Jowell aims to raise number of Hon Ladies

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The Labour frontbencher Tessa Jowell could not have illustrated the inequality of the sexes in the Commons more graphically: "There are more Members of Parliament called 'John' than there are honourable ladies in this House."

Fond though Ms Jowell said she was of a "number of Johns", Labour intended to change the balance. The party hoped to treble the number of its women MPs - from the present 38 out of 271 - at the next election and achieve equality in three Parliaments.

"The presence of women in our Parliament, as in every other area of public life, is important not just as an end in itself. Parliament cannot be as good at its job as it should be precisely because more than half the nation is not properly represented here," she said to some Tory protests.

Ms Jowell turned the spotlight on the unreconstructed nature of the UK Parliament during a debate on equal rights for women, scheduled by the Government to mark International Women's Day.

Of the present 650 MPs, only 63 are women. It is one of the lowest participation rates in the European Union. Of the total, 38 are Labour, 17 Conservative, four are Liberal Democrats and two SNP. Then there is the Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, and one of her deputies, Dame Janet Fookes.

By comparison, according to Ms Jowell, there are 90 Johns.

Since Nancy Astor, the first woman MP, entered Parliament in 1919, pledging to speak for women and children, only 169 other women had taken their seats compared with nearly 4,000 men.

Opening the debate, Cheryl Gillan, Under-Secretary for Employment, goaded Labour over last January's industrial tribunal ruling that the Sex Discrimination Act applied to parliamentary selection, making Labour's policy on women-only shortlists unlawful.

She said: "I do not believe that any woman wants to make progress in politics, public life or employment, if it involves discriminating against a man."

But Ms Jowell, Labour's spokesperson on women's issues, said the ruling should also interest the Tories. Discrimination was "rife" in the Tory party, she claimed, illustrating it with a conversation with a frustrated candidate. "This woman, clearly a great improvement on most of the Conservative members, complained that at her last attempt she had been told that no one over 45, and certainly no women, should apply."

Ann Winterton, MP for Congleton, said Ms Jowell "misunderstands totally" what democracy was about in the Tory Party. "First and foremost we don't have diktat by Central Office. We believe that associations should choose the potential MP that suits them best.

"Many of the activists in the constituency parties on the Conservative side are women, and it is women's prejudice against women that has to be defeated."

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