I am pleased to have secured this debate. We had hoped to have a debate about the important work of the Speaker's Conference on the Floor of the House at some stage, because Speakers' Conferences are rare events, but that was not to be. I had hoped for a two and a half hour debate last Thursday, but that was not to be either. So I am absolutely delighted that we have been given the opportunity to spend an hour and a half this morning discussing the findings and consequences of the Speaker's Conference.
I want to cover four different areas. First, I shall give some context to the Speaker's Conference-why it was set up and the reasons behind it. Secondly, I want to talk about the findings of the report, some of which were surprising, and some of which were less so. We hope that some of the findings will educate people in the future. The third area that I would like to consider is the response of various organisations, such as the political parties and the House authorities, and how they anticipate taking forward some of our recommendations. Those responses to our report have now been published. Fourthly, I would like to spend some time looking to the future and considering how we might carry on the work of the Speaker's Conference. Although a Speaker's Conference only lasts until the end of the Parliament in which it is set up, I hope that our report's recommendations will have long-lasting effects and will potentially change the future composition of our House of Commons. In the time I have available, I hope I can cover all those areas.
As I said, Speakers' Conferences rarely happen. They are often set up at the behest of the Prime Minister of the day, which was true in this case, and they usually consider constitutional issues that will have long-lasting repercussions. Cross-party support might therefore be needed to put recommendations in place. It is no use just one political party or Government accepting the findings of a Speaker's Conference report; it must have cross-party support. We were very conscious that some of the previous Speakers' Conferences had come up with radical proposals. We did not think that we would suggest something as radical as votes for women, as one Speaker's Conference did at the turn of the 20th century, or votes for 18-year-olds, which was one of the findings of a Speaker's Conference in the 1960s. However, we hoped that the findings and recommendations of our piece of work would have the same kind of long-lasting effects on representation.
The Speaker's Conference was set up to consider the composition of the House of Commons and to try to find solutions to rectify the disparity in the representation of some groups of people. For example, only 19 per cent. of Members of the House of Commons are women, despite the fact that women make up 52 per cent. of the population, and small numbers of Members are from ethnic minorities, despite the fact that an increasing proportion of the population comes from ethnic minorities. We also considered why there were so few disabled Members, when we know that there is a large disabled population in society. Those were the main areas of our remit, but the phrase "and associated matters" also allowed us to consider other groups that are perhaps under-represented, particularly those from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
We took evidence from across the whole country. We were keen to get out of the Westminster bubble, and did not want to be seen simply as a parliamentary delegation descending from on high. We were also very keen to engage with the people we met, and to listen to what they had to say, so that we could reflect those views in our recommendations. We took evidence in the Palace of Westminster itself, and I thank the leaders of the three main political parties, who gave evidence. Initially, they were not perhaps as tied into the process as we had hoped, but with a bit of persuasion, all three turned up, and we are grateful that they did.
One of the things that we became acutely aware of fairly early on in our deliberations was that the gatekeepers to the process of deciding who ends up in the House of Commons is not Parliament or the public; it is the political parties. They make the decisions on who their candidates are, and it is only the candidates chosen by the political parties who are put before the electorate. The electorate then make a choice from that group of people. We knew that we needed to get some kind of buy-in from the leaders of the political parties, because we were acutely aware that if they did not think that the work of the Speaker's Conference was important, nothing would change-as in previous years, when in many cases nothing much did change. I pay tribute to the three leaders; they did turn up and they acquitted themselves extremely well. All three demonstrated that they thought it important to have a diverse Parliament.
When the hon. Lady went out and about with the Speaker's Conference, how did the public feel about the grip that the political parties have on candidate selection? Do the public perceive that as being the key to the whole issue? Do the public want primaries, so that the whole community can decide which candidates will stand? How does she think such a system would work?
I am conscious that the hon. Gentleman perhaps has a slightly different perspective on these matters from other people-I think he is standing as an independent at the next election. Interestingly, the general public often say that they want independents, and that they do not want the party political bickering. However, in reality, they find it very difficult to make their choice when independents are involved, because one thing that the political parties can do is provide a shorthand, in terms of a political philosophy. It is very difficult for an average constituent to know all the ins and outs of every candidate and the minutiae of their views, whereas the political parties, with their manifestos, create a shorthand that makes it easier for the public to make a choice.
In the report, we say that it is a challenge for the political parties to realise their own importance in the democratic process. They perhaps must revitalise themselves and consider how they can reform their processes, particularly their selection processes, to ensure that they address the kind of issues about the general public to which the hon. Gentleman referred. The general public want people whom they can trust, and they want to feel that they have been given a proper choice. What is most clear is that people want a diverse Parliament that reflects them. They do not want to turn on the TV, put on the Parliament channel and continually see a group of people who they think have nothing to do with their lives. That point certainly came out loud and clear from our work.
At this stage, I should say exactly how important it is to have a diverse Parliament. We are not advocating having more women, ethnic minorities and disabled people in Parliament just because that would be a good idea-of course it is a good idea, as it would be nice to have people from different backgrounds in Parliament-but because that is fundamental to our democracy. It is imperative that we have people from different backgrounds and with different life experiences and perspectives in Parliament. Not only must the Executive represent the diversity of British society today, but Parliament, if it is to do its job of scrutinising the Executive properly, must represent that diversity as well.
It is not good enough to say that just because someone has been elected by a diverse electorate they know all about the different aspects of their community and everything that is going on. Had my hon. Friend Mrs. Cryer or someone like her not been elected, I suspect that the issue of forced marriages might not have been given the thorough attention that she has given it, because of her particular perspective and the work she had done on that. We know that people from different backgrounds and from more diverse sections of society have different views on what is important or crucial when deciding on policy.
There are three main reasons for broadening representation in the House of Commons. First, it is a matter of justice. Anyone who is an elector in this country should be allowed to stand for Parliament, and there should be equality of opportunity, so that all people have an equal right to stand for election to this place, no matter what their background, disability, skin colour or gender. Secondly, as I have indicated, we think that a diverse House will make better decisions and will therefore be much more effective. Thirdly, broader representation would enhance the House's legitimacy.
