Cross-party support sought in gender quotas debate

Nicola Sturgeon has achieved gender balance in her cabinet. Picture: Andrew Cowan
Nicola Sturgeon has achieved gender balance in her cabinet. Picture: Andrew Cowan
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A BID to change the law to ensure an equal number of men and women stand for the Scottish Parliament is to be launched this week.

The introduction of gender quotas to boost the number of females who make it to Holyrood is to be considered by MPs when they discuss changes to the Scottish constitutional set-up.

The proposal, which includes plans to achieve a 50-50 gender ratio on the boards of Scottish public authorities, follows calls from a cross-party group to present voters with an equal balance of men and women parliamentary candidates.

The pressure group Women 5050 wants Scotland to follow in the footsteps of nations like France and Ireland which, while recognising that the ultimate decision on who makes it to parliament lies with the voters, have introduced election candidate quotas to drive up the number of female politicians.

Scotland on Sunday can reveal that the plan has been drawn up by Ian Murray, Labour’s Shadow Scottish Secretary, who has tabled an amendment to the Scotland Bill, which is bringing new powers for Holyrood and is currently being processed by the House of Commons.

With Nicola Sturgeon making a number of high-profile commitments to gender equality, including the appointment of a 50-50 cabinet, Labour are hopeful of securing SNP support.

Murray said: “This is an idea whose time came many years ago. The fact is that despite good progress in the last decade there are still too few women in politics. Tinkering around the edges won’t do the job anymore. There needs to be bold and radical action to ensure equal representation of men and women in the Scottish Parliament.

“This isn’t a party political issue. The cause of ensuring gender equality belongs to no one political party or movement. I hope MPs from all ­parties will be able to come ­together to vote for my amendment.”

The SNP work and pensions spokeswoman, Eilidh Whiteford, said the way to achieve parity for women was to alter the Scotland Bill so that it transferred the power over equality law to Edinburgh. “The SNP is committed to ensuring every person across Scotland has the opportunity to fulfil their potential – and we are working to make this happen with the powers Scotland currently has,” she said.

“Earlier this week, the First Minister called on businesses across Scotland to make the commitment to support equality and work towards achieving a 50-50 gender split on their boards by 2020 – and already 137 organisations are signed up to the Scottish Government’s pledge. The Scottish cabinet is also leading by example with a 50-50 gender split that has been hailed by the United Nations.

“At the General Election, 56 of Scotland’s 59 constituencies voted SNP on a manifesto which included equalities law being devolved to the Scottish Parliament, and that is what should happen. With full powers over equalities, we could go even further. That is why the SNP at Westminster have put forward amendments to devolve equalities legislation. This will put the power to make lasting progress in Scotland’s hands – exactly where it should be.”

Murray’s amendment was welcomed by Women 5050, which was launched by Labour’s Kezia Dugdale and Alison Johnstone of the Greens with the support of Marco ­Biagi of the SNP and Alison McInnes of the Lib Dems.

Women 5050 has called for action to boost female representation at Holyrood. Just 35 per cent of Scotland’s 129 MSPs are women, down from a high of nearly 40 per cent in 1999.

A spokeswoman for Women 5050 said: “Scotland can and must do more to fight the barriers that exist to women being around the top decision making tables.

“As a national campaign, we’re proud of the cross-party support this has gained, including a commitment from the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, and support from over a third of Scotland’s MSPs. We’re encouraged by this amendment to the Scotland Bill.

“We want to see the debate happen in the Scottish Parliament chamber and action taken to smash the political glass ceiling.”

Murray believes the Electoral Commission should be charged with devising a mechanism to achieve a 50-50 split. Creating a method of persuading the political parties to put more women in high-ranking positions on the Holyrood list system should be relatively straight-forward, though the First Past the Post system will be more challenging.