David Cameron on why the Conservatives have so many white male MPs
Conservative leader David Cameron has said his party could introduce women-only shortlists of election candidates.
He said under-representation of women and ethnic minorities was a "real problem for Parliament and it's been an even greater problem for my party".
There are 19 female Tory MPs but Mr Cameron has previously said all-women shortlists were a step too far.
Tory MP Ann Widdecombe said they were an "appalling" idea and would make women MPs "second class citizens".
Mr Cameron made the comments as he, Gordon Brown and Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg appeared before a Speaker's Conference - an inquiry by MPs looking at how to increase the representation of women, ethnic minorities, homosexuals and disabled people in the Commons.
During his 20-minute question-and-answer session Mr Cameron said there were "many very, very good women" on the Conservatives' "priority list" of prospective candidates.
He said the party's selection procedure had been altered so that new shortlists would be drawn up between Conservative Central Office and the relevant local association.
Our aim is to get a House of Commons, a Parliament, that more accurately reflects all the different ethnic groups of our country
Mr Cameron added: "It's my intention, if we continue as we are, that some of those shortlists will be all-women shortlists to help us boost the number of Conservative women MPs."
In the event of the Tories winning a one-seat majority at the next election, he said, there would be "nearly 60" women Conservative MPs, compared with 19 at present.
But he added that the introduction of "open primaries" in some constituencies was not enough on its own to achieve greater diversity.
Asked whether his party agreed with his attitudes, he said: "I think it's become very much part of the Conservative Party's modernisation, so that if I get knocked over by a bus this would continue."
But John Strafford, from the grassroots group Campaign for Conservative Democracy, said later that Tory members were totally "fed up with interference from the centre".
And Miss Widdecombe told the BBC: "I think it's very bad for women because I believe that every woman in Parliament should be able to look every man in Parliament, from the prime minister downwards, in the eye and to know she got there on exactly the same basis."
"If she can't do that she's a second class citizen," she said.
She said parties should do more to encourage more women to apply in the first place as in her experience, far more men tended to apply which meant "it is not surprising the "statistical fallout" was that there were more male MPs.
During his 20-minute session, Mr Brown told the committee of MPs, chaired by Commons Speaker John Bercow, that Labour would "increase support for LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] candidates" at the next general election.
Our Parliament pretends to represent modern Britain but it doesn't have modern Britain in it
Nick Clegg Lib Dems
He added that civil ceremonies between gay MPs could take place in the Palace of Westminster.
Asked why in the cabinet there were four white, Scottish men but no ethnic minority MPs, Mr Brown pointed to the "wider picture" of senior Labour politicians - like Baroness Scotland, the first black attorney general and transport minister Sadiq Khan.
The prime minister also said Labour had a target of returning 120 to 140 female MPs at the next election.
Lib Dem leader Mr Clegg said: "Our Parliament pretends to represent modern Britain but it doesn't have modern Britain in it."
He added that he was "absolutely confident" that his party, which has no ethnic minority MPs, had "no systematic barriers or discrimination going on".
But he acknowledged the Lib Dems were "woefully unrepresentative of modern Britain", saying: "That is a source of real, real regret to me and needs to change. I am hopeful it will change and change dramatically."
The party leaders had been due to sit together for the televised debate with MPs but it was later announced that they would appear separately.
Conservative Eric Pickles suggested this was down to the prime minister's "reluctance" to appear beside his rivals but a Labour source said the format was a matter for Speaker John Bercow.
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