Equality law could bring more female MPs

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The Independent Online
Positive discrimination to bring more women into Parliament could be allowed under proposals to be announced by the Government's equal opportunities watchdog. The move could bring back Labour's all-women shortlists, outlawed last year. Fran Abrams, Political Correspondent, looks at the details.

The Sex Discrimination Act could be amended to allow political parties to give priority to prospective female candidates, the Equal Opportunities Commission will say next month. It believes the move could even be brought in just for one general election to boost numbers.

Although the number of female MPs doubled to 121 in May, Britain still has one of Europe's worst records on women's representation in a national parliament. Just 18.4 per cent of MPs are women, compared with 62.5 per cent in Finland and 45 per cent in Sweden. Only Greece, with 16 per cent, and Portugal, with 8 per cent, lag behind.

In a briefing note to political parties, published today to coincide with the 22nd anniversary of the Sex Discrimination Act becoming law, the commission says only they can address the "democratic deficit" in Britain. Kamlesh Bahl, chairwoman of the EOC, said its proposals would be "radical" but could not make a difference unless politicians were committed to equal representation.

"Even if we have some aspect of positive discrimination, what it will not do is to solve the problem of the structural changes that are needed," she said. "What we have also got to do is to change the attitudes of people."

The EOC is carrying out a comprehensive review of the sex-discrimination laws, and will publish its proposals for consultation in the second week of January before presenting a final version to the Government in May. It believes a simple amendment to the Sex Discrimination Act could exempt political parties from its provisions.

There are still ambiguities in European case law, although they will be largely ironed out when the Amsterdam Treaty is ratified, probably within the next year. It says member states can act to correct gender imbalances in working life.

The main political parties are all committed to selecting more female candidates, though they have taken different approaches. Since an industrial tribunal ruled last year that all-women shortlists were illegal under the Sex Discrimination Act, Labour has promised a full-scale training and education programme to encourage more women to stand for selection.

The Tories are against positive discrimination, but hope to persuade their selection panels to look carefully at well-qualified women candidates. At this year's conference, the Liberal Democrats rejected proposals for positive discrimination for Westminster elections. However, under proportional representation to be introduced for the Scottish and European parliaments, the party will have at least 50 per cent women on its candidate lists.

l Girls may be forging ahead of boys in the classroom, but drop behind as soon as they get to work, writes Barrie Clement. Women in employment have less access to vocational training and any skills they have acquired are not fully appreciated or used by employers, according to a report by the Policy Studies Institute. The study, Half Our Future: women, skill, development and training, points out that females will soon constitute more than half the workforce, but are less likely to be managers than men.

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