Call for all-women shortlists

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Political parties could be set mandatory quotas for the number of women they put forward as parliamentary candidates.

A cross-party review today urged that the move must be considered if there is not a "significant" increase in the number of female MPs in the forthcoming general election.

Such a reform would be highly controversial - even voluntary all-women shortlists have only ever been used by the Labour Party.

But the Speaker's Conference suggested compulsion might be necessary to increase diversity in the House of Commons.

It also called for the introduction of candidate lists that exclude white people, although they would not be mandatory and it is unclear whether any parties would adopt them.

Chaired by Commons Speaker John Bercow, the Speaker's Conference was commissioned by Gordon Brown to investigate the under-representation in the House of women, ethnic minorities and the disabled.

In its report today, it said: "If the political parties fail to make significant progress on women's representation at the 2010 general election, Parliament should give serious consideration to the introduction of prescriptive quotas, ensuring that all political parties adopt some form of equality guarantee in time for the following general election."

It added: "We recognise that equality guarantees do not sit easily within some political party cultures.

"Yet, to date, the all-women shortlist has been the only mechanism to have produced a significant step-change in representation in the House of Commons in a relatively short period of time."

The committee also called for the equivalent of all-women shortlists to be introduced for black and ethnic minority candidates.

It acknowledged that the idea of all-BME (black and minority ethnic) shortlists was "controversial".

There were concerns that people might think certain communities could only by represented effectively by one of its own members, or that BME candidates should not stand in majority-white areas.

"Such beliefs would undermine the fundamental principle that an MP represents all his or her constituents regardless of their identity, background or political allegiance," the committee said.

"Nonetheless we note that all-women shortlists were, and to an extent remain, controversial yet have had positive effects overall.

"We believe that similar enabling legislation could be created to allow all-BME shortlists to be used, if and when political parties judge that their use would be reasonable, in order to achieve greater parity of representation for BME communities in the House of Commons."

The committee called for another review of the Commons' late sittings to make MPs' work more family friendly, potentially with the introduction of "normal business hours".

While the Commons seldom sits into the early hours any more - following reforms introduced last decade - debates continue until about 10.30pm on Mondays and Tuesdays.

The Speaker's Conference said: "Ideally, sitting time for the main chamber should be brought in line with what is considered to be normal business hours."

Failing that, it said, deferred voting should be dramatically extended so that MPs did not have to be within the vicinity of the chamber whenever there was an important vote imminent.

The committee also called for "modern methods of voting" to be considered.

Other recommendations by the Speaker's Conference included:

:: Limits on the amount of money would-be candidates could incur during the selection process

:: Bursaries to support people who would not otherwise be able to afford the costs of becoming a candidate

:: Legislation to allow prospective parliamentary candidates to take unpaid leave from work

:: The opportunity for gay and lesbian MPs to have civil partnerships within the Palace of Westminster.

Anne Begg, vice chair of the Speaker's Conference, said: "The case for equality of representation has not yet been won.

"We welcome the progress which each of the main parties has made over recent years towards ensuring that its selection procedures are more professional and objective then they have been in the past.

"Yet the fact is that, in most cases, it remains more difficult for a candidate who does not fit the 'white, male, middle class' norm to be selected, particularly if the seat is considered winnable.

"Our recommendations are aimed at putting that right, and I urge the Government, political parties and Parliament itself to implement them without delay."

Harriet Harman, the Labour's deputy leader and the Minister for Women and Equality, said: "Society has changed and the House needs to change too.

"We should take all the steps we can to increase diversity in Parliament, which must reflect the country in which we live and the public we serve.

"We agree that there is a real need to build on the desire for greater representation in our democratic structures.

"This is a democratic deficit - the missing faces on the green benches are the missing voices in the chamber."