Jo quizzes party leaders on diversity in Parliament

Jo is encouraging members of the public to give feedback on party leaders’ proposals to encourage people from different backgrounds to stand for Parliament.

Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg were grilled this week by the Speaker’s Conference, a committee of MPs set up to look at how Parliament can be made more representative of the British public, including encouraging more women, people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds and disabled people to stand for election.

As a member of the Speaker’s Conference, Jo Swinson put questions to Gordon Brown and David Cameron on how parents with young children and people from less wealthy backgrounds could be helped with the costs and commitments of becoming a candidate, and then an MP.

The Speaker’s Conference has re-opened its online forum to enable members of the public to respond to the ideas put forward by the party leaders. Comments from the forum will be considered by the Conference as it looks to find practical ways to tackle under-representation.

Commenting, Jo said:

“I am very pleased that the party leaders came to answer our questions this week, as clearly there is a lot of work to be done by political parties in looking at what kinds of candidates they are selecting and asking how they could be more inclusive. Time was short on this occasion, but I hope next time there will be more opportunity for MPs to cross-examine them.

“I will be very interested to hear what the public think of the party leaders’ responses, and I hope lots of people will visit the online forum before Monday to have their say. I will be making sure that those views are given full consideration by the Speaker’s Conference as it comes up with its recommendations.”

The Conference is asking:

What action should the political parties be taking to identify a wider range of candidates and support them through selection and election?

The forum will remain open until Monday 26 October 2009.

Participants in the forum can also view and respond to previous discussions on the forum, on the issues:

Why do people think that to succeed in public life they have to hide aspects of themselves?

What would persuade you to represent your community?

What is the best way to increase the representation of under-represented communities at Westminster?

The text of Jo’s questions to Gordon Brown and David Cameron appears below.

Jo Swinson: Despite the success of all-women shortlists and electing many more women MPs, there are still very few women who at the time of being elected had young children. Do you think that ensuring we have better representation of parents in Parliament is important, and if so, what will you do to tackle some of the difficulties faced by those with young families, both as candidates and then as MPs?

Gordon Brown: I am grateful for you recognising the importance of all-women shortlists, that is what we have done as a Labour Party, I would urge other parties to consider doing this. I recognise also that when I came into Parliament, there was no — Harriet Harman had just come into Parliament and launched a campaign for proper crèche facilities for women Members of Parliament. We have to go further in making it possible for families to be properly catered for, if one of the partners are Members of Parliament. A great deal more has to be done on that front as well. I think it is something that you, Mr Speaker, have taken an interest in improving, and I think that would be very important as well. But again, we have to recognise that MPs — and this is one of the things that comes out of Legg, and also comes out of what will be in, I suppose, the Kelly review, you have to recognise that people are living in two places at once, they have family responsibilities, and there has to be some place for showing that the financial arrangements for MPs take account of that.

Jo Swinson: Conservative Home has estimated the cost of Parliamentary candidacy at £41,500, which chimes with the other evidence that we have received, that is about £10,000 a year. Surely that is a huge barrier to anyone who is not well off, and what will you do to help to overcome that problem for people from a diverse range of backgrounds?

David Cameron: I think this is a problem, and if anything, it is getting a bit worse, because we are all, as party leaders, asking our candidates to do more and more things. I do not think there is some easy answer to this, because as we all know, money is short, and suggestions for new ways to spend public money are not exactly flavour of the month. So it seems to me, first of all, do not make it any worse. We must make absolutely clear that candidates must not be required to buy houses in the constituencies they want to represent, or contribute to their Conservative Associations or anything like that. Do not make it any worse; I think that is vitally important. Of course let us look as a party, and we will look as a party, are there procedures we can look at where we can help individual candidates? We have done that, I think, on one or two occasions. I think it is important to recognise that while the costs put forward by Conservative Home, that seems a very big figure, I think if you were, for instance, a local candidate, I do not think the cost would be anything like that. But I do not have an answer to the overall problem, because I do not think some sort of new fund for politics is going to find much favour at the moment.

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