Leadership will back all-women shortlists

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Discrimination against women in the Liberal Democrat party is "widespread" and has led to many able parliamentary candidates being rejected, research has revealed.

Today, at the party's conference, its leadership will back the introduction of all-women shortlists to boost the number of female MPs, who make up fewer than 10 per cent of Liberal Democrats at Westminster.

A report on research by the Fawcett Society, which promotes women in public life, blames the party for "paying lip- service" to the promotion of women in politics while failing to eradicate sexism within its own ranks.

The report, co-authored by Professor Joni Lovendusk of Birkbeck College, part of the University of London, found "systematic barriers to selection" of female candidates. "A culture of equal opportunities is not central to the Liberal Democrat selection process," the report said. "Women are frequently asked questions that men are not, particularly regarding their childcare responsibilities. Equality cannot exist when expectations of men and women differ."

The research, which included interviews with women who had tried to win seats, found that many felt they had been included on a shortlist "simply to meet the quota by constituency parties which had already decided to select a man".

Mary-Ann Stephenson, the director of the Fawcett Society, said there was strong evidence of "overt and covert sex discrimination" throughout the party. "Nobody wants to admit that their party discriminates, particularly the Liberal Democrats," she said. "But in order to support this motion you have to acknowledge that your party discriminates. There is a sign that the leadership is addressing the problem."

Senior MPs at the conference will try to push through quotas that would mean 40 per cent of winnable seats would be contested by women.

But the "positive action" will be vociferously opposed by some within the party, including David Laws, the MP for Yeovil, who believes that positive discrimination could be seen as illiberal.

Only five of the Liberal Democrats' 52 MPs are women, fewer than in any other major political party. Charles Kennedy, the party's leader, has given his backing to positive action to get more women elected. The positive discrimination will also be backed today by Lord Dholakia, the Liberal Democrats' president.

Steve Webb, the spokesman for work and pensions, said: "A desperate situation requires desperate measures. It's embarrassing sitting among 46 men in suits." The move by the Liberal Democrats comes as the Government prepares to make all-women shortlists legal by amending the Sex Discrimination Act.

Some in the party believe today's proposals will discriminate against men. Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes, said: "We need more women in Parliament and more women Liberal Democrat MPs, but I don't think women need these special measures to gain or win seats."

* The Liberal Democrats passed a motion last night banning the party's peers from holding positions with lobbying companies. The move would mean two of Mr Kennedy's frontbench spokesmen, Lord Clement-Jones and Lord McNally, having to give up their lobbying jobs within two years.