I remind the Committee that with this we are taking 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 replaying or succeeding bodies referred to in paragraphs (b) and (d) above.'.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Amess. It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. This is my first opportunity to work under what I am sure will be your fair but firm hand.
We had a lengthy debate on Tuesday about amendments Nos. 2, 3 and 8. We debated the extent to which it was necessary to specify in the Bill other elected bodies to which the provisions should apply, and to make provision for bodies that replace or are created in addition to those in the Bill. In response, the Minister for Local Government said that we need not worry about future bodies because the Government would ensure that the Bill applied to them.
On amendment No. 3, we had slight difficulties about elections to the House of Lords because the Minister was speaking about the then forthcoming White Paper, which was issued yesterday. Having seen it, I understand why he was reluctant to talk about such elections—it requires a telescope to see those provisions. That takes nothing away from the argument that we should ensure that the Bill applies to other elected bodies. The Government cannot get away with saying that they have introduced the Bill to cover elected bodies, because they or succeeding Governments might later omit to ensure that new bodies are covered.
Paragraph 35 of the White Paper on the composition of the House of Lords refers to the desirability of representativeness embracing gender, faith and ethnicity. My hon. Friend might, however, be as interested as I am in paragraph 66, which deals with the requirement for the appointments commission to secure the appointment of women. Two points arise from that. First, the White Paper mentions legislation providing for representativeness in appointments to the House of Lords, but not in elections to it, as intended in the Bill. Secondly, it is curious that the White Paper suggests that 30 per cent. of new appointments should be women and 30 per cent. should be men and that we should move towards gender balance over time. Given the imbalance at the moment, the House of Lords will never reach anything approaching gender balance if only 30 per cent. of new appointments are women.
While my hon. Friend was reading those figures, I began to wonder what on earth the other 40 per cent. would be if 30 per cent. were women and 30 per cent. were men.
I love Departments' drafting skills and have occasionally displayed them myself. I understand the desirability of being even handed. I also recognise that a figure of at least 50 per cent. would have been difficult to achieve because the total would have been more than 100 per cent., so the figures were rounded down equally on both sides. None the less, the result is nonsense.
My hon. Friend is right. In yesterday's press coverage of the White Paper on reform of the House of Lords, the point was made that the Government were concerned with gender balance among elected representatives to the reformed Chamber but they have not followed that through to the appointed representatives. That point ties in with an intervention that my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) made when I spoke to these amendments on Tuesday. She asked whether I thought the Prime Minister was as committed to the achievement of a gender balance as the introduction of the Bill would suggest, and wondered whether he would ensure that his appointments reflected that balance. It would appear from the White Paper that the Government are not as committed on those appointments, and that Tony simply wants to ensure that he has his cronies the other place, regardless of gender balance.
We need to ensure that the provisions in the Bill, which enable positive action to be taken to achieve a greater gender balance in elected bodies, apply to other bodies, whether they replace existing bodies or are newly created. Amendment No. 3 refers not only to the House of Lords but to regional assemblies. I have made it clear that we do not share the Government's support for regional assemblies, but those assemblies should be included in the Bill if the Government are so committed to them.
I listened carefully to the Minister's comments on amendment No. 2. He said that elections to the Greater London Assembly were implicitly covered by the Greater London Authority Act 1999, which amended the Representation of the People Act 1983. I would have preferred that body to be specified in the Bill, as that would have represented a commitment from the Government.
Before I remind the hon. Lady of something, I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Amess. This may not be the longest-running Committee over which you will preside, but I hope that at least it is enjoyable.
I remind the hon. Lady that I did not say that the Greater London Assembly was implicitly covered, but that the Greater London Authority Act 1999 explicitly included the Greater London Authority within the definition of local government, which guarantees that it is covered by the Bill. I also made it clear that a similar procedure would be appropriate in respect of all future bodies. That is the correct constitutional procedure, so I hope that she will not use it as a device to justify pressing a defective amendment.
If the Government shared the point of principle that lay behind the amendment but thought that the wording was faulty, they should have tabled an alternative amendment.
I remind the hon. Lady of my final remarks in our last sitting, when I said that I had
``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.''——[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 6 November 2001; c. 40.]
I hope that that clarifies the point, and that she recognises that we are wholly committed to the principle that she has advocated.
I say again to the Minister that if he is as committed to the principle as he says, he should give us greater support than he has shown so far by putting it into practice. The Committee is not the final stage of the Bill. If an amendment were passed today that the Government felt was inappropriate, they would be able to return to it later.
The reference to the Greater London Assembly is important because existing bodies should be referred to in the Bill. I hear the Minister's comments on the constitutional arguments about the Greater London Authority Act 1999 and the Representation of the People Act 1983. I assume that if the Government establish regional assemblies they will describe them as local rather than regional government.
