I beg to move,
That this House
believes that it would be to the benefit of the functioning of parliamentary democracy that honourable Members who have had a baby or adopted a child should for a period of time be entitled, but not required, to discharge their responsibilities to vote in this House by proxy.
May I join others, Madam Deputy Speaker, in wishing you a happy birthday? You honestly do not need to worry about numbers. I am 67 and I have discovered, as I get older, that I know a lot more things that I did not know when I was younger. There is nothing wrong with getting older.
I thank my hon. Friend Ian Mearns and the other members of the Backbench Business Committee, which he chairs, for agreeing to the subject of the motion. As the Backbench Business Committee was introduced when I was Leader of the House, I was very glad that its members did not turn me down when I went before them to ask for this debate.
Mrs Miller is in her place. I thank her for all her work on this issue. This has very much been a joint enterprise between her and me. I really cannot speak highly enough of her work as the Chair of the excellent Women and Equalities Committee. I do not usually say good things about people who have been in the Cabinet in Tory Governments, but she is really very important to us all in her role.
I thank the 52 hon. Members from all parties who supported the application for this motion, including right hon. and hon. Friends in the Labour party, so many of whom are here today; I thank them so much for attending. Members of the Scottish National party have been active and supportive co-workers on this issue, as have the Liberal Democrats and many hon. Members on the Tory Benches. This is very much a cross-party issue.
I am pleased to see that the Leader of the House is in her place and that, in a week that has not been unbusy for her, she will be responding to this debate personally. She has been prepared to give me her time and talk about the issue, and she is here to respond to the motion. That is testament to her commitment to the issue, along with the shadow Leader of the House, who is also present. Mr Speaker’s Reference Group on Representation and Inclusion has also looked at this subject.
This motion asks the House for its in-principle agreement to make arrangements for when a Member has a baby or adopts a child. At the moment, we have no such arrangements. In this House, we set the rules for parents outside the House having babies or adopting a child, and we do so because we think that it is important for the child and for the parents. We do it because we want new parents not to have to ask for favours, but to be clear about where they stand. But there is no such system for Members of this House.
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for bringing forward this important debate. Does she agree that, as we set the rules for people outside the House to take maternity, paternity and shared parental leave, we ourselves have a system that makes this place less family-friendly than most workplaces in the UK?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. No one in this House wants us to give ourselves better conditions than people outside, but we are now actually lagging a long way behind and are in danger of setting a bad example in that respect.
I pay tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend and constituency neighbour for tabling this motion, and for her work over more than 30 years to advance equality for women in this place and in the wider world. Last week, I visited a girls’ secondary school in my constituency, where students asked me what it is like being a woman in the House of Commons. There were gasps in the room when I mentioned that there is no maternity leave for women Members. Does she agree that we owe it to a generation of young women who are now thinking about their future to make this place somewhere where they feel welcome and have the same rights as every other woman in workplaces across the country?
Absolutely; my hon. Friend is spot on.
“Erskine May”, our parliamentary rules bible, says absolutely nothing about pregnancy, which is no surprise at all. It used to be the case that the overwhelming majority of Members were men. It was not that those men were not parents; it was just that they regarded a baby as the sole responsibility of their wives. There were hardly any women in this House then, and those who were here were mostly older women whose children had grown up or who had no children. That was certainly the case when I had my three children as a young Member of this House. I was the only woman in the House having babies at that time. Things have now changed, and the sight of growing pregnant bumps in our Division Lobby is commonplace and celebrated on both sides of the House.
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for making an excellent speech, and declare my interest as one of those Members with a growing bump. Does she agree that that highlights the urgency with which we have to address the issue? I am not the only Member of the House who is currently pregnant. Does she agree that we are working to a deadline? Babies do not wait; it is not going to stay in there forever.
I certainly do agree and I congratulate my hon. Friend. I am looking forward to meeting the new arrival.
The reason we are proposing this change now is that the House has changed profoundly in its attitudes and its membership. Now, many men want and expect to play their part with a new baby.
In 1993, when I informed the Chief Whip that my wife was going into hospital and that I intended to be at the birth, I was told, “That’s alright, as long as you’re here on Monday night to vote on Maastricht matters.” As it turned out, my daughter was born on the Sunday, and I was able to leave the hospital, come in and stay until 2.30 am. The dilemma applies to men as well as to women.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it is a crying shame that, even though the last Labour Government introduced shared parental leave, only around 5% of fathers take it? I do not think there is really any provision in this House for new dads to do that.
Absolutely. Having talked to colleagues in all parts of the House, I know that fathers feel as strongly as mothers about this issue. That is a real change. It is really gratifying to me to see younger men who are determined to be not only excellent Members of this House but sharing parents and responsible fathers who do not see their baby just as their wife’s business. Most wives now work, and their husbands in this House want to support them in that.
I am sorry not to be able to stay for long, partly because of the problem with my leg. I congratulate the right hon. and learned Lady on a motion that mentions not men or women but Members—that is a plus. When my wife was elected, our youngest child was two, so we did not actually have a birth when we were both Members. We have talked about slippery slopes, but we should also talk about a staircase. At some stage, if this goes through, we ought to consider what happens to people who are hospitalised, or have to take time off to care for an elderly parent or another member of their family in some extreme emergency.
That might well be the case in future, but for the moment we are talking about maternity, paternity and adoption, and we should focus on that.
I never thought I would see the day when the sons of the women’s movement arrived in this House—but they are here. They want and expect that they should play their part with a new baby. All credit to them, and let us change the rules to recognise that. Stephen Gethins told me:
“My wife and I had our son Patrick just 2 weeks before the General Election last year who was a welcome addition to our family and a loved brother for our daughter Mhairi who is 3. My wife is and remains a star who, like other MPs’
partners, has to put up with so much because of this job, its challenging hours and need to be away from home. I wish I could have had some paternity leave when Patrick arrived so at least just after he was born I could have been a greater help than I have been. My wife has never complained and like others got on with it but she deserved more support than I was able to give her and I hope that we can fix this for other MPs.”
I hope that that is what we will do.
There are more women Members than ever before, in all parts of the House—over 200—and younger women as well. It is a democratic imperative that we have women in this House as well as men to make the House representative of this country, and it is a biological inevitability that young women will have babies. There have already been 17 babies born to women Members since 2010.
I congratulate the right hon. and learned Lady on the amazing work that she has done on this issue, and on her speech. Does she agree that given that we are apparently by definition the gayest Parliament in the world and have many LGBT Members, there will be many young gay male Members and female Members, like me, who may at some point want to have children, and it is important that this motion supports them as well, whether in adoption or biological birth?
I thank the hon. Lady, who has been unstinting in her support. We have worked together on this. She is absolutely right. That is why I called it baby leave rather than maternity and paternity leave, and why I refer to parents and their children.
