“Legally-enforceable quotas for women in the boardrooms of major companies would be bad for business and bad for genuine equality.”

That was the response today from Marina Yannakoudakis MEP, who speaks on women’s rights for Conservatives in the European Parliament, to reports that the European Commission is drafting legislation forcing listed companies to reserve at least 40 per cent of their non-executive board seats for women by 2020.

The Financial Times reported today that it had obtained a copy of legislation which will be be unveiled next month by justice commissioner Viviane Reding. The draft European law would see companies liable to EU fines if they failed to have the quotas in place by 2020.

Mrs Yannakoudakis, Conservative MEP for London, said: “Boardroom quotas seem to be a holy cow for some in the commission. They refuse to let the issue drop – even though it is a matter of zero concern to most members of the public.

“The governments of the UK and Sweden will not wear it in any event, because it is meddlesome and won’t achieve a jot for genuine equality.

“Forcing quotas on companies will cut across their right to organise their own operations as they see fit. I happen to believe that a healthy proportion of women on a board will generally provide a commercial advantage because of the mix of expertise and experience – but imposing strict quotas, which are both arbitrary and artificial, cuts across the freedom of businesses to make their own decisions and the freedom of women to succeed on merit.”