Women's groups grill parties over fine words

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State-funded equal opportunities bodies yesterday registered scepticism over the "fine words" of party leaders and launched a campaign to grill politicians and influence manifestos ahead of the election.

The Equal Opportunities Commissions for Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Women's National Commission began a three-month interrogation of political parties to see where they stand on critical policy issues. Politicians were warned that women's votes would be critical in the next election.

Commenting on statements provided by John Major, Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown for yesterday's launch, the head of the Women's National Commission remarked: "Fine words don't butter any parsnips."

Liz Bavidge, co-chairman of the WNC, which claims to represent one in three women, said: "What they said sounds very good and I would like to believe them, but until we have hard evidence of their intentions it's going to mean nothing."

Ms Bavidge, whose organisation advises ministers on women's issues, urged female voters not to be "fobbed off" by parliamentary candidates. She said that some women were told how to vote by their husbands, but she added: "It's up to women to take charge of their own destiny." It was time for ordinary women to make their voices heard, she said.

Kamlesh Bahl, chairwoman of the Equal Opportunities Commission, said the political parties would ignore the 10-point National Agenda for Action "at their peril".

Set out by the commissions after consultations with women's groups, it formed the most detailed and comprehensive attempt anywhere in the world to tie politicians down to specific pledges, Ms Bahl said. "I want the parties to compete with each other over women's issues," she said.

Politicians will be asked how they intend to modernise equality law, how they will boost women's participation in political decision-making, and what provisions they would make for child care. One of the fundamental issues to be explored will also be the party's attachment to "mainstreaming and monitoring" to ensure that women's needs are taken on board when decisions are made and that their progress is measured.

In his statement for the launch, John Major said: "The Conservative Party believes in equality of opportunity for all, regardless of sex, race, creed or colour, so that every member of society can pursue their aims without unnecessary obstacles."

Tony Blair said: "The Labour Party has the principle of equal opportunities at the heart of its programme to build a new Britain. We are proud of our record in increasing opportunities for women through the Equal Pay Act and the Sex Discrimination Act.

"The National Agenda for Action is an important contribution to the debate on how New Labour can help women achieve their full potential."

In his declaration, Paddy Ashdown said: "Liberal Democrats aim to build a Britain where every woman can shape her own future by developing her skills and enhancing her strengths. This will benefit not just each individual woman, but also the whole community."

Pressed to concede that Labour and the Liberal Democrats had more to offer women, Ms Bavidge said it was not for her to tell women how to vote. "They will draw their own conclusions," she said.

Ms Bahl, a former Conservative Party activist, said there was clearly a failure at present to "mainstream" women's issues.