Harman challenges democratic deficit

Harriet Harman has admitted for the first time that Parliament is not representative of wider society, and that change is needed for the better. Speaking to the Guardian newspaper in an article published today she said ‘The house would lose legitimacy if people saw it as populated by MPs who did not relate to others'.

In a move to address the problem, Ms Harman will open a debate in the House of Commons on a motion to establish a Speaker’s Conference. It will consider and make recommendations on how to improve representation of women, disabled, and minority ethnic people in the House of Commons, so that it better reflects society.

The Government expects the Conference to consider other issues such as Sexual Orientation as part of their discussions.It will operate like a Select Committee and consist of 17 MPs from across the political parties.

Ms Harman said

“Society has changed and the House needs to change too. In this country, as women, we regard ourselves as equal citizens now, yet we are not equal in numbers in this House - we are outnumbered by men four to one.

“This country is ethnically diverse now, but out of 646 members only 15 are Black or Asian.  To reflect our population we need more than four times more Black and Asian MPs. How are we to convince young Black and Asian men that they are genuinely included in our society when they still see so few Black and Brown faces on our green benches?

“There is a democratic deficit - the missing faces on the green benches are the missing voices in this chamber.

Women make up only 19.4 per cent of MPs in the House of Commons. This compares with women Members making up nearly half (46.7 per cent) of the Welsh Assembly, and 34.1 per cent of the Scottish Parliament.  Black, Asian and Minority ethnic people make up about 10% of the population - but less than 3% of MPs in the House of Commons.To reflect society, the House of Commons would need:-

More than twice as many white female MPs
More than twice as many Black, Asian and minority ethnic male MPs
More than ten times as many BAME female MPs.

To address under-representation in the House of Commons and in public life, the Government is:

  • Changing the law to allow political parties to use All Women Shortlists for another five general elections until 2030;
  • Going to allow employers and public authorities to take Positive Action to address under-representation via the Equality Bill;
  • Encouraging more minority ethnic women to become local councillors with the Black Asian and Minority Ethnic Women Councillors taskforce;
  • Setting new targets on gender, race and disability in public appointments;
  • Giving a stronger diversity remit to the Commissioner for Public Appointments;
  • Launched a new diversity programme with the Women’s National Commission to make sure women know about public appointments.

The Speaker’s Conference will “consider and make recommendations for rectifying the disparity between the representation of women, ethnic minorities and disabled people in the House of Commons and their representation in the UK population at large. The Conference may also agree to consider other associated matters.”

The Conference was requested by the Prime Minister as part of the ‘Governance of Britain’ agenda. The last Speaker’s Conference was in 1977. There have only been five in the last century.

In 1916-17 the Speaker’s Conference secured cross-party agreement on the principle that women should have the right to vote. This Conference led to the Representation of the People Act 1918, which extended the right to vote to women over 30 years old.


posted by

Asif Yusuf



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