As I say, there have been 17 babies born to women—and countless born to male Members of Parliament but which we do not know about. In the absence of any official recognition of these babies being born to Members, the way things work currently is that women MPs who are giving birth, or men MPs who want time with their baby, ask the Whips for a pair, and their Whips then make an arrangement with the Whips on the other side of the House The situation in relation to the Whips is nothing like it was when I was having the first of our three children 34 years ago and I had to ask for a few weeks off from the Whips Office when most of them thought that a woman, let alone a pregnant woman, should not be in the House of Commons. I know that attitudes in the Whips Office are now completely different, but each Member still has to make a request. We would not agree to that happening in any other workplace. Furthermore, it is in the discretion of not just one Whips Office but two, because both Whips Offices have to agree.
I speak as an SNP Whip. Our party does not take part in pairing. I very much commend this proposal because I am really uncomfortable with the fact that we would have to go for a pairing arrangement, as is currently the case. I very much support what the right hon. and learned Lady is saying, particularly in the context of those of us who do not do pairing.
That is a really important point. I hope that we can think of some arrangements that can be made to deal with the issue of SNP Members until such time as we zoom this process through.
Granting or withholding a pair is an important role for the Opposition Whips Office. No one can accuse me of not knowing the importance of fighting in opposition, because, tragically, that is what I have been doing for 20 years of my parliamentary life, but a woman giving birth should not be a matter of wrangling between Whips Offices or an opportunity to take advantage of the Government, however much they may deserve it.
I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on securing this really important debate. Does she agree that Professor Childs was absolutely right to argue in her “The Good Parliament” report of 2016 that
“to become a truly inclusive institution the House of Commons must accommodate and facilitate both the pregnant woman Member and co-parenting and caring MP”; that the current informal arrangements lead to misunderstandings about the effectiveness of MPs, particularly women; and that the change that is being sought is long overdue?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. “The Good Parliament” report also reports on all the other Parliaments around the world that have sought, in their own way, to deal with this.
This is not just a matter of the wishes of parents. It is also about the rights of our constituents, because when an MP is paired, Hansard simply records that they have not voted—that the vote to which their constituency is entitled is not cast.
The negotiation between Whips is important in other circumstances. However, I am sure that many women in this House who take time off to be with their baby in the first few weeks want to practise the act of democracy that is voting so that they are representing their constituents while being a new mother, and it should not be suggested that they simply have not voted.
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for her excellent speech. She is making an important point about mothers—and fathers—who are not able to be here when they are looking after their infants. The website TheyWorkForYou.com currently registers the fact that I have voted in just 16.51% of votes in the past year. I have, though, been in Parliament, but have just gone home to look after my child at the end of the day. Does she concur that this should be rectified not only in Hansard but on that website to reflect the fact that parents who are not here are looking after their children?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. We need to do this for defensive reasons, because women who are off having babies or men who are off with a newborn baby are criticised, and that is wrong. But it is even more important than that—our constituents should have the right to have their voice heard, and we want to protect that right even though their MP is off at certain times with babies.
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for her powerful speech and for all the work that she has done over the years on these important issues. I am responsible for two of the 17 babies who have been born since 2010. When my first child was born almost five years ago, one of the campaigning organisations that email constituents about votes emailed my constituents to say that I had not bothered to turn up to a vote. I would very much have liked to turn up to vote on all the issues, but with a very young baby it simply was not possible. That needs to be rectified as well, because in the minds of constituents we are not here and not representing them, but we are doing very important work at home.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That chimes very much with what my hon. Friend Julie Elliott says. As a mother of four, she thinks that
“just because women having babies are based in their constituencies in the weeks and months following giving birth that should not mean that their constituents are not represented by their MP casting their vote.”
My hon. Friend James Frith had a new son, Bobby James, who was only 35 years old when we had a crucial vote on Brexit—[Hon. Members: “Days!”] Sorry. He was only 35 hours old when we had the crucial Brexit vote. My hon. Friend’s wife, Nikki, had an early induction because her pregnancy was high-risk. He says that with the fixed vote coming up, and his wife in labour, his fundamental role as an MP was pitted against his fundamental role as a man, dad and husband in support of who he describes as his amazing wife. He says it brought an edge to the delivery room that was frankly unhealthy, and that it is surely
“easier to move Parliament than hold back the majestic and existential forces of the arrival of new life.”
Let us show that we can manage to move Parliament.
As my hon. Friend Rachel Reeves said, the trouble is that, even when an MP is paired, people outside the House do not understand pairing. They just see that their MP has not voted. Social media campaigns, which my hon. Friend Luciana Berger mentioned, criticise MPs who have not voted on important issues, unaware that they are paired because of childbirth. They get criticised in newspapers that run voting league tables. My hon. Friend Lucy Powell, who we all know is one of the most hyperactive MPs in the House, featured at number two in The Sun’s list of Britain’s laziest MPs. We cannot go on like this.
I apologise for intervening again, but I think I am responsible for the latest addition to the 17 babies. He was born on Good Friday last year. I was criticised by a Sunday newspaper. I will not name it, because although I should not have had to ask, when I got in touch with the political editor, he kindly took my name off a story that rated me as the second worst MP in this Parliament, without mentioning that I had been on maternity leave since the election.
My hon. Friend needs to be able to cast her constituents’ vote by proxy while being in her constituency, with the lovely Theo. That is what the proposal before the House would enable.
The proposal puts to the House that we should agree in principle that Members should be allowed to choose another Member to vote by proxy for them in the Division Lobby when they have had a new baby or adopted a child. If there is agreement to that in principle, many issues of implementation would have to be considered further by the Select Committee on Procedure. As “The Good Parliament” report made clear, other Parliaments have made arrangements for baby leave, but we would need to do it in a way that fits with our culture and our processes.
I know Members are always rightly concerned that any change might have unintended consequences or be the thin end of a wedge. We rightly jealously guard the rules of our democracy. I want to reassure Members on a number of matters. The resolution before the House is not that a Member would be required to apply for a proxy vote, but that they would be able to do so if they chose. Those who want to take no leave or to ask for a pair would be perfectly free to do so, as they are now.
It would not affect pay, which is a matter for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. IPSA has assured me in writing that how we vote in the House is a matter of us, not for it, and it would not regard any change in voting as a matter that would affect pay in any way, so that is just not an issue. It would not be open to abuse because whether someone has had a baby or adopted a child is not a subjective judgment; it is a matter of fact.
It will be evident to hon. Members that I am not moving this motion out of self-interest. It is too late for that—30 years too late. My children are already grown up, but I want this for the younger Members and future parents in the House.
I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for giving way, and I wish you a happy birthday, Madam Deputy Speaker—I will not give you the bumps.
My right hon. and learned Friend talked about her own experiences, and she was very fortunate to have our hon. Friend Jack Dromey by her side. She also talked about pairing. In personal life, not everyone is paired. I speak as chair of the new all-party parliamentary group on single-parent families. Is she aware of the figures from Gingerbread that point out that single-parent families are an increasingly common family form? The figure is 51% in some London constituencies, and there are 3,649 in mine. These problems are exacerbated for single parents. Will she encourage people to join my APPG, which was registered only this week?
Order. Before the right hon. and learned Lady responds to the intervention, I should add that I have no wish whatsoever to curtail this excellent debate on a very important subject. However, I draw to her attention that while she is absolutely correct to take lots of interventions, because there is much to be said about this, I have a note of a great many people who wish to speak, and we do not have a huge amount of time.
I will draw my comments to a close.
