Labour braced for sex bias ruling

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Political Correspondent

Judgment is expected today in the case brought against the Labour Party by two men for sex discrimination over its policy of reserving half of its winnable seats at the next election for women.

The case was adjourned last month because Peter Jepson, a would-be Labour candidate for two London seats which chose from all-women shortlists, was ill. Mr Jepson, a part-time law lecturer, is representing himself and Roger Dyas-Elliott, who was turned away from the all-women selection process in Keighley, West Yorkshire.

Labour sources say they are "confident" of winning the case, but it is understood that the party has made contingency plans in the event of defeat. The party would be likely to appeal, and the remaining dozen all-women selections would have to be suspended. If Labour then lost, the remaining selections would have to be thrown open to men, but candidates already chosen would not have their selections re-run. Mr Jepson and Mr Dyas-Elliott would be entitled to compensation - as would any others who had been barred.

Tony Blair, the Labour leader, has already said that the policy was "not ideal at all", and would not be continued after the next election - although he later said this was a matter for the party as a whole to decide.

Mr Jepson and Mr Dyas- Elliott claim that the policy contravenes the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act and the 1976 European equal treatment directive.

The Labour Party argues that the law applies only to bodies which control access to employment. Its QC at the Leeds industrial tribunal, James Goudie, told the first day's hearing that political parties did not control access to Parliament - that is decided by the voters - and that being an MP is not a "profession or trade".

Mr Jepson responded: "The Labour Party is arguing that a political party is above the law, not just of this country but of European law as well. That is an affront." He completes his submission today, and the tribunal is expected to give its verdict this afternoon.