems to be saying that the existing law and guidance has been completely ineffective and that the amendment is necessary for the law to be effective in future. Will he not acknowledge that the Conservative party must change its method of selection if it is to overcome the overt and covert discrimination that is obviously happening in his party as it is in mine? The difference is that we are prepared to tackle it.
The hon. Lady and many of her colleagues have a view about introducing women-only shortlists for the Labour party, as she made clear on Second Reading. As the hon. Member for Wirral, West (Stephen Hesford) said in an intervention, if one has women-only shortlists, one cannot by implication engage in sex discrimination in the selection of candidates. However, the purpose of the legislation—as I understand it, and as the Minister will no doubt confirm—is not to impose on political parties a structure geared to women-only shortlists. It is intended simply to permit parties to introduce women-only shortlists--not to require that. The legislation is not constructed around that assumption.
I will complete my point before I give way.
The working assumption that I would make is that the Conservative party does not intend to introduce women-only shortlists. I am happy with that. We want constituency associations to be able to go on selecting candidates on merit, with the possibility of selecting a man if he is exceptionally well qualified for a constituency.
Methods exist for selecting women other than all-women shortlists. For example, in the Scottish Parliament, constituencies are twinned and a man and a woman may be selected. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that changing the law will make no difference unless political parties introduce a mechanism that will change the face of Westminster? It is necessary to change the law to allow political parties to bring in that mechanism, which may not involve all-women shortlists.
The hon. Lady makes several interesting points. She refers to elections to the Scottish Assembly in which proportional representation applied. For the purposes of the debate, we can park proportional representation elsewhere and say, simply, that special measures can be taken and have been taken.
Special measures have been taken successfully and without challenge, even since the 1996 Jepson case. Although we are focusing on legislation that is intended to have wider application, its principal benefit will come about if parties take measures that lead to a representative selection of women as candidates for election to this House. That is the most important potential outcome. This Parliament is elected on a first-past-the-post basis.
The hon. Gentleman is not aware that the twinning mechanism used in Scotland and in Wales has nothing to do with proportional representation. It was used for the first-past-the-post seats. Constituencies were twinned, and one man and one woman were elected from those twinned constituencies. Proportional representation has nothing to do with the mechanism referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, West.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right.
Exactly what the Minister thinks that the legislation will permit that is not currently permitted is a debatable point. We did not discuss that in any detail on Second Reading but it is interesting when one considers the detail of the Bill. Twinning, zipping and all those entertaining terms, special measures, and indeed, quotas—a proportional representation element of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly elections—seem to have been used without challenge since 1996 and the Jepson case. That is not to say that they would not be subject to challenge in the future, even up to and including the cases mentioned by the hon. Member for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth (Rosemary McKenna) relating to the Scottish Parliament.
I wonder if the hon. Gentleman knows that there was an intended challenge to the zipping system that the Liberal Democrats used for the European elections. The zipping system is applicable only when a list system is used, although I am not in favour of list systems for other reasons. I understand that the hon. Gentleman is saying that he intends to explore that field further. I look forward with great interest to hearing what he has to say.
I should at least attempt to reassert some structure over what I am saying before giving way.
The hon. Member for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth is saying in effect that parties must use women-only shortlists to deal with the problem. My point is that special measures have been used in other assemblies and circumstances, but the most intractable set of circumstances has concerned the Westminster Parliament and the decisions taken in individual constituencies. My view, and that of my colleagues, is that we should find a form of legislation that allows us to take positive action to secure the selection of women as candidates; that process might otherwise be a possible subject of legal challenge employing some of the principles in the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. However, that does not mean that we should go as far as imposing women-only shortlists on constituencies, because individual constituencies have a powerful desire to select candidates on merit, although recognising that they have a responsibility to contribute to the selection of a proportionate and representative number of women in the party generally and to select accordingly.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman because he has repeated the very point on which I wanted to base my own—the question of selection on merit. He said that it would be the Conservatives' intention to continue the process of selecting on merit. Does he honestly believe that selections on merit are responsible for the fact that 92 per cent. of the Members of Parliament on the Conservative Benches are men?
I am shocked that the hon. Lady clearly did not listen to my speech on Second Reading. I do not accept that that is how the process works. In the Conservative party, if I recollect the figures correctly, 18 per cent. of the people who have gone through our initial candidates list procedure were women and 15 per cent. of those selected as candidates were women, including candidates in 15 per cent. of the top 50 seats. We know the nature of the problem that we have to tackle: far too small a proportion of the candidates presented to constituencies were women. We will test the proposition—successfully, I hope—that by achieving a proportionate number of candidates on the central candidates list, and by ensuring that constituencies treat their potential local candidates in a non-discriminatory fashion, 50 per cent. of our candidates will be women if we make women 50 per cent. of the candidates list. That would be our objective, and I hope that the Conservative party and individual constituencies can achieve that on merit.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the methods to which he referred have already been tried by other political parties, and that in the Labour party at the last election, although every shortlist was balanced equally between men and women, an overwhelming number of men was still chosen? Does not the hon. Gentleman think that what he is saying has been disproved by what has happened in my party, and that other methods are needed?
Mrs. May rose—
Let me respond to the question put by the hon. Member for Cardiff, North and then I will give way to my hon. Friend. I cannot answer for what has happened in the Labour party or explain why the proportionate numbers of male and female candidates who were presented were not reflected in the candidates who were selected. If the hon. Member for Cardiff, North cares to think about it, one of the reasons why that occurred may be because there is continuing discrimination in the manner of selection in individual constituencies.
My hon. Friend's amendment would enable the Conservative party to present representative and proportionate numbers of men and women to constituencies, but would ensure that in the process of selection, there would be no discrimination in the application of those rules. I hope that the Conservative party will take that up.
I do not know whether I have pre-empted my hon. Friend's remarks, but I gladly give way to her.
My hon. Friend has not pre-empted what I was going to say, but I may echo the point that he has just made. The amendment would ensure that, even where positive action takes place as permitted under the Bill, the selection process could not involve different discriminatory procedures that we know already occur and to which the experiences quoted by hon. Members testify.
I apologise to my hon. Friend for having to leave the Room while he was speaking, but I was pleased to hear in a recent conservation with the Fawcett Society that it had considered the proposal that my hon. Friend and I put to the Conservative party in the summer, and that it believed that our proposal could work and would positively increase the number of women representing the Conservative party in Parliament. The party must still, of course, go through the process of deciding what positive action it will take.
I stress that I am expressing my own views on this matter and not the corporate views of the Conservative party that must determine what it will do. The process that my hon. Friend and I discussed in the summer certainly implies that the Conservative party would commit itself not only to presenting representative and proportionate numbers of candidates to constituencies, but that it would do so expressly with a list targeted on seats that we either hold or are most likely to win.
As time goes on, if there is any discrimination in the way in which those constituencies select candidates from the list, and people are removed from that list, increasing numbers of women will be available to other constituencies. We may, of course, get to the point where the Conservative party presents women to a constituency from the centre. That could happen currently in a by-election selection: for example, the central list might present to a constituency just one or two women candidates.
I will just complete my point. Members of other parties must understand that, as our constitution currently provides, women-only shortlists in the Conservative party are a non starter because, notwithstanding the central candidates list, each constituency can consider candidates from its own constituency and, having selected them, present them to Conservative central office.Each constituency thus selects women and men together.