In this centenary year, 100 years after women first won the right to stand for Parliament, I hope that we will agree to the motion and that the Procedure Committee will look at the matter expeditiously. We do not have all the time in the world. At least two more parliamentary babies are in the pipeline. Jo Swinson is awaiting her second baby, and my hon. Friend Cat Smith is also expecting. While we talk, nature is taking its course, so let us agree this and get on with it.
May I echo Members’ good wishes to you on your birthday, Madam Deputy Speaker? Of course, you have a great deal of first-hand knowledge of this issue. Although I know that you are not able to participate in the debate, I am sure you are sitting there thinking fondly of your own experiences of being a pregnant Member of Parliament and your wonderful son, who I have had the pleasure of meeting on a number of occasions.
It is a great pleasure to follow Ms Harman. She characterised this as a joint enterprise. I am not sure whether it is the sort of joint enterprise that we have talked about in the Chamber in a legal sense, because that is a crime in which more than one person is involved, but I understand the point she makes, because this has to be a joint enterprise if it is going to be successful. I sense from the good will we have heard today that that joint enterprise will be a very positive thing. I pay tribute to her as Mother of the House. She has done so much to set the tone on these issues over many years.
I also pay tribute to those who have rolled the pitch for this and made it easier for us to bring the debate forward. Professor Sarah Childs has been mentioned. Her work has been a foundation of much of the modernisation we are talking about. I would thank Mr Speaker as well, if he were here, because he has helped to set the tone.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, who is doing a sterling job of ensuring that this is a modern place for us all to work in. That is important for not only our staff, but Members. The Commons Reference Group on Representation and Inclusion, the Select Committee on Women and Equalities, which I have the pleasure of chairing, and others have been instrumental in slowly sowing the seeds of change.
Speaking as another member of the Speaker’s Commons Reference Group, I want to say how important this debate is. It is rooted in real and new evidence about Members’ experiences. By bringing the House into line with the policies of other workplaces, we will set the right tone and precedent for the future, particularly in this week, when we will be celebrating 100 years since women got the vote.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Through the Commons Reference Group, we are not only uncovering some important ways in which this place is changing, but identifying ways in which it needs to change. It is a great pleasure to work alongside her on that group.
Being a Member of Parliament is a unique position, a unique honour and a unique responsibility that requires complete commitment, but that cannot mean that only those without caring responsibilities can apply. Indeed, the experience we have as carers can make us much better Members of Parliament, and that is why I wholeheartedly support the motion.
I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend Ms Harman on securing the debate.
Mrs Miller is talking about this place, but I want to raise another issue. I chaired the Fawcett Society’s inquiry on the representation of women in local government, and it was shocking to discover that only 2% of local authorities have maternity leave policies, and that a number of women councillors who had babies were then sacked from their jobs as cabinet members. Does she agree that while what we are debating is hugely important, all of us as politicians from political parties ought to engage with our colleagues in local government to secure the necessary changes there that will ensure the proper representation of women?
The right hon. Lady is absolutely right: we need more women at every level of our democratic process. I must say that I have a phenomenal team of women in my Basingstoke constituency. Nine of the 14 councillors are women, and that is even more astonishing given that a number of them are young women with very young children. Others should look at what is happening in councils such as mine to encourage more young women to come forward, and to prevent doing so being seen as incompatible with having a young family.
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend Ms Harman and the right hon. Lady for securing this debate. The right hon. Lady makes an important point about local government. I gave birth 23 and 25 years ago, while I was a senior councillor in Hounslow. Although that was difficult, there are two fundamental differences between being in this place and being in local government. In local government, people are near to home, and the times they have to vote, and to be recorded as voting, are measured and occasional. This place is very different for both those reasons.
The hon. Lady used to be a member of my Committee, and I have worked with her and know her well. She makes a point to which I will return, because although the motion is really important, we need to think about other aspects of this place if we are to make it work for everybody, regardless of their caring responsibilities. I will now try to make a great deal of progress, Madam Deputy Speaker, so that you do not have to remind me that we are short of time.
1 wholeheartedly support the motion in its own right, because a new addition to the family—a new baby or a newly adopted child—is a wonderful thing, but a huge change as well. When the rules and conventions of this place were established, women had no place here and men had little or no role in their children’s lives. The rules and conventions were not established on the basis of any research or facts, but reflected the way in which men lived their lives many years ago. Men’s lives have changed, and women’s lives have changed. Women can now become MPs and our lives have changed, but the demands of having a child have not changed. Allowing MPs to decide to take some time away from this place, without disenfranchising their electorate in the process, is an important step in its own right, and one that I fully support.
The proposal is, however, just one small step. I speak as the mum of three kids. When I entered the House, my youngest was three, and for me the transition was very easy. I had worked full time before, and I had the best childcare in the world—grandparents, who were there to look after my children—but not every Member of Parliament has that built in and not every Member of Parliament is as lucky as I was. That is why I believe this is just one small step.
This is one small step in a change to Parliament’s workplace culture that is long overdue. We recognise the importance of workplace culture for the people we represent, whether it is the culture at the BBC that has allowed women to be underpaid, or the culture in Hollywood and the entertainment industry that has allowed the likes of Harvey Weinstein to thrive and to abuse the people around them. When we scrutinise the effectiveness of laws, we often conclude that culture needs to change so that those laws work better. We have heard about the example of shared parental leave, which was introduced by the coalition Government, and about the right to request flexible working. They are all things that people want, but when we do the research, we find that the uptake is low, because the culture in the workplace has not changed to reflect changes in the law.
We have a duty not only to pass laws, but to influence culture. That is why it is so important that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is bringing forward a new disciplinary process on sexual harassment, and it is why we also need to show that culture change in relation to families is also important. This should apply not only to MPs with new children, but to MPs with a wide range of caring responsibilities, such as for older children, for older family members—I have such responsibilities—or, indeed, for disabled family members.
As we consider the motion—I hope we will agree it—I hope not only that we will take this small step, but that other steps will follow. I want to give the particular example of the importance of predictability in working life. Before I entered this place, I was a director of an advertising agency. It was a very difficult and challenging job, but I could do it, because I could determine how to make my working life work for me. It is very difficult to have such a level of predictability here, particularly in relation to votes. Following the motion, I advocate our looking at a voting hour to create more predictability in how this place works so that people with caring responsibilities can better work them around their overwhelmingly important responsibilities here.
To those who say that introducing baby leave is the thin end of the wedge, I have to say that they are right if that will mean that we can show compassion to a colleague who is fighting cancer, or to a colleague who has to attend the funeral of a close relative, rather than disenfranchising their constituents while they are being human beings. We need to make this change so that we can allow people to get the balance in their lives that, sadly, is so lacking at some points in the parliamentary calendar at the moment.
My right hon. Friend is making a very powerful speech and I absolutely support the motion. I agree with her in very much hoping that this is the thin end of the wedge, because on the centenary of the Representation of the People Act 1918, we must do more to fix the pipeline problem here so that we encourage more women at a younger age to think about putting themselves forward to become Members of Parliament.