My hon. Friend is right. The Minister's certainty that Members on the Government Benches support the principle of the amendment suggests that, should it come to a vote, they will be willing to join us.
We have had a lengthy debate on the amendments. I am disappointed that the Greater London Assembly is not referred to in the Bill, and that the Government have not shown a willingness to move on the issue. An indication in the Bill of future intention would guarantee that future elected bodies such as should be covered by the Bill were covered. That would be better than allowing the matter to be decided when a Government—of whichever complexion—established such bodies. In that light, I should like to press amendment No. 2 to a vote.
Question put, That the amendment be made:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 7
This is an appropriate moment to mention the concerns of Liberal Democrats about the new burdens that will be placed on political parties as a result of the legislation. I believe that those concerns are shared by other hon. Members.
On Tuesday, the Minister, on a number of occasions, used some interesting qualifying words about the way in which the legislation is to be imposed on the political parties. Perhaps the secret is that it will not be imposed—it is permissive. Its permissive nature enabled the Minister to state a number of times what he thought will happen ``in the Government's view'', whereas at other times he made the point that the political parties will have to take legal advice. I do not have any legal qualifications or experience, which is why I have a modest income. I know that lawyers are not cheap. That is especially true when it comes to complicated issues of human rights, to which much reference was made in our sitting on Tuesday and on Second Reading.
Having taken advice from my legal friends—free, I must stress, as we are impecunious—I know that it is the opinion of many lawyers that this issue will be a legal minefield. The permissive nature of the Bill will not reduce the burden on political parties; it will increase it. Its provisions will be open to legal challenge at various levels, including under European legislation made in compliance with the equal treatment directive.
What leads the hon. Gentleman to believe that such challenges—I speak of challenges rather than of people's views—are inevitable? No European country that has adopted similar rules has suffered a successful challenge to the legislation that he cites.
I am usually an optimist, otherwise I would not be a Liberal Democrat, but on this occasion I believe that the hon. Lady is being over-optimistic. The so-called zipping arrangements that my party put in place for the European elections resulted in legal exchanges, which were extremely expensive, even though they never reached the courts. The expense and difficulty of obtaining legal advice was such that we ended up going to a very well-respected—indeed, the foremost—lawyer. She is not unknown to the Prime Minister; and she is not cheap.
Is not the hon. Gentleman making a party point under the cover of seeking legal advice? I do not doubt that legal advice was taken, but are not the Liberal Democrats getting their retaliation in first because they know that they have a problem with all-women shortlists as a result of a conference decision?
Far from it. As I explained on Second Reading, it is likely that the Labour party will be first in the dock. If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I shall say in a moment why it is appropriate for this Committee and this Parliament to take a view about the provision of legal advice.
My Liberal Democrat colleagues and the party generally did not want to pre-empt the legislation; we wanted to see whether progress could be made before the legislation came into being. However, it is likely that my party will have to find some way of making the maximum use of the Bill. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mrs. Calton) takes that view, as does our parliamentary party, but the Labour party is most likely to be first in that position and it is only right and proper that we should examine the issue carefully.
The regulatory appraisal made no reference to obligations and expenses imposed by the Bill on political parties. There is no guarantee that the Bill will prevent the eruption of yet more attempts to litigate or to claim that discrimination is taking place. In those circumstances, there is a precedent for the Government at least being prepared to provide legal advice to the parties. The precedent is simple. The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 made specific provision: if Parliament legislated to impose new burdens on political parties, it would be appropriate for the Government to take some responsibility for the cost of taking legal advice.
That is a useful precedent. It is much better that the Government should be prepared to live with their legislation rather than using the weasel words that we heard last Tuesday, such as ``in our view'' and ``the political parties will have to take advice''. The Government should live up to their obligations and be prepared to provide suitable legal support for all the political parties on a consistent basis. In the precedent provided by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, which implemented the Neill recommendations on the registration and regulation of funding, the Act had a specific regulatory impact on the political parties. This situation is similar and I hope that the Minister will at least be able to give some assurance that the Government will be prepared to re-examine the matter between now and the passage of the Bill through the other place.
As I said at the beginning of our discussions and on Second Reading, we support the Bill in principle. We have tried, through amendments, to improve it, but we agree with its basic principle. Its aim is to ensure that we get a better balance of representation in the House and in other elected bodies. It is designed to ensure that women get a fair crack of the whip—a chance to get elected. In all political parties, there are good women whose talents would add to the strength of Parliament. Such women find themselves, through no fault of their own—there are no problems with their abilities or talents—but because of the way in which the processes operate, not being selected and therefore not being given the opportunity to be elected as Members of Parliament. To remind the Committee, only 18 per cent. of Members of Parliament are women. The figures are much higher in other Parliaments, ranging from nearly 43 per cent. in Sweden to 25 per cent. in Namibia. Namibia is the 20th highest in the list of Parliaments in terms of the representation of women.
