Jay: We'll legalise all-women shortlists

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The Government is to legalise positive discrimination in a move that would allow Labour to reintroduce all-women shortlists of parliamentary candidates.

The Government is to legalise positive discrimination in a move that would allow Labour to reintroduce all-women shortlists of parliamentary candidates.

Baroness Jay of Paddington, the minister for women, disclosed that the Home Office was drawing up legislation that would permit positive action by political parties.

The Tories and Liberal Democrats are opposed to positive discrimination, but female ministers and backbenchers have been campaigning for government action since the shortlists were ruled illegal by the European Court of Human Rights.

Lady Jay said: "We are not giving up on getting more women into the Westminster Parliament. We are interested in the ideas put forward for positive action by political parties and how the law may be changed to allow this.

"Although the work is at a very early stage, we are looking with the Home Office at what possibilities might exist to allow these changes to be made."

Ministers have been alarmed by the failure of constituency parties to select female candidates for safe seats. Positive action before the 1997 general election helped to ensure that 101 Labour women were elected to Parliament, but this time the number of women selected as candidates has declined sharply.

"We didn't get the change of culture we wanted," Lady Jay said. "Some constituency Labour parties have to ask themselves why they are still not choosing the able women who perform so well at selection meetings. Those who select have a special responsibility. Yes, choose the best candidate - but make sure you and I know that means that you will then be selecting as many women as men."

The measure, signalled by Tony Blair on Sunday, will please women's rights campaigners and many female activists who have been lobbying ministers for change. The former secretary of state for social security, Harriet Harman, has written extensively on the subject, warning the party leadership that Labour's image as a women-friendly party was at risk unless legislation was brought in.

Similarly Tessa Jowell, an Education and Employment minister, said earlier this week: "This is the most feminist government in British history. What is denounced as politically correct now [will] be acceptable practice within a few years."

Lady Jay also hinted in her speech that the Government's review of maternity leave would extend mothers' rights and statutory pay. "I am not proud of the fact that, at the moment, our provision lags behind nearly all our partners in the European Union. We are consulting mothers, fathers, businesses and trade unions right across the country.

"Before the end of the year we will publish our proposals; we hope, improving the position of parents at work and at the same time increasing our economic efficiency."

A cross-departmental group chaired by Stephen Byers, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, is considering proposals to give mothers the right to take one year's unpaid maternity leave.

Other changes would include increasing the weekly flat rate of statutory maternity payment of £60.20, possibly by grading it, and giving fathers two weeks of paid paternity leave immediately after a child's birth.