The Conservatives’ 25-year fight for equality – why reform is on the agenda in 2016

Bernard Jenkin MP, Caroline Spelman MP,  Maria Miller MP, Margot James MP, Caroline Dinenage MP, in interview with Boni Sones OBE, Policy Associate at the CBR and Executive Producer,

When the Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin first took up his seat in the House of Commons in 1992, he admits, it was well, “laddish”.  As others have commented, it was more like a boys’ boarding school. So have times changed that much since, or is there still a case for further reform of the working practices, the late night sittings, the unpredictability of the hours, even electronic voting, and just how radical should the Conservative Party be in fighting for greater representation of women in Westminster? 21% of its MPs are currently women – 68 out of 330.

In his second and last term as leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron is putting down a marker for his legacy to the political ground that was once the preserve of the Labour Party. The Equal Pay Act 1970, The Sex Discrimination Act 1975, The Race Relations Act 1976 and more recently the Civil Partnerships Act 2004 and the all-embracing Equality Act 2010 which repealed and replaced what went before, including the Conservatives Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which activists argued fell far short of their demands.  In post war Britain it was the Labour Party who pushed the barriers back for women, ethnic minorities, disability and gay rights and could rightfully claim to be the party of equality but now the Conservatives are catching up.

The Conservatives Women2Win Campaign formed in 2005 by Baroness Anne Jenkin and the Home Secretary Theresa May MP, has ensured more women have been recruited, trained and selected as MPs, but when will equality really have been reached? Would reaching 30% female representation of MPs in the House be enough, or should the Party adopt a more radical approach by enacting legislation that would ensure that by the time of the next General Election, probably in 2020, ALL parties must have equal representation of men and women MPs.

Bernard Jenkin, a self-confessed feminist, thinks so although even some of his female let alone male colleagues may not agree with him that legislative change is the best way forward.  Given the boundary changes that are to take place that will lead to 50 fewer MPs sitting in Parliament, 600 in all, this would be a very controversial approach indeed.

In this two-part audio documentary debate for five equality movers and shakers in the Conservative Party were asked to set out the parties equality agenda. Bernard Jenkin MP, Caroline Spelman MP, Maria Miller MP, Margot James MP, Caroline Dinenage MP relived some of their historic equality battles, including enacting The Gay Marriage Act in 2013. They were then asked what further reforms they would like to see to progress both women’s representation in the Chamber and other pressing equality issues. Maria Miller now chairs the newly formed Equalities Select Committee which recently published a report on transgender issues.

The five MPs have been interviewed by presenters Deborah McGurran and Linda Fairbrother in the order in which they entered the Commons. The producer is Boni Sones, with the support of Jackie Ashley.

Read the full article, The Conservatives fight for equality (PDF)

Listen to the podcasts

In Part One Deborah and Linda talk to Bernard Jenkin MP, Caroline Spelman MP and Maria Miller MP.

In Part Two Deborah and Linda talk to Margot James MP and Caroline Dinenage MP and later they open up the discussion to all on the future of equality in the Party.

We set out below key quotes on the major future reform issues discussed in our documentary and you can also read a longer article with further quotes attached to this blog:

Bernard Jenkin MP

Bernard Jenkin is the MP for Harwich and North Essex and has been an MP since 1992.  He currently chairs the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee. He was Vice Chairman of the Conservative Party, and had responsibility for candidates until 7 November 2006.

Jenkin key quote: “We need to start talking about what legislation there should be. There is no Parliament in the World that has created equal representation without some form of positive action across the Board and that should not be a taboo subject.”

Caroline Spelman MP

Caroline Spelman is the MP for Meriden in the West Midlands, she was first elected in 1997. She was also Chairman of the Conservative Party. From 2010 to 2012 she was Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Within Westminster, she is a Church Estates Commissioner.

Spelman key quote: “We need to extend the experiment on electronic voting for MPs who are too sick to attend or who are on maternity leave. We need some compassionate leave arrangement to allow both sexes to participate in the life of this Parliament.”

Maria Miller MP

Maria Miller, has been the MP for Basingstoke since 2005. She is a former Secretary of State for Culture, and now Chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee.

Maria key quote: “I would like to see a commitment to increasing the number of female MPs on the Conservative benches at the next Election, which will be a challenge given we have a reduction in the number of seats due to boundary changes.”

Margot James MP

Margot James has been the MP for Stourbridge since 2010. At the end of 2005, David Cameron appointed Margot to the position of Vice Chairman of the Conservative Party for women’s issues, a position which she held until 2010. She was an “A” List candidate. She is now Assistant Government Whip with responsibility for Education and Equalities.

James key quote: “I would like to see more women special advisors, and more women around the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, in their core inner circle teams because I think that there is more to Parliament than meets the eye. Some of those backroom changes would be a jolly good thing.”

Caroline Dinenage MP

Caroline Dinenage is the MP for Gosport, Stubbington, Lee-on-the-Solent and Hill Head, was elected in May 2010.  In May 2015, Caroline was appointed to the dual roles of Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice and Minister for Women and Equalities at the Department for Education working with Nicky Morgan the Secretary of State.

Dinenage key quote: “Being an MP is not all about tub thumping speeches and the screaming and waving of our bits of paper around in the Commons, it is actually about the skill sets that women have in abundance, the ability to empathise and listen and the ability to multi task and get things done.”

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