Political parties could be forced to set quotas on the number of women and ethnic minority people they employ, under new proposals to be unveiled today.
A cross-party review by the Speaker’s Conference has concluded that mandatory legal quotas should be set for the number of female parliamentary candidates – if there is not a significant increase in female MPs at the next election – while non-mandatory all-ethnic minority shortlists should also be introduced.
The Speaker’s Conference said parliament was too white, middle-class, heterosexual, male and able-bodied.
The review, commissioned by prime minister Gordon Brown and backed by the speaker John Bercow, called for at least half of the MPs leaving the Commons at this year’s general election to be replaced by women.
The panel of MPs conducting the review claimed democracy was under threat unless parliament became more representative, the Daily Mail has reported.
Despite half of the population being female, only 20% of MPs are women, compared to 47% in Sweden and 38% in Denmark.
All-women shortlists have only ever been used by the Labour Party.
The report said: “If the political parties fail to make significant progress on women’s representation at the 2010 general election, parliament should give serious consideration to the introduction of prescriptive quotas, ensuring all political parties adopt some form of equality guarantee in time for the following general election.
“We recognise equality guarantees do not sit easily within some political party cultures. Yet, to date, the all-women shortlist has been the only mechanism to have produced a significant step-change in representation in the Commons in a short period of time.”
Harriet Harman, Labour’s equality minister, said: “Society has changed and the House needs to change too.
“We should take all the steps we can to increase diversity in parliament, which must reflect the country in which we live and the public we serve.”
But former Conservative minister Ann Widdecombe said: “The concept of merit is going out of the window. I don’t care whether an MP is male or female, black or white, rich or poor, old or young.
“What matters is the merit they bring. We really cannot have targets for particular categories. It’s frankly insulting because it suggests women and ethnic minorities cannot get there on their own merit.”
The Speaker’s Conference was established in November 2008 as a new committee, chaired by the speaker, and tasked with making recommendations for creating a more representative parliament.