Interview: Widening representation in the House of Commons

April 20, 2009 at 4:18 pm Leave a comment

annebegg
Anne Begg MP is vice-chair of a Speaker’s Commission looking at ways to improve the numbers of women, ethnic minorities and people with disabilities in Parliament.

Speaker’s Conferences are rare. The last one took place in 1977 and there were only five Conferences in the 20th century.

“Society has changed and we must recognise that the House of Commons needs to change, too,” Leader of the House Harriet Harman said last November when the Conference was announced.

“As women in this country, we now regard ourselves as equal citizens, yet we are not equal in numbers in this House. We are out-numbered by men by five to one.

“This country is ethnically diverse now—indeed, it has been for many decades—but of 646 Members, only 15 are black or Asian.

“To be representative of our population, we should have more than four times that number.”

The Speaker’s Conference has met several times, hearing evidence from Operation Black Vote, the National Federation of Women’s Institutes, the TUC, the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the UK Youth Parliament.

It is expected that gay equality organisation Stonewall will also be called to give evidence to the Conference, which must report and make recommendations before the end of this Parliament.

Ms Begg, the MP for Aberdeen South since 1997, is the only fulltime wheelchair user in the House of Commons.

She spoke to i spy strangers editor Tony Grew about the aims of the Conference.

Ms Begg said the purpose of the current Conference is to “open the door” to groups who may not feel Parliament is for them.

“You can’t do big electoral change unless you have an all-party consensus,” she said.

“If one party wants something but none of the others do, if they are in government and try to force it through, they could find it reversed the next time around.

“You can’t tinker with electoral reform every couple of years, it takes time to bed in.

“The Conference will make recommendations that will gather cross-party support. It has been set up to look at a thorny electoral issue.

“The 1916 one which came up with votes for women and the 1965 one came up with votes for 18 year olds – big ideas. So that is a real challenge for us.”

Representation in Parliament is a complex issue. Critics have claimed that discussions of all-black shortlists smacks of identity politics.

“That is something for the conference to decide but that is one of the things we are looking for evidence,” said Ms Begg.

“We know there is a big debate within the ethnic minority communities as to whether this is the best way forward.

“There are very strong arguments on both sides and bearing in mind we have to come up with a consensual position, it would be wrong not to consider it.”

The Labour party policy of all-woman shortlists was highly controversial when it was introduced before the 1997 election.

It was intended to alter the gender balance in the Commons, but they were ruled illegal in 1996.

In 2002 the government introduced the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act, which exempts the selection of candidates in parliamentary elections from sex discrimination legislation.

Ms Begg was chosen from an all-woman shortlist.

“I support the concept of positive action, because I would not be here today if it was not for the all-woman shortlist.

“Not because I could not have competed with the men, but it never even occured to me to be an MP. We want to get people interested in being an MP who had never thought about it.

“I can use my own example. I had no intention of being an MP. I was involved in politics, I was active in my trade union, was an elected member of the General Teaching Council for Scotland, so I was quite well known in teaching circles as a Labour party member and activist.

“I was approached by people from the constituency who said “it is an all-woman shortlist, we have been looking around for good women, would you be interested in putting your name forward.”

“I had thought about it before and dismissed it. I decided to go for it. The all-woman shortlist activated a mechanism for people to go out and look for candidates.

“That may be slightly different for other minority groups, I suspect there may be lots of others that desperately want to be (an MP) but face different barriers.

“The shortlist brought me as a disabled women in but it could just have easily been a woman from an ethnic minority or a lesbian woman. That mechanism opens out the whole process.

“There are inherent barriers in how the selection process works in all parties.

“It is a barrier to young men with a family, a barrier to people who are gay and lesbian, people with disabilities, people from ethnic minorities, a barrier to 90% of the population if truth be told because of the lifestyle.

“There is no shortage of white men desperate to become MPs but there is a shortage of people from other groups.

“We have to ask the question why. Some will be because of the barriers and that puts them off but others are not even on the first step, they are not even thinking it is something they would like to do. We have to tackle both.”

On a personal note, Ms Begg said the House of Commons was ready to cater to her specific needs as a wheelchair user when she arrived in 1997.

“The person I have to thank is Mr Speaker, who was not Mr Speaker at the time.

“One of the reasons why a lot of the press could not understand why he was elected, why he got this huge vote in the Commons, is because when he was Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means, he had done lots of little kindnesses for people.

“He spoke to me at a Labour party conference in March 1997. This man, this Scottish MP, I did not even know who he was, came up and asked me how I was getting on.

“He said will you promise me once the election is called and Parliament is prorogued you will write me a letter saying what you need.

“I did that and said I needed an office near the chamber and near a disabled toilet I guessed what I might need.

“When I arrived on May 6th, I got this wonderful office. I got spoiled.

“They had thought ahead that they may have a disabled person. There are plenty of folk in wheelchairs in the House of Lords.

“They had already been spending money and putting in ramps. I loved it – I came here from a working class background in the north east of Scotland, my greatest ambition was to become a teacher, which I had to fight to become, and I came down to this place and I felt at home.

“That’s the message I want to get out to people, that despite everything you see on TV, I had not one scintilla of doubt that I did the right thing in getting elected. It has been a huge privilege and if I can make it easier for others to follow in my footsteps then that is part of the job I want to do.”

The Speaker’s Conference will meet tomorrow, Tuesday 21st April, to hear evidence from the Commissioner for Public Appointments, Janet Gaymer, Dr Ruth Fox from The Hansard Society and Lewis Baston from the Electoral Reform Society.

Also giving evidence tomorrow – Ray Collins, General Secretary of the Labour Party, Conservative Shadow Cabinet member Theresa May and Lord Rennard, Chief Executive of the Liberal Democrats.

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