"Bouquet for Ann"
Hansard - Oct 24th 2001 Column 353
Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald): As ever, it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock), who has spoken with much feeling and made a significant contribution to the debate. She will not be surprised to hear that I do not entirely agree with her.
I have always advocated greater numbers of women in Parliament. I have always wanted to see more women succeeding, not only in getting into this House but in holding positions of responsibility. I earnestly look forward to the day when we have a second woman Prime Minister.
Virginia Bottomley: A Tory.
Miss Widdecombe: Quite right.
The Bill is fundamentally wrong. I must ask this question; are all the men in this place sound asleep? Do they realise what the Bill means for them? Have they thought that positive discrimination for women can entail negative discrimination for men?
I am often quite sorry for men. There are lots of injustices with which they have to put up. For example, they do not live as long as we do, but they have to work longer in order to get a pension. That will not be put right for some time. Some 50 per cent. of young men getting married today will not be able to see their children through to maturity in the same household. Whereas in the past women have had it very hard, there are now a few injustices for men. This Bill will create one more.
The Bill says that it will be permitted, that one could have - apparently we should be grateful that we are not being coerced into it - out of all the methods that could be chosen, an all-women shortlist.
What would that mean for a man in that constituency who had given to his local council the same life-long service that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson) gave to hers, and who had lived in the constituency all his life? Let us say that the man had worked there and escaped from there, and that he wanted to apply for the seat when it fell vacant. He would not be able to represent the constituency if all-women short lists were in operation.
That would be the reality for men under this pernicious Bill, yet hon. Gentlemen welcome it as a great step forward. It is a massive step towards inequality for men, and the poor souls just let the women walk all over them. They do not appear to care what will happen to them.
Mrs. Fitzsimons: Does the right hon. Lady accept that some of the hon. Gentlemen may be intelligent enough to realise that that has been the experience of women over the 700 years for which our alleged parliamentary democracy has existed?
Miss Widdecombe: Women have been able to apply for seats anywhere in the country, but the Bill would mean that no man could apply for some seats, no matter how strong his claim to consideration.
Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon): Will the right hon. Lady give way?
Miss Widdecombe: Yes, I shall be equal and give way to a man this time.
Dr. Evan Harris: I am grateful in many ways to the right hon. Lady, and take her admonitions to heart. However, does she accept that the justification for affrmative action and positive discrimination is that it would remedy the effects of the negative discrimination that exists in the selection process? Is she prepared to condemn the special discriminatory treatment meted out by some parties to some women when they tell those women that they should not put themselves forward--and that they will not be selected--unless they have sorted out their child care responsibilities? Such questions are not to men with children who apply for selection.
Miss Widdecombe: I can tell the hon. Gentleman that when I entered a constituency selection committee and saw that most of the people there were women, my heart used to sink. We should not get the idea that discrimination against women is performed solely by men. It is not. I do not believe that the Bill will do little more than deny some deserving men their basic human rights.
The hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson) said that there was a bet about when the word "patronising" would first be used. It is now 8.3 pm, and the time has come.
If I had been in a selection committee anteroom with two men who had got there by beating off all the competition yet I was only there because a place had been reserved for a woman on the shortlist, I would not feel helped. I would feel humiliated, insulted and patronised. I am glad to say that my party never did that to me.
I do not believe that the proposal behind the Bill is what was intended by the equal opportunities legislation of the mid-1970s. I remember that legislation, because I belonged to that minority in my party that believed it was necessary. However, feminists in the 70s said, "Give us equality of opportunity and we will show you that we are as good as, if not better, than most of the men." Now, a quarter of a century later, we whinge and whine and demand special treatment because we cannot make it otherwise.
If that is not an insult to women, I do not know what is. Positive discrimination is always negative discrimination against someone. I want every woman in this House to be able to look every man, from the Prime Minister down - or up - in the eye and know that she got here on exactly the same basis as he did. She must know that she has defeated all the competition, and that her path was not artificially smoothed by the removal of inconvenient male competition.
That is the sort of Parliament that I want, and an example of the sort of women's rights for which I have always stood. I firmly believe that the Bill would create two groups of women in the House. One group would be here on the same basis as everyone else, but the other group would be patronised, helped along and specially provided for. That would create two classes of woman MP--and that would be just about the biggest danger to the standing of women in the House.
Mrs. Fitzsimons: Would not it be a bigger insult if we had to wait another century for equality? That is how long it would take if the current rate of change in the Conservative party were applied to the House.
Miss Widdecombe: There is no reason for the House to wait another century. There are other ways in which women can be encouraged to come forward. In the Conservative party, they will not want to do so on the basis that they will be second-class citizens in the House.
With great respect to my hon. Friends on the Front Bench, I am afraid that I oppose the Bill. I think that it is misconceived and an insult to women. It would also be terrible for the future of men, and the poor souls just cannot see it. They need to wake up.