We wish the hon. Gentleman a fair wind in changing his party's constitution, because unless that happens, his party will get nowhere on the issue. There can be a substantial change in the number of women elected to a body only if a mechanism to allow that is introduced. In the 1997 general election, the Labour party adopted a national women-only shortlist, and the number of women elected increased greatly. In 2000, the Scottish Parliament used a twinning mechanism and achieved a 50:50 balance in membership. In the 2001 general election, the Labour party had no such mechanism in place, and the number of women who represent Labour at Westminster was reduced. I wish the hon. Gentleman well, but he will not achieve equality unless a similar mechanism is introduced.
When I have pursued the issue further, I shall parade the hon. Lady's support, which will convince many in the Conservative party. The hon. Lady must not misunderstand me; I do not propose to change the constitution of the Conservative party. I think it necessary and desirable for Conservative constituency associations to be free to put local people of merit forward for selection, regardless of their sex. I hope that the Conservative party adopts positive, substantive measures to ensure that constituencies select candidates who will lead to a more proportionate end result.
It is difficult to balance the retention by constituencies of the principle of selection on merit against a process that is governed and managed by the party and designed to ensure a representative outcome.
On Second Reading, I asked a Conservative Member about the Conservative party's candidate selection process. I argued that the Opposition's propositions would not work because, as the hon. Gentleman admits, each Conservative association can, if it wants, choose a local candidate and avoid the central list. Is that so? Was that Member of the Opposition Front Bench wrong to chide me when I mentioned that point?
Let me explain why the hon. Gentleman's point does relate to the amendment, Mrs. Adams. We must ask whether the amendment would allow us to ensure the application of non-discriminatory employment practices if constituencies continued to select from a mixed group of men and women. I can tell the hon. Gentleman as a point of fact that constituencies may select candidates from their geographical area. Candidates must subsequently be approved by Conservative central office; constituencies cannot simply select whom they like. That begs a further question about measures, but I shall not go into that, because we are not here to discuss the purposes to which the Conservative party will put the legislation.
It is the intention of the Conservative party—more so than the Labour party—to take positive action and to have special measures in place. The extent to which such measures will restrict a constituency's choices varies, but we probably will not go so far as to impose women-only shortlists on constituencies. Constituencies are required to act in a non-discriminatory way. The Conservative party needs legislative backing to make sure that it can pursue that path. If Parliament legislates to remove the selection of candidates from sex discrimination legislation, barrack-room lawyers—they are found in every organisation—will argue that no one can force constituency associations not to discriminate.
Mr. Raynsford indicated dissent.
I want to speak from my experience, as I recruited professionally in my previous employment and have been through the selection process most recently of the four members of the official Opposition on the Committee.
When I recruited members of staff for PricewaterhouseCoopers, my previous employer, we had strict guidelines on what we could and could not say. We were given strict instructions on families, women juggling the home-life balance and such issues. The process was fair, and we adhered to it. My experience of the selection process was very different, notwithstanding the guidance on those subjects issued by the party before the last selection round. From talking to other candidates, I gathered that women were asked discriminatory questions.
It is important that we back up the guidance that we give to those on selection committees, many of whom have had little experience of selecting candidates professionally. As my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead said, many of them have not selected candidates for a seat for 15 or 20 years, as was the case in Fareham. We need some legal support for the work that our professional agents undertake and for our guidance and instructions on the treatment of the relevant issues, so that we ensure that we do not ask ladies discriminatory questions.
No. The issue is difficult for all parties. The amendment would reinforce the important message that all parties should give to their selection committees, regardless of whether they use all-women shortlists.
I welcome the amendment. It would reinforce the legal position that selection committees take account of when selecting candidates. People who have selected candidates professionally in business would apply the provision to the selection of candidates for Parliament.
I belatedly join hon. Members in expressing my pleasure at serving under your chairmanship, Mrs. Adams.
The central premise of the Bill is that the provisions should be permissive. It does not prescribe a certain method by which positive measures may be taken. Although our interesting debate has covered all-women shortlists, zipping and balanced panels, the Bill does not prescribe any of them. It simply seeks to ensure that parties can take positive measures, which may vary between parties. The merits of a party's actions will be judged according to what results from them.
The amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Maidenhead, especially amendments Nos. 5 and 7, probe whether a candidate's existing rights under election law not to be discriminated against, which have been established in case law, remain untouched by the Bill. The hon. Member for Cheadle (Mrs. Calton) asked whether the amendments were necessary. They are not. I can give the hon. Members for Maidenhead and for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) the assurance that they seek. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said on Second Reading that, apart from the limited exemption in clauses 2 and 3, the Bill
``leaves untouched all the other rights established under existing case law against discrimination in any other circumstances, as it rightly should''.—[Official Report, 24 October 2001; Vol. 373, c. 330.]
In other words, the Bill does not switch off the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. All the procedures established under the Act apply, but the positive measures that the Bill permits parties to take are exempt. That is the key point.
Future case law could affect rights, but the amendments would provide no protection against such changes, because they refer to questions that would otherwise be unlawful under the Act and the Sex Discrimination (Northern Ireland) Order 1976. The interpretation of those pieces of legislation as they relate to elected representatives is a matter for the courts.
I am grateful to the Minister for that explanation. If I understand him correctly, existing sex discrimination provisions will not apply to a system for selecting candidates that is introduced under clause 1 with the intention of reducing inequality, but will still catch a discriminatory system that increases inequality. In the absence of the amendments, the risk is that clause 1 will be held to mean that sex discrimination provisions do not apply to a party's arrangements for selecting candidates. How sure can the Minister be that that interpretation will not be placed on the Bill?
I can give an absolute assurance that that is not how the Bill will be interpreted. The Bill does not switch off the Sex Discrimination Act as it applies to non-discrimination during the process of selection; it simply switches off attacks under the Act on parties that undertake positive measures to ensure better representation for women. It is important for parties clearly to define the boundaries of those measures so that that distinction can be maintained. If they do, it will be clear that no other provisions of the Act are involved. The Bill gives parties the opportunity to act in a permissive, not a prescribed way to secure better, equal representation of women on shortlists and panels and in the parliamentary selection process.
I am grateful to the Minister for his explanation. He said that it would be necessary for political parties to make a clear distinction when they take positive actions under the Bill. In what format will that distinction be made? Will it be made simply through the party's rules or will measures need to be registered externally?
A party that suggested such positive measures would be prudent to take legal advice on how to frame them to ensure that they worked under the Bill. That would give the party the necessary protection by ensuring that its measures were permitted under the Bill and were covered by the protection offered by the Act. If a party declared that it intended to switch off all the provisions of the Act and the proposals before us, there would be a legal problem. Parties must ensure that they do not do that. However, subject to that elementary act of prudence, it is clear that the Sex Discrimination Act is not switched off for all the other procedures, which seemed to be the main concern of the hon. Member for Maidenhead and persuaded her to table the amendments. Therefore, with those assurances and that clarification, I trust that the hon. Lady will feel able to withdraw the amendment.
We have had a more wide-ranging and interesting debate than I thought the limited and narrow amendment would generate. People are clearly concerned about the issue, and the debate is necessary because we must get this matter right if we are to achieve the aim of increasing the number of women in Parliament.