All those points are important in the light of what happened while we were taking evidence. We did not know whether our timing was particularly bad or particularly good, but as we were touring the country and taking evidence the expenses scandal blew up in all our faces. It was not something that we expected when we started our deliberations, and there is no doubt that it had an impact on the evidence we took. We saw how the standing of Westminster and the House of Commons in particular, and trust in the institution, were being eroded day by day, as more and more revelations came out. There was also a public clamour to get rid of us all, because there was a view that if we were all cleared out and a new lot came in, somehow everything would be different.
All that was happening as we took evidence. My view is that our timing was perhaps very good, because a large number of Members decided to stand down, giving us a chance to ensure that the new House of Commons is much more representative of the general population. Many candidates had already been chosen-I am not sure whether that was unfortunate or not-but there was still an opportunity to bring our recommendations to bear on the selection of a new cohort of MPs. We therefore rushed out an interim report that recommended that political parties should aim to redress in their late selection processes some of the inequalities that exist in the present system.
As we took evidence, it became clear that that would not necessarily happen without the buy-in of the political parties and their leaders. It would not happen by accident, as it had not done so in previous generations. It became clear from the political parties that had a mechanism for encouraging groups that had been under-represented that that certainly made a difference. The only direct reference in the report to a party's policy was the reference to the Labour party's use of all-women shortlists. There is no doubt that the use of all-women shortlists increases the number of women representatives by a proportion that it is not possible to achieve by other means.
One of the amendments that we hope will be made to the Equality Bill would oblige political parties to report their monitoring of their candidate list with regard to gender, ethnicity and, if the candidates declare them, disability and sexuality. By making the parties aware that they have to report on those matters, we hope they will pay more attention to them. The Conservative party is trying hard to increase its number of women candidates but has not used such mechanisms, whether all-women shortlists or others. Although the number of Conservative women Members in the next Parliament is likely to double or even triple, regardless of which party wins the election-we know that just from the number of Members standing down and the number of women candidates standing in safe seats-that will still be nowhere near the 50 per cent. of the new cohort needed to redress the historical imbalance, as they are starting from a low base. Although I pay tribute to the work the Conservatives have done to ensure that they have more women candidates, because they did not go down the route of having a mechanism that would redress the balance, their proportion of women in Parliament will still be short. The most we can possibly hope for is that in the next Parliament, the proportion of women will increase from 19 to 24 per cent., which is still a long way behind what is needed, even though the numbers will increase dramatically.
There is no doubt that the political parties have chosen more ethnic minority candidates. No Asian woman has ever been elected to Parliament, for example, and there is a pretty good chance that there will be more than one in the next Parliament. Again, we will fall far short of the numbers we would need to reflect society at large.
I want to concentrate more on disability, because we are still not sure that the next Parliament will be any different in that regard from previous Parliaments. As someone with a disability, I know that we are used to being almost 20 years behind everyone else on the equality agenda, although during the past 13 years that has changed dramatically under the Labour Government -we are possibly only five or six years behind everyone else, which might still be two Parliaments or more. There are real challenges concerning people with disabilities. Disability is no different from the other issue, so unless we address the supply side the candidates will not come forward.
We need to ensure that political parties, community organisations and anyone involved in politicising-with a small "p"-people or campaigning open their doors to disabled people, so that those with the prerequisite qualifications will put themselves forward for Parliament. It is still the case that someone will not be selected for a winnable or safe seat in Parliament unless they have some kind of background in community or political activism, because that is one of the key qualities that constituency parties look for when selecting candidates. They want to know that the person will be able to do the job of being an MP. The political parties have a responsibility in that regard, but so too do voluntary sector groups, and in a much wider sense. In fact, it is the responsibility of everyone to ensure that people with disabilities are not forgotten or sidelined, but are encouraged to be part of the mainstream in whatever the decision-making process or campaigning may be, or the area of work in which the organisation is involved.
Disabled people also have in-built disadvantages. Generally, they are proportionally less likely to be in higher paid jobs. One of the things we found-the amount varies from party to party but this applies across all the parties-is that becoming an MP is not a cheap process. It can cost a huge amount of money to get selected, and if the constituency the individual is hoping to be selected for is not local, travel can cost a great deal. For someone with a physical disability, travel may be even more expensive. If they do not drive but rely on taxis, the costs of trying to get selected could be completely prohibitive.
One of the things the disability charity Scope proposed, with which we agreed and have recommended, is that there should be access to some kind of public life fund that would operate in the same way that Access to Work operates. It would make extra funds available to people with disabilities, to allow them to compete on an equal footing with those who do not have disabilities and thus, the extra expenses.
Another way in which disabled people have a disadvantage is that they are perhaps disproportionately put off even putting themselves forward for this place. I remember thinking that the last thing I, as a woman, wanted to be was an MP in Westminster. Why would I want to get involved in all that yah-boo politics? I have to say that once someone gets elected, they get caught up in it and really quite enjoy it, but that is how it is perceived from the outside.
The same can be true for disabled people in particular. They see this Victorian pile sitting along the River Thames and the stairs going into it, and they assume it is not particularly accessible, but that has changed. In the 13 years I have been in this place, the willingness of the House authorities to recognise that people with different abilities and disabilities should be welcome in this place-their whole attitude-has changed dramatically.
It is difficult to explain that to people who might want to put themselves forward. There will still be anxiety that perhaps adjustments will not be made. We have not had someone elected who uses British sign language, for example, so there are practical difficulties that would have to be ironed out.
Does my hon. Friend accept that role models are tremendously important, and that she herself, having slogged away for 13 years in this place, is the best role model imaginable for disabled people, particularly those with a mobility impairment? Every day she comes here, she shows that it can be done. People out there see that it can be done, and she is the one who has shown them that. She should be congratulated on that.
Modesty prevents me from responding. However, my hon. Friend has put her finger on something. My right hon. Friend Mrs. McGuire-I hope she will not mind my saying this-qualifies as a disabled person under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 because she is an insulin-dependent diabetic. She told me that she was at a hustings event for disability organisations, and one of our colleagues in this House did not imply but actually stated that he thought I was the only disabled person in this place. There are at present three of us who use wheelchairs to get around, so it was not that he had not noticed the invisible disabilities-he had not even noticed the visible disabilities. I am not sure what my right hon. Friend Mr. Blunkett would have made of that.
