Women need not apply for privileges: Even after Thatcher, the House of Commons remains a dedicated club for the boys, says Ruth Winstone

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The Independent Online
IN THE fuss over which of the great and good are to be on the Commons Privileges Committee, set up to investigate two of the more junior boys at the House, one question has not been asked. So I will ask it. Why are there no women on the committee? It must comprise, so we are told, senior members of the House of Commons. So plenty of knights are included: six out of 17, to be exact. Then they have to have experience of parliamentary procedure. So there are elderly and long- standing members present.

But if these two criteria are foremost, what about Dame Jill Knight, Dame Janet Fookes or Dame Peggy Fenner? Why not Joan Lestor, who has been an MP for 24 years, or Margaret Beckett, currently acting leader of a party? Then there are Clare Short, and Anne Clwyd, Emma Nicholson and Margaret Ewing - all experienced MPs.

Between them, incidentally, these women have precisely one business consultancy. Among the 17 men appointed to the new privileges committee there are 18 directorships/consultancies. Surely there is a strong case for having younger members, including a fair representation of women on the committee. They are less likely to be encumbered by commercial interests.

Despite the presence of 60 of them in Parliament, female MPs are in reality unwelcome guests who have somehow managed to get over the walls of Westminster and are sullenly tolerated by the inmates. Once the Conservatives had rid themselves of Margaret Thatcher a great sigh of relief was audible: at last the men were back in charge. The conspiracy of silence against Margaret Beckett during the Labour Party's leadership contest has arisen, in my view, from a similar sub- conscious cry on the part of the male political establishment (of all parties) of, 'Oh God, not another woman]'.

This may seem paradoxical in a Parliament with a female Speaker, but Betty Boothroyd is the matron of the public school in which the pupils sometimes get a little boisterous and have to be controlled.

Below stairs in the Commons, this misogyny has its non-elected counterpart. The Serjeant at Arms (until recently a retired military officer) presides over a hierarchical system of messengers, clerks, police and officials which has barely been breached by a skirt. Recently only the second female officer (the librarian) was appointed: but apart from these infractions, the whole of Westminster is run like a regiment, with the officers and other ranks strictly preserved. And at the bottom of this pyramid exists an invisible battalion of cleaners and 'canteen ladies'.

This monopoly is also reflected by the people who control political comment and analysis. The gang of six - Brian Walden, Jeremy Paxman, David Frost, John Humphreys, David Dimbleby and James Naughtie - are interchangeable with the men on the green benches.

It doesn't occur to them that female MPs might be capable of voicing an opinion about 'serious' issues. When the Prince and Princess of Wales' marriage was breaking down, Newsnight wheeled on no fewer than 12 'constitutional experts' for one of its ponderous discussions - not one of whom was a woman. When Europe or Gatt or Bosnia is being discussed, none of the participants is a woman. Sexist language has come creeping back into news coverage, so that ministers and MPs and managers are invariably 'he', and businessmen rule industry.

One of the side-effects of the Thatcher era was to give women, at all levels, the confidence to object to more overtly sexist language and to challenge these assumptions; but a counter-reaction has been taking place in the Nineties, and with it a return to the golden days of politics when, as Churchill said, men huddled in Commons' corridors, 'their own solution and a policy to hand'. It is this world, one that the men love and reflect, which excludes female MPs.

As there are more women than ever in Parliament, and television and radio are well- represented by women at production level, this is a puzzling development which requires the tacit collaboration of MPs and producers themselves. It is a vicious circle in which women end up believing themselves not competent to contribute to certain political discussions and therefore never get asked.

The answer is not, I believe, for 300 more women to sit in the Commons. Indeed, Parliament is becoming so discredited that few self-respecting women are likely to aspire to work there. Perhaps the privileges committee would be better occupied considering the question of why men constitute the privileged majority in Parliament, rather than what a few recalcitrant members get up to.

The writer is the editor of 'The Benn Diaries'. Volume six, 'Years of Hope, 1940-62', is published in September by Hutchinson.

(Photograph omitted)