Phillips: Increase diversity within Parliament

“Political parties have a major role to play in promoting diversity” 5th March 2009: UK’s political institutions need radical reform or Parliament risks losing its legitimacy, Mr. Trevor Phillips, Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission has told the Speaker’s Conference.

At present, only 15 of the 646 MPs are black or Asian, and women make up just 19 percent of MPs.

Mr. Phillips said that the Commission believes “that a Parliament which reflects the make-up of the nation it represents will result in better legislation and a higher degree of public confidence in the democratic process.

“Political parties have a major role to play in promoting diversity, and it is up to them how they run their own selections. Local party members don’t set out to vote against a woman or a black man. But like most other people many members have an image in their head of what a politician looks like. If you asked a class of children to draw a picture of a politician then the chances are nine out of ten would draw a picture of a white man in a grey suit.”

Mr. Phillips added: “That assumption doesn’t leave us when we get older. In a selection meeting anyone who doesn’t fit this image has a mountain to climb before they even open their mouths. This stereotype will be self perpetuating unless parties take action to break the mould.”

The Commission has suggested imposing a term limit for MPs as one of the ways of speeding up turnover. Limiting MPs to serving a maximum of four parliamentary terms – or roughly 20 years – would allow more people from a wider range of backgrounds to enter the House. These limits could also be considered for the House of Lords, the Commission says.

The Commission has also recommended to the Parliament to consider introducing an internship scheme so more people from diverse backgrounds can gain experience working for Members of Parliament.
The Commission will undertake research into the pathways MPs follow into the House of Commons with a view to identifying barriers which may exist for under-represented groups.

A recent Ipsos Mori poll published by the Commission, shows that British people are increasingly comfortable with racial diversity. Forty per cent of 16-24 year olds from an ethnic minority background think there is more racial tolerance than ten years ago. However, they lack faith in political institutions to treat everyone fairly. Voting turnout has dropped to record lows in recent General Elections, illustrating that many people – particularly the young and ethnic minorities – do not think that Parliament reflects and acts on their concerns.

The Speaker’s Conference was established in November 2008 to make recommendations for bringing the representation of women, ethnic minorities and disabled people in the House of Commons more in line with the population at large.

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