It could be that we have been so successful in becoming integrated that people do not notice we have a disability. That would be great, but it is wishful thinking. That is part of the problem, and one of the issues. People who have an invisible disability are in a quandary as to whether to declare their disability. At present, we still equate the word "disability" with ill health and weakness. While those things are connected, it is difficult for people who have a hidden disability-I shall speak about mental health in a moment-to declare it. It is one of the problems they have.
Mental health is another issue on which the House of Commons puts out the wrong message. If someone is sectioned under section 141 of the Mental Health Act 1983, they lose their seat as a Member of Parliament. We had hoped to get an amendment through the House to repeal that section, but it will not be possible to do so before Parliament dissolves. It was interesting taking evidence, because we discovered that someone who was in a coma for six months could keep their job as an MP, but someone who was sectioned under the Act for six months could not. That sends out the wrong message, because it basically says that anyone with a mental health problem is not fit to be an MP.
To go back to the point I made at the beginning of my speech, it is imperative that we have people with different experiences in this place. We know that the proportion of people who have mental health episodes in their life is high; therefore, it would be useful to have people in this place who are willing to talk about their experiences and how they came through their problems. As with all health issues, a mental health disability is not necessarily permanent. It might be, but if someone has any kind of permanent disability or chronic condition, they learn how to cope and how to carry on. Those are the important things.
We asked the political parties to present the data they have been using in monitoring their candidates. From what we can gather, we are not sure that the next Parliament will have any more disabled people than this one. Of course, we do not know how many disabled people there are in this Parliament. We know of quite a number of people who have disabilities, as defined by the Disability Discrimination Act, that no one knows about, and that such people do not think of themselves as disabled. We still have a huge job to do to improve the representation of disabled people. I am conscious of the time, and I know that a couple of my colleagues wish to speak as well.
The next thing I want to discuss is the responses we received, including from the House authorities, to whom I pay tribute. I thought their response was very good. Their attitude has changed, and Parliament's education department has improved in recent years. It does much more outreach, and one of the things we need to do-certainly on the supply side-is to enthuse people about politics and what we do in this place, so that they can become part of the political process, and, being part of the process, therefore be more likely to stand for Parliament. The three political parties have also responded, and the Government responded in the form of a Command Paper. All the organisations in question have taken the findings seriously.
Another area we are concerned about-perhaps this is where our timing was either good or bad-is the report published yesterday by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. If barriers to becoming an MP are built into how we remunerate MPs and how the expenses system works, we could make things worse. We have some concerns that what was published yesterday might act as a barrier to those who have caring responsibilities, whether for elderly relatives or young children.
I am still trying to absorb everything in the report. It recognises that an MP with a disability may have extra expenses, but the caring element for an MP with a child seems to end when the child is five. A Member who represents a Scottish constituency and who has a new baby will face a challenge when deciding where to send her children to school, and how to do her job as an MP. Both things are important, but the situation is difficult for someone with a young family.
The responses are there. The Speaker's Conference ends when Parliament dissolves. I had thought that its work would finish when we published our report, but I discovered that it continues. My seat is marginal, and I do not know whether I will be re-elected-that is up to the electorate in Aberdeen, South-but having examined the issue, I realise how important it is. If I am re-elected, I will not let it lie, because responsibility for implementing the findings and recommendations is not just for this Parliament, nor even just for the next; it will be for future Parliaments. I hope that during the next Parliament we will make some progress, but it will be far short of what is necessary.
We probably came too late to the game. Our report was published only in January, fairly close to an election, and by that time many prospective parliamentary candidates had been selected, so we were not in a position to influence the political parties from the beginning of the selection process. That is why I am looking to the parties to ensure that this is not a one-election wonder and that, because they have made the right noises this time, they do not put the report on a shelf and forget it. We must start from the beginning of the new Parliament to engage young people, and to educate and develop the skills of the next generation of politicians.
We also have a huge job in restoring trust in politicians and Parliament, and in ensuring that political parties select their candidates for the election after the forthcoming one from a diverse background, so that they represent British society more thoroughly than at the moment, and will be part of the restoration of trust in Parliament. I hope that the political parties and the Front-Bench spokesmen here today will take that message on board. I hope they accept that the work of the Speaker's Conference is as important as we believe it is, and that they will give a commitment today that the report will not sit on a shelf after the next election, but that it will become a working document and they will all take cognisance of it.
I have not prepared a speech, but I scribbled a few notes while my hon. Friend Miss Begg was speaking. Bob Spink asked what feedback we received when we travelled around. I did not attend all the out-of-London hearings, but I went to Manchester, Cardiff and Leeds.
It was interesting that many of the people who gave evidence were from the voluntary sector-from the women's institute, Soroptimist, Church organisations and so on. They were interested in what they were doing and saw nothing wrong with that, but we tried to explain that they should consider translating that desire to change society for the good into joining a political party, and trying to become a member of a local, district or parish council or a Member of Parliament. I tried to push the idea of joining a political party-not particularly the Labour party, but any party. Whenever I speak to people from Soroptimist, WIs and so on, as I do fairly frequently, I talk about the work of the Speaker's Conference, and about them transferring their good work into another form. After all, politics is just a group of ideas. We join a political party because, by and large-but not entirely-we agree with what the party stands for.
The hon. Lady is touching on an important subject. Many people throughout the United Kingdom look on political parties and the House of Commons as irrelevant, except when they need a problem resolved or they are campaigning on an issue. They look on this place as being separate and distinct from, and irrelevant to, their ordinary working lives. Is it not part of our collective duty to try to make our activities here more relevant to the day-to-day lives of ordinary people?
I agree, and that is what we all tried to do when we went out into the sticks and talked to people.
The Speaker's Conference was started by Speaker Martin. He has been given some hard knocks over the past year or so, so I want to put in a good word for him. The conference was his idea. Unfortunately for us, Speaker Bercow was already a member of the conference, so we lost a member but gained a sympathetic and understanding Speaker. I also thank Speaker Bercow for supporting us, although my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South, has done all the donkey work throughout the year. It is a pity that we have not had more support from-dare I say it?-Conservative Members. Only one has been an assiduous attendee at our gatherings, and that has been appreciated.
