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Jenny Willott discusses female quotas in The Telegraph

October 2, 2012 1:09 PM
In The Telegraph

Nick Clegg delivers keynote speach to Liberal Democrat Autumn Conference

This year, rather inevitably, the economy took centre stage at the Liberal Democrat conference. It's such an important issue that it sometimes pushes out other key policy areas.

For instance, there was very little focus on issues affecting women - apart from one largely overlooked debate in the main hall. Under the gloriously dull title of "Constitutional Amendments", a number of motions were tabled to ensure the Lib Dems comply with the new Equalities Act. Despite the shocking title, the debate was surprisingly pretty lively.

Internal Lib Dem party committees have to be at least a third men and a third women, but this positive discrimination has been made illegal. Although quotas generally put Lib Dem teeth on edge, many delegates, both male and female, were upset that we can no longer require a reasonable number of women on our committees. It is many years since these quotas had to be enforced so, in reality, this change will make little difference, but given the battles we had to bring in elements of positive discrimination in the first place; I'm delighted that people feel so strongly about keeping them. And even then - this debate didn't focus on the needs of the female electorate - more the representation of women in the party.

Jo Swinson (the newly appointment employment minister - a rare female promotion in the recent Government reshuffle last month) also noted in her speech that, following the Davies report, we have seen the largest ever annual increase in women on boards - topical given the European Commission's current plan to impose a 40 per cent female quota on listed company boards. Despite this significant progress, we still have fewer women on boards than in Parliament, which is pretty shocking given how far down the league table we are in female Parliamentarians! Rwanda has more than 50 per cent women in Parliament; we struggle to get past 20 per cent.

Airbrushing gets a battering

However, like the Edinburgh Festival, most activity at conference takes place away from the main hall on the Fringe. For some, the success of these fringe events can be measured by the quality (and perhaps quantity) of the free food and drink provided, as much as the issues debated. Many young delegates plan their entire conference agenda around suitable events at breakfast, lunch and supper - financially prudent, given the price of sandwiches in conference hotels.

At this year's Fringe, in contrast to the main hall, there were a number of events focusing on issues of concern to women. There was a lively debate considering the impact of austerity on women and the launch of a booklet on the contribution of women to modern liberalism. Elsewhere there was a very successful body image event, which, perhaps surprisingly, saw men outnumber women in the audience. This is an issue on which the Lib Dems have led. Despite initial ridicule, the campaign is tackling tricky issues like airbrushing in adverts and the scary number of young children who think they are overweight because of unrealistic images which surround them daily. A number of make-up manufacturers have been successfully taken to task as part of the campaign and I'd like to see this taken further.

Those Lib Dem beards and sandals...

Finally, we come to the Exhibition, where organisations set out their stalls to promote a particular cause. Many are household names, major companies or charities that are trying to increase awareness and support from politicians and delegates around a certain issue. But there's also room for the smaller groups, including some that I'd never heard of. My favourite stall this year was the campaign to ensure electric vehicles have an artificial 'noise' to protect blind and partially sighted people. Their stand included a full blown Scalextric Top Gear track with a leaderboard proudly displaying MP lap times. The girls, I might add, did very well. I also loved this year's Liberal Youth stand, which was running a "Hug an MP" programme, with some members even collecting MP hugs on bingo cards!

The Lib Dems were once famous for beards and sandals but, although there are certainly enough characters around to satisfy the stereotype, today's clientele is much more mainstream. And yet, the rebellious character of Lib Dem conference hasn't changed. Every year, grass roots party members vote to remind us that it is they, not MPs, who decide party policy. This bloody-minded democracy at the heart of the party should be treasured: it makes the Lib Dems totally different from the Conservatives and Labour, whose respective conferences are much more stage-managed and far less democratic.

Lib Dem ladies

However, conference again reminded me that the Lib Dems need to do much more to improve our female representation. We've been good at getting women elected to the Welsh Assembly, European Parliament and many Councils, but crucially not Westminster or the Scottish Parliament. So I'm thrilled to see female Lib Dem candidates in two of the upcoming Westminster by-elections, in Cardiff South and Penarth and Corby. Jill Hope and Bablin Molik are both great candidates. Bablin is a particularly good role model - a young mother of Bangladeshi origin, eloquent, hard working and well known in her local community.

But getting women elected isn't an end in itself: we need women in Parliament to make sure that issues that women care about are high up on the Government's agenda. And we also need more women at the top of Government to push through changes in childcare policy, employment law and other issues about which women are concerned. We're getting there... even if more slowly than I'd like.