While it is admirable for the House of Lords Constitution Committee to state that we need more women judges in the UK as fewer than one in four is female, it also needs to put its own House in order to improve its representation of women.
The House of Lords Reform Bill was one of the hot topics at the recent round-table discussion on the impact of the government's legislative programme on women in public roles organised by the excellent Centre for Women and Democracy. I was disappointed to see that while Labour and Lib Dems both had representatives, there was nobody representing Conservatives, and I was regarded as the party's representative.
While there has been much debate about increasing women's representation in the House of Commons, I hadn't heard a whisper about this for the House of Lords until joining this discussion. At present there are 828 members of the House of Lords, with 22% of them female, exactly the same percentage as the House of Commons.
A report from CWD director Nan Sloane set the scene, outlining how the bill proposes to reduce over 800 members of the Lords to 300, with bishops (presently only male) facing a reduction from 16 to 12, with the reforms being phased in over three electoral cycles and becoming fully operational by 2030.
However, there is no specific inclusion to ensure a more equal representation of women in the new upper House, even though Nan brought to our attention a vital reference about this on page 17 of the bill which states:
"There is widespread agreement that the balance between men and women members in Parliament needs to be improved. Research suggests that the choice of proportional representation should facilitate the election of women to the reformed House of Lords.
"However, parties also have an important role to play in ensuring that Parliament reflects the society that it serves. Reform of the House of Lords is therefore an opportunity to consider how to increase the participation of women in parliament. The political parties and the government should consider how to achieve this."
Despite this sentiment, Nan tells us that it has not been possible to find evidence of an Equality Impact Assessment for this bill, and it is presumed that one was not carried out. An equality impact assessment involves assessing the likely or actual effects of policies or services on people in respect of disability, gender and racial equality. It helps policy makers ensure the needs of people are taken into account when we develop and implement a new policy or service or when we make a change to a current policy or service.
Nan quite rightly believes that this bill has the potential to increase the percentage of women in the second chamber over a period of time, or even sooner as the Bill allows for the election of women to the Lords by proportional representation if political parties agreed, which would enable women's parliamentary representation to reach 40% in the Lords - decades in advance of the House of Commons.
This is now the time to propose amendments to drafters of the bill before it is debated in the House of commons next month. The questions we should be asking policy makers are: what consideration did they give to improving women's representation, as well as ethnic minorities, what can be done to appoint more women in the Lords, especially with the knowledge that fewer women are elected in political roles, yet women make up more than 50% of the population and need to be represented more equally than at present?
Has any thought been given to include a sunset clause which would allow women's representation to be reconsidered within a few years as part of this Bill, taking into account the possible appointment of women bishops who could later be offered a seat in the Lords?
Recommendations from the CWD to improve women's representation in the upper house include:
1. Government should set a target that the reformed House of Lords will be 50% female by 2030.
2. The bill should be amended to include a requirement that 50% of the 60 appointed members should be women.
3. The bill should be amended to require political parties to ensure that their candidate lists are 50% female.
4. The bill should be amended so as to require the Church of England and other religious organsiations ensure that at least 50% of their representatives are women.
5. The government should take other appropriate measures to ensure that the reformed House represents the diversity of the country.
The Lords is currently made up of 24 bishops (all male), 90 hereditary peers (two female) 23 law lords (1 female) and 691 appointed by the Queen on the advice of the prime minister.
The Bill is expected to have its second reading debate with MPs on 27 April.
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