I cannot be alone in being a man in this House whose partner has an extremely important job of her own. She sits as a supreme court judge in France, and that takes her away from home, so I have childcare responsibilities, too. Indeed, I have a one-year-old baby—funnily enough, she does not look after herself. When we are talking about equality, I absolutely understand the emphasis on women’s rights—of course I do—but this is actually a human right. It is about not men or women, but about anybody who has responsibility for caring for a child—or, indeed, for caring for an adult. If we are thinking about equality, we could be talking about someone with religious obligations that might keep them away for various reasons.
My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point. It is important to recognise the way in which many family lives have changed over the years, and that was why it was important to frame the motion in terms of MPs or parents, not men and women. Any of us may have caring responsibilities; they are not now the sole preserve of one gender.
It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the extraordinary way in which the Whips department has evolved during my time in this place. When I remember some of my conversations with the Whips when I first arrived in 2005, I shudder a little, because they did not reflect my previous 20-year working life. As I look in particular at my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour Mims Davies, who is sitting on the Front Bench, and my hon. Friend Jo Churchill, both of whom were members of my Select Committee, I know that the Whips Office is in extraordinarily good hands.
We cannot leave this to chance. We need better rules to give people certainty about what they can expect. MPs have a duty to keep our democracy healthy. I do not believe that MPs can ever be treated as employees. Our role means that we will never really be subject to an Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority contract; our contract is with the people whom we represent, and they demonstrate their views each time there is an election.
We can modernise the culture of this place—for our employees, of course, for Members today, and for those who will come after us—so that it reflects the 21st century, not the 18th century, and to make it an attractive place for a more diverse range of people who will want to become Members of Parliament. Today is one small step to allow new parents some time away from this place so that they can cope with the demands of a new family member. The change is long overdue, but following this debate, we will need to press forward further with modernisation, particularly around scheduling in this place. The lack of consistency and certainty has been raised with me, because that makes us less productive and less able to balance our family life.
I respectfully disagree with people who think this change is wrong. The health of our democracy depends on the strength of the House of Commons, and we are strengthened if we are truly representative of the communities that make up this United Kingdom. Introducing baby leave for Members of Parliament who need and want it is just one small step in opening up membership of this place to more people, and in ensuring that fewer people choose to leave before their time because their life as an MP is incompatible with the responsibility of being a parent. I hope that the motion gets the full agreement of the House today and, above all, that the Procedure Committee looks at the matter swiftly so that Members with imminent arrivals can look forward to their births without a question as to how they will deal with their Whips.
Order. The debate has to finish just before 3 o’clock, so we will have a time limit of about eight minutes. Sorry, not “about”; the debate has to finish at about 3 o’clock, and the time limit is exactly eight minutes. I had in my mind the terror that I felt the day I told the Chief Whip that I was going to have a baby—something that had happened only once before in the Conservative party. It was causing palpitations again. I call Emma Reynolds.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I will keep to exactly eight minutes. I thank Mrs Miller for her contribution, which I found incredibly thoughtful; I agreed with every word she said. I pay particular, special tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend Ms Harman, not only for bringing forward these proposals and doing so much work on the issue, but for all the work she has done since joining the House many years ago—I do not know how many, but she is the Mother of the House—to ensure greater gender equality in our country and our Parliament. We have made huge progress in the time that she has been an MP, thanks to her work, but as the motion demonstrates, we still have quite a way to go.
I want to recount what happened in 2017. My husband and I were expecting a baby in April, and we were hoping for a quiet year on the work front. We thought, “This is great. Theo—” well, he was “the bump” at the time—“will be around three at the next election,” because the Prime Minister seemed absolutely determined to stay in place and respect the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. I gave birth at 2 o’clock in the morning on Good Friday. As those hon. Members who have been there will know, it is a very physically demanding and tiring process. Four days later, I was lying on my bed at home in the morning, breastfeeding baby Theo, when my mother used a few expletives while looking at her phone. I asked, “What’s happened?”. She said, “The Prime Minister has called an election.” I said, “No, that can’t be right. She was adamant that she wasn’t going to do that.” Some hon. Members had noticed that there was no writing on the podium, but I had not even known that she was making a statement.
My husband came in, and my mum said, “Richard, there’s going to be an election.” He said, “Emma, you have to check this straight away. I don’t believe it.” We were in a state of disbelief for quite some hours, days and weeks. We wondered how on earth we were going to cope with a newborn—this brand new little person we had in our lives, who we were already struggling to cope with during the night, because he was up most of it. We had to do that and organise an election campaign. It was a busy time. I thank the vast majority of my constituents, who were so supportive. I lost count of the number of messages and cards, and the number of people who, when we were on the doorstep, asked how I was, and how baby Theo was getting on.
A small handful of people said to me that once the election was called, they assumed that I would not stand again. I politely said to them, “Would you ask the same question if my husband was the MP?”. No answer came back, because it was obvious: of course they would not.
New mums and new dads in this place should have the same rights that we have legislated to give men and women across our country. In a way, I cannot believe that we are dragging our feet on this, given that we have legislated for such marked improvements in the past few years.
I have really enjoyed listening to the hon. Lady’s experiences. I have just joined the Procedure Committee, and attended it yesterday for the first time. It is on our agenda to have an investigation and report on this very important issue. I thought I would put that on record.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman, and I urge him to do that quickly, because as we have discussed, various colleagues have a very tight deadline, which the Committee should work to.
I want to put on record my thanks to my husband’s employer. As Members of this House will know, new dads have a right to shared parental leave, but they have to give several weeks’ notice of their intention to take it. It happens to be eight weeks’ notice, which is about the same time as an election campaign. Thankfully, his employer agreed to bring his parental leave forward. I am not sure that we would have been able to cope if he had been working full time while I was running the campaign, so I am grateful to his employer for doing that. I encourage new dads to take up this right, because it is a crying shame, as I said in an intervention, that only 5% do.
We got through the election campaign. A week after I gave birth, Richard Angell, whom some hon. Members will know, brought a whole group of people to come and help. The local paper sent a snapper, and one of the Sunday papers also sent a photographer. They came to my office. I had given birth literally a week before. Baby Theo was there; he peed everywhere. One of my party members said, “Yeah, that’s called the hosepipe trick,” and I said, “Oh right, I hadn’t heard of that before,” but now I am experienced in it. I was having this meeting to gee up my members. The photographers got a photo of me and baby Theo. I was feeling pretty exhausted, but they insisted on joining me on the campaign trail. Little did they know that I did not really want to go on the campaign trail, because I was still pretty tired. If I did it again, I would now have the experience to say, “No. I came to do the members’ meeting and gee everybody up, and I’m going home,” but I did not, and I went out campaigning seven days after giving birth—and I suffered for it physically. Then I had a rest.
We had all these deadlines; people will know that even before the short campaign—and this was such a short campaign—there are deadlines for letters, leaflets and as much stuff as we can get out.
What my hon. Friend has said makes me feel so uncomfortable, because it is actually illegal to work for two weeks after giving birth. The situation that she describes is intolerable. We really have to do something about this.
I admit that I broke the law, and I should not have. The motion before us today would not have helped me, and other Members present were in the same situation—three of us, in fact, were new mums when the election was called. I suspect that nothing can be done when that happens. We were very unlucky with the timing, but something can be done afterwards, which is what I will come to next.