My hon. Friend mentioned my work to oppose and try to stop forced marriages. I argued and argued for nine years, and there were times when that was difficult. I was called a racist and all sorts of things, despite the fact that everything I said was said to protect the most vulnerable members of the Pakistani community and, to some extent, the Bangladeshi community in my constituency. I was tarred with the usual racist brush, but I have three half-Indian grandchildren and one half-African step-grandchild, so I am hardly racist.
The Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007 went through Parliament because our party had so many women on our Benches-women who were prepared to argue that Government time should be made available for the Bill, although it took only a day and a half to go through all its stages, so time was not a huge problem. If there had not been so many women on the Labour Benches, the Act would not have got anywhere near the statute book, and we would not have made changes to immigration regulations to require people to be 21 or over if they are acting as sponsors, or entering the country as a spouse. In both cases, those changes were made because of women on our side of the House.
My hon. Friend should be congratulated on ensuring that the Act got on to the statute book. I have no doubt that that would not have happened without her campaigning. Does she agree that it is important not only to have many women on the Back Benches, who can see, from a different perspective, that an issue is more important than men might believe, but to have women Ministers, who can elbow and kick from inside the Government?
I certainly agree with my hon. Friend. My membership of the parliamentary committee of the parliamentary Labour party enabled me to push things in that committee with the able assistance of Cathy Ashton, who spoke on behalf of her colleagues in the House of Lords. We pushed the then Prime Minister and the then Leader of the House to find time to get the measure through.
Another measure that has not been greatly discussed came about because I am a woman MP. Mothers in my constituency had daughters who were being groomed for sex by some young men. As a result of that, and of me making a fuss, those women confronted the then Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend Mr. Blunkett, and pushed him to make changes to the law so that in certain circumstances, hearsay evidence can be heard in court. That helped their case a great deal. Another change was to make the grooming of girls a criminal offence, because until I raised that issue, together with those women, who worked with me in my constituency, the grooming of girls was not an offence.
It is evident that, by setting that example, the hon. Lady is strengthening parliamentary representation, connecting people with Parliament, and showing people why Parliament needs a diverse set of MPs. That is relevant to the debate. While she was out and about, did she find that people had a desire to cut the size of Parliament from 657 MPs to 400, 450 or 500, depending on which party they support? I would like to cut the number to a smaller level. Did the hon. Lady get any feel for how that might affect the proportion of women in Parliament?
I am not sure that I follow that argument; the one thing does not necessary follow the other. I cannot remember anything being said at any time about reducing the number of MPs in Parliament, although perhaps my colleagues do. In my experience, we work a large number of hours, although it may be that at 70 I am finding it particularly hard. If we had fewer Members of Parliament, we would presumably have more work, but an MP's job is already stressful with long hours-too long, I think. I would not take us further in that direction by reducing the number of MPs, and I am not sure how such a change would help to get more women into Parliament.
I want to touch on the issue of expenses. The sort of treatment that many of us in the House, particularly women, received from The Daily Telegraph and other newspapers has definitely put women off standing for election. Women know how hard those of us at the sharp end of things found the situation. I was eventually absolved and told that I had not done anything wrong, but I felt guilty for about four months, as if I were some sort of criminal. I think that it is more difficult for women to cope with that sort of situation than it is for men-I am not sure why, but that seems to be the case. I have talked to many young women from my constituency party and local Labour parties who said that although they might once have considered putting their names forward for selection, after what some MPs have been through, they felt that it was more difficult.
Similarly, the rules on how we claim and what we can claim for have become much narrower, as regards what we used to call London living costs. That will make it more difficult for women with families to enter Parliament, because they will need a flat that is big enough to allow children to visit during the school holidays-I am talking about women who have constituencies outside London. When my husband entered Parliament in 1974, John and Jane, my two kids, had to stay in the flagship of seedy hotels, the Stanley House hotel in Belgrave road. We hated it, but there was not enough money to do anything else at that time.
Are we going to go back to that? If we are, Parliament will go back more and more to being a gentlemen's club, which people with money can enter because they can buy themselves out of that difficult situation. For those people, it does not matter that they do not get an allowance or expenses to pay for a decent flat so that their kids can stay at with them. If they have inherited wealth, just happen to have a lot of money in the bank, or are moonlighting and doing other jobs in courtrooms or boardrooms-as many Conservative Members do-and making extra money, their expenses do not matter. However, for most people in our party, particularly women, the sort of accommodation that they can have in London will be crucial.
As I have some money in the bank, I was able to buy a decent flat on Marsham street, which is just over 10 minutes' walk from Parliament. It does not matter what time we finish at night; I can have a safe, comfortable walk back to my flat. I never use taxis; I always walk back home, and always walk to work in the morning, because I have a decent flat. That is partly because I have money in the bank, and partly because the expenses allowed me to claim the interest on my mortgage. That is all going to be stopped, and in the future women will have a real problem with where they are going to live. If they have to live out in Kennington or Lambeth or somewhere, they will have to get taxis. If they cannot get a taxi, perhaps they will have to use the underground late at night. That is a difficult situation for women to face, and if they think along those lines, it will be another deterrent to women entering Parliament.
If we could still claim interest on a mortgage, I would not object at all to the Fees Office claiming back any profits made on the properties. However, we are taking a retrograde step, particularly for women and people with children, and those who cannot afford to subsidise themselves when it comes to getting a decent flat near Parliament.
Just over a year ago, my constituency party started the process of choosing a candidate to replace me. As I am still the only woman MP in the whole of Bradford and Leeds-that is 15 constituencies-it was necessary to have an all-women shortlist. To its credit, the Keighley constituency party agreed, and went along with that. However, it became increasingly clear that another deterrent for women entering Parliament is the expense. One or two of the shortlisted women were coming from London. They had children, so they had the costs of child care and car or rail journeys.
We produce glossy leaflets for members of the Labour party, persuading them to vote for a certain candidate, and all that costs a great deal of money. Two of the shortlisted candidates told me that they could not afford to go for another seat if they did not get Keighley, as it would cost too much, and because of the time and travel difficulties that there are when one has children. I do not know how we resolve that; I have no idea what recommendations to make. Perhaps my colleague, my hon. Friend Fiona Mactaggart, might have a suggestion on how to get over the problem of the cost of being a candidate.