I am continually disappointed by the hon. Member for Wirral, West, whose constant interventions are simply out of tone with the nature of the debate. There is a consensus—I am happy to use the word, although the hon. Member for North Cornwall suggested that Conservative Front-Bench Members might not want to use it; in fact, I used it in my introductory remarks--that we need to increase the number of women in Parliament. We are striving to ensure that there is a legislative framework within which political parties can choose how to proceed. They will choose how to apply the legislation and what positive action to take, and they will be judged on their choice. I hope that we shall hear some more positive interventions from the hon. Member for Wirral, West.
I have listened carefully to the Minister's response, which has given some comfort on this issue. As my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) said, those who have been interviewing in professions and business know all the aspects of equal opportunities legislation and the questions that they can and cannot ask. Unfortunately, that is more difficult for members of selection committees who have not interviewed for many years. I know from my experience before the 1997 election that those selection committees whose members were involved in the world of work or close to it and were therefore aware of the legislation and what questions could be asked were more likely to be positive about a woman than a selection committee whose members had been away from the world of work for some years.
As I said when introducing the amendment, we do not want to improve the lot of women in one way--in being selected and getting into the House--only to find that we have made matters worse in other ways. I am grateful to the Minister for his comments and for putting on record that, notwithstanding the reference in the clause that nothing in these parts
``shall . . . render unlawful anything done in accordance with such arrangements'', the Bill does not intend that the other parts of the Sex Discrimination Act should not apply to the selection of candidates for various elections. Therefore, it will still be possible for political parties to make it clear to those involved in selection, guidance and training that there are questions that it is inappropriate to ask women. In due course, I hope that questions and remarks of the sort quoted by the hon. Member for Norwich, North, which raised a smile in the Committee, will become a thing of the past.
Given the Minister's remarks, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
I beg to move amendment No. 1 in page 1, line 14, after `women', insert `selected or'.
I confess that the amendment may seem small and limited. However, it would ensure that the arrangements to which the Bill applies
``are adopted not simply for the purpose of reducing inequality in the numbers of men and women elected'', but in the numbers of men and women selected. Again, it is a probing amendment--I want to probe an important aspect of the Bill about which the Minister responded on Second Reading.
During my four and a half years in the House, I have managed to avoid any intricate debates on the application of European Union legislation to laws passed by the House.
Yes, precisely; it was very wise, but unfortunately I am now about to explore that area.
The Minister will be aware of the differing legal opinions on this matter. The background to the amendment is the question whether the European legislation applies to appointment to a job or to selection—the chance to stand for the possibility of a job. We all know that, prior to the 1997 general election, the Labour party used all-women shortlists. The practice was challenged at an industrial tribunal, in the Jepson case. The Labour party's main argument was that selection as a parliamentary candidate did not constitute employment, and was not, therefore, covered by part II of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. The industrial tribunal judgment, delivered on 19 January 1996, rejected that argument, stating that the job of a Member of Parliament was a profession and was covered by the relevant part of the Act. Selection as a candidate constituted a necessary qualification for being a Member of Parliament.
On Second Reading, both the Minister and the Secretary of State responded to a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire about the application of European legislation, by saying that they were happy that it would not present a problem. They were confident that the Bill was permitted and did not contravene European Union legislation. In winding up, the Minister referred to the challenge from my hon. Friend. He said:
``He referred to the Abrahamsson case but—and he will be aware of the significance of this—that case was brought in relation to the appointment of a candidate for an academic post. There is an appointment distinction''—
I think that that probably should read ``important distinction''—
``which I have already made, between the appointments to paid posts and the selection of candidates who stand for election. That is why we are confident that the equal treatment directive will not apply.''—[Official Report, 24 October 2001; Vol. 373, c. 381.]
I want to explore, through the amendment, that point about the difference between appointment to a post and selection .
Article 141(4) of the treaty of Rome, establishing the European Community, as amended by the treaty of Amsterdam, states:
``With a view to ensuring full equality in practice between men and women in working life, the principle of equal treatment shall not prevent any Member State from maintaining or adopting measures providing for specific advantages in order to make it easier for the under-represented sex to pursue a vocational activity or to prevent or compensate for disadvantages in professional careers.''
The issue, about which lawyers have argued and will, I suspect, argue for some time, is whether that provides sufficient scope for a candidate's selection and subsequent election to Parliament, or to any other relevant elected body.
The problem is that several cases have tested the extent to which positive action or positive discrimination can be used.
The intention is to ensure that all aspects of the process are covered. The clause applies to arrangements adopted to reduce inequality in the number of women elected. However, to be elected one has to be selected. I therefore suggest that the clause should include the prior process of selection, so that anything that a party might wish to do to reduce inequality in the number of women selected to stand for election would be permitted. I understand the hon. Lady's point—that the ultimate aim of the legislation is to increase the number of women elected to the House—but to be elected they must first be selected.
The other purpose of the amendment is to explore the impact of European Union legislation. As the hon. Member for North Cornwall pointed out, Lord Lester will wish to explore those legal aspects; indeed, many well-qualified and experienced Members of the other place will wish to explore the issue in detail. It is important that the Government are absolutely firm on the matter. It is in that context that I tabled the amendment.
The Abrahamsson and Anderson v. Fogelquist case calls into question exactly what action can be taken. Article 2(1) and (4) of directive 76/207 and article 141 of the Rome treaty as amended by the Amsterdam treaty preclude national legislation that permits positive action if it applies only to procedures fulfilling a predetermined number of posts. The problem is that, by definition, an elected body has a predetermined number of posts. Will the Minister say whether I am right to be concerned about that provision?
In its ruling on the Abrahamsson case, the European Court of Justice showed that provisions that dictate an automatic preference for an inferior candidate solely because of gender are precluded by the directive even if that candidate meets the basic qualifying standards and are not rescued by application of article 141(4) of the treaty of Rome. I hope that the Minister will take it in the right way when I say that I suspect that his party has the greater need to be absolutely clear on the application of European Union legislation. All-women shortlists seem most likely to be challenged because of the Abrahamsson ruling, particularly those that include people less well qualified than men who might otherwise wish to apply. The ruling suggests that such a process would at least be open to legal challenge, and that it could be found to be illegal notwithstanding the Bill's provisions.
As I said when speaking on the programme motion, we want to ensure that the Bill is effective and that we can have confidence in it and rely on it to allow the action that political parties wish to take. If a question remains under European Union legislation, all parties would have to consider that carefully when examining their proposals for positive action. It is a difficult area. As I have said before, I am not a lawyer, so I am not well versed in reading the intricacies of court judgments, especially those of the European Court of Justice.
I would like to turn the hon. Lady away from those esoteric considerations of law to examine the wording of the clause as she proposes to amend it. If the amendment is designed to reduce inequality in the numbers of men and women selected or elected, as opposed to selected and elected, that suggests to me that a party could have as its target an increase in the number of women selected while ignoring whether or not they were elected. I take the hon. Lady back to the point made by the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire about how the mechanisms might be put in place using a limited list. Let us say that each party fields candidates in 100 seats which it expects not to change hands—which it considers unwinnable. If the amendment were accepted, might it mean that it is those seats for which women are selected?
I shall deal with the second point first, because the hon. Lady seemed to be suggesting that the proposal for limited seats, which both I and my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire made during the recess, could be applied to the less winnable seats rather than the winnable seats. In fact, the proposal is that the limited and balanced list should be put forward specifically for winnable seats that the party holds or expects to win at the next election. The proposal was made in that context and was concerned with balancing the number of men and women selected for seats where a Conservative Member is expected to be elected at the next election, not the no-hoper seats that many of us fight our first time round in trying to get into the House.