We had the election and I managed to retain my seat, but in the weeks after polling day, I was required to come in to swear in—otherwise, I would not be paid—and to vote on the Queen’s Speech. I was also asked to come in to vote on the Select Committee Chairs and I really wanted to, because they usually endure for five years—let us see what happens—but I did not have a say on that. In fact, I emailed Mr Speaker, who was very sympathetic, but there was not much he could do, because none of these provisions are in place.
As so many hon. Members have said in this debate, it is only right that our constituents are represented in this place. We should have the choice as to whether to appoint a colleague to vote on our behalf. I know that some colleagues are uncomfortable with that, because they would want to be the ones voting. That is why it should be a choice and an option, and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham has taken that on board. If someone becomes a new mum or dad, they should be able to appoint a proxy for the time that they are on leave.
I am hugely grateful to the Whips Offices, and particularly my hon. Friend Mark Tami. He has been so brilliantly flexible, not only after the election, when I had given birth, but when I was pregnant. I say this to colleagues: bobbing in this place is very tiring when you are really big. It was a great pleasure to come back in January and be able to bob without the bump. In all seriousness, a huge amount of progress has been made in the Whips Offices. I have spoken to many colleagues who had babies 10 or 20 years ago—as you did, Madam Deputy Speaker, when you did not really have the kind of leave that we have been granted. However, as my right hon. and learned Friend said, we should not have to ask for it. This should be our right and in other workplaces, people do not have to ask; they have the right to it. We are dragging our feet.
I echo what my hon. Friend Luciana Berger said earlier about the website, TheyWorkForYou. I emailed them just before going on maternity leave to see whether the website would reflect that I would be on leave. They fobbed me off, frankly, saying that they would have a look at it. We pestered them but nothing came back. They should consider qualifying it on their website, because many of us have been criticised by national newspapers, and that is not right. It is reputationally damaging. Whether they publish an apology later on or not, it is damaging to someone’s reputation and we should not be put in that position.
In conclusion, I pay tribute to all the right hon. and hon. Members who have gone before me, and I want to single out a few people, as well as you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham. I pay tribute to and thank my right hon. Friend Yvette Cooper, who was the first Minister to give birth in office. I have since been inspired by many other colleagues, such as my hon. Friend Rachel Reeves, who had two babies while she was in the shadow Cabinet.
Juggling family life and being an MP is really tough, but I love both of them. I say to young women out there: do not be deterred. Come in and do it.
I warmly welcome this debate, which my right hon. and learned Friend Ms Harman secured. She famously fought a by-election back in 1982 while expecting a child and served as one of the first MPs in this House with young children—a real example to us all. I congratulate her on her work to secure this debate and on her marvellous speech.
We have made steady, but glacially slow, progress towards becoming a child-friendly workplace. We now have an on-site nursery—I was working in that building when it was created—on a site where a bar once existed. It is a much improved replacement. However, as we have heard in many eloquent speeches in this debate, so many further, modernising reforms are desperately needed. We need more baby-friendly spaces, more facilities for buggies, nappy bins, and places for women to breastfeed and express. We also need to recognise not only that Members may also be mums and dads, with all the joys and pressures that that entails, but the opportunity that this presents for the diversity of this Chamber and for us to set an example to the rest of the country.
It is fitting to discuss this issue today because, as some Members will know, it is Time to Talk Day. Since the last Time to Talk Day, I have had a baby, and as a new mum, I have been acutely aware of the need for pregnant women and new mums to keep a close watch on their mental health. Like my hon. Friend Emma Reynolds, my baby was—if not a few days old—just four weeks old when the election was called. I had had a C-section, and as she said, it was an incredibly stressful period.
During pregnancy and the year after birth, many women will experience common mental health problems, including anxiety disorders and depression, and dads will too. Further, the risk of developing a severe mental health condition, such as postpartum psychosis, schizophrenia, severe depression or bipolar disorder, increases after childbirth. For women, it is the time that we are most likely to experience those conditions.
One trigger for mental ill health is stress and anxiety in the workplace. That is especially true when a mum or dad returns to work after the birth of their child. These issues affect parents not just inside, but outside this House, and that is why this debate is so important. Like many new parents here, I face two very strong priorities: the desire to be there for my child and the desire to do everything I can to speak up and stand up for my constituents, with the privilege and responsibility that I have as the Member of Parliament for Liverpool, Wavertree.
Although I could keep on top of constituency casework from my home in Liverpool, last June I had to leave my constituency and travel the 200-plus miles down to London, to Parliament. First, I had to swear in, and although I am also very grateful to the Whips, I was then asked to vote on a couple of occasions—back in June, when my baby was just three months old, and again in September, when there were some important votes when she was five months old. In September, I was in the Tea Room with my baby until after 10 o’clock at night. I can see Members bobbing their heads—arguably, that was not the right place for her at that time of night. As a breastfeeding mum, on all those occasions my baby came into the House with me.
As colleagues will know, looking after a tiny human is a massive responsibility. I share with the House that I was a slummy mummy. As any parent out there with a newborn will know, it is a challenge on some days just to take a shower—let alone to be able to get out of the house, get to the station, change the baby on a Pendolino train moving at 125 miles an hour, apologise to passengers for the projectile vomit and the crying, get on a tube, often using the escalators and stairs because there is no lift, and to ensure that no piece of important kit is forgotten for an important overnight trip. For some babies, that will be the first time they are outside the homes and places that they are used to. It can be quite traumatic for them.
Proxy voting, the specific measure in today’s votable motion, is a simple means to count a Member’s vote without them having to physically pass through the Division Lobby. It will mean that the representative role of any MP can continue without disruption. This is an issue of fairness not only for new parents, but for our constituents. As with all the representations that we make in this House, our work on campaigns, and the contributions that we make for the country—on improving the first 1,001 days of a child’s life, on giving children the best start in life, on highlighting the importance of attachment, on addressing the woeful breastfeeding rates in this country, on promoting parenting, and on doing everything possible to reduce adverse childhood experience —we need to lead by example and give the children of MPs the best start, too.
Some might say that this is a dangerous leap into modernity—unfortunately, I have heard people say that—but we should be grateful to the Clerk of the House for reminding us in his very helpful memorandum that in past centuries, proxy voting was known in Westminster. We have heard about what “Erskine May” does not say, but it records that until 1868, Lords who were not present could vote by proxy. Since then, no attempt has been made to suspend House of Lords
“the ancient practice of calling for proxies”.
In the House of Commons, proxies were allowed in the medieval Parliament. So this is not a leap in the dark, but the unearthing of a fine old parliamentary tradition.
To deny our constituents a voice because of the House’s inability to modernise is an affront to those who put us here. Enabling new parents to register a vote via a proxy would ensure that our constituents could still be heard. We know that the physical arrangements of our parliamentary democracy are about to undergo huge changes, but no matter how and where we assemble as a Parliament, our work continues and our democracy endures. I hope that as we contemplate those changes following yesterday’s votes on the refurbishment of the Palace of Westminster, we will focus on the ways in which we can become even more child-friendly and more welcoming.
