Speaker’s Conference seeks greater participation in politics

11 January 2010

Much more must be done to encourage local political activism and to prevent discrimination against potential parliamentary candidates who do not fit the traditional mould. This is among the conclusions of the Speaker's Conference on Parliamentary Representation which was set up to look at ways of encouraging and enabling a wider diversity of people to become MPs.

In its report, the Conference proposes a range of measures to encourage greater participation in politics.

The Conference emphasises that political parties themselves are an important part of the future of our democracy. It warns the extent to which political parties are the subject of both contempt and general public indifference should be a cause of concern.

To nurture activism at grass roots level they want the Government to consider introducing a scheme enabling local political parties to apply for funding linked to their receipts from member subscriptions.

At local level, the Conference found there are a number of barriers to the selection of candidates which include, the cost, a lack of confidence, time pressures and lack of support.

The Conference also identified discrimination in the selection process against women, people from ethnic minorities and disabled people. There was also a tendency to fall back on "more of the same" when selecting or to promote only "favoured sons".

Commenting on the report, Anne Begg MP Vice Chair of the Speaker's Conference said:

"The case for equality of representation has not yet been won. We welcome the progress which each of the main parties has made over recent years towards ensuring that its selection procedures are more professional and objective then they have been in the past.

"Yet the fact is that, in most cases, it remains more difficult for a candidate who does not fit the 'white, make middle-class' norm to be selected, particularly if the seat is considered winnable.

"Our recommendations are aimed at putting that right, and I urge government, political parties and Parliament itself to implement them without delay."

Recommendations to encourage a wider diversity of candidates include:

  • there should be a formal code of conduct for campaigning, to make clear it is unacceptable to seek to undermine a candidate by reference to his or her family life, racial background, sexual orientation, health status or disability.
  • parties should place a ceiling upon the expenses which candidates can incur during any single selection process.
  • bursaries should be available to individuals who would otherwise not be able to afford the costs of a candidacy.
  • all political parties should appoint national and/or regional community champions for women and people from black and ethnic minority (BME) and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities and disabled people.
  • the Government should legislate to give approved prospective parliamentary candidates the opportunity for unpaid leave from work.

More widely the Conference recommends that:

  • a description of the main functions of a MP should be drawn up
  • opportunities such as working for a political party or MP be made more accessible to a wider range of people
  • political parties provide a breakdown of the diversity of their Parliamentary party members
  • more is done to encourage citizenship education in schools

On women

  • If the political parties fail to make significant progress on women's representation at the 2010 general elections, Parliament should consider the introduction of prescriptive quotas, ensuring that all political parties adopt some form of equality guarantee in time for the following general election.
  • The Conference fully supports the proposed extension of the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002 to enable the use of all women shortlists until 2030.

On BME groups

  • Equivalent legislation to the above should be enacted to allow political parties, if they so chose, to use all BME shortlists.

On disability

  • Shortage of funds must not be an excuse for local parties failing to make proper arrangements for disabled people to play their part in politics. Best practice on how best to use limited funds should be shared.
  • The House needs to correct the impression that it does not welcome disabled Members. The passage into law of the Equality Bill currently before Parliament will be a good opportunity for the House authorities to announce publicly how committed they are supporting disabled Members.
  • Part of the Democracy Diversity fund should be ring fenced to support disabled parliamentary candidates.
  • Members should not be disqualified from sitting in the House on the grounds of mental illness.

Parliament

The Conference recognises the inflexibility of Parliament's working practices together with the heavy workloads of constituency demands combine to create a lifestyle which is detrimental to Members with caring responsibilities, both for children and other dependents.

It would like to see sitting times for the main chamber brought in line with what is considered normal business hours. However it recognises there would be considerable difficulties in achieving this because of the many duties MPs have both within and outside the House. Therefore it recommends a substantial further development of deferred voting to enable a more family friendly approach to sitting arrangements and unscheduled votes.

Other recommendations for the House include:

  • Further consideration given to modern methods of voting, in line with other legislators.
  • The development of formal maternity, paternity and caring leave arrangements for MPs which are as closely equivalent to the general statutory provision as possible.
  • A nursery facility should be open to MPs and staff within the Parliamentary estate.
  • Members wanting civil marriages and civil partnerships should have the same rights as Members undertaking Christian marriage rites to hold their ceremonies within the Palace of Westminster.

Ms Begg added:

"A diverse workforce for Parliament is not an aspiration but an imperative. It is essential to the House's credibility that the participation of Members who have young families and/or other caring responsibilities is maintained and supported.

"This must be kept in mind by all who are engaged in the current process of Commons reform."

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