Speaker's Conference - the Commission's submission, March 2009

3 March 2009

This is a summary of the Commission's submission to the Speaker's Conference, a full version of our submission will be published by the Conference in due course.

The Speaker’s Conference was established in November 2008 to make recommendations for bringing the representation of women, ethnic minorities and disabled people in the House of Commons more in line with the population at large. At present, only 15 of the 646 MPs are black or Asian, and women make up just 19 percent of MPs.

Introduction

The Commission starts from the position that a Parliament which reflects the demography of the nation it represents will result in better legislation and a higher degree of public confidence in the democratic process.

We recognise that there is a strong case for direct interventions and measures to strengthen the democratic process immediately, but what will drive change in the long-term is a recognition by all political parties that diversity and fair representation are necessary in order to thrive in a new electoral environment reflective of more plural and complex identities in modern Britain.

We are disappointed that the under-representation of out gay men and lesbians, those who are transgender and people from a wider range of socio-economic backgrounds are not specifically included in the remit of the committee. We hope that the inability or unwillingness of these groups to break into the House of Commons will be addressed under 'associated matters'.

1. Catalytic measures

We would like to use this opportunity to consider proposals which may fall outside the remit of this Conference but could have a dramatic impact on the composition of the House of Commons.

1.1 Term limits

The rate of change in the House of Commons is incredibly slow as it is estimated four out of five MPs seek re-election at any given election. One way of speeding up the turnover of MPs would be to impose a term limit. A limit of four Parliaments for example would mean members serve for a maximum of 20 years.

An increased turnover of members, particularly in 'safe seats', would mean increased opportunities for new candidates and opportunities for candidates from under-represented groups to enter the House.

Term limits could also be considered for the House of Lords. Peers currently serve for life, but a 20 year limit would see a turnover which could be beneficial in bringing new voices into Parliament.

We recognise this is a controversial proposal, not least because it would have resulted in most of our recent Prime Ministers being forced to stand down as an MP before they reached the top of their parties. It would also mean parties may struggle to recruit new MPs if potential candidates felt an approaching period in opposition would ‘eat into’ their allocated 20 years. Some may ask if the proposal is ageist, valuing as it does new recruits over experience.

We recognise the drawbacks in this proposal but as the Conference is seeking all views we wonder if it is worth considering term limits with perhaps a mechanism built in to allow MPs to appeal to their electorate for an exemption (perhaps a petition or nominations from a percentage of the local electorate) or for a sunset clause to be built into this proposal to encourage a wave of new MPs before returning to the status quo.

Recommendation: The Conference could consider a feasibility study into the impact of term limits on the composition of both Houses of Parliament. Research could include projections on how term limits would accelerate change and in the case of the Commons options for building in a mechanism to ensure the democratic will of local electorates are taken into consideration.

1.2 House of Lords reform

Achieving a more representative House of Commons needs to be considered in the context of Parliament as a whole.

The current appointments process for the House of Lords offers an opportunity to achieve a more representative and diverse second chamber. This has been partially evidenced through the work of the House of Lords Appointments Commission, which since its establishment in 2000 has achieved more rapid progress in increasing the number of underrepresented groups than is likely to be seen in the Commons for many decades.

While this progress is to be welcomed an increased rate of change could be achieved if political party nominations in addition to independent nominations to the Second Chamber were considered by the House of Lords Appointments Commission so they could take an overall view and refer nominations back to political parties if they reduce diversity.

Recommendation: Future legislation on Lords reform should consider enhancing the role of the House of Lords Appointments Commission to ensure they have responsibility for considering all annual appointments (including those by political parties) with the option of referring back annual nominations which reduce diversity in the second chamber.

However we realise there are many opponents of an appointed second chamber and this approach may change in the long term as calls for more fundamental reforms to the House of Lords remain strong. We hope any future debates around Lords reform will consider the need to increase representation from more diverse groups.

Recommendation: Any future proposals around an elected second chamber to consider quotas in conjunction with a PR closed list system of election.

1.3 Public Sector Duty on Political Parties

The public sector equality duties which currently apply to all public authorities in Great Britain (and which exist in a different form in Northern Ireland) require those authorities to ‘pay due regard’ to the elimination of discrimination and harassment, and the promotion of equality in all of their functions.

