HL Deb 01 July 1998 vol 591 cc697-702

(" .—(1) The Sex Discrimination Act 1975 shall be amended as follows.

(2) After section 49 of the 1975 Act there shall be inserted—

"Candidatures for National Assembly for Wales.

49A. Nothing in Parts II to IV shall render unlawful any act done by or on behalf of a registered political party within the meaning of the Government of Wales Act 1998 if it is an act done for the purpose of, or in connection with—

  1. (a) selecting female candidates only, or male candidates only, for election to the National Assembly for Wales ("the Assembly"), or
  2. (b) taking any steps preliminary to, or in connection with, such selection which either favour or subject to a detriment either female or male candidates,
provided that in the opinion of the party concerned the act in question is in the circumstances necessary to attempt to secure an equal number of members of the sex favoured as there are of the other sex as candidates of that party for election to the Assembly.".

The noble Lord said: My Lords, when we debated the issues of sexual discrimination and the selection of candidates for the national assembly in Committee we did not have the benefit of Clause 120. That should set the whole context of this debate for we now have a Bill which commits the assembly to make appropriate arrangements to have due regard to, equality of opportunity for all people in the exercise of its functions, and to make a report upon that. I begin with the following simple question. How can an assembly which has equality of opportunity for all people as one of its legal duties consist of an imbalanced gender, cultural and ethnic mix which does not reflect the population of the country for which it is a national assembly?

When he responded, in his usual sharp, intelligent and all encompassing way—there are more adjectives, should they be required—to our debate in Committee, my noble and learned friend the Solicitor-General said that the Government's view was that the initiative on this matter, lies with the political parties themselves to improve the balance of women and men in their selection procedures".—[Official Report, 11/5/98; col. 914.] I am therefore pleased to congratulate the Liberal Democrats on selecting Kirsty Williams, an intelligent, lively and sharp young member of the national advisory group, as their candidate in a constituency which they hold in the House of Commons.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that she won the nomination in the face of open competition? There was no positive discrimination in her favour.

Lord Elis-Thomas

My Lords, I am not aware that the Liberal Democrats adopted any procedures. I am certain that she would benefit from whatever procedures might be put in place because she is a talented candidate. I wish her well. I say that on an entirely non-partisan basis. I also wish to announce the successful nomination of Elin Jones—the previous mayor of Aberystwyth—for the Party of Wales, Plaid Cymru, in a constituency held by the party in the House of Commons, that of Ceredigion. Therefore, we are doing our bit.

However, I now invite my noble friend and companion in the Conwy Valley, the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy, to list the gender balance of selected Conservative members for the National Assembly for Wales. I also invite him to list, by gender balance, the members of the Conservative Party selected for the Welsh constituency of the European Parliament. I had the great privilege of meeting one of them last night. I congratulated him in person. He is Mr. Jonathan Evans, a good friend. He is to the left of the Conservative Party, and perhaps not a Eurosceptic. Therefore he may be a positive addition under the existing electoral system to the European Parliament. I wish him well. Apparently he is on the top of the list, to be followed by Mr. Chris Butler. I understand he is second on the list. I greatly admire that gentleman. He was an active researcher for the Conservative Party in Wales. However, I believe him to be of the same gender, and indeed of the same party tendency, as Mr. Jonathan Evans. I could go on, but it is not my place in this House to embarrass the Conservative Party.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, perhaps I can put the noble Lord out of his misery immediately by saying that of the 19 candidates who have been nominated to contest the assembly, four are Conservative women.

Lord Elis-Thomas

My Lords, I did not do too well at mathematics because there was no national curriculum in the days when I attended Llanrwst grammar school. However, four out of 19 is hardly a gender balance. Therefore I suggest that the noble Lord should return to the Conwy Valley and start to count sheep again to see how that works out. It seems to me that there is a gross failure on the part of the Conservative Party to fulfil the suggestions of my noble and learned friend the Solicitor-General. The amendment I move is not proposed in the interests of the Labour Party, the Party of Wales or of the Liberal Democrats, but in the interests of the Conservative Party to ensure that it is now able to attempt to obtain some form of equality in the selection procedures.

My noble and learned friend the Solicitor-General may not be able to reply immediately to my next question. If he cannot do so, I hope that he will write to me on the subject before we reach Third Reading as this is an issue we may wish to return to for a further progress report on the success or otherwise of the Conservative Party in achieving equality of opportunity in these matters. I give notice of that. I hope my noble and learned friend will be able to indicate what stage we have reached in terms of the consultation undertaken by the Equal Opportunities Commission earlier this year on the relevance of sex discrimination legislation at both UK and European level to the selection of candidates. I believe that both in Scotland and in Wales the Labour Party has taken measures along the lines of positive discrimination which seem to be working. Certainly the Party of Wales intends to adopt not the same procedure but another one in relation to ensuring a balance of representation through the topping up of the regional list system, should that be required, following the first-past-the-posts elections. I say all this because it was put to us fairly clearly that the Government took the view that this was a matter for political parties. I suggest that some political parties at least have failed in that respect.

A related issue which also concerns me deeply is linked to the question of equality of opportunity; namely, ethnic balance between various communities within Wales as reflected within the assembly. I believe we must address not only the issue of gender balance but also that of the ethnic balance in terms of equality of opportunity. This is a serious matter which we must address, although it is not immediately relevant to this amendment. I hope that all parties in Wales will take into account the need to ensure that all diverse communities within the nation have representation and feel that the national assembly belongs to all of us. Otherwise, we shall be failing in our duty of inclusivity in that regard. For all those reasons and others, I beg to move the amendment.

5 p.m.

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, I have considerable sympathy for the amendment. I hope that the Government will share that sympathy. If not, much of their rhetoric goes for nothing. I remind the Government that they have used the word "inclusive" over and over again in their proposals. If our national assembly is to be truly inclusive, it must also be gender inclusive. To achieve that may well require the use of artificial mechanisms subject to legal challenge. Until such time as the position of women in Welsh politics is greatly improved, we must be able to use such mechanisms without the fear of intervention by the courts.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, if I am not wildly mistaken, the noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, is being altruistic. Surely he is trying to be helpful to the Labour Party in Wales which got itself into an unholy mess with its so-called twinning arrangements. The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor has, according to the press, told the Labour Party in Wales that its scheme is illegal. It is indeed contrary to the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. It may contravene the European Union equal treatment directive. That is my understanding of the position. We on these Benches are not into this business at all. We will take lectures from prominent members of Plaid Cymru when that party is led by a woman, as our party was so nobly led for 18 years by the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher.

Is it right to drive a coach and horses through the 1975 Act simply to try to legitimise what is after all a curious scheme devised by the Labour Party in Wales to favour Labour women candidates for the assembly in Wales? I am not aware that the scheme is required for any other political party elsewhere. As I say, we are not into the business of selecting women simply because they are women. I am proud to say that those women selected as Conservative candidates for the assembly have been selected on merit.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, we considered this very same amendment in Committee when I made clear the Government's view that any change to the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 could be open to challenge as being in contravention of European employment law and of the equal treatment directive in particular. Unfortunately, Clause 120 of the Bill changes the position, whatever it may be, in relation to European law.

That said, I also wish to make it clear that the Government attach very great importance to seeing more participation by women in the political processes of this country. For far too long there have been far too few women in our elected chambers. The assembly will be a new start for Wales and we hope that women will be to the fore in helping to make sure that the new start is a successful one.

The amendment proposes that we should amend the Sex Discrimination Act to remove the selection procedures for assembly candidates from its scope. For the reasons already mentioned, we cannot accept it. Our view remains that the initiative lies with the political parties themselves. It would be possible for parties to achieve a real impact simply by introducing elements of what is now widely accepted as best practice in terms of equal opportunities.

The Equal Opportunities Commission has offered to advise political parties on how they can put equal opportunities into practice in their activities and candidate selection procedures. The Government urge all parties to take up that generous offer. Among the suggestions put forward are the need for parties to make a strong statement at a national level of their commitment to encouraging women to come forward as candidates for selection. Once more I have no hesitation in giving that commitment on behalf of the Labour Party: more training for women who are interested in putting themselves forward as candidates; training for local selection committees; promotional literature to encourage women party members to stand for selection; and giving applicants and selectors long notice of meetings to allow for domestic arrangements.

The White Paper made clear that we are committed to equal opportunities for all—a commitment which extends to women and men, members of the ethnic minority communities, the disabled and others. We urge all the political parties to have regard to the principle of equal opportunities in drawing up their procedures for the selection of candidates for the assembly elections. Against that background, I urge the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Elis-Thomas

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his response and for his clear statement on the issue of discrimination generally and the need for inclusivity. On that basis, I shall withdraw the amendment. However, I may well return to the issue at Third Reading so that we may keep up with the progress of the Conservative Party in achieving equality of opportunity. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 8 [Constituency seats]:

Lord Simon of Glaisdale moved Amendment No. 17:

Page 6, line 6, after ("section") insert ("and section 9").

The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, I had not proposed to move this amendment because it is incorrect. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Williams, got the message that it was incorrect and that he was not to waste time puzzling out what it meant. It goes with Amendment No. 19 and is another attempt, in the face of the obduracy of the noble and learned Lord the Solicitor-General, to economise on statutory language.

An amendment that I shall table at Third Reading will relate to subsection (9) of Clause 8, so that the subsection would read: "References in this section and in section 9 to the presiding officer include references, etc.". That would permit subsection (8) of Clause 9 to be removed. I mention the real intention in the hope that the amendment will commend itself to the Government pending Third Reading. In the meantime, I shall not move this amendment.

The Deputy Speaker (Lord Strabolgi)

My Lords, I am afraid the noble and learned Lord must move the amendment if he wants it to be considered by the House. I shall therefore put it to the House.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale

My Lords, I hope that the noble and learned Lord rising to reply has made more sense of the amendment than I have.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, the point is plainly a good one. There is no point in including the same reference twice. The matter can be dealt with by including in Clause 8 a reference to Clause 9. If the noble and learned Lord will withdraw his amendment, we will bring forward an appropriate amendment at Third Reading.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, before the noble and learned Lord sits down, I thought the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, was being even more clever than normal; I could not understand his first amendment. However, my attention has now been drawn to the wording of the two subsections. We all exercise the function that we excise "for the time being", unless we are immortal. It seems to me to be the most amazing piece of legal mumbo-jumbo and perhaps when we return to the matter the noble and learned Lord will try to explain why we need to say "for the time being" when we all hold our various posts for the time being.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale

My Lords, I am absolutely delighted by the response of the noble and learned Lord. It makes me feel rather ashamed that I referred to his "obduracy". I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Roberts of Conwy moved Amendment No. 18:

After Clause 8, insert the following new clause—