The hon. Lady's more substantial point about the wording of the amendment was entirely valid and in the spirit of consensus. I fully accept the point and, if the Government wish to propose alternative wording, I would be happy to consider that later in the proceedings. The wording may not be felicitous but, as my hon. Friends the Members for Chesham and Amersham and for South Cambridgeshire remarked when commenting on the programming motion, if the time in which amendments can be tabled is limited, they tend to be done quickly and that leads to the wording not being as felicitous as it should be.
I have told the Minister that we want to ensure that the Bill can be substantiated and will stand up without legal challenge under European Union legislation. I refer to the Minister's winding-up comments on Second Reading. One crucial aspect is the nature of the selection process for candidates. The Government appear to be relying on the fact that there is a difference between being appointed to a job and being selected to put oneself forward for election to that job. However, I put it to the Minister that being selected to fight a certain parliamentary constituency or local council ward for a particular party is effectively to be appointed the elected representative for that party. Some seats do not change hands. The number of those for each party has varied over the years and I hope that there will be significantly more of them for the Conservative party in future.
The Minister has made a distinction between telling somebody that they have been appointed to a job and telling them that they have been selected for election to that job. We all know the saying that one could put up a donkey for the majority party in a seat that does not change hands, and it would be elected. In such seats, the process of selection is effectively the same as appointing the selected person to the job; the selectors have absolute confidence that that person will become the MP.
My party has sister parties in other European states that use positive mechanisms, of which there are many. Even the hon. Lady's party has sister parties on the continent that have done likewise. Can she give an example of a successful challenge to those mechanisms?
No, I cannot. The background information makes it clear, as the hon. Lady says, that parties in other EU states use positive action and positive discrimination to achieve the balance that we are referring to. The fact that that action has not been challenged elsewhere does not mean that it could not be challenged in the United Kingdom. In the spirit of constructiveness, I say to the hon. Lady that it was her party that was taken to court, albeit under UK legislation on industrial tribunals. It is therefore important for the Government to be absolutely clear that no loophole could give rise to a legal challenge, as lawyers differ in their interpretation of the issue, and particularly of the Abrahamsson case.
The Minister made it clear on Second Reading that he did not think that the Abrahamsson case applied because it was about appointment to a job, not about selection for election. That is why I am exploring with the Minister the nature of the selection process and the extent to which, in certain circumstances, it differs from that of appointment to a job.
I hope that the Minister will accept this probing amendment in the spirit in which it is put forward. As the hon. Member for North Cornwall said, this is precisely the sort of issue that the Government might find their Lordships exploring in detail when the Bill goes to another place.
I have listened with interest to the hon. Member for Maidenhead and I am pleased that there is recognition that the wording might not be exactly as it should be. We Liberal Democrats feel that inserting in the clause the words, ``selected or'' fails to recognise the main point of the Bill. That phrase muddies the waters and allows a greater risk of challenge. It might reduce political parties' ability to produce greater equality in the election process. As the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) said, equality of selection does not necessarily lead to equality of election.
Could I explore the hon. Lady's comment that the insertion of the words ``selected or'' could give rise to greater challenge of the Bill? Has she thought that through in relation to the Abrahamsson case? It could be argued that it is the ``election'' part of that clause that is closer to the appointment to a job, so the ``selection'' part would attract less challenge.
I thank the hon. Lady for that point. However, we need an assurance from the Minister that that case is relevant here; that is not clear. The addition of ``selected or'' could limit the range of actions that political parties could take and we have grave misgivings about that phrase being part of the Bill.
My hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead has set out many of the arguments; I followed some of them. When I asked questions on Second Reading, the Minister responded—I freely admit it—with great assurance. I did not understand him then, although I understand a little better now. It is useful to be clear. It seems to me that the purpose of the clause is to bear upon selection. It is about section 13 of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, and would remove the question that, for this purpose, political parties are the bodies that qualify those who stand for election, while an election is the process of appointment to a job. If that is the case, and if I understood the Minister correctly, the equal treatment directive will bite upon the question of appointment to jobs rather than upon the qualifying bodies that establish a pre-qualification for those who wish to become employed. That is the distinction that the Minister made between the Abrahamsson case—appointment to a post—and the selection of parliamentary candidates.
The Minister offers us great assurances. However, I am not convinced. I have spent some time—my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead might not have done so—looking at the way in which European legislation has tended to permeate the interpretation of UK legislation. I fear that the interpretation of EU legislation, particularly of the issue of proportionality might be subject to the creeping extension of EU legislation to try to interpret the selection of candidates by political parties as tantamount to the election of those individuals, for the very reasons that my hon. Friend has given. The test here is of the treatment of those who are otherwise of wholly equivalent merit in those circumstances in which the arrangements are designed to give automatic preference to women.
In many constituencies the process of election seems to be the secondary issue. The process of selection is the prior and pre-eminent question regarding who takes that appointment. If that is the case, is there not a risk that the very issues raised in the Abrahamsson case, and the proportionality of those measures, will come back into UK legislation? If the measure is interpreted in that way, can we be confident that it will be robust for women-only shortlists? I suspect that we are talking only about women-only shortlists.
Other measures would probably be regarded as proportionate. Other measures on the continent seem to be robust, as was implied in an intervention. As I understand it, on the continent such measures are not normally adopted in relation to first-past-the-post elections in single-member constituencies. We need to establish whether the legislation will be robust—in the terms in which the Labour party might pursue it—where a man who is eminently well qualified to represent a constituency in which he has lived and worked and perhaps been a council leader, brings a case that it is disproportionate to debar him from standing in that constituency.
Will the hon. Gentleman clarify a point, as there is a danger of a misconception? Because he has referred to different electoral systems on the continent, other Committee members might think that his reference to proportionate measures has some relationship to proportionate systems. Of course, it does not. It is important to recognise that proportionality of measure might be affected by the system that is used for election. With respect to the hon. Gentleman, he might be encouraging a misunderstanding. He is right to say that the subject is fraught, and I hope that Ministers will reassure us about it. The lawyers will have huge fun with it unless we are lucky.
I do not want any confusion about proportionate measures and proportional representation. In our system and in continental systems, we can all contemplate the idea that taking positive action can be entirely proportionate to the objective. The question is whether one takes the further step. That will be the Labour party's problem, in my humble view. Labour Members no doubt argue that a move to women-only shortlists is proportionate to the objective, because other measures cannot deliver the result. Nevertheless, it may be held in law not to be proportionate, because it means that the individual to whom I referred—a man, in this context—would be debarred from representing the place where he may have lived, worked and represented people for many years. I still have not understood why the issue of proportionality will not be imported back into our courts' interpretation of the Bill, whatever its final form.
The hon. Member for Maidenhead made it clear that her amendment was a probing amendment and spoke mainly about the implications of the Bill in relation to the Jepson judgment and European Union legislation. I will deal with them and move on to the possible unsatisfactory consequence of the amendment. I hope that I shall make it clear to her that the amendment is unnecessary, and that she will withdraw it.
The hon. Lady started well by taking pride in the fact that, after four and a half years in this place, she had not got into the anorak obsession with the minutiae of EU legislation that some of her colleagues sadly have. Having had to endure some of them in discussion on previous Bills, it is a refreshing relief to hear her far more pragmatic approach.
