Parliament is in danger of going back to a 19th-century place that favours "single men of private means" as there is not enough support for mothers, a former Conservative cabinet minister has said.
Caroline Spelman, one of the few women who has served in David Cameron's top team, said a major problem was the reformed expenses system that restricts MPs to a single bedroom in their second home, making it impossible for children to accompany them in the week.
At the launch of a report by the all-party parliamentary group on women, she also called for an inquiry into sexism towards female MPs in the media, as anecdotally they tend to attract "superficial criticism about what we wear or the timbre of our voice, rather than what we say".
The prominent female MP also spoke her shock at how difficult it was as a women to enter parliament, after she tried and failed to get selected in 27 constituencies before she was elected to Meriden in 1997. She repeated her view that she is not entirely opposed to all-women shortlists, but a return to 50:50 shortlists used by Cameron in 2010 may be the best way forward for the Conservatives.
She said: "I now understand how difficult it is to actually some overcome gender bias in the selection process. I hear new crops of women saying they want to get here on merit and think 'Hmm, I think you'll find it's actually quite difficult'."
Female Conservative MPs, including the new women's minister, Nicky Morgan, have increasingly been raising the possibility that all-women shortlists could be considered after the next election if the party's gender balance does not improve, despite fierce opposition to the idea among local constituency associations.
At the moment, just 16% of Conservative MPs are women, in contrast to 33% within Labour, which pioneered the use of all-women shortlists. The issue has come back on to the agenda for the Conservatives amid concern that Labour and the Liberal Democrats are doing better at selecting women for safe or winnable seats. Senior Tory sources have said Cameron is open to all-women shortlists on a voluntary basis but would not want to impose them on constituencies.
Mary Macleod, the female Conservative MP who chaired the inquiry on parliamentary gender balance, urged male MPs "from the top down" to shout about the need to address "unconscious bias" against women in selections to improve the gender balance in parliament.
She said some of her male colleagues are very supportive, including the party leaders, but others are "not so supportive [and] we need to try and convince them".
"David Cameron and the whole party structure have several bodies reporting into the prime minister to make sure this is dealt with at the highest level… All parties need to work on this, and I think unless we keep up the pressure and communication on it, it might fall back. The prime minister gets regular reports on how we are doing. The team at central office will continue changing the way we do things if things aren't working," she said.
The report on women made numerous recommendations, including a new parliamentary select committee for women, more diverse artwork in the Palace of Westminster, improving the predictability of parliament's calendar, formalising the system of parental leave to make it more family-friendly and a new zero-tolerance approach to unprofessional behaviour in the chamber. The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, said he would not immediately accept the recommendations but would look into which ones might be implemented.
Spelman, who was a member of the report committee, said there was a need to help parents, but mothers especially, to feel "parliament is a place that is open to people like them".
She said: "Changes to the expense system in 2009 had some unintended consequences for female MPs. For example, the restriction to a one bedroom flat in London clearly has the impact for a mother of signalling that she is not able to live with her children during the week. I just invite you to think what profession do you know that has that kind of constriction upon it? … I would almost go so far as to say that some of the consequences of those 2009 reforms are almost driving us back towards a situation that pertained in the 19th century, where single men of private means were favoured by the system. Perhaps that's a rather extreme expression but I'm citing it because I think we need to really sit up and realise some of the consequences of the present situation."
The prime minister's treatment of women in his party has also returned to the headlines ahead of a reshuffle in which he is expected to make good on his promise that a third of his ministers would be female. Currently, just three out of 27 cabinet ministers are female. Some of those tipped for promotion include Penny Mordaunt, Priti Patel, Elizabeth Truss and Esther McVey, who all entered the house in 2010.
Asked about ageism within parliament, Spelman, who lost her environment secretary job in the cabinet in the 2012 reshuffle, said it "takes quite a long time to make a good parliamentarian".
"All the experiences you've had in life build up to it," she said. "I think that sometimes we undervalue in our society how those wider inter-generational experiences can actually improve the decisions that we make. There's definitely a role in parliament for women who've been through a lot of different chapters of their lives. I remember that Angela Watkinson got elected to parliament at the age of 59 and has been a stunningly successful parliamentarian."
SOURCE: The Guardian, July 14th 2014: http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/jul/14/parliament-danger-favour...