When I was married to Bob Cryer, who was MP for Keighley and then Bradford, South, he went to about seven or eight selection conferences over 20 years or so to become a councillor, an MP and an MEP. I went along with him to most of those selection conferences because I was interested, and the remarkable thing-no one saw it as being remarkable-was that at every one, there was an all-male shortlist. I do not remember a single woman being on any of those shortlists.
The Labour party has all-women shortlists. That is controversial, but it works. If anyone can think of a better solution to the problem of all-male shortlists, I am more than willing to hear it, but that is how things were, and I know that if we stop having all-women shortlists in the Labour party, we will drift back to the gentlemen's club, and to all-male shortlists. I do not know why that should be. It is very disappointing, but that is how it is.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South wholeheartedly for chairing the conference. It has been a pleasure working with her. I had to divide my time between the conference and the Select Committee on Home Affairs, which made things a little difficult at times, and I therefore did not attend as many meetings as I should have, but it was always good to work with her and my other colleagues. Being a member of the conference has been a very worthwhile and good experience.
Thank you, Mr. Illsley. Let me start by echoing the thanks to my hon. Friend Miss Begg for her work on the Speaker's Conference. It has been exemplary and rewarding for those of us who have participated.
I thought I would briefly talk about how people are feeling about politics at the moment, because in a way the Speaker's Conference is about making politics and political representation more widely available to more people. As politicians, we have managed to write ourselves into being despised, yet young people say to me more now than they ever have done since I was elected, "I'd like to go into politics. How do I do that?" I always say to them, "Why?", because it seems to me that politics is not in itself an end, but a tool to change the world into a better place. One of my concerns is that we have allowed a view that politics is an end in itself to become widespread. We need to restate that the reason why-I hope-everyone in this room got involved in politics was not to do an interesting job, but because they saw something in society that they felt needed to be done better, done differently, improved or whatever, and therefore politics became the tool they used to address that.
I turned to political representation after having tried to change the world through pressure groups, teaching and being involved in the local council, none of which changed it enough. That is not an unusual experience. One of the very important points about the conference is that it recognised that diverse representation changes society in different ways.
About five years after I was elected, I came out-that is really the only way to describe it-as someone who had a life-limiting condition. I have multiple sclerosis. I spoke about it only in the context of a debate about stem cell research, and the reason why I spoke about it was that it seemed to me grossly ironic-as a woman who had had infertility treatment, and had still in a refrigerator in a fertility centre two embryos-that although those embryos could have been used for research into my fertility, they could not, under the old law, have been used for research into my multiple sclerosis. At that point, knocking on for 50, I had given up on fertility and was much more concerned about dealing with the other condition. It seemed to me relevant to speak about that in the debate in the House of Commons.
My hon. Friend spoke in the same debate. I was very disconcerted by the headline the following day in The Times, which said "Disabled MPs speak up". I thought, "You know what? I am not." There are people with a condition that perhaps affects their life but they do not have to reveal it. I spoke about my condition because it was relevant to the debate, but I had never been called "disabled" before. Many of the issues that the Speaker's Conference is dealing with are ones that people do not necessarily want to share. No one can hide their gender, but people can hide their sexual preference. People can keep private aspects of their caring responsibilities. All these things affect us as politicians, but unless we have in politics people with those diverse effects upon them, politics will have a narrower view.
After there had been 1,000 days of a Labour Government, I did some research on the difference that women MPs had made, and it was absolutely clear that it had been huge, not just in legislation terms but in how the Government were held to account. Defence Ministers were asked about the families of soldiers for the first time by members of the Defence Committee, which had previously never had a woman member. We can change the way in which politics is done. If people see that in the representative body of Parliament, there are life experiences that connect with their life experiences more closely, the chasm that has opened up between us and the general public can be narrowed, which can only be good for democracy. If democracy has the voices of a wider range of people, it does its job better, which is the very important point about the conference.
One issue I want to stress, which was mentioned in the opening speech of my hon. Friend concerns section 141 of the Mental Health Act 1983. Mental ill health is a disability that is much more silenced than most others. It is grotesque that someone who has been sectioned is therefore automatically excluded from this place. I am disappointed that an opportunity was not taken to get rid of that section. There was an opportunity to do that; I have to be clear about that. What I heard from Ministers was, "Oh well, we have to find something appropriate to deal with this issue at the same time as getting rid of that section." I do not see why that has to be the case. When I was out of Parliament for months because I had cancer, there was no mechanism to deal with the fact that I was out of Parliament for months. If someone is out of Parliament for weeks because they have been sectioned, a mechanism is not needed to deal with that. It sounded to me as though there was a lack of leadership on the issue. I found that disappointing. I hope it is not allowed to persist and that the recommendation works.
I want finally to come to the issue of expenses. I used to be called a "quota woman" in Slough, but guess what? No one kept saying it, because people recognised that I, like most of the women who were selected from women-only shortlists, was a competent MP and a good representative of the town. I have promoted women in my party putting themselves forward for Parliament, but I have stopped doing that to the degree that I did, because women, who are the default carers, are now having to choose between their caring responsibilities and Parliament. Unless they can find a London seat within commuting distance of Parliament, so that they can have their children at school and do this job, it is impossible, and not just for women with young children-teenagers need their mums, too.
I think we are making a big mistake with the new puritanism, and I speak as someone who was declared a "saint" by The Daily Telegraph. I think that makes it easier for me to say it. The new puritanism will narrow participation in Parliament. It is the wrong thing and I am very disappointed by what the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority has done. We cannot afford to narrow participation in Parliament, because if we do, our democracy will be damaged by it.
I congratulate Miss Begg on securing the debate. She and the hon. Members for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) and for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) demonstrate dramatically the benefit of having women in the House. All three contributions exemplified the importance and benefits of diversity, and they were truly extraordinary.
At this point, I also want to mention those of my colleagues who were at the Speaker's Conference. My hon. Friend Jo Swinson is more than committed to the cause of creating a more representative Parliament, as is my hon. Friend Dr. Harris. In the House of Lords, my noble Friend Lord Lester has certainly been very involved in these issues, and he introduced the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Bill.
