Election '97: Ashdown stumped by question of men-only list of new peers

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The Independent Online
Paddy Ashdown was stumped yesterday by the contrast between his call for a fair deal for women and his own decision to nominate three men for life peerages in last week's honours list.

Opening an election press conference on the party's policies to help women at work and home, the Liberal Democrat leader said: "There could be no greater symbol of the need to change the male-dominated House of Commons in that in the Commons we have a shooting gallery but we don't have a creche."

But when The Independent asked him why he had chosen not to elevate Emma Nicholson to the House of Lords last week, picking three men instead, Mr Ashdown said: "Because she's an MP."

As Parliament has been dissolved, there are no MPs, and because Emma Nicholson defected to the Liberal Democrats from the Conservative benches, as MP for Devon West and Torridge, she has been left with no seat to contest in the current election campaign.

Pressed again to explain why he had picked three men for life peerages - Sir David Steel, Sir Russell Johnston and David Alton - Mr Ashdown said they were all people who had given long and distinguished service to the party.

The press conference theme was designed to coincide with National Take Our Daughters to Work Day - a scheme to provide young girls with an idea of the world of work.

Diana Maddock, the party spokeswoman on women and family policy, said: "Over 11 million women will go to work today.

"They will be joined at work by thousands of teenage girls observing their mums and dads at work.

"Sadly, too often, they will see women being held back by lack of access to child-care, inflexible hours, low pay and poor maternity rights. These 'glass ceilings' must be shattered."

She said that the party policy for women at home would offer an acceleration of the equitable splitting of pensions on divorce, the introduction of a carer's benefit, and improvement in the availability of refuge places for women fleeing from violent partners.

For women at work, the party promised free pre-school places for all three- and four-year-olds, encouragement of more child-care provision by extending tax relief, and an extension of employment and pension rights for part-time workers.