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All-women lists face new legal challenge


Political Correspondent

Pressure has intensified on the Labour Party over its controversial system of reserving half all winnable parliamentary seats for women, with a second legal challenge from a man alleging unlawful sex discrimination.

The development comes as the party prepares to invoke the full panoply of the law by spending thousands of pounds on a QC and junior counsel in an attempt to fend off an earlier claim launched in March - itself covering two constituencies.

The new complaint, to the Leeds industrial tribunal, comes from Roger Dyas-Elliott, a mature student and member of Bassetlaw constituency party, who was barred from applying to be a candidate for the marginal Keighley constituency in Yorkshire.

The other challenge, at the London North tribunal, is being brought by Peter Jepson, a part-time lecturer and PhD student, who complains he was illegally barred from applying to be considered by the newly-created Regents Park & Kensington constituency, and from the marginal Brentford & Isleworth.

The two men claim the quota scheme breaks the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act. All three seats were nominated for women-only lists under the 1993 Labour Party conference decision that in half of all marginal constituencies and of those where a sitting Labour MP is retiring, the parliamentary candidate should be selected from women alone.

Labour's solicitors have warned Mr Jepson that they will fight his claim with leading counsel, who will be instructed to handle a preliminary three- day hearing to begin on 11 October. That will come the week after the party's annual conference at which the policy will again come under fierce attack. Local parties at Croydon Central, Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney, Bishop Auckland and Slough, on which the ruling National Executive Committee imposed a woman-only list, have submitted hostile motions criticising the policy.

Labour has defended the quota scheme as the only effective way of ensuring that the number of women MPs is doubled from its present, grossly under- representative 39 to at least 80 in the next Parliament. A laudable motive, however, is no defence under the Act. Labour argues that the Act does not apply at all, but section 13 says it covers discrimination by "an authority or body which can confer an authorisation or qualification which is needed for, or facilitates, engagement in a particular profession or trade". Profession is defined as including "any vocation or occupation".

Mr Jepson, 45, who has experience of handling tribunal claims and will argue both his and Mr Dyas-Elliott's complaint, said he believed they have a strong case.

Labour hopes that the lengthy proceedings and the fact that women candidates have already been selected for the three seats will lead to the claims fizzling out.

But Mr Dyas-Elliott, a modern history student at Sheffield Hallam University, who backed Margaret Beckett in last year's leadership elections, said: "It's a question of principle. I am not anti-women and there is an easy answer to this problem: Make it compulsory to have a shortlist with equal numbers of men and women so that constituencies can pass judgement according to their convictions and principles."