Page last updated at 12:56 GMT, Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Be bolder on diversity, MPs told

Palace of Westminster
The conference's findings are not binding but are usually adopted

Political parties must exploit the "Obama effect" to encourage more people from ethnic minorities to get into politics, MPs have been told.

The excitement caused by Barack Obama's election must be "seized upon", MPs looking at how to increase the diversity of Parliament have heard.

Parties must employ "talent spotters" to recruit people and to help break down institutional barriers to change.

Parliament is looking at ways it can be become more representative of society.


A special committee of MPs, known as a Speaker's conference, is looking at reasons why more women, people with disabilities and from ethnic minority backgrounds do not put themselves forward for election or get selected as candidates.

Speakers' conferences are a rarely used device to encourage electoral reform, the last having been held in 1978.

This is a small window of opportunity that we must seize upon
Simon Woolley, Operation Black Vote

Campaigners for greater black representation in Westminster said the problem was not due to "apathy" but because many people had "consciously opted out" of electoral politics because they felt Parliament did not represent them.

Tackling "deep-seated levels of cynicism" would be challenging, Operation Black Vote's Simon Woolley said.

However, he said many British people felt "liberated" by Barack Obama's election as US president and were now keen to engage with politics and to make a difference.

"This is a small window of opportunity that we must seize upon," he said.

While supporting all-black shortlists to increase representation, Mr Woolley accepted this was a "contentious" approach and urged parties to do all they could to "nurture" talented people through the political system.

Labour MP Dianne Abbott said many people had been "mesmerised" by Barack Obama's success and that public identification with him showed the "importance of representation" in bringing about social change.

Individual impact

But David Blunkett expressed concerns about the "cult of individual" when it came to representation.

He said that during her time as prime minister Lady Thatcher had not made "much difference" to the number of women MPs in Westminster.

The inquiry was prompted by Gordon Brown asking Speaker Michael Martin to look at how Parliament could be made more representative.

Currently about one in five MPs is a woman, compared with approximately half the population.

Women are put off entering Parliament because of the "macho culture" at Westminster, Fay Mansell from the Women's Institute, told the committee.

"To be successful women feel they have to be defeminised and almost as macho as the men," she said.

"These attitudes need to be changed and the way Parliament conducts its business needs to be changed."

Radar, which speaks on behalf of people with disabilities, said many people with disabilities lacked confidence and therefore did not feel "capable of holding office".

Despite the "pioneering" careers of people such as David Blunkett, Radar's Liz Sayce said there were still prejudice against people with disabilities and long-term health conditions about their "effectiveness" in high-pressure jobs.

Role models were needed at all levels of local and central government to encourage people, she added.

Speakers' conferences, used only five times since they started in 1916, aim to achieve a cross-party consensus following confidential talks. There is no obligation on the government to accept recommendations, but most are usually adopted.

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