FIRST Minister Nicola Sturgeon has defended the role of all-women shortlists, ahead of a vote on the issue at SNP conference next weekend.

Speaking on a Glasgow radio station yesterday morning, the First Minister said that while having a system to select candidates based purely on merit was ideal, it currently was not working.

“People say to me, ‘I don’t want quotas, I don’t want all women shortlists because I believe people should get on on merit’. I absolutely 100 per cent believe in that, I think people should get on on merit.

“The problem is that’s not what happens very often just now. If we had a system that was purely based on merit, we’d have gender balance because women are 52 per cent of the population, and unless you think that women are somehow less capable, then if we had a merit-based system we wouldn’t have these problems of under-representation of women.

“I do think we need to look at system-wide approaches to deal with that so we can one day get to a position where all of these decisions are entirely based on merit.”

At the party’s conference next week, the National Executive Committee is proposing a series of changes to party rules, including establishing all-female shortlists.

Currently, there are only 17 female SNP MSPs, one-quarter of the party’s 64.

There has been some opposition to the idea of all women shortlists.

Members of the SNP’s Avondale branch have tabled an amendment at conference that would stop the party adopting the shortlists.

Speaking to Scotland on Sunday newspaper, Pat McGuire, the branch’s secretary, said: “Most people at the meeting felt that if there is a selection process for anything then it should be the best person regardless of gender. Really, if that creates an imbalance, it is a fair imbalance because it is the best people for the job.”

McGuire also claimed that the reason there was such a gender balance was because women “did not put themselves forward for these positions”.

A number of local constituency Labour parties clashed with the central party over the imposition of all-women shortlists on party selections.

For the Cynon Valley seat in Wales, party members went on “strike” to protest at having to use an all-women shortlist.

Although controversial, the approach has been successful for the Labour Party in Westminster.

Thirty-one per cent of their MPs are women, compared to 16 per cent of the Conservative Party’s MPs. Only 148 of Westminster’s 650 MPs are women, around 22 per cent.

Holyrood is slightly more representative at 35 per cent, with 45 women among all 129 MSPs.

However, this is down on a high of 51 female MSPs in 2003. Forty-one per cent of the Welsh Assembly members are women.

Although seasoned SNP-watchers expect the NEC’s motion to pass, this will be the party’s first conference since the membership surge pushed them over 100,000.

More than 3,000 delegates are expected at the conference.