Today we are discussing small but significant changes, and people in every workplace should do the same. In every factory, office or other place of work, there are practical ways of helping when parents return to work after having a baby or adopting a child. I think that through these small changes many stressful situations could be averted, and if we are serious about improving our nation’s mental health, they would be an important factor in that.
For more than 35 years my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham has fought for equality and fairness, both here at Westminster and in the country as a whole. I think that proxy voting would be another valuable way of honouring the continuing contribution of the Mother of our Parliament to our public life. I sincerely hope that the House will approve this measure, and that Mr Speaker will move towards adopting a system of proxy voting without delay.
Some years ago, Madam Deputy Speaker, you and I had to work out how to handle pregnancy in Parliament at similar times. It is lovely to see you in the Chair.
Let me begin by paying tribute to the brilliant speeches made by my hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) and for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds). Their speeches alone ought to persuade everyone that the motion should be not only passed, but dealt with very swiftly by the Procedure Committee. It is surely a no-brainer. It is embarrassing that, 100 years after women were given the vote, Parliament does not have the system for maternity and paternity leave that was described by my right hon. and learned Friend Ms Harman.
If other organisations can do this, why can we not do it as well? Shops do it, factories do it, businesses do it, doctors’ surgeries do it, police forces do it, schools do it: every other organisation manages to find a way of doing it. Why on earth can we not do it, especially given that ours is the organisation that has supposedly told so many of those other organisations that they must do it? We tell them that they must have arrangements for leave, but somehow we cannot sort that out for ourselves.
I personally think that this country’s maternity and paternity arrangements are not strong enough. I think that there is not enough provision. I think that culture changes are still needed. I think that too many unnecessary obstacles are put in people’s way. I also think that maternity discrimination is a serious problem. The law is not enforced, and arguably is not strong enough, to ensure that women do not find themselves being made redundant, being demoted or losing responsibilities when they take maternity leave. Similarly, men feel that they cannot take paternity leave, for fear that any of those things will happen. How can we, as Members of Parliament, challenge errant employers who say, “It is too difficult,” or, “We are too special in our particular workplace: we cannot possibly provide for people having babies,” if we do not sort this out ourselves?
I pay tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham, who has pioneered so many of these debates and has led the way for so many of us to follow. It was certainly much easier for me to take maternity leave—both as an MP and as a Minister—because of not just the leadership but the personal support of my right hon. and learned Friend, and it is hugely important that she is still doing the same for each generation of women and, indeed, each generation of men. I also pay tribute to Mrs Miller and the work that she has done on the Women and Equalities Committee to support and promote this reform. I agree with her, too, that there should be wider reforms, not just in Parliament but throughout the country. I know that other parties support that as well.
Having a baby is normal. It is so normal that it is why we are all here. Parliament ought to be able to cope with what is normal, and Parliament ought to show leadership by making it possible. Of course it will always be a challenge, and there will always be chaos. For me, much of that chaos involved travelling to and fro with small children, and not just with a baby. I was a dab hand at changing nappies on a fast-moving train, but the potty training was a little bit more challenging. We had a few sticky moments with a portable potty with a lid on it when I put it on a shelf on one of those fast-moving trains.
Having small children and being a Member of Parliament will always involve some complexities. It is an honour to be a Member of Parliament and to represent our constituents, but it ought to be made possible to manage both, as all too often it is not. A former hon. Friend of ours, who has since left the House, was asked to come in for votes when her baby was very small. At that time, we were not even allowed to take babies through the voting Lobbies. We ended up in a mad “baby relay”: we took it in turns to vote and to carry the baby while she went to vote. That was great for us, because we had the chance to cuddle a tiny little baby, but the truth is that neither she nor the baby should have been here. They were here because it was a tight vote, and there was pressure on Members to come in.
As many Members have said, this should not depend on favours. It should not depend on special deals and arrangements. It should not depend on the Whips. It should just be a very sensible, practical arrangement. Given that we come up with practical arrangements for all sorts of other organisations throughout the country, it should not be beyond the wit of the House to come up with one that works here.
The truth is that for any working mum—and often for working parents—there is always a sense of guilt and conflicting responsibilities. MPs who are mothers feel guilt towards the newborn because they are trying to do their constituency casework at the same time, and a sense of guilt towards their constituents because they should actually be in Parliament or at a meeting. They have a sense of responsibility towards Parliament, towards constituents, towards the baby, towards the family, but also towards so many other women who might be finding it hard to take maternity leave. We feel that we have a responsibility to show that it is possible—that we do not have to pretend to be superwomen and to be able to do it all at once because otherwise it means that we are not doing our job properly. We want people in all walks of life to be able to combine parenthood and employment, because that is normal. It is what we do. We should end the muddling through and put the proper arrangements in place.
Finally, I ask Ministers to have another look at the arrangements for ministerial maternity leave. I first took ministerial maternity leave 16 years ago. We were muddling through then as well; we later attempted to introduce more formal arrangements, but they then disappeared. They need to be brought back, but they also need to be revised.
It is the 100th anniversary of women getting the vote. What better time could there be not just to get this sorted, but to get it sorted really, really fast? That would be our next step, not just towards equality for people in this House, but to enable us to continue to be confident pioneers for equality throughout the country.
It is a massive honour to follow all those who have spoken so far, and I feel that we are hon. Friends across the House today. I suppose that I should register not an interest, but a total disinterest in ever having another child, so this measure would not benefit me in the slightest. I could not be more disinterested.
I found the testimony of my hon. Friend Emma Reynolds incredibly moving. It put me right back at that moment when I was 22 and a new mum, and I was terrified that I was going to break that little thing. I will not put you through it, Mr Deputy Speaker, but some of the things that happen to a woman’s body immediately after she has had a baby are terrifying, and you do not expect them. I thought my internal organs were falling out. [Interruption.] The thought that I would have had to get up and go to a meeting—
Forewarned is forearmed is what I think in these situations: “You’re not dying,” is what I would say to my hon. Friend Cat Smith, but we all thought that we were.
The idea that I would have had to get up at that moment, terrified, suffering real fear for the first time, and go to a constituency party members’ meeting is absolutely horrifying. The thought of the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East doing that is absolutely terrifying to me—so massive, massive credit to all the women who have had babies while they were MPs.
Because I quite like a row, I want to head off at the pass some of the things I have heard in this place about why what is proposed in the motion cannot happen. I think we are pretty much all here to support it today, but I have heard quite a lot of mutterings—and they are mutterings, because they sound like this: “Mutter, mutter, mutter, amazing idea, mutter”—and I want to address them. Some of them have been from women in this House; I have heard squeamishness about asking for a right, because we as MPs are criticised for talking about ourselves and accused of being insular. We all know about the fake news on the internet when sites show a busy Chamber when we are supposedly talking about our salary and an empty Chamber when we are talking about something else—which are, I say just for the public outside, all a total lie. The idea that we should be asking for a right for ourselves is totally and utterly acceptable.