The Liberal Democrats very much welcome the Speaker's Conference and its report. Many of its conclusions and recommendations are necessary steps towards creating a more representative Parliament, and it has to be that way. It is ludicrous that so many representatives do not represent and are not involved in some of the issues that arise. As good as we are at representing our constituents on everything, and that is what we do for them, the explicit knowledge of being something, rather than observing and understanding it, makes a qualitative difference to debate.
The Speaker's Conference found that the main onus was on the political parties to ensure wider representation. The Liberal Democrats are challenged in this regard, and although we are working hard, we clearly do not have ethnic minority candidates, and we are short on women and those with disabilities. The hon. Member for Aberdeen, South gave an eloquent and distinguished speech about the importance of demonstrating that people with disabilities are not disabled in any way, other than because the House of Commons itself is not appropriately or seemingly welcoming, even though it has changed. The barriers are absolutely huge, but those with disabilities who are coming forward are more than able to be as good as, if not better than, most of the other people in Parliament. They can put their case and be the role models that the Minister mentioned.
My colleagues and I acknowledge that we are short on representatives from all the strands of equality. By implementing many of the report's recommendations, and building on many of the procedures we are using, we hope to make ourselves more inclusive and more representative. I would add that we do very well at other levels of government-councils, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the London assembly and Europe-but we have found things difficult in Parliament. We have identified that the reason for that is not our party's selection meetings, where women are more likely to be selected, but getting women to put themselves forward for selection despite the great barriers they encounter.
My colleagues and I welcome the recommendation that all political parties should appoint diversity champions. The Liberal Democrat leader, my right hon. Friend Mr. Clegg, has written to all our regional party chairs asking them to appoint diversity champions, and I am pleased to say that many of these champions are already in place. For example, seven champions have been appointed in London, one for each of the equality strands identified in the Equality Bill. These champions have been tasked with supporting individuals from under-represented groups to help them find their way through their role in the party and towards being elected.
The Liberal Democrats are committed to ensuring that the route into politics is as open and as transparent as possible, and we are proactively reaching out to those who do not necessarily follow the traditional route, which is sometimes difficult. There need to be numerous routes into Parliament, and we have recently started sessions on "planning your political career" to help those from non-political backgrounds to chart their way ahead in the political sphere.
If someone comes from a background, as I did, with no books on, history in or expectation of politics-no "in"-it is unusual for them to make the leap into politics. There was no one to chart my way for me, and I simply had what the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South called an overdeveloped sense of wanting to fight injustice and change the world. I did not think that someone like me could be a politician, because I do not look like one; there is something about politics that is very alien.
I came into politics late. I joined the party at 40. I hope that hon. Members will forgive me for sidestepping, but I am a woman and I made it in. I did not take a traditional route; I did not study philosophy, politics and economics at university-I was a designer. When we talk about diversity, we are talking about people from all walks of life. When we look around the House, we see people who are used to standing up and talking, such as teachers and lawyers, and they feel more confident doing such things. Someone who comes from a background where they do not have to speak to anyone other than boards of directors or suppliers is taking quite a different route in.
I was a designer, and there are not many designers in politics. We need all sorts of diversity, and the routes into politics should be diverse. We should encourage and help people who do not think of going into politics, as the hon. Lady said. Some people do not necessarily think about making the jump between working in a voluntary organisation and going into politics, and the same is true for people from all walks of life.
Discriminatory behaviour at selection is not permitted under the rules of the Liberal Democrat party. As I said, the composition of the selection committee must reflect the constituency's make-up. Furthermore, diversity awareness training is a major part of our training for the selection of committee members. In priority seats, all members must be trained in diversity, and at least two people must be trained in all other seats.
I am a bit of a secret admirer of all-women shortlists, and that is well known in my party. While the Liberal Democrat party supports the legal right of parties to use the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 to enable the use of all-women shortlists, such shortlists would not necessarily address the underlying issues in my party, which are about getting women to come forward at all.
I am glad that the hon. Lady is a secret admirer of all-women shortlists. Perhaps she should tell the leader of her party, Mr. Clegg, that he should be an admirer, too. One thing we can say about all-women shortlists is that they produce results-they work. The Labour party has been trying to deal with this issue for 100 years, and all-women shortlists are the only thing that actually guarantees a result. Some of the people who come in do just as well as anybody else.
There has been a remarkable step change in the Labour party and the composition of the House because of Labour's all-women shortlists. My party's leader has said that if there is no step change in the methods we are using, he will look at a mechanism after the next election. Using a mechanism is quite a step forward for Liberals, but in the end we have to look at the outcome.
My party is doing mentoring and other work at the moment, and we have brought another 140 women through on the shortlist. We have a high proportion of women in winnable seats. Four of the eight male MPs stepping down are being replaced by women, so we expect an improvement after the election, but we are talking about a longer route. I am sure the Labour party wishes that it did not have to use a mechanism and that the world was a different place, but I agree with what has been said.
However, I am running out of time, so if the Minister will forgive me, I will continue. A third of the Liberal Democrats' most winnable parliamentary seats now have women candidates. We acknowledge that we still have some way to go, but as I said, our leader has said he will review the need for a mechanism when we see the results.
I want briefly to touch on the atmosphere in the House. I was born into politics in the Haringey council chamber and forged in steel at a time when there were three Lib Dem and 57 Labour members, but that is not everybody's cup of tea. In coming to the House, I have tried hard not to get embroiled in things in the way that hon. Members have described. I have tried not to score political points in the jeering, bullying way that we see. The Minister looks surprised, but I think it is possible to change things. If we simply join in the old-fashioned, adversarial stuff that the public see at Prime Minister's questions, that is incredibly off-putting. It is a shame the microphone often does not pick up some of the Back-Bench remarks that are made about one's appearance or contribution. I think that that would be off-putting and would expose those who make such remarks to the public gaze, which might be good for their behaviour.