Difficult issues surround the interrelationship between EU legislation and United Kingdom provisions, and the Jepson case is one that is at the focus of our attention. The key point—I made it when responding to the debate on Second Reading and will try to clarify it—is that the Jepson case depended on section 13 in part II of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 being interpreted as covering Members of Parliament, because it referred to an
``engagement in a particular profession or trade''.
In our view, the Bill does not affect those issues. It affects only positive measures taken by political parties for the process of candidate selection. The hon. Lady may then ask why the wording does not relate only to selection, but I will return to that in a moment. Candidate selection, in our view, is not covered by the equal treatment directive. The subsequent election of MPs and other elected representatives is not sufficiently like the process of being selected for employment to fall within the equal treatment directive.
I am interested in that point. Will the Minister confirm that one of the arguments used by the Labour party in the Jepson case was that the selection of candidates fell within the equal treatment directive, and that that was rejected by the tribunal, which suggested that the Kalanke case did not authorise positive discrimination of the sort specifically involved in all-women shortlists?
The hon. Lady raises a valid point, and I hope that she will accept my response. We are keen to set out a constructive way forward that does not unduly fetter opportunities for those who may want to challenge Jepson in future, nor to predetermine any interpretation of it. The Bill approaches the issue in a way that will give the assurance that I think we all want: political parties can be free to introduce appropriate positive measures to assist the selection and election of candidates for various offices without falling foul of the equal treatment directive or of other measures that might fetter their ability to implement proposals.
I declare a non-interest in the sense that my party has few safe seats. Mine is one of the safest, although I originally had a majority of nine. My situation is different from the one that was described. None the less, I want to press the Minister and to be convinced by him. When a Minister says, ``In our view, measures will not be subject to the equal treatment directive'', my instinct, from having spent a long time in this place, is to ask whose view he means. Many legal authorities take the opposite view, and I want to be as assured as I can be that the concerns that Opposition Members have expressed, which are shared by others in the House, will be fully met before the Bill completes its passage.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. He will appreciate that we carefully considered all the issues before framing and introducing the Bill. We have taken detailed advice and are confident that our proposals will achieve our aim, which is shared more widely. At the same time, the Bill will provide the best possible safeguard against legal challenges. However, I must be open with the hon. Gentleman: I cannot give an absolute guarantee because the European Court of Justice could ultimately decide the question differently, and we must accept that such differences are inevitable. However, even if the court decided that candidate selection fell within the equal treatment directive, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that measures under the directive and the treaty—some of which have been mentioned—allow for positive action. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the absolute assurance that he seeks, but I can assure him that we have examined the matter carefully. I can also assure him and the hon. Member for Maidenhead that others take our view. It was appropriate for the hon. Lady to pray in aid the Fawcett Society on a previous group of amendments. Its briefing clearly states:
``Fawcett believes it is very unlikely that any challenge made under European law against a party using positive action as allowed by the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Bill would succeed.''
So, we are not alone. We think that we are right, but I cannot give an absolute assurance. That is why we are saying, as we always have, that the Bill is permissive. We expect political parties to take legal advice before proceeding with a measure, because they will have to defend it if it is challenged. I entirely accept that that applies to the Labour party; indeed, some people feel that it applies even more to our party because of the issue of the proportionality of the response to the problem to be remedied and because some responses might be less thoroughgoing than others. There are interesting issues of balance.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford rightly said that we were not alone in Europe. Other European countries have adopted a range of positive action measures, and we know of no legal challenge that has succeeded. There is, therefore, strong support for our proposals, subject to the caveat that I mentioned.
The amendment tries to widen the test applied in the Bill, which deals with the outcome of elections. By using the word ``elected'', we focused on the end result, not on any stage in the electoral process. In providing for equal representation, the correct test must be the numbers of those elected.
The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire raised the issue of the proportionate nature of the response to the problem. This step has been taken precisely because of the absence of an even moderately representative number of women in this Parliament, in local government and among United Kingdom Members of the European Parliament. We must change that. We cannot determine the outcome and the proportionality of the remedy simply by considering selection. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford made only too clear, a party could select a huge number of women candidates for seats to which none of them would get elected.
Is my right hon. Friend familiar with the Fawcett Society study of Labour party candidates? Many women said that they felt used by the 50:50 shortlist process, which our party has continued to use. They thought that the constituency had already decided that it wanted a male candidate and they were only there to make up the numbers. That is why selection is not a good enough criterion—it has to be election.
My hon. Friend makes a valid and apt point. The only real test of the success of a policy, and of whether the remedy is proportionate to the problem being dealt with, is the outcome in terms of the number of elected candidates. The great advance that our party made in women's representation was as a result of our adoption of all-women shortlists during the run-up to the 1997 general election. As we did not feel able to adopt a similar approach for the most recent general election in 2001, it came as no surprise to those of us who believe that positive measures are necessary to deliver the right outcome that we did not even sustain the same number of women representatives as we had in the previous Parliament. The number of women Labour Members fell a bit, although not by much—the figure is still far better than those for the other parties represented in this place. Nevertheless, we recognise that there was a fallback from the position achieved in 1997.
Should I infer from the Minister's remarks that the Labour party is intending to reintroduce women-only shortlists and regards that measure as proportionate? If it does regard it as proportionate, what principle would a court be applying if that proportionality were tested in relation to the circumstances I described? Would it be a UK or a European test?
The hon. Gentleman is far too experienced to expect a response to a hypothetical question about something over which a Minister ultimately has no control. I made it clear in my earlier response that it is for the judiciary, if a case comes to court, to decide on the balance of the arguments how that case should be determined. I have merely tried to set out the circumstances and to make it clear that, providing the remedy is proportionate to the wrong that it is seeking to address, political parties should be able to introduce measures such as we have discussed. That is what we are seeking to facilitate.
My Latin is not good enough to know what the plural of mea culpa is, but whatever it is I am prepared to accept that the Liberal Democrats have had precisely the problem described by the Minister. We have adopted an open attitude to gender balance for selection but it has not resulted in election on a balanced basis. My hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle made that point vividly.
I am generally in favour of amendments that do no harm. However, does the Minister agree with the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle that, although there may be no harm in the amendment, it could cause harm by distracting attention from the primary purpose of the legislation?
The hon. Gentleman raised the point to which I was coming, but I have not yet responded to the intervention made by his hon. Friend. The hon. Gentleman rightly recognises that the outcome is the only real test of the success of the various efforts being made to increase women's representation. There is a risk that if attention is diverted away from the outcome and is directed at the process of selection, some people may feel pleased—I put it no stronger than that—that they have made great efforts to increase the number of women coming forward for consideration and selection as candidates, but none of those women will be elected to Parliament.
I challenge Conservative Members to correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that 25 sitting Conservative Members stood down at the last general election and no woman candidate was selected for any of those seats, which it might have been thought the Conservative party was likely to win. I accept that in present circumstances the Conservative party may end up with no Members of Parliament and it may no longer have any safe seats, but in normal circumstances it would have been thought likely that Conservative Members would be returned in those 25 seats. Why did the Conservative party not select a single woman for any of those seats?
I am sorry that the Minister, by making his partisan attacks, is moving away again from the consensus approach that was adopted earlier. Some very good women stood for selection in those seats for the 2001 election, and many of us in the Conservative party hoped that some of the retiring Conservative Members would be replaced by good women Members. It is precisely because of the practical experience of being unable to achieve a better representation for women that we support the Bill, and look forward to the opportunity to introduce the positive action that we think right to increase those numbers.