I am chair of the women’s parliamentary Labour party and I have had to talk to women and say that I will not feel afraid about asking for rights for the people in this building. When I worked at Women’s Aid, I fought for the rights of the women at Women’s Aid to better parental leave. No matter where I worked, I would be fighting for the women there to have better rights, and we should not be embarrassed about fighting for them here, either. So I want to put to bed the idea that this is somehow selfish. It is not; it is a right that we should be entitled to.
The other chuntering I have heard is about the proposals being the thin end of the wedge: “Where will this lead?” It will lead to being exactly like every other employer in the country. As Mrs Miller said, the big end of the wedge is that we are kind and nice employers; the big end of the wedge is decency and humanity. I am all right with the proposals being the thin end of the wedge, but the reality in this situation is that we are asking for something for a very specific reason.
Some people say to me, “You can’t have other people voting for you!” as if we have the divine right of kings when we come into this place and our vote is handed to us by God and is so special that nobody else could say how we might feel about, say, fisheries industries. That is, frankly, ridiculous. The idea that people feel they are so special that nobody could ever cast their vote for them, because they have never followed the Whip and are always deciding exactly what they will vote for all by their little selves, I find highly unlikely. Caroline Lucas might be the only person who could say that.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. Does she agree that the thin end of the wedge is not a thin end of erosion of our democracy, but a thin end of how we balance work and family life when circumstances might be unpredictable? Two months ago my mother had a stroke. While she is a lot better now, I was in a position of having to put in place, with my sisters and brother, 24-hour care for someone we were used to having caring for us. While I know and understand the issues there will be with parents, for those in that position to have to struggle for the flexibility to manage that alongside being a Member of Parliament is something I would want to see us change, and have the courage to change.
I could not agree more. As someone who cared for my own mother when she was dying, I know how much pressure gets put on, and it is largely the women in society who are in the middle, and are caring for children and for dying or very sick relatives. As a nation, we have got to get better at dealing with that. Why not start here?
I went for lunch with a gentleman yesterday—my husband is listening; it was not him. That gentleman told me that he had intended to take the shared parental leave that other colleagues have spoken about. He said, “As soon as I had said, ‘Okay, I am going to take three months off,’ it started to creep in: what if my clients get given to somebody else, and what if people judge me for leaving?” I thought, “Oh, really! My heart bleeds for you, here’s my tiny violin, because that is what we have all had to put up with forever.” I do feel total sympathy with what he was saying, because I have lived that life.
The truth of the matter is that we have got to make sure that when we make these changes, it is not only the women in this building who take this leave, and that the men in this building take it, too. Frankly, given some of the backtalk I have heard when I have talked about this, I think some of the men in this building should be ashamed of bragging about being here at the moment when their babies were born, and of standing up and saying in Committees, “Point of order: my wife just had a baby.” I say in response, “Point of order: I would divorce you if you were my husband.” There is one place a man should be when their baby is born, and that is by the side of their partner.
This is not about the women in this place getting something better; it is about the parents getting something better. We have got to lead by example. I know, not just from my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East but from the opposite side of the Chamber, that there are husbands in this building who are starting to take that leave, and we have got to stand as an example of that. So, basically, I say to the men in this House, “When this comes in, I am coming for you, to make sure that you take it.”
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend Ms Harman for calling this important debate. It is important for me to be here, because I had a baby a year and a half ago as a sitting MP. I will not go into details about what happened to my insides, but I will talk a little about the impact of pregnancy and birth.
I will not go into the exact details, but I will say that I had a 40-hour long labour which resulted in an emergency C-section, after which I caught an infection and so did the baby. The Royal Free Hospital in my constituency, which is amazing, looked after us for nine days, but even in those nine days while I was in the hospital bed I had to handle emails and sign things off from my office simply because there was no one else to do it and I could not nominate someone to take care of crucial matters—and certain crucial matters did come up, which I will elaborate on in a minute.
I am not describing these details because I want sympathy; I am describing them because before I had a child I had never quite realised the physical impact pregnancy has on the body. I was quite old when my younger sister was born, so I had been around babies and children, but I still did not realise quite what would happen to my body going through a 40-hour ordeal and an emergency C-section. I could not move from the bed and had to ask everyone for help, which was definitely not easy, as I am used to doing things for myself.
I represent a marginal seat—the lady I took over from had won the seat by only 42 votes, and I had won by only just over 1,000 votes—and did not feel that I could neglect my constituents, so I came back to work very quickly. As a result, because my body had not recovered, I developed a serious case of mastitis. Anyone who has had that will know what it does to their body. When I went to the GP, they made it very clear that I had got it because I was overworked and exhausted and because I had gone back to work very early.
During that time, in my sleep-deprived state, I knew that I had to do something, so I tabled an early-day motion asking whether we could change the way the voting system worked. I was getting emails saying, “Why didn’t you turned up for this vote?” even during the six weeks that I had taken off following my emergency C-section. I was being asked why I had not voted in a certain way or why I had not turned up for a certain meeting. Anyone who knows the constituents of Hampstead and Kilburn will know that they look up their Member’s voting record to see whether they have turned up to vote or not. In tabling the early-day motion, I wanted to make it clear that we have to change the voting system, and this is the time to do it, now that more women Members of Parliament are having children than ever before.
I also want to point out how our position here in Parliament lags behind that of other countries in the world. In Sweden, Denmark and Slovenia, Members of Parliament may be granted leave of up to 12 months in the case of pregnancy, childbirth or adoption. The situation is the same in Estonia, Finland and Latvia. In Belgium, Portugal, Croatia and the Netherlands, there is no formal maternity leave, but a Member of the House of Representatives who is on maternity leave can be replaced by another Member from the same political group, so that they are not penalised for their absence.
The fact that our attitude to parental leave lags behind those countries is compounded by our attitude to our parliamentary voting system. Scotland, India, Ireland, Israel and the European Union—to name but a few—all have electronic voting, which is not only time efficient but accommodating for members.
My hon. Friend is making an incredibly powerful speech. Does she agree that, by the time we are done with this, we should match if not better the best Parliaments in the world? Also, may I just say that, physically, having the second child is harder?
I thank my hon. Friend for that note of confidence. I absolutely agree with what she says: we have to do even better if we want to make Parliament a more welcoming place for female representatives and if we want to act in the way that my constituency Labour party did when I stood for election. One after another, its members stated categorically that they wanted more women in Parliament and wanted an all-women shortlist. The constituency had had a female MP for 23 years in the form of Glenda Jackson, and they wanted another one. That is what we should all be encouraging in the House of Commons.
The hon. Lady is making an excellent speech. She mentioned Scotland, and I did not want to miss the opportunity to jump in. We have debated these matters before, and she mentioned electronic voting. In the Scottish parliament, we have a seat for every Member. She will know that one of the arguments against proxy and electronic voting is that Members need to be here in the Chamber to listen to the debate. The irony is that we cannot fit even half the Members of this House into this Chamber. We all have modern technology, and we can all watch the debates at home, so does she agree that there is no reason not to introduce such voting methods?
Absolutely. The hon. Lady and I have had discussions about this matter, and we agree that Parliament needs to become more modern and that we need to encourage e-voting. Perhaps that will be next on the agenda.
