New legislation allowing political parties to select candidates from women-only shortlists will be announced by the Government at the Labour Party conference on Monday.
The law, which will cover all elections from local councils to Westminster, will form the centrepiece of the speech by Patricia Hewitt, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who is minister for Women.
The move to amend the Sex Discrimination Act will be introduced in the next session of Parliament. It will fulfil Labour's promise in its 2001 general election manifesto to introduce measures to resolve the legality of all-women and "gender-balanced" shortlists.
The party's own practice of allowing women-only shortlists for Parliamentary seats for the 1997 election had to be dropped after it was successfully challenged by two men in an employment tribunal.
With all the main parties seeing a drop in the number of women MPs at the last election, women's groups have been pushing for a change in the law.
Only 12 out of the 98 MPs elected for the first time in June were women and 118 women were returned in total, 18 per cent of all MPs. The number is down slightly on May 1997, when 120 women were returned. To make up for the disappointing figures, Tony Blair appointed a record number of women to the Cabinet and many others were given non-cabinet ministerial jobs.
In her speech on Monday, Ms Hewitt will make clear that the legislation will not force any party to adopt all-women shortlists but she will also stress it represents a historic step forward for equal representation.
Candidate selections for local councils, county councils, the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament will all fall under the remit of the new legislation.
By scheduling the Bill early in the next session of Parliament, the Government will ensure that it becomes law in time for the next general election and may even allow gender balance for the 2003 elections to devolved bodies.
Of the record 120 intake of 1997, 106 of those women returned to the Commons after the 2001 election, 88 of them Labour and 12 Tory.
Retiring women MPs were almost all replaced by men, and men were chosen for safe seats. Labour selected only 11 women to fight its top 50 target seats.
Although Labour is certain to introduce all-women shortlists for certain seats, the position of other parties is less sure. The new Tory leader, Iain Duncan Smith, has promised to encourage more women to join the party, but has already ruled out the idea of women-only lists or quotas.
The Liberal Democrat leadership was rebuffed earlier this week when delegates at its party conference rejected proposals for women-only lists. Delegates said the shortlists were "illiberal" and passed an amendment to set targets instead to boost the number of women candidates.
* Unions are to press ahead with an attack on the Prime Minister's controversial plans for public services next week. Yesterday Unison, the country's biggest union, insisted that it would take its campaign against Tony Blair's "creeping privatisation" policy to the floor of the Labour Party's conference in Brighton on Monday Unison says a debate on such a vital issue is essential, although some delegates fear that television footage of British soldiers in action might be followed by film of conference speakers criticising Mr Blair.Reuse content