A report from the Speaker’s Conference has recommended a number of measures to encourage more gay people to stand as MPs.
The Speaker’s Conference, chaired by Speaker John Bercow, looks at ways to modernise parliament, such as trying to attract more politicians who are female, disabled, gay or from ethnic minorities.
The report, released today, called for more to be done to prevent discrimination against potential parliamentary candidates who “do not fit the traditional mould”.
It said: “The current composition of the Commons does not reflect society. Eighty per cent of MPs are men. One in 43 MPs comes from a black or minority ethnic community. Only a handful of members identify themselves as disabled. Currently, only two out of 646 MPs are under the age of 30. There is only one out lesbian in the membership of the Commons and the Lords combined. There has never been an Asian woman MP. If these things do not seem strange, they should.”
The report focused on women, ethnic minority and disabled candidates, although included some recommendations to encourage gay MPs, such as allowing members to have their civil partnerships in the Palace of Westminster and a formal code of campaigning in time for this year’s general election.
The report suggested that parties should be required to publish details of their candidate selections online every six months, setting out information such as sex, ethnicity and method of selection. It said that this could include recording the sexual orientation of the candidate, if they were willing to disclose this information.
Another recommendation was allowing members to have their civil partnerships in the Palace of Westminster. The report said that gay MPs “should have the same rights as members undertaking Christian marriage rites to hold their ceremonies within the Palace of Westminster”. It recommended that the House service should take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that such civil ceremonies from this year.
One particular issue for gay candidates was negative campaigning. As recently as 2007, a local election candidate in London was jailed for accusing a gay competing candidate of being a “paedophile with a 16-year-old boyfriend”.
Stonewall were quoted as saying this problem was recognised across all main parties, while Paul Martin of the Lesbian and Gay Foundation said there was a perception that lesbian and gay candidates had to be “better than their peers in order to participate”. Martin added that the fear of being humiliated in public prevented many candidates from coming out.
To combat this, the report said: “The parties should each draw up a formal code of conduct for campaigning. This should make clear that campaigning is unacceptable where it seeks to undermine a candidate by reference to his or her family life, racial background, sexual orientation, health status or disability. These codes of conduct should be in place in time for the 2010 general election.”
There was also concern that female candidates faced similar problems and could have their past sexual histories or childcare arrangements subjected to scrutiny.
Another recommendation in the report was removing the disqualification on standing as an MP after mental illness. It said the prohibition was “not consistent or logical”, adding that MPs who suffer from illnesses such as a stroke would leave constituents un-represented in the same way as they would be if their MP had a serious mental disorder.
It added that women-only shortlists should remain in place until 2030 and similar legislation should be enacted to allow ethnic minority-only shortlists which would bar white people from applying.
Only Labour has used all-women shortlists in the past and they are a controversial move. The report said that these could become compulsory if an improvement in the number of female MPs was not seen in the next election.
According to estimates, between six and nine per cent of the population is gay. Theoretically, this means there should be at least 39 gay MPs and 42 peers.
However, a Stonewall report released in April 2008 found that lesbian, gay and bisexual respondents thought they would get worse treatment on the grounds of their sexuality if running for office.
Eighty-nine per cent of those polled thought they would face barriers from the Conservative party if they wanted to be selected to run for Parliament.
Sixty-one per cent said the same about Labour and 47 per cent about the Liberal Democrats.
The research, based on a YouGov poll of more than 1,600 LGB people, found that of those respondents who are party supporters, 71 per cent of Conservatives, 46 per cent of Labour and 28 per cent of Lib Dems thought they would face barriers if they wanted to stand for parliament.