The problem of getting a seat is not the easiest thing for women-or men, for that matter. I am a single parent and faced a huge Labour majority because I could not go anywhere else. I did not have parents or support, and my children were in school. I am lucky that I have a London seat because as a single parent, I would not have a chance in any seat but a London seat; I would not even have begun to think about coming to Parliament. What has happened about expenses would put that opportunity even further from me. The Solicitor-General has said, "Why not?" However, it is obvious why not. It is not possible to manage as a single parent, with no support, living in two places, and based distant from London. That will just be a barrier to women. I welcome the recommendations in the Speaker's report on greater support and pastoral care for candidates, because the sheer mental and financial costs of standing for any office can be off-putting. We have the opportunity to transform the political culture, and all the parties must take advantage of that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Illsley. I, too, want to offer support to Miss Begg for her work as vice-chair of the Speaker's Conference, and I congratulate her on securing the debate. It is welcome that she secured it before the Dissolution of Parliament, because, as she said, we have not had a chance to discuss the conference in any other forum. As a result of timing problems, we did not have a chance during consideration of the Equality Bill to talk about clauses on diversity in this House. There was a good, constructive debate between the parties in the other place, but we did not have a chance to have one here, and it is welcome that the hon. Lady has given us that.
I shall slightly alter the focus of my remarks, because hon. Members have said one or two of the things that I wanted to say. There were 71 recommendations and conclusions from the Speaker's Conference, and I shall not try even to skate over a significant number of those. It is worth putting on the record-the hon. Lady dealt with this very fairly-that although my party acknowledges that we do not have many women MPs, my right hon. Friend Mr. Cameron, the leader of my party, made it clear that he wanted to change that when he became leader.
If we win the election with a small majority, we shall have about 60 women MPs, which will be a significant step forward from the 17 we have now. I am perfectly happy to acknowledge that there is still more work to do, but that would be a significant step. Just to have a bit of fun with the Minister, it is worth saying that there are six female members of the shadow Cabinet, which is more than there are in the Cabinet. That is my opportunity to bring about a bit of balance, and to get one over on the Minister, in a small way.
I welcome the clause in the Equality Bill about reporting-particularly, in the first instance, with respect to gender, and to black and minority ethnic candidates-so that we get a clearer idea of the progress being made across the parties. However, I wanted to touch on one point that the hon. Lady mentioned. I am pleased, incidentally, that she spent a fair amount of time talking about disabled candidates, because sometimes, in the media, diversity issues focus on gender and ethnicity, and the issue of getting more disabled candidates is forgotten. The hon. Lady, and Fiona Mactaggart, highlighted one of the difficulties: many disabled candidates, apart from those who have an obvious and visible disability, do not think of themselves as disabled, as the hon. Member for Slough suggested, or do not want to disclose their disability, either for fear of others' reaction, or because they do not think that it is relevant.
One of the challenges for us all, therefore, is to assess how many disabled Members of Parliament there are already. I think that it is more difficult for candidates who are trying to get selected, or trying to persuade the electorate to vote for them, to take the step of saying that they have a disability. Many do not want to be pigeonholed as caring only about that. As a result of the prejudices that people still have about whether people with a disability are up to the job, candidates do not want to show a sign of what they think others might perceive as weakness. Sometimes, therefore, it is only when people get here-once they have established themselves-that they can be more open about having a disability.
The issue makes a difference. In a Westminster Hall debate last week, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Jonathan Shaw, who is Minister for disabled people, and I were talking about the number of people with a disability working in Government, and I highlighted the relatively small number-about 3.6 per cent.-with a declared disability. He said that in anonymous surveys in the Department for Work and Pensions, the figure is about 13 per cent. That suggests that something in the culture of organisations leads people not to be comfortable with openness on that issue. We must think about that. There are role models who have visible disabilities, but we need to think more creatively about how to get people with an invisible or hidden disability or health condition to talk about it more openly.
There are a few recommendations in the report about accessibility. One is about making campaign documents more accessible, and I am pleased that in this election and future elections, the Conservative manifesto will be available in a range of formats-Braille, large print, audio and easy read-to ensure that people with learning disabilities can read about our policies and make a judgment about them. I do what I can, country-wide and in my constituency, to encourage people with learning disabilities to take part in the political process by coming to debates, meetings and question and answer sessions with their elected representatives, and by voting. I am sure that that is something that all Members of Parliament do.
One specific recommendation that the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South, mentioned was an "access to public life" fund; that draws on work by Scope. I am pleased to tell her that the Conservative party is signed up to the idea. We published our commitment to it in January, and have said that if a Conservative Government were elected, we would put in place such a fund for disabled people seeking elected and appointed office, in recognition of the fact that increased costs are involved. That is about levelling the playing field, not giving advantage. The hon. Lady mentioned some of the extra costs, and we are keen to make sure that people from all sorts of backgrounds have an equal opportunity to take part in the process. It is very expensive, and those seeking office need to be dedicated, but those who are disabled should not be further disadvantaged.
The hon. Lady discussed section 141 of the Mental Health Act 1983, and the hon. Member for Slough talked about it at length. I agree with them. We have made some progress, but it is disappointing that we did not have the opportunity to change the law when the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill was going through Parliament. I tabled new clause 1 to that Bill, but after a number of conversations with Ministers and the Justice Secretary, I found I could not quite persuade them to go all the way in backing it. However, the Government have formally agreed that the current situation is untenable. My party has agreed that we should change the position.
I rather agree with the hon. Member for Slough; I do not really see why we need to have a process in place for dealing with people with a physical or mental incapacity before we get rid of section 141. I would rather get rid of it and then assess whether a process is needed for dealing with incapacity, but the Government took the view that they would rather put the process in place first. I have written to the Chair of the Select Committee on Justice, and asked for the matter to be considered. He said that it will be on the agenda for urgent consideration by the Committee in the new Parliament, and I hope that that will happen, and that a process will be set out for dealing with situations in which someone has either a physical or mental incapacity.
We deal well with physical incapacity informally. Parties have mechanisms for ensuring that constituents are still represented, that parliamentary work can be done, and that Members' staff can continue their work. It would not be awfully difficult to make those mechanisms work equally for mental incapacity. It may be that we simply need to get that written down, and establish a process. I hope that whoever wins the general election will take the first available opportunity to change the law, to make it clear that we welcome people in this House who have a physical or mental disability, and do not discriminate against those with mental health problems.
