Women's groups set doorstep test for candidates

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The Independent Online
Women's groups aim to distribute a "check list" to all 23 million female voters to test the commitment of candidates in the general election and their political parties to equal opportunities.

The plan to put equality issues centre-stage for the hustings was announced yesterday as a survey by National Opinion Polls showed that seven out of ten women - and more than five in ten men - believed that the political parties did not pay enough attention to issues that were important to women.

The Women's National Commission - an 8-million strong umbrella organisation for groups ranging from towns-women's guilds to trade unions - is to send out the 10-point check list to all its affiliates who will distribute it among their members and encourage all women to "keep it by the front door" so that they can confront political canvassers.

The 10 questions that "every prospective MP needs to answer" include inquiries about childcare, low wages, domestic violence, health care and the fact that fewer than one in ten MPs are women.

Together with the women's commission, the equal opportunities commissions for Britain and Northern Ireland yesterday launched a campaign of political awareness under the theme: "There is nothing more dangerous than a woman's vote ignored." Significantly, the initiative has been endorsed by the women's section of the Conservative Party, which by any objective measure performs worse than any other party in terms of the check list.

However, Kamlesh Bahl, chairwoman of the Equal Opportunities Commission, was careful yesterday to avoid being accused of party political bias.

She insisted that it was the duty of her organisations to set out the issues rather than tell people how to vote. But on her organisation's key policy of reform of equality legislation, the Tory party was the only one out of the three main political parties to reject such a strategy.

Ms Bahl said the campaign, the National Agenda for Action, had already succeeded in prompting politicians to think hard about their policies. "For the first time we are making sure that that the issues which really matter to women are being put at the heart of the political process.

"This new poll is saying that women are being ignored by the political parties. The votes of women will be critical in deciding the next government and politicians can no longer neglect their views." The commissions will publish an assessment of each election manifesto.

Liz Bavidge, co-chair of the Women's National Commission, pointed out that a high proportion of floating voters were women and that therefore the political parties could not afford to ignore their views.

The NOP poll showed that 75 per cent of 25- to 54-year-olds - the core of female voters - were the most dissatisfied with the parties. Researchers found the least dissatisfaction in East Anglia, where only 40 per cent said the parties were ignoring women's issues. Ms Bahl commented that such a result was probably prompted by the fact that the pay gap between men and women was at its lowest in that part of the country.