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Measures designed to increase the numbers of women MPs became law last night, after receiving cross-party support in Parliament. 

The Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act has gained Royal Assent and will allow political parties the freedom to introduce positive measures when selecting candidates for Parliament, local government and the devolved assemblies.   Britain has one of the lowest levels of women MPs in Europe, just 18 per cent, compared with 43 per cent in Sweden and 31 per cent in Germany.

Despite a record seven women in the Cabinet, less than one in five Members in the House of Commons is female, and in the 2001 General Election, the number of women in Parliament decreased for the first time in 20 years.   The use of women-only shortlists by Labour from 1993-1996 resulted in an increase of women MPs, but was ruled unlawful in 1996. The Government has now removed the domestic legal barrier to parties wishing to take positive action.

Stephen Byers, Secretary of State for the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions, said: "I am delighted that we have found time for this legislation in this session. Its speedy passage through both Houses shows that there is overwhelming support to increase the number of women representatives in our elected bodies.

"Political parties will be free to decide what measures, if any, they want to take to reduce gender inequality. I hope they seize this opportunity for change wholeheartedly."  Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and Minister for Women, Patricia Hewitt added: "It is vital that women are properly represented in all the democratic bodies in our country. If we are to re-engage the public with the political process, then we need elected bodies to be more truly representative.

"Women offer a range of different experiences and bring different voices to policy debates. There is no doubt that women in both Houses have achieved a great deal. "This Act is a step towards removing the barriers that women face at all stages of the electoral process."

Welcoming the Act, Julie Mellor, Chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission said: "This Act could change the shape of the political landscape forever.  It offers all the political parties the opportunity to take decisive action over the woefully low level of women MPs. If the parties really want to represent the electorate they serve, they need to consider seriously the range of measures they can now use to boost the number of women they select."

- The Act amends the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and the Sex Discrimination (Northern Ireland) Order 1976 to provide that Parts II to IV ( or 3 to 5 of the Order) will not apply to measures adopted by a party to reduce inequality in the numbers of men and women elected as its candidates.

- It covers political parties' selections of candidates for elections to the parliaments, assemblies and local councils in the United Kingdom and elections to the European Parliament.

- The Act is published jointly by the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions which has responsibility for electoral law, and the Women and Equality Unit, Cabinet Office.

- Full text of the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act is available at: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/  and at