Finally, I want to touch on the issue of ensuring that Parliament is relevant and that we connect with people. I find from talking to young people in my constituency that, despite what people say, they are very engaged with issues and care passionately about their local environment, their country and many global issues. Often, however, they not do connect their concern, their passion and their wish to change the world with this place, or with politics. They do not connect the campaigning and the wish for change with getting involved with a political party, or standing for office. Mrs. Cryer touched on that when talking about women's groups. Perhaps that is one of the things that we need to change.
Finally, I agree with what has been said about the expenses regime. I was not quite sainted by The Daily Telegraph, but I was cleared by Legg and did not have to pay anything back. Although I do not tick some of the diversity boxes, I do not come from a wealthy background. My father had a manual job, and my family has no history of politics; I would not be here if there were not financial arrangements to permit it. We do not want to go backwards. Remarks made today about ensuring that the expenses regime allows a diverse set of candidates, taking account not only of gender and colour but of financial background, are a welcome reminder that the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority should bear those issues in mind.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Miss Begg on securing this debate. She will have gathered from the reaction of the House that we are all grateful for the work that she and her colleagues working on the Speaker's Conference have done. Today, she set out some important points that we need to take into account when implementing the conference recommendations; we all need to work together, whether as political parties, as a Government, or as a Parliament.
I was heartened to hear the general acknowledgement across the parties that we all have an interest in dealing with the matter. Diversity is not merely political correctness for its own sake, or some kind of game, but is a fundamental part of ensuring that our democracy is as representative as it can be, and does the job that it needs to do as well as it can. Ensuring diversity should take us closer to the people who send us here, because it would make us more representative of them.
This is not a matter of arithmetic correctness; it is not that we want 50 per cent. of those in Parliament to be women because women are 50 per cent. of the country. It is about properly representing the lives and experiences of all our constituents in a way that enables our democracy to see our society, and to change it according to the needs of those who live in it. One does not often read about the issue in newspapers, which sometimes categorise it as political correctness gone mad, but as we heard today, all parties recognise that diversity is important, because it improves, strengthens and deepens our capacity to represent the people. I welcome the acknowledgement of that by all parties.
We obviously want to see improvement across all parties. I am proud and pleased that the Labour party has pioneered improvements to increase diversity, and the Government have an excellent record in that respect. I do not pretend that we are there yet; indeed, the numbers indicate that we are not. After all that we have done, women still form only 19.5 per cent. of the total membership of the House. That is nowhere near good enough, as all of us recognise.
I have been a member of the Labour party for a great many years, and my experience is that these issues have to be addressed, and then addressed again; that pressure has to be kept up. The changes do not happen naturally. It is not enough to change behaviour in a one-off way, and then expect everything to work out. The issues need to be worked at, and the Speaker's Conference acknowledges that. I hope that those who respond to the conference findings recognise that, as do the Government. Political parties and Parliament itself should realise that ongoing work is needed. Only through ongoing work will we be able to tackle the problem and get to where we wish to be on diversity.
My hon. Friend spoke of disability and her experience as a disabled Member of Parliament. Her comments were extremely thoughtful and insightful, as one would expect. It is important that we continue to ensure that more disabled people become Members. As Mr. Harper said, it is not right to require people to declare their disability. If society had learned to deal with disabled people in a completely equal way it might be fair enough to ask people to declare their disability, but until that day, it is not right that we should enforce declarations. That is because of all the connected issues that can arise in respect of people's attitudes and assumptions about what disabled people can and cannot do. I was Minister for Disabled People for four years, and had the opportunity to consider policy making on that subject. I decided that declaration was not something that should be required of the disabled.
We need to find a different way of making ourselves more disability-friendly. For help with that, we need to turn to the disabled people who are already here in Parliament; they have the life experience, and they know what needs doing. We should listen to them closely. I hope that my hon. Friend is re-elected, so that she can continue her pioneering work. If she is, she will make a great contribution.
My hon. Friend Mrs. Cryer made some extremely important points. She stressed again why diversity matters. She set out the clear example of the forced marriages legislation, and spoke of the difference that she had made, a woman MP listening to women in her constituency whose voices were rarely heard. She started listening to them, and then came to this place. With force, through pressure and ongoing work, and helped by those women, she made a change that mattered a great deal to them. That would not have happened had it not been for her efforts, and had she not been aided and helped by other women in this place who understood the importance of their help. They knew that the issue had been too low on the list of priorities, and recognised that she needed their support. Women in Government and among policy makers recognised that, too, and ensured that the issue was given higher priority than it might otherwise have been given.
That is a practical example showing why we need diversity in this Parliament of ours, and why we need more women, and more people with experiences other than the dominant ones of being relatively well off, well educated, middle-class males of a certain age. We need those people, but we also need more from the under-represented groups in this place, and my hon. Friend set out the value of achieving diversity better than I could have done. She also set out the improvements that that would make to the relevance of this place and to our capacity to do our job for our constituents.
My hon. Friend Fiona Mactaggart made some strong points based on her experience and her disability, and about the priorities that led her to do the work that she has done. I congratulate her not only on what she has done for the conference, but on what she does, day in, day out, for the women in her constituency and the nation.
I wish the Opposition parties well in ensuring that their diversity increases. That is something that we should all be doing. My Department, the Government Equalities Office, undertook an opinion poll for international women's day, and we should consider it. As many as 73 per cent. of people think it important that women and men should have an equal say on political decisions that affect how Britain is run, and 82 per cent. think that the presence of women MPs helps to ensure that our policies and laws reflect the needs of women as well as men. However, only 75 per cent. think that it is important that women and men should have an equal say on international political decisions, so we have some work still to do on that. Increasing diversity in that way is popular; it is not a fringe issue. It is not something that we should do only when we have finished all the other things that need to be done. We need to put the issue at the centre of how we do our politics.
In the coming period and the election, I hope that the Opposition parties will get better representation for women and other minorities. I hope that they do not then assume that the work is over, and that they do not have to do anything more. The Labour party has led the way in that respect. We know that we still need to work hard. We need to carry on. I am pleased to say that whatever the swing in the next election, the parliamentary Labour party will have a greater percentage of women members. One can never tell what the numbers will be, but the percentage will be greater. However, we need more progress all round.