As I have mentioned, I had a lot of support from my constituency Labour party when I ran to be an MP. As I was a young woman, they thought that there was a chance I would have children. Questions were raised about that, but the chairman—David Queen, who sadly died a few weeks ago—was a real feminist. He said, “What is the problem if we have MPs who have children? It is good for the constituency.” He said that politicians with children apparently got more votes, although I do not know if that is true.
I also want to take this opportunity to mention the support I have received in Parliament. The staff in the nursery here were really fantastic when I first took my child in, and I want to pay tribute to them. My right hon. and learned Friend Keir Starmer, who was in the Chamber earlier, is my neighbouring MP. Right at the beginning, when I had morning sickness, he was the first to ring and say that he was happy to cover any meetings that I needed him to cover, because his wife had gone through the same thing.
On a trip to Paris, my hon. Friend Wes Streeting carried my suitcase up and down the stairs at the Gare du Nord and St Pancras International because I physically could not lift it. On that same trip to Paris to explore how we tackle anti-Semitism, the former MP for Brentwood and Ongar, Eric Pickles, told me that he would be happy to be godfather to my child and asked whether I wanted to name my daughter Erica, after him. I declined his offer. Tracey Crouch gave me a wristband to monitor the number of times my baby kicked. I developed a real spirit with Members on the other side—including Chloe Smith—who I would often talk to about what it was like for us to be young women with children who also wanted to be good MPs for their constituencies. The Speaker and the Deputy Speaker both noticed my ever-growing bump—when you are 4 foot 11, your bump really stands out—and told me that I did not need to bob up and down, and that I could just wave my Order Paper if I wanted to be selected to speak. That was a real privilege at the time; I wish I could still do it.
Perhaps the memory that stands out most is when I received an urgent call from my office right after I had had the baby. A constituent, Richard Ratcliffe, had called my office because his wife had been in Iran and she and their small child had been detained by the Iranian authorities. I had just had my baby, but obviously I had to meet him because there was no one I could delegate that responsibility to. When I spoke to Richard on the phone, he said, “Why don’t I pop over to your house?” I said, “That’s a good idea. Let’s have a meeting.” He then said, “Is there any chance that the leader of the Labour party could meet me as well?” I rang my right hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn and told him, “I’ve just had a baby, but I have a really urgent case. Is there anything we can do about this? He will have to meet me at my flat because I am breastfeeding.” My right hon. Friend said, “Why don’t I come over to your flat and we’ll all have the meeting there?”
So I had the meeting—with a tiny baby in my arms—with Richard Ratcliffe, whose wife had just been detained in Iran, and with the leader of the Labour party in the room. While I breastfed the baby, we discussed the Iranian authorities and the revolutionary guards, and talked about how we could get my constituent back into the country. At one point, my baby was very unsettled but I had to take some important notes, so I said to my right hon. Friend, “Could you hold the baby for a bit while I write these notes?” The baby had been quite unsettled, but for some reason, as soon as I handed her to him, she settled down and went to sleep. Perhaps there might be a kinder, gentler cuddling, which she preferred; I do not know what it was.
That was a defining moment for me and my motherhood. Both the men in that room demonstrated a serious comradely spirit to me. They took the time to come to my house because I did not feel that I could leave it, and they did not bat an eyelid while I breastfed. That is the kind of ethos that we need to bring into this House, to show people that a female MP who has an urgent case involving a woman being detained in Iran can still fulfil her duties. There are ways to make provisions. If it can be done in my flat in north London, it can be done in this place. I sit on the Women and Equalities Committee. We scrutinise legislation on other people’s maternity and paternity leave. If we cannot lead by example, we should not be sitting here. I commend the motion to the House.
I am not sure how to follow that entertaining speech from Tulip Siddiq. It is an honour to take part in this debate. I pay tribute to Ms Harman and Mrs Miller for securing it. For me, this is what we at home like to call a wee treat. About 20 years ago, I interviewed the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham, who had just become a member of the new Labour Government. I asked her how she planned to change the working landscape for families in this country. I had just finished my maternity leave at the BBC, and I have to say that Yvette Cooper is right: even back in those dark distant days of the past, the BBC was still able to put out news bulletins even though I was no longer there. Employers will find a way.
The working landscape for families has changed remarkably since 1997. Children who were born then and who are now becoming parents can benefit from a whole raft of legislation that makes it easier for them to be with their partner and their child and to bond as a family immediately after the child is born—except of course if they are a Member of Parliament. It seems ridiculous that we in this place should be so far behind the very people that we are here to represent and to help. I have to say that, like Jess Phillips, I have no intention of having another child. I have found this debate moving and entertaining at times, but it is also been frankly horrifying, and if I was in any doubt before, I am now certain that I will be not be having another.
The gender balance in this House has changed completely and, as we have heard, there are now 200 women MPs. Many of them are young enough to be starting or expanding their family, and many of our male colleagues are doing the same. For the many of us who have constituencies many hundreds of miles away, we must bear in mind that that will not mean being at home for an hour or two late at night or travelling by high-speed train with a small child, although that must be difficult; it will mean being away for a week at a time and being separated from a child at the most important time of their life. We cannot be there to help our partners through the sort of ordeals that we have heard about today, which some of the younger male Members have already been through. We should not be asking parents to choose between voting and providing that support when an alternative is already there. In fact, as we have heard, it was there in the 19th century. It is there every time we go to the ballot box in the form of a proxy vote—someone can go to exercise our democratic right for us—and we should not exclude ourselves from that possibility.
All the changes that have come about in the past 20 to 30 years—the Maternity and Parental Leave etc. Regulations 1999, the Work and Families Act 2006, the Children and Families Act 2014, the Equality Act 2010—had the aim of creating a level playing field, so that young women are not judged when going for a job on whether they might be going on maternity leave, and young men, who would not present the same problem, can also take baby leave. However, we do not seem to have taken it into account that local parties might face the same dilemma when selecting candidates for this House. If local party members choose the young women, who is perhaps married and about to start a family, they will lose her from the House. If they choose the young man, they may think that they would not. We are making it difficult for ourselves to pursue the stated goal of making this place more representative of the country.
We need more young women and young men. We need more people from every section of society. By making a simple change, we can make it easier to encourage young people who are about to start families to think that becoming an MP might just be possible and that they will be able to continue to represent the people whom they want to represent. They will be able to say, “When I have my child, I can have someone else vote for me,” or, “When my partner has a child or when we adopt a child, someone else can vote for me.” It is the simplest thing, and yet we have not done it.
If we are to be truly representative, we have to represent all our constituents, but we are falling short of that. We have the opportunity to put that last piece of the jigsaw in place and make it possible to vote by proxy. It seems ridiculous that that could be done in the 19th century and that, in the 21st century, we are even asking the question.
I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend Ms Harman on securing this important debate, and I thank other right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions. I also thank Mr Speaker, who I understand has made quite good progress over the past few years on this matter.
As a new Member, I had no idea that the day nursery used to be a wine bar, so the position of the nursery seems perfectly normal to me, which is good progress in itself. I declare an interest as the father of eight-week-old Ophelia and husband to my wife, Lucy. Ophelia was able to join me here for the first time to vote against the Third Reading of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. Although there are those who have concerns about Members taking babies through a voting Lobby, I pay tribