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Relationships (Civil Registration)

Jane Griffiths accordingly presented a Bill to provide for civil registration of a relationship between two people who are cohabiting, and for such registration to afford certain legal rights; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 23 November, and to be printed [Bill 36].

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Orders of the Day

Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Before I call the Secretary of State, I should inform the House that Mr. Speaker has imposed a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches.

6.21 pm

The Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. Stephen Byers): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

In a packed parliamentary programme, I am pleased to be able to introduce the Bill this evening. The Government regard it as a central part of our drive to keep our democracy relevant to and representative of the people whom we serve. Because I know that many hon. Members want to speak and because of the late hour at which the debate commenced, I shall restrict my comments.

When the Labour Government were elected in 1997, a record number of women Labour Members of Parliament entered the House. That was a result of the positive measures that had been taken by the Labour party to increase the representation of women. As a Minister since 1997, I firmly believe that several of the policies that the Government have adopted since 1997 came about because of the increased number of women Members of Parliament on the Government Benches.

We have improved maternity rights and pay. The package announced in the recent Budget increased maternity pay: the flat rate will rise to £75 a week from April next year, and to £100 a week from April 2003. The period for which maternity pay is available will also lengthen, from 18 to 26 weeks, from April 2003. That comes in addition to parental leave, time off for emergencies and the same rights for part-time workers as for full-time employees. The Government have also given a boost to the pay of low-paid workers, the majority of whom are women, through the introduction of the national minimum wage—£4.10 an hour, to be increased to £4.20 an hour in October 2002.

We have also established a national child care strategy to deliver choice by extending the provision of good-quality, affordable and accessible child care. More than 700,000 places were made available under the last Labour Government, and our target is to make 1.6 million available by 2004. We have also guaranteed a free nursery education place for every four-year-old whose parent wants it; that is to be extended to three-year-olds by 2004.

Those are all positive policies which were introduced because of the large number of Labour women Members in the previous Parliament. We should be proud of the real progress that was made as a result of their endeavours. Many of those policies were promoted and supported by women Members and the result is a package of measures that will make a real difference.

The positive discrimination measures that the Labour party introduced and employed in the period before the 1997 election were stopped as a result of a case brought

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before an employment tribunal. The Jepson case put a brake on the development of positive measures to encourage the participation of women in our elected bodies. As a result of the case, the Labour party was unable to adopt the same positive measures for the 2001 general election.

It is no coincidence that, in 2001, we witnessed the first drop for 20 years in the number of women elected to the House of Commons. We have to admit that responsibility for that drop rests with all the political parties that are represented here. Since the Jepson case, in answer to the question, "What are you doing to improve and encourage the representation of women?", parties have been able to hide behind the decision made in that case and say that they cannot introduce positive discrimination measures because of the outcome of that employment tribunal.

Once the Bill is on the statute book, however, there will be no hiding place for political parties. They will face a stark choice: to do nothing and say that it will all work out all right in the end—just give it enough time—or to acknowledge that something positive and fundamental must be done and that the situation whereby women are starkly under-represented in our national Parliament and in local government has to change.

The statistics illustrate the need for steps to be taken: only 18 per cent. of Members of Parliament are female and three quarters of councillors are male. The argument that we should leave things as they are is, the Government believe, not sustainable. We know from our experience in the House of Commons that momentum to improve representation of women can be lost once positive measures are no longer in place. It is clear that there has to be a sustained effort.

That is not to say that there is not also a strong case for non-direct measures, such as basic equal opportunities training for selection panel members, or parties doing more to encourage participation in politics generally, at all levels and by all sections of the community. However, relying on improvements being made without direct intervention has been tried before and it has failed.

That view stopped the House of Lords being radically reformed until almost a century after the first attempts were made. It meant that there were 24 women members of the House of Commons in 1945, and almost 40 years later in 1983—four years after the election of the first female Prime Minister—there were only 23. It was that appalling lack of women Members of Parliament that made the Labour party introduce positive measures in respect of candidate selection before the 1997 general election.

As I said, the Labour party's approach was challenged in 1996 in the case of Jepson and the Labour party. In that case, an employment tribunal held that section 13 of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 did cover the selection of candidates by political parties. That decision is the main reason why the Bill is before the House today. The Bill will amend the Sex Discrimination Act and provide that parts II to IV of the Act will not apply to measures adopted by a party to reduce inequality in the numbers of men and women elected as its candidates. Equivalent amendments to cover Northern Ireland are made to the Sex Discrimination (Northern Ireland) Order 1976.

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The Bill allows political parties choice and flexibility, although the measures taken must be adopted for the purpose of reducing inequality. It leaves untouched all the other rights established under existing case law against discrimination in any other circumstances, as it rightly should, and leaves employment tribunals untouched as the forum for redress. That is the simplest and most focused option available to us. An important principle behind the Bill is that it is not the Government's role to regulate the internal workings of political parties, which would be wrong and inappropriate, so the Bill does not seek to do that. We do not want to dictate what measures could be introduced by political parties to reduce inequality. Indeed, the Bill does not force political parties to take any steps whatever. It is permissive; it simply allows political parties the freedom to decide what measures are appropriate in the circumstances to reduce inequality.

The Bill is not restricted to representation at Westminster. Although the extent of inequality varies between elected bodies in the United Kingdom, the Government believe that they all have significant room for improvement. Compared with Westminster, the devolved Administrations have been more successful in ensuring that women are represented. Women make up more than 37 per cent. of Members of the Scottish Parliament, and more than 41 per cent. of Members of the National Assembly for Wales. However, it is important that those bodies can increase, or at the very least maintain, the representation of women that they have achieved. It is therefore important that the Bill's provisions cover Scotland and Wales. I am pleased that, with the agreement of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, they will cover Northern Ireland as well. There have been real improvements in Wales and Scotland and we want to make sure that they are maintained.

The Bill does not just reflect that position and deal with elections to the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and the House of Commons, but—and this has received little attention—will cover the selection of candidates for local government elections. That is important, because many people serve their political apprenticeship in local government; they get used to engaging in political dialogue and debate and it may well be from their experience of local government that they feel able to stand for election to the House of Commons. I do not know whether Members share my experience of constituency surgeries, but it is clear that it is often women who campaign actively on local issues. It is women who come to my surgery to complain about things that are happening in their communities. We should look at ways in which we can involve women; doing so through local government is a positive way to allow that to happen in the political process.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Pollok): Does my right hon. Friend accept that if more women are to come into government, particularly local government, it is essential that vacancies be created to allow that to happen more speedily? Is he aware of what happened in the Republic of Ireland, where long-serving councillors were given a gratuity to enable them to leave, thereby creating vacancies for women? Does he not think that that would be helpful in the United Kingdom?

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