I referred to the Equal Opportunities Commission MORI poll earlier. It found that three in 10 of the parliamentary candidates who were polled were aware of prejudice or sex discrimination at some stage during a selection process. Having examined the results of the poll, the Equal Opportunities Commission made it clear that it was important that a Bill was introduced to enable political parties to take the positive action that is necessary. The crux of the Bill is in clause 1, which contains the provision for political parties to take positive action. As the chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission said,
``This Bill will be decisive in enabling the political parties to increase the number of women MPs—an ambition they all share. Research . . . has shown that use of positive action measures is the single most significant factor in increasing women's representation.''
We have had a debate about the sort of positive action measures that the Bill would enable political parties to take. I am sure that there will be a difference in practice and approach.
I share some of the concerns of the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler). There are still questions about the Bill's legal aspects. It was telling, in our debate on amendments to the clause, that both the Minister and the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Alan Whitehead) took great pains to point out that political parties would have to take legal advice. In other words, a political party cannot simply rely on the Bill and take positive action purely because it has been enacted. Parties will have to take legal advice about the nature of the positive action that they take.
I associate myself with the comment made by the hon. Member for North Cornwall, because, like him, I suspect that, if any political party is going to find the positive action it takes subject to legal challenge, it will be the Labour party if it goes down the route of all-women shortlists. The hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) has made the point on several occasions that experience elsewhere suggests that that will not happen. However, that is not to say that it will not happen in the circumstances we are considering. The Labour party might have difficulty over the key issue on which the Minister was questioned by my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley)—proportionality. Would all-women shortlists be proportionate to the problem? Some issues remain to be dealt with from, dare I mention it, our debate about the impact of European legislation, and they may be teased out later in the Bill's passage.
Clause 1 is the heart of the Bill; clause 2 repeats its provisions for Northern Ireland. Clause 1 would enable political parties to encourage women and to do what is necessary to ensure that more are elected. It is important to note that not only institutions such as the Equal Opportunities Commission—which is chaired by Julie Mellor, whom I quoted in my remarks—support that aim. It is supported by the Fawcett Society, whose history is of trying to ensure better representation of women, particularly in Parliament. I believe that other members of the Committee have received a letter from Soroptimist International. I mention it because it shows that interest in getting women elected and in ensuring that they are part of the decision-making process goes wider than those groups that might naturally be assumed to support those aims.
The Soroptimists are clear about their view. They urge Governments to offer support services and guidance to women on affirmative action, and also refer to the implementation of the platform for action that was adopted at the Fourth United Nations World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham was one of the United Kingdom's representatives there.
I apologise for demoting my hon. Friend and congratulate her on being the Minister who signed the document.
As the Soroptimists point out, two of the 12 critical areas of concern from that platform of action are particularly relevant: first, the inequality between men and women and sharing power and decision making at all levels; and, secondly, the insufficient mechanisms at all levels to promote the advancement of women. The Bill goes some way to redressing those problems, with respect to elected bodies, by providing for political parties to take the necessary positive action to encourage women—and to show a face to women that says, ``We actively want women to be selected and elected.'' The parties will take different approaches to that. My party believes that the number of women in Parliament can be increased without all-women shortlists. Other methods can achieve it.
I am disappointed that the Minister has, while perhaps agreeing with us in principle, not accepted some of our amendments, which were aimed at making the Bill practical and not open to legal challenge of the sort that some of us fear. Nevertheless, we support the principle and aims of clause 1.
As the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) pointed out, clause 1 is the heart of the Bill. It inserts at the beginning of part V of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 an exemption for positive measures designed to reduce inequality in the numbers of men and women elected to certain bodies. It exempts them from the general prohibition in the Act against discrimination on grounds of sex. As the 1975 Act does not extend to Northern Ireland, the clause relates to Great Britain only, which is why clause 2 is necessary for Northern Ireland.
The clause is permissive and designed to give political parties as much flexibility as possible. An important principle is that it is not the Government's role to regulate the internal workings of political parties.
I thank the Minister for the assurance that the Government do not intend to intervene in the workings of political parties, but is he aware that the Leader of the House said yesterday that the minimum 30 per cent. of male and female appointments should apply to future party nominations? Does that not run against the permissiveness to which the Minister referred in his opening remarks?
No. The hon. Gentleman is confused in the same way in which Opposition Members are confused about the Bill; he has confused appointments with elections. I have made it clear that the Bill relates only to the process of election and how political parties bring forward candidates for election. The principle applies in that respect.
When it would be more in order, I would be more than happy to debate the appropriate arrangements for the reform of the House of Lords. I pause to remark on the fact that, for not only decades but centuries, the Conservative party happily acquiesced to a framework in which an unreformed House of Lords gave it an in-built majority. I hope that it will willingly embrace a framework that will ensure more balanced representation in the upper House in future.
My hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead was, in effect, winding up the debate on her previous amendment, so the Minister has not had an opportunity to assure the Committee that, in legislation on House of Lords reform, the Government explicitly intend to provide for the application of the Bill to future elections in the House of Lords.
In respect of elections, I gave that assurance in Committee on Tuesday and I am happy to repeat that we intend to apply the principle in the Bill to all future bodies that come into existence and are elected. Of course, I have already made a distinction between election and appointment, but we certainly intend to apply the same principle to elected bodies.
I owe the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire an apology, because he made an intervention on Tuesday to which I did not respond. It was about the role of elected mayors in London or any other local authority area where a directly elected mayor was returned as the executive. The nature of the post makes it impossible to achieve gender balance, as only one person fulfils the executive role. Our focus is on outcomes rather than process, as we debated to some extent on Tuesday, and therefore it will not be possible to impose a similar obligation of greater gender balance in the election of a directly elected mayor. There will never be a gender balance in the outcome; the mayor will be either male or female. That is logical.
The logic of that is inescapable. The difficulty, which relates to a point made by the hon. Member for North Cornwall, is that by the same logic, Members of Parliament in the House of Commons occupy the single post of representing a single constituency. By definition, one cannot achieve gender balance in that role. That is the distinction between what happens in this country and on the continent, where proportionality and balance are often achieved by electing Members of Parliament as a body rather than for single constituencies.
I counsel the hon. Gentleman not to take his argument too far, as he may stray into territory that the hon. Member for North Cornwall will rapidly seize on as an argument in favour of a proportionate electoral system.
The Minister will be delighted to hear that I shall not go down that track. Has he taken full account of paragraph 41 of the White Paper on the reform of the House of Lords? It suggests the possibility of some indirectly elected Members from the various national and regional assemblies of the United Kingdom alongside the directly elected Members. I made a point about that yesterday, as did the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson). There is a strong view that that might make the second Chamber more democratic. How would the Government ensure gender balance in indirect elections to the House of Lords?
The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point, which we shall address in our White Paper on regional government early next year. I made it clear at our previous sitting--I do so again today--that we intend the principles in the Bill to apply to elected regional assemblies. We are laying the basis for gender balance in such assemblies and if there is indirect representation in the House of Lords from them, it will be easier to ensure the objective to which the hon. Gentleman is committed. I give him an undertaking that we shall examine the matter in more detail and cover the relevant issues in our White Paper on regional government.
The hon. Gentleman claimed that the Bill imposes burdens on political parties. It does not. It is permissive, and provides an opportunity for political parties that we believe that they will want to seize. I was pleased to hear the hon. Member for Maidenhead, who speaks for the Conservatives on such matters, say that they want to seize the opportunity. They certainly need to do so to redress the imbalance in their representation in the House and we hope that the Bill will facilitate that process. There is no additional burden, so the doctrine that the hon. Lady cited--that when legislation imposes new burdens it is appropriate for the Government to underwrite legal costs--does not apply.
The hon. Member for North Cornwall prayed in aid the Neill report, which states in chapter 7:
``Our support for public funding for one purpose is by no means an indicator of our support for public funding for other purposes.''
That is a very clear statement.
Does not the Minister recognise that we have a sacrosanct duty to try to produce legislation that is not open to challenge? It should be as impregnable as possible. At our previous sitting and again today, he accepted that political parties will require legal advice and support. All of us in the Room support the Bill's objectives, but the Government would be foolish if they did not acknowledge that some will not accept them. It is already clear that there are chinks through which challenges will be made.
The Bill addresses the problem that was clearly highlighted in the Jepson case, which created a legal challenge to the adoption of positive measures by the Labour party in the 1990s. We are addressing that problem, and the Bill provides for remedies to make it easier for political parties to introduce positive measures without risk of legal action. However, it would be a foolish Minister who did not give the advice that I have offered consistently during our proceedings. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary also confirmed that we would advise political parties to take legal advice before adopting specific measures. That is prudent advice, which any Minister would offer on any similar legislation and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take it in that spirit. We are rightly and properly signalling the duty on political parties to take responsibility for their actions, and the wisdom of taking advice on that. However, our measures are designed to reduce the likelihood of legal challenge and to respond to the specific problem highlighted by the Jepson case.
That covers the issues that have been raised in the short clause stand part debate. In conclusion, I stress the importance of enforcing the Bill in good order and at an early stage so that political parties can adopt the necessary measures to achieve the outcome to which we all aspire. The legislation will be measured by the outcome, which should be a transformation of the unsatisfactory gender balance that applies not only to this place, but to other elected bodies in the country. The clause is the core of the Bill.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.