COMMONS

Women MPs after 2020: parties must be held to account

10 January 2017

Almost 100 years after the first woman was elected, there have only ever been as many women MPs as there are men sitting in the House of Commons today. Political parties must be held to account for reducing this democratic deficit in future, says the report by the Women and Equalities Committee.

Only 30% of MPs are women

Only 30% of MPs are women, and the UK ranks only 48th globally for representation in the lower or single legislative chamber – a fall from 25th place in 1999. Government, Parliament and political parties all have a vital role in improving this, says the Committee – but the parties bear the main responsibility because they ultimately decide who they wish to field as candidates for general elections.

Committee Chair Maria Miller said:

"A global ranking of 48th is shockingly low. We must rise to the challenge of being a world leader on women’s parliamentary representation."

What more can be done?

The report argues that: 

Political parties need to do much more to promote a fairer and greater proportion of women parliamentary candidates, and be transparent about their plans and their performance. The report recommends that parties should set out what they intend to do to increase the proportion of women in the House in 2020, including adopting ambitious targets for women candidates in 'winnable' seats.

The Government has committed to achieving women’s full and equal participation under the Sustainable Development Goals. It has a role in setting and delivering national targets to achieve this, and in introducing and enforcing statutory measures to help Parliament and the public scrutinise the progress of political parties and hold them accountable for selecting diverse parliamentary candidates. The Government should be prepared to mandate change if parties do not meet the challenge voluntarily.

Parliament as an institution should actively encourage women to participate in democracy and continue to investigate ways of making the working environment of Westminster one that does not present unnecessary actual or perceived barriers to women's participation.

Boundary Commission proposals
The backdrop to the inquiry is the recently published Boundary Commission proposals for equalising the size of constituencies, which will reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600. While the boundary review itself need not result in a lower proportion of women MPs, the Committee believes that without intervention from the parties, regression may be an unintended consequence.

Maria Miller said:

"We are calling on political parties to publicly set out the measures they plan to take to increase the proportion and number of women parliamentary candidates in 2020. We must ensure that previous positive trends do not stagnate or reverse. There is no room for complacency."

Political parties: voluntary measures – or legislation?
All the main parties fielded significantly less than 50% women parliamentary candidates for the 2015 General Election. The parties express confidence in their own internal mechanisms for improving this situation, but the Committee concluded that if voluntary measures do not achieve sufficient changes, the Government should be prepared to legislate to achieve parity among candidates, including financial penalties for under-performance.

"We need concrete action plans"

Maria Miller said:

"In their evidence to our inquiry, the leaders of political parties agreed that the Commons would benefit from gender equality, and a range of initiatives is in place to improve the situation. But we saw little to justify their confidence that these will be sufficient. We need concrete action plans. We need party leadership to provide clear and strong direction in working with local parties to deliver more women candidates. We need to see more women candidates in winnable seats. Above all, parties need to be transparent and accountable in their progress – or the lack of it."

The Committee's recommendations include:

  • The Government should set a domestic target of 45 per cent for representation of women in Parliament and local government by 2030 in response to the UN indicators for Sustainable Development Goal 5.5. The Government should set out how it plans to achieve this target, working with political parties.
  • The Government should seek to introduce in legislation in this Parliament a statutory minimum proportion of female parliamentary candidates in general elections for each political party. While the goal is equality, we recognise the difficulty inherent in setting this statutory minimum at 50 per cent; such a precise target would be difficult to meet while also ensuring that men did not become under-represented. A minimum of 45 per cent would therefore be acceptable. The measure would need to be subject to a minimum threshold for parties contesting only a small number of constituencies. This measure should be brought into force if the number and proportion of women MPs fails to increase significantly after the 2020 General Election.
  • Parties that fail to comply with this target need to face sanctions for the quota to be effective. The Government should consider a range of possible sanctions, which could include deductions from Policy Development Grants, confiscation of deposits in seats where female candidates have not been fielded, or legislating to extend the remit of the Electoral Commission to introduce fines for non-compliance.
  • The Government should immediately bring into force the statutory requirement for political parties to publish their parliamentary candidate diversity data for general elections, as set out in Section 106 of the Equality Act 2010. Publication of this information is vital for public and parliamentary scrutiny of the record of political parties in selecting a diverse slate of parliamentary candidates. We also recommend that the Government bring forward legislative proposals to empower the Electoral Commission to collect and host this data, to ensure consistency and transparency from political parties.

Maria Miller said:

"Political parties bear the lion's share of the responsibility for improvement. Trusting in long term trends is not enough: we need intervention to accelerate their pace. We look to the leaders of those parties to give these efforts the urgency and priority they require."

Further information

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