If political parties were included in the coverage of the duty there would be a clear legal imperative for parties to take action.   The duty is legally enforceable by the Equality and Human Rights Commission.  If the parties were listed as covered by the secondary regulations also (‘the specific duties’), they would be required to collect data on equality gaps and issues, consult stakeholders  and set objectives to close the gaps, reporting on progress annually.

Should state funding for political parties become a serious consideration the case for political parties to comply with public sector duties would be markedly stronger. 

Recommendation: Consideration should be given to including political parties in the coverage of the Public Sector Duty.

The Electoral Commission is also covered by the duties and is required to monitor the use of Short funding for parties.  By attaching equality conditions to the funding it provides to parties the Electoral Commission would be ensuring public money was being used to promote equality through the work of political parties.

Recommendation:  the Electoral Commission should be asked to attach equality conditions to the funding it provides, in keeping with the requirement on the Commission to promote equality in all of its functions.   

1.4 Ethnic Minority shortlists

As with all women shortlists the decision to use ethnic minority shortlists would fall to political parties and reports suggest the case for this measure has yet to be won internally in the main political parties. However lack of internal support at this stage should not rule out permissive legislation in order to allow positive action to be available to political parties should they decide to go down this route.

The case against ethnic minority shortlists centres on the danger of ‘ghettoising’ ethnic minority candidates in seats which have significant ethnic minority populations. We accept that this would be a poor outcome of any positive action measures. The aim is to create steady pressure towards greater diversity in candidate selection.

We consider that one approach would be to give political parties freedom to vary selection environments and qualifications during the selection process. How would this work? One way could be for parties to monitor the diversity of candidates on a regional level, this would allow them as the selection process went forward, if necessary, to introduce progressively stronger measures to encourage the selection of an ethnic minority candidate.

Recommendation: consideration should be given to legislation to allow political parties to make use of ethnic minority shortlists should they choose to.  

2. Good practice

Set out below are some good practice proposals for the Conference to consider.

2.1 Understanding pathways into politics

Many professions, when starting to consider the lack of diversity in their workforces, start by taking a step back and asking what recruitment path their current workforce followed. A snapshot of the current House would suggest that there are common routes into Parliament from what we will call the 'political classes', with many MPs previously working as: lawyers, journalists, trade unionists, officials of Political Parties, researchers in think tanks, researchers to Members of Parliament, Special Advisers to Ministers or serving as Councillors.

The Conference may want to consider:

  • Are groups which are underrepresented in Parliament also underrepresented in these traditional routes? If so how can people from under-represented groups break into these routes to power?
  • Can more pathways be opened up to encourage those outside of the 'political classes' to get involved and gain a better understanding of the political process? 

Recommendation: Detailed research into the trajectories of MPs to build a clear understanding of the established routes to Parliament. Building on this research qualitative research with sitting MPs who don’t fit the mould would offer an insight into how they established their own path.

Working for free as an intern for an MP offers a brilliant opportunity for young people looking for work experience in politics and often leads to employment in the wider political field. In theory this opportunity is open to everyone willing to offer their services, but in practice the route is only a realistic option to those who can live with family or friends for free in London.  There is therefore a metropolitan bias in favour of London based school pupils and graduates.

With this in mind the Conference may also want to consider the study into access to professions being considered by Alan Milburn MP for the Prime Minister and also barriers to social mobility being considered in the New Opportunities White Paper.

Recommendation: A scholarship fund for MPs to recruit as interns sixth form pupils or recent graduates.

2.2 Progression

Breaking into the political class and being elected to Parliament is just the first hurdle for some members. Their progression, or lack of, once elected is also worth consideration. Studying the experience of past and current members could offer a fuller picture of what barriers, if any, members face.

Recommendation: Consider a study into the progression of those from underrepresented groups over the past 50 years, including qualitative research with sitting and past members from these groups.

2.3 Learning from other professions

It is useful to consider the efforts of other professions where they have recognised there is a problem with under-representation from certain groups. Studying the measures these professions are employing to reach out to new groups may spark some ideas for the Conference to consider. Two common examples are mentoring and understanding the importance of role models. 

Mentoring
This is a well established practice across many professions and a useful tool in career development. Political parties already offer mentoring to those hoping to stand for election, though this is on an ad hoc basis. It is important that people in senior leadership positions in political parties get involved in mentoring as their increased clout can help to open opportunities for candidates and improve the confidence of candidates.

Recommendation:  The Conference could consider offering guidance to political parties on how to encourage mentoring and point to best practice in the private and public sectors. 

Role Models
A huge barrier to entering any profession can be the perception that it is ‘not for the likes of me’. Highlighting existing employees who challenge this perception is a simple way of taking this head on and addressing the ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’ barrier.

Role models can also be a useful way of answering the questions some people may be afraid to ask:

  • Is it possible to be an MP and the mother of small children? How do you balance family life and work? And do you qualify for maternity leave?
  • Is Parliament accessible for disabled people? Would I qualify for extra support to help with access?
  • Are there areas for non-Christians to pray?

These are fairly standard questions people are permitted to ask in an interview without fear of reprisal. For those considering standing to be a Member of Parliament there is no forum to ask. Pen portraits and role models are a useful way to take these issues head on.

Recommendation: Members of Parliament who challenge the usual stereotype should be approached to act as role models. This could include producing a pen portrait explaining their background and what their role as an MP entails.

2.4 Demystifying Parliament

Responsibility for communicating the work of Parliament and the role of MPs, especially their constituency activity can’t just fall to members themselves, the House authorities should also build on existing work to promote Parliament.

Visits to Parliament: the Parliament Education Service is an excellent resource for schools which could be extended to other community groups. Grants could be available for groups to bid for as this would overcome the financial barrier travelling to London can present.

Explaining the role:  websites such as publicwhip.org.uk and theyworkforyou.com provide an invaluable service in making the voting records and parliamentary activity of MPs freely available. But this is just a small part of the job of an MP and overlooks the constituency commitments which make up the vast bulk of many MPs workload.

If the understanding of a MPs role does not extend beyond having to stand up from the green benches to deliver a speech and be shouted at by the opposing parties then it is understandable that a sizeable proportion of the population will be put off.

A fuller understanding of the hugely rewarding constituency side of the role and the detailed campaigning work MPs undertake in conjunctions with charities and other groups would undoubtedly explain the appeal of the job to a wider audience.

Recommendations: Parliament education programme to be open to all community groups with grants available to help with travelling to London. More thought to be given to promoting the constituency and campaigning role of MPs.

2.5 Changing Parliament

The Conference may also want to consider the aspects of standing for election which present real and imagined barriers to participation to all potential candidates but to under-represented groups in particular.

Culture
There is a macho and traditional image around Parliament which could be off putting to a lot of people, not just women. The assumption that you can’t show anything that could be perceived as weakness or difference in a leadership position leads to uncompromising attitudes towards people who can’t or don’t want to match these standards.

MPs with young families face a challenge in trying to manage the workload and long hours expected of politicians. While other workplaces are driving towards increased flexibility and improved work life balance Parliament seems to be completely inflexible.

Polling shows attitudes to sexual orientation across the country are shifting, with overt discrimination no longer acceptable to most people. However the lack of out gay men and lesbians in both Houses suggests a taboo remains. Do MPs feel the need to keep their sexuality secret for fear of reprisals from opposition parties or a hostile media? Are MPs unwilling to ‘out’ themselves for fear of having to be the poster boy or girl for gay rights when they want to make their name for other reasons?

Accessibility
Westminster could learn from other Parliaments and Assemblies around the UK and internationally on how the physical environment can send a welcoming message to under-represented groups. Starting with a clean slate the Scottish Parliament, Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies have considered all groups in planning the physical environment, accessibility and working hours. Clear signals around the accessibility of Parliament could be achieved through: 

  • Ensuring the Parliamentary estate is fully accessible 
  • Having a dedicated crèche
  • Changing working hours to reflect family commitments
  • Ensuring prayer facilities consider the needs of all faiths
  • Providing facilities and a supportive environment for nursing mothers.

The challenge of overcoming barriers to access is also a consideration for disabled candidates when putting themselves forward for selection. Political parties need to factor accessibility into their internal party meetings.   

Recommendation: Consideration should be given to how the Parliamentary estate can be altered and working hours re-evaluated to improve accessibility.  Political parties should be encouraged to consider accessibility for all internal and local meetings. 

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