I am sorry that the hon. Lady should find a few home truths to be an injection of partisan spirit into the debate, but I shall pass over that. I welcome the support of the Conservative party for the Bill, and hope that it will make full use of these provisions to achieve the outcome of a substantial increase in the number of women Conservative Members of Parliament. That is why we used language that focuses on the numbers of men and women being elected rather than selected, and that is why we believe that the amendment is both unnecessary and potentially a dangerous distraction. I hope that the hon. Lady agrees to withdraw her amendment.
The Minister again gives us assurances about the application of European Union legislation on this subject. As I said in my introduction to the amendment, and in the spirit of constructive debate, I suspect that these matters will be debated in the other place. As the hon. Member for North Cornwall made clear, there are differing legal opinions as to the interpretation of European Union legislation, its application to this issue and its implications for legislation such as this.
The Minister is right that the Fawcett Society has said that a challenge is not expected, as other political parties in other European Union member states have adopted positive action and have not been challenged. That point was raised in an intervention from the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford. The fact that positive action has not been challenged elsewhere does not mean that it would not be challenged if it were practiced in the United Kingdom.
I noted that the Minister and the Under-Secretary, in their responses to amendments, reiterated on several occasions that any political party undertaking positive action under the legislation cannot simply rely on the existence of the legislation but must take separate legal advice as to the nature of the positive action that they propose to take. I am sure that all those involved in the administration of political parties will have noted that, too. That is the clear advice that the Government are giving to political parties.
I fully accept the point that the Minister made about the importance of focusing on outcomes. The reason we do not oppose the Bill is that we want to see more women in Parliament and, in particular, more women representing the Conservative party. I hope that the Minister accepts that the amendment was not moved to try to take the focus away from the purpose of the Bill. [Interruption.] It looks as if he does accept that.
I also accept that the wording of the amendment might not be as felicitous as it could have been, and I reiterate that had more time been available before the Bill came to Committee, we might have produced a form of words more suited to the purpose. We had no intention of taking the focus away from the outcome of getting more women elected to Parliament and other elected bodies, which is the wider issue that we shall be coming to with the next group of amendments. I wished simply to probe the Government on their reliance on the difference between election and selection, and between being selected for interview and being appointed to a job.
I noted the Minister's response to the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire. I suspect that were the Labour party to go for all-women shortlists, it would have to think more carefully about proportionality than the Minister's response suggests it has done so far. Other forms of positive action can be shown to be proportionate. All-women shortlists are the most likely to be challenged on the ground of proportionality.
As I said earlier, the amendment was intended to discover what advice the Government had taken and what confidence could be placed in the interpretation of that advice in relation to the application of European Union legislation. This will not be the only debate on the issue, and officials will be providing further information and advice to Ministers on it, because I suspect that Members of the other place will allow a rather more intricate, knowledgeable and expert interpretation—[Interruption.]
I was indeed speaking about my contribution. I am no lawyer, and I am not as able to explore the intricacies of those aspects of legislation as people who have a long-term or even life-long experience of the law and its interpretation—not only of United Kingdom legislation but of European law.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 3, in page 2, line 3, at end insert—
`(h) any elections to the House of Lords;
(i) any elections to any regional assemblies in England.'.
No. 8, in page 2, line 28, at end insert—
`(e) elections to any body replacing or succeeding bodies referred to in paragraphs (b) to (d) above.'.
``The Bill is not restricted to representation at Westminster. Although the extent of inequality varies between elected bodies in the United Kingdom, the Government believe that they all have significant room for improvement.''
He went on to refer to the rather greater success in women's representation in the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales, and made it clear that the Bill did not cover only Westminster. He continued:
``The Bill does not just reflect that position and deal with elections to the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and the House of Commons, but—and this has received little attention—will cover the selection of candidates for local government elections.''—[Official Report, 24 October 2001; Vol. 373, c. 330.]
I am sure that we would all agree that there are many good women councillors, but more would be nice. Although the figures vary slightly between parties, on average about a quarter of councillors are women. As the Secretary of State said—and I was happy to concur with this view—local government can be a useful experience for anyone wanting to enter the House. That is not to suggest that serving in local government is not valuable and important in its own right, because it is, but those who want to become Members of Parliament would find that experience useful if they were elected.
The Bill relates to existing bodies. It covers parliamentary elections, elections to the European Parliament, the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales and local government elections, and clause 2 covers the Northern Ireland Assembly. The purpose of my amendments is to press the Minister on what other elected bodies should be covered by the Bill and whether the language in the Bill includes them.
Amendment No. 2 refers to elections to the Greater London Assembly. I hope that the Minister has not overlooked their importance, as someone who, at one stage in his political career, wanted to stand for election to the London mayoralty, although he was unsuccessful in that. Amendment No. 2 also specifies
``elections to any body which may replace those listed in this subsection''.
That could be described as a catch-all, but it is an attempt to ensure that, were any of the relevant structures to be changed, the Bill would still cover the process of selection and election to those bodies. They would not fall by the wayside simply because they had not been named in the Bill. I want to ensure that the Bill is all-encompassing. Perhaps the bodies listed in clause 1(3) will not be changed or replaced in future, but if that were ever to happen, I would not want the Government to have to introduce further measures to identify another body.
Amendment No. 3 refers to two other types of elections that do not currently take place but which might in future. The Government have declared an intention that at least a proportion of the House of Lords should be elected. It is not clear whether clause 1(3) would cover future elections to the House of Lords. I suggest that it should do so.
The Government also propose the introduction of regional assemblies in the United Kingdom. We have a difference of opinion on that matter of policy.
Before my hon. Friend moves on to discuss regional assemblies I have a question about the House of Lords. My hon. Friend seemed to take the view that elections to the House of Lords might happen in the future. However, an election has taken place in the House of Lords to determine the hereditary peers who were to remain. Presumably another such election might occur. Trying to find gender balance in that context might be tricky, but nevertheless would my hon. Friend interpret the relevant provision as applying in such a case?
I am not sure whether I am grateful for that intervention, but it is a valid point: there have been elections in the House of Lords. I suspect that there was little gender balance in the candidature, although I know several women came through, including a constituent of mine, Baroness Darcy de Knayth, who was one of the Cross Benchers elected. That is a relevant issue. When I raised the matter of elections to the House of Lords, the Minister indicated that the legislation did not cover that subject. The Government may have overlooked the issue, given their intentions. I look forward to the Minister's response, as he seems to be shaking his head to indicate that the issue has not been overlooked. If the Government have taken a conscious decision that the Bill will not apply to future elections for membership to the House of Lords, the Committee should be made aware of it.
The Minister may say that if other legislation were introduced to deal with elections to the House of Lords, it could cover sex discrimination against election candidates. It behoves us to consider future circumstances, and it is important to examine whether the Bill can be amended to give it wider coverage, so that it encompasses future bodies.
My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. The Bill covers only elections to bodies, not appointments to non-democratic public bodies or to the House of Lords. By introducing the Bill the Government have made it clear that they think that the number of women in the House of Commons should be increased. It would therefore be interesting to know whether the Labour party—particularly the Prime Minister—extends that view to membership of the House of Lords. Notwithstanding the fact that the Bill does not cover appointments to non-elective bodies, I should like to know whether appointments to such organisations will be covered and the number of women appointed to such bodies increased.
Amendment No. 3 relates, in part, to elections to regional assemblies. The Minister and I have a difference of opinion on regional assemblies, to which the Government are committed. The Conservative party does not believe in regional assemblies, as we made clear at the previous general election. Notwithstanding our difference of opinion, does the Minister agree that, if the Government introduce elected regional assemblies, elections for those should be covered by the Bill?
I shall listen with interest to the Minister's response, because when Ministers in the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions have responded to questions on the subject recently, they have shown that the Government are wavering in their commitment to introducing regional assemblies in the near future. A White Paper on the subject, which was to be introduced by the Deputy Prime Minister rather than the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, was to be published before Christmas but has been postponed until the new year. That indicates either that the Government's commitment is wavering or that they intend to introduce regional assemblies on a longer timetable than first suggested.
The Bill contains a sunset clause and is operational until 2015. I doubt whether the Government intend to postpone the introduction of regional assemblies until a time when the Bill is no longer applicable. If they intend to introduce regional assemblies, why do they not ensure that the legislation covers elections to those assemblies? On Second Reading, Ministers said that they believe that the number of women on elected bodies is an important issue. We want a good proportion of women to be elected to bodies at all levels of government, and all such bodies should be encompassed in the Bill.
Amendment No. 8 relates to clause 2, which deals with Northern Ireland. It would ensure that coverage in Northern Ireland was all encompassing and covered bodies introduced in the future to replace or succeed those referred to in proposed new section 43A(3), which relates to parliamentary elections and to elections to the European Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly and any district council. Again, the Bill should apply where this Government or a future Government change the structures in the legislation, replace bodies or introduce new ones; it should not be necessary to revisit the legislation in the future. We have the opportunity to ensure that the Bill is all encompassing, and it is sensible that we should do so and not fall into the trap of allowing positive action for certain elections but not others.
I am delighted to support the amendments in much the same spirit as the hon. Member for Maidenhead. When I mentioned consensus earlier, I had in mind my opposite number, the other shadow Leader of the House, who regards it as a dirty word. I am delighted that his colleagues in the Committee take a different view, and we have already demonstrated that we agree on several important issues.
The hon. Lady referred to the sunset clause and to 2015, but it sounded as if she did not expect her party to be in government in the intervening period. I take a different view in the sense that I regard my party as having a chance of governing—whether that is with a majority or in partnership will depend on the electoral system.
The hon. Gentleman might not have noticed that I made it clear in my closing remarks that I was talking about structures that might be put in place by not only the present Government but their successors, who could be drawn from any party—or rather, from one of two parties.
This debate is important, and I hope that the Minister will respond positively. The Bill covers local authorities, which, as the hon. Lady said, have a better record on the whole in terms of outcomes. My own party has nothing to boast about in this place, but can claim, with 33 per cent., to have the best proportion of women in local government. I take great pride in the fact that some of our major local authorities are led by women councillors, who have proved to be effective managers and leaders. That is why it is important to put down a marker about other elected assemblies.
I shall not be drawn into the intriguing question of what will happen if internal elections among the hereditaries and other groups in the other place continue, although I hope that they will not. The idea of gender balance among the bishops, Law Lords and hereditary peers is intriguing. If the Government do not take the bull by the horns and get on with making the other place a democratic assembly, there might be problems.
The amendments are more concerned with existing or planned changes to our hierarchy of authorities. The Greater London Authority is already in place and has a reasonable gender balance, largely because of the electoral system. I mentioned in exchanges with the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire the relevance of trying to achieve such outcomes to the system of election. We made that point on Second Reading and shall no doubt return to it.
I am delighted to see from a weekend report that the Leader of the House believes that electoral reform is back on the agenda, if not immediately for this place, at least for other parts of our constitutional settlement. That will be true when we discuss some of the other issues that the amendments address.
Although the GLA already has a reasonable gender balance, future changes in the election system or the attitudes of parties might cause that balance to go astray, so I hope that the Minister agrees that it should be included in the ambit of the Bill. I also hope that it follows, as light follows day, that if the electors of London are enabled to adopt that attitude, the same will happen when devolution rolls out across the country, as I hope it will. It would be ludicrous if electors in London were given an opportunity to ensure good representation in their regional body, but the electors of the hon. Members for South Cambridgeshire and for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) —let alone the electors of Cornwall--were not. We in Cornwall demand whatever London has as quickly as we can, and would certainly hold to account any Government who failed to give us the same protection and opportunities. Similarly, we expect to have the same form of proportionality, so that each part of the country has a reasonably representative body.
Perhaps I am not following the hon. Gentleman sufficiently carefully. I am not sure that there is such a demand in East Anglia—or the eastern region, as we must now call it. In any case, to have what London has is clearly not appropriate. I thought that we had agreed, in all those debates, that London had not a regional assembly but a city-wide election. Regional assemblies are different.
I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. However, if we seek to ensure that discrimination—in the sense of affecting the outcome positively—is appropriate for the other bodies covered by the Bill, surely the measures should extend to the Greater London Authority and to regional assemblies as devolution rolls out.
The amendment might also be relevant to the possible constitution of the House of Lords. It is heavily rumoured that a White Paper due out tomorrow morning will extend the principle of election to the House of Lords, but only in a limited way, through indirect election. The only logical way in which indirect election could be acceptable under the British constitution is if it comes from regional assemblies. I do not understand how otherwise we might achieve indirect election to the House of Lords. Although I do not sign up to that idea, it may be the Government's intention. Given that the proposals will be announced tomorrow, perhaps the Minister could give us all full details in the secrecy of this Room, as people do not necessarily listen to everything that is said here.
If the Government intend to propose a small number of directly elected Members—against the wishes of the Conservative party, the Liberal Democrats and a large majority of Labour supporters—they may sweeten the pill by having indirect elections. Candidates for those indirect elections will have to come from elected regional assemblies, so the Bill will have to apply at both levels. It would be ludicrous if it did not. What is the point of taking a stance on this issue and then leaving out an important part of our constitutional settlement? I underline the point made by the hon. Member for Maidenhead that, if the Bill represents an opportunity to get this matter right, we should insert into it the replacement democratic bodies. For the sake of consistency, it is important that we establish that principle.
I have only one point to take up with the hon. Lady. She referred to changes imposed by this or future Governments, and those changes are enacted by Parliament. On constitutional matters, it is important that we develop an evolutionary and consensual approach—that is why I welcome the atmosphere in the Committee. I hope that the Minister will be able to address the various misgivings that we have expressed.
Finally, in reference to the exchanges between myself and the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire, it is important that we have the question of proportionate measures in the back of our minds as we apply the new legislation. Clearly, the extent to which we have proportionate representation—whether it is in the GLA, regional assemblies or, indeed, direct elections to the House of Lords—must be taken into account in considering the application of these measures.
I will try not to repeat what has already been said eloquently. To follow up the point made by the hon. Member for North Cornwall about proportionality, I find it interesting that the Government have excluded the election of the mayor of London from the legislation, because that suggests that they have reached a view about what is proportionate. The Government do not regard as proportionate the application of a selection system that would give an automatic preference to a woman as a candidate for the post of mayor. That raises an interesting question about the application of the same view in the election of a Member of Parliament, although in that case, I understand that there is a broader issue about the representative nature of us all as a legislative assembly. Does the Minister intend that all directly elected mayors will be excluded from the legislation?
Mr. Raynsford indicated assent.
The Minister seems to be indicating that they will be.
The hon. Member for North Cornwall and I have talked about regional assemblies prospectively. For the avoidance of doubt, I hope that assemblies are not established in the eastern region, or in most of the other English regions. However, there are bodies that already describe themselves as regional assemblies. Technically, they are appointed rather than elected, but the selection of those people and the manner in which they conduct themselves give the impression of a nascent regional assembly. That raises the question of whether the selection of members of such assemblies should be covered in some way.
It is difficult to speculate about the House of Lords, because we may find out more tomorrow about what is proposed—as the hon. Member for North Cornwall has suggested. If the hon. Gentleman is right—I suspect that he is—we should take this opportunity to make clear the desirability of gender balance, as the White Paper may require many other kinds of balance in representation in the House of Lords, and gender balance might otherwise be missed.
I welcome the desire of the hon. Member for Maidenhead to ensure that all elections, both present and future, are covered by the Bill. I support those sentiments wholeheartedly but hope that I can persuade her that her amendments are not the appropriate way to achieve that outcome.
Let us consider the various bodies in turn. The Bill already covers the elections to the Greater London Assembly. I do not hold it against the hon. Lady for not knowing the detail of the Greater London Authority Act 1999 as it is one of the largest pieces of legislation, and I spent a disproportionate amount of my time guiding it through the House. I also would not expect her to know that section 203 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 was amended by schedule 3 of the 1999 Act so that the GLA is defined for that purpose as a local authority and is, therefore, covered by the extension to local government.
The hon. Member for North Cornwall made the point that the GLA has a relatively good gender balance. He missed a trick, because 75 per cent. of Liberal Democrats on the GLA are women. He is right, however, that overall there is a 40 per cent. representation of women on the GLA. There will be a barb later for the hon. Gentleman in exchange for the little morsel that I have tossed out. In general, the GLA has a good gender balance, primarily because it is a new body and not because of the type of election. When it was set up, most of the parties--as in the elections to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly--were determined to put in place arrangements to ensure a good balance between male and female candidates.
It is possible that devices such as twinning and zipping work only when one is starting from scratch and there is a clean slate. It is not possible to apply the same arrangements when casual vacancies subsequently arise. We should not take too much consolation from the relatively good results in Scotland, Wales and the GLA, because those results could evaporate over time if appropriate measures are not in place to ensure that the good level of representation of women on those bodies is maintained.
I wholeheartedly agree with my right hon. Friend that those arrangements must be in place when bodies are newly elected. Is it not a great pity that the Liberal Democrats missed that opportunity in Scotland by agreeing to deliver twinning but not carrying it out?
My hon. Friend delivered part of the barb that I was going to offer the hon. Member for North Cornwall in exchange for the kind words earlier, but let us move on.
Amendments Nos. 2, 3 and 8 would extend the provisions to cover new elected bodies or elected bodies that do not yet exist, and would specify the House of Lords and any regional assemblies in England. The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire raised a most interesting proposition, which the hon. Member for Maidenhead was clearly not keen to pursue. It is not clear how he could devise something that would have applied to last year's elections in the House of Lords, but I shall pass rapidly over that.
It would not be right for us to propose speculative legislative changes against as yet undefined future events, although I take the opportunity to reassure hon. Members that the Government intend to press ahead both with reform of the House of Lords and on our regional agenda. I am sure that hon. Members will be pleased to hear that. It is implicit in our constitution that we cannot bind future Governments or legislate against future eventualities that have not been defined in legislation.
The Greater London Authority Act 1999 amended previous legislation to ensure that the GLA was covered by the definition of local government, and in the same way it will be appropriate to add provisions to the Bill to ensure that it also extends to future elected bodies. I hope that the hon. Lady recognises that that is the right constitutional way to proceed.
The hon. Member for Maidenhead expressed opposition to regional assemblies. I remind her that the Conservative party expressed opposition to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the GLA, and subsequently changed its mind about all three bodies. I advise the hon. Lady against getting too stuck in the ditch defending a position that may be completely washed away by the tide of history when regional assemblies are up and running, and popular. However, I will pass over that too.
The hon. Gentleman has a short memory. He was a candidate in the 1997 general election when the Conservative party fought on a manifesto that was wholly opposed to the introduction of a new elected body in London, believing that the quango arrangements set up when the Greater London council was abolished were adequate to ensure representation in London. We did not believe that they were adequate, which is why we legislated to give the people of London, like those of Scotland and Wales, the right to have their own directly elected bodies to look after their interests.
The hon. Member for North Cornwall touched on the extent to which the Liberal Democrats are relatively well represented in local government. I said that they had a reasonable record in local government and the Greater London Authority, but I hope that they will recognise that they must do better in relation to their selection of candidates generally. I hope that they learn some lessons from the unfortunate debacle at their conference recently, which set back the cause of women's representation in their party.
The hon. Member for Maidenhead suggested that we might be backtracking from our commitment on regional assemblies, but we are doing no such thing. We are committed to producing a White Paper next year that will spell out our proposals in detail. Our proposals in relation to the House of Lords—hon. Members will have astutely realised that they will be revealed tomorrow—will be detailed as well, but I shall not anticipate the future. I hope that the Committee will recognise that the amendments, although well intentioned, are either unnecessary or inappropriate, and that the hon. Lady will agree to withdraw them.
I have been interested in our debate on the issues, and in the Minister's response. First, I want to comment on what the hon. Member for North Cornwall said. We have had several exchanges about the word ``consensus'' and the cross-party agreement on matters raised in the Bill and the amendments, but it is unfortunate that he did not have the courtesy to put consensus into practice. Until I arrived at the sitting, I was not aware that he had put his name to some of the amendments that I had tabled, as he had not chosen to speak to me on the subject. I was deeply sorry about that.
I apologise. I confess that it was only when I considered the hon. Lady's excellent amendments last night that I realised that I entirely agreed with them. If she wants me always to tell her when I shall agree with her as opposed to when I disagree with her, she may be only partially aware of our views.
I suspect that the number of occasions on which the hon. Gentleman will agree with me will be more limited than the number of occasions on which I will disagree with him and his party.
In relation to the amendments and the comments made on them, I want to consider the future bodies that might be introduced by Parliament. I take the point made by the hon. Member for North Cornwall that legislation has to be passed by Parliament rather than simply being the diktat of the Government, although the Government produce most legislation and make initial decisions as to how it should be introduced.
The amendments were an attempt to ensure that any bodies introduced by a Labour or Conservative Government during the period up to 2015 in which the measure will operate would be covered by it. I heard the Minister's comments on future bodies and his view that it would be preferable to tackle the issue when it arises in legislation. I recognise that legislation can be changed in future Parliaments, but if we are to make a statement now, through the Bill's passage through Parliament and its enactment, it is important that our statement does not simply relate to elections to bodies currently in place. The Labour Government have tinkered with the constitution by introducing several other bodies, and I shall comment on regional assemblies in a moment.
In my introductory remarks, I made it clear that we wholly supported the hon. Lady's objective in wanting the principles to apply, and that it was only the mechanism, not the principle, on which we disagreed. I hope that she accepts that we clearly believe that the principles behind the Bill should apply in future where appropriate.
It being One o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.
Adjourned till Thursday 8 November at five minutes to Ten o'clock.