Women denied access to power

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THE highest levels of government will remain off limits to women until the law is changed to allow positive discrimination, according to the Fabian Society.

In a paper published today on women in the Labour party, Maria Eagle MP and academic Joni Lovenduski argue that some party members will not select women as parliamentary candidates unless they are forced to.

They claim some constituencies "ruthlessly" shortlisted poor women candidates in place of highly qualified ones to give men a clear run at the last election.

And they conclude the party must adopt new procedures to ensure that women are promoted in Parliament and in elected bodies including the new Scottish and Welsh assemblies.

Lord Irvine, the Lord Chancellor, sparked a storm of protest last month when he privately advised the Government that it could not change the Sex Discrimination Act to permit positive action.

He argued that amending the discrimination legislation, which was used before the election by rebel Labour men to scupper all-women shortlists, might breach European directives. But Ms Eagle and Ms Lovenduski argue Europe would support action designed to overcome discrimination. Changing the Sex Discrimination Act to allow measures designed to promote women "would be within the spirit of European law, which has allowed socialist parties in Europe to apply quotas to candidate lists for many years," they claim.

In their pamphlet, the authors argue that it was only because so many women had been already chosen from all-women shortlists that 101 Labour women were elected last May. Few women were selected and elected in seats with open shortlists.

Among the measures the authors advocate are the setting up of a national panel of candidates with "rigorous equal opportunities procedures". They want "zipping" of lists for European, Scottish and Welsh elections, where some candidates will be elected by a form of proportional representation, so that every other person on the list is a woman. And they back the "pairing" of constituencies where one man and one woman are chosen to represent "paired" constituencies with an equal chance of being winnable.

t Social Security Secretary Harriet Harman today signalled her determination to hold on to her job, despite speculation that she will be ditched in a Cabinet reshuffle.

On the BBC1 Breakfast with Frost programme, she accepted that she had become the "centre of that controversy over the reshuffle, because people want to think about who is going to go where". But she added: "I feel very proud of what I and my team have been able to do and certainly want to carry on doing it."