POLITICAL parties must be held to account for the lack of women MPs at Westminster and be forced to publicly set out their measures for tackling the problem, a major equalities inquiry has concluded.
The Commons Women and Equalities Committee said the lack of women MPs relative to the numbers of men represented a “serious democratic deficit” and is calling on political parties to publicly set out the measures they plan to take to increase the representation of women.
The UK Government also faces calls to legislate to ensure at least 45 per cent of parliamentary candidates fielded by political parties are women and the cross-party committee, which is made up of 11 MPs including Scot Angela Crawley, urged ministers to set a target for 45 per cent of all representatives in parliament and in local government to be women by 2030.
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The MPs said the goal should be backed by legislation setting a statutory minimum proportion of female parliamentary candidates in General Elections for each political party, with fines or other sanctions for those that failed to comply.
Only 30 per cent 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. The committee says the government, parliament and political parties all have a vital role in improving these “shocking” figures. However, the parties bear the main responsibility because they ultimately decide who they wish to field as candidates for General Elections.
Committee chairwoman 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. 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.”
The 50-page “Women in the House of Commons after the 2020 election” report states that all the main parties fielded significantly less than 50 per cent women parliamentary candidates for the 2015 General Election, but that the parties expressed confidence in their own internal mechanisms for improving this situation.
The committee concluded that if voluntary measures did not achieve sufficient changes, the government should be prepared to legislate to achieve parity among candidates, including financial penalties for under-performance.
Miller added: “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 report stated: “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.”
It urged the government to bring forward legislation in the current parliament so that the new requirements could be brought into force if the proportion of women MPs does not increase significantly at the next General Election in 2020.
It said ministers should now invoke statutory powers contained in the Equality Act 2010 requiring parties to publish their candidate diversity data for General Elections while providing the Electoral Commission with new powers to collect and host the information.
“Women make up more than half the population of the United Kingdom and, at a time when more women are in work than ever before, there is no good reason why women should not make up half of the House of Commons,” it said.
“If the Commons is serious about being truly representative of the people that it seeks to represent, it must rise to the challenge of being a world leader on women’s parliamentary representation.”
In other recommendations, the committee called for the provisions of the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002 to be extended so the parties can continue to operate all-women shortlists after 2030.