Page last updated at 22:37 GMT, Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Probe into boosting minority MPs

Packed Commons chamber
About one in five MPs is a woman

MPs have approved proposals for a Parliamentary inquiry into how to boost the numbers of women, ethnic minority and disabled MPs.

A special committee of MPs, known as a "Speaker's Conference", will examine ways of making the Commons more representative of the UK as a whole.

Leader of the House Harriet Harman said the Commons faced a "democratic deficit" which affected its legitimacy.

Just 3% of MPs are black or Asian compared with 10% of the UK population.

Among 646 MPs there are just 125 women, of whom two are black and none Asian.

Legitimacy

In a debate on the subject, Ms Harman admitted that Parliament did not reflect wider society in the composition of its members.

Society has changed and the House needs to change too
Harriet Harman, Leader of the House

She said the Speaker's Conference, to be chaired by Speaker Michael Martin and consisting of 17 other MPs, would examine how best to achieve greater diversity in Parliament and make recommendations.

"Society has changed and the House needs to change too," she said.

"To reflect our population we need more than four times more Black and Asian MPs...The missing faces on the green benches are the missing voices in this chamber."

For the Tories, its shadow deputy commons leader Shailesh Vara welcomed the move as an opportunity to secure a "genuine step change in representation".

However, he said he was disappointed by the narrow remit of the committee after Gordon Brown said last year that it could address issues including weekend voting, the representation of women and ethnic minorities and whether voting age should be lowered to 16.

Tony Wright, chairman of the public administration committee, tabled an amendment to Ms Harman's motion, asking for the "under representation of certain groups of citizens" to be included.

"It is pretty clear that we have a huge problem about the exclusion of people who live at the sharp end of society from our political life," he said of working class representation.

British Obama

Last week Communities Secretary Hazel Blears criticised the "deeply unhealthy" number of government jobs given to career politicians with little experience beyond Westminster.

And following Barack Obama's victory in the US presidential election, UK equalities chief Trevor Phillips told the Times a British equivalent would find it very difficult to become PM.

He said there was an "institutional resistance" in the UK to selecting black and Asian candidates as MPs.

We do not have a voting system designed to produce a Parliament that reflects our society
Ken Ritchie
Electoral Reform Society

The first Speaker's conference, chaired by Speaker Lowther from 1916 to 1917, paved the way for the enfranchisement of women in the UK.

There were only five in the 20th Century - previous conferences have operated in a similar way to select committees and have taken evidence from witnesses. The aim is to achieve a cross-party consensus following confidential talks.

If approved, the Speaker's Conference is expected to present its recommendations some time next year.

The Electoral Reform Society said it must produce radical reforms and should "mean more than another round of Westminster wonkery".

Chief executive Ken Ritchie said: "We do not have a voting system designed to produce a Parliament that reflects our society, so we should not be surprised parts of the electorate are under-represented."

There is no obligation on the government of the day to accept recommendations from Speaker's Conferences but most are usually adopted.

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