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Friday, 21 December, 2001, 10:21 GMT
All-women shortlists clear new hurdle
Tony Blair with Labour's women MPs in 1997
1997 saw record numbers of women MPs
Getting decent numbers of women elected to Parliament will take decades without positive discrimination, peers have been warned.

Former Leader of the Lords Baroness Jay said she was a late convert to the idea of all-women shortlists but now believed they were the only way to increase female representation at Westminster.

It should be about ensuring that the political process takes advantage of the fresh perspectives that women have to offer

Lady Seccombe
Her comments came as the House of Lords gave an unopposed second reading to a bill that would allow political parties to use positive discrimination to choose candidates.

The plans can now go forward for further parliamentary scrutiny.

Labour used all-women lists before the 1997 general election but the practice later fell foul of an employment tribunal ruling.

'Old boy's network'

Lady Jay criticised those who had given the "derogatory" tag of Blair's babes to the record number of women MPs elected after the move.

Women ministers had also seen their efforts to make the workings of Parliament more family friendly defeated by the "old boy's network", she argued.

"I think it is not surprising that many of them lost heart," added Lady Jay.

Lady Jay of Paddington
Jay: 'Blair's Babes' is a derogatory tag
Lords' Leader Lord Williams of Mostyn said it was a "melancholy fact" that only 18% of MPs were women.

Over the last 80 years, only 240 of the 4,500 MPs elected had been female, he continued.

Lord Williams described the government's bill as permissive rather than prescriptive.

"It is not for Government to interfere with the internal working of political parties.

"They ought to put their own houses in order if they have the will and the commitment to do so."

New perspectives

Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith has said he does not favour all-women short-lists, although he insists he does want to see more women chosen to fight winnable seats.

Tory spokeswoman Baroness Seccombe told peers the number of women currently in the Commons was a "sorry state of affairs" and said the legislation was "pressing and necessary".

Encouraging more women to stand for election should not be about making up the numbers.

It's to bring about a House of Commons which is truly representative of the society we live in

Lord Williams
Lords' Leader
"It should be about ensuring that the political process takes advantage of the wealth of experience and the fresh perspectives that women have to offer."

The plans were welcomed by crossbench peer Lady Howe, who used to be deputy chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission.

But she regretted regretted the measures were "painfully necessary".

Lady Howe argued politics could learn important lessons from business on the issue.

Changing cultures

Research showed companies were making the flexible arrangements during times of family commitment for both men and women.

That meant they would not lose those employees to their competitors, she added.

There was support too from Liberal Democrat spokeswoman Baroness Walmsley, who argued an organisation's culture only changed if at least a third of its members were women.

"This Bill sends out the important message that we want more women to participate at all levels of government," she said.

See also:

08 Oct 01 | Conservatives
Davis rules out women's quotas
27 Sep 01 | UK Politics
Lib Dems reject women-only lists
24 Dec 01 | Liberal Democrats
Women must use 'bore' tactics
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