Women-only shortlists put Labour 'above law'

Party policy in the dock: Programme to correct imbalance of the sexes in Parliament is illegal, an industrial tribunal is told
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The Independent Online

Political Correspondent

The Labour Party was accused yesterday of putting itself above the law, by two men who claim they were illegally discriminated against when they were prevented from becoming parliamentary candidates.

"The Labour Party is arguing that a political party is above the law, not just of this country but of European law as well. That is an affront," Peter Jepson told an industrial tribunal in Leeds.

Mr Jepson argued that Labour's policy of women- only shortlists in half its winnable seats is in breach of the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act and the 1976 European Equal Treatment Directive.

Mr Jepson, who was barred from standing in two London seats, is representing himself and Roger Dyas-Elliott, who was turned away from the Keighley seat, in Yorkshire.

James Goudie QC, for the Labour Party, described Mr Jepson's charge as a "monstrous distortion" and argued that the members of the tribunal would be "spending a rather uncomfortable time in the Tower of London" if they interfered with the election of MPs.

Mr Goudie said that being an MP was not employment, hence the Act did not apply and the tribunal had no jurisdiction in the case. "Neither selection as a Parliamentary candidate nor election as an MP is an 'engagement' in a professional trade," he said.

If the Act covered the selection of candidates by political parties, "it will lead to absurd results which Parliament cannot possibly have intended," he added.

He quoted Dr Shirley Summerskill, a Labour Minister at the time the Sex Discrimination Bill was discussed in the Commons, who told a Conservative MP that political parties fell outside the relevant provision.

In any case, it was the electorate, not the parties, who decided who would be an MP, Mr Goudie said.

Even if the tribunal did not accept the Labour Party's argument in relation to the Act, Mr Goudie went on, it was clear that "positive action" was permitted under EU law and the European Convention on Human Rights.

Mr Jepson disputed that, saying there was a difference between positive action, which meant encouraging and assisting women to put themselves forward, and positive discrimination, which meant banning men.

The Labour Party brought in the policy of women's quotas at its 1993 conference in Brighton - in the same vote with which John Smith secured "one member, one vote" democracy in the selection of candidates. So far, 37 women have been chosen from women-only lists, and only a handful of seats remain.

Mr Gowdie described thecase as "utterly misconceived and an abuse of the process of an industrial tribunal".

Mr Jepson argues that if his case succeeds, all parties - not just Labour - would be required to comply with the provisions of the Sex Discrimination Act in choosing Parliamentary candidates.

This would prevent Conservative selection committees asking women if they intend to have children and men if their wives would host tea parties.

Mr Jepson has now applied for the nomination in Hayes and Harlington, where it was recently decided not to impose an all-women shortlist.

The hearing continues.

Main players in the case

Peter Jepson: A 45-year-old PhD student at University College, London, and a part-time lecturer in civil liberties law, Mr Jepson was once a Liberal Councillor in Oldham. He joined the Labour Party 16 years ago and this year he applied to be a candidate for two London seats. The Equal Opportunities Commission is giving him limited support in the form of pounds 750 for a barrister's legal opinion.

Roger Dyas- Elliott: A 49-year-old part-time mature student at Sheffield Hallam University, with a beard and ponytail, Mr Dyas-Elliott failed to be adopted as the Labour candidate for Scarborough, Grantham and Doncaster North before the last election. He is secretary of Bassetlaw District Labour Party, a parish councillor and school governor.

James Goudie QC: A senior Queen's Counsel in the chambers of Lord Irvine, Labour's Legal Affairs spokesman in the House of Lords, Mr Goudie is chairman of the Society of Labour Lawyers. He stood for parliament - against Rhodes Boyson in Brent North - in 1974, and was Labour Leader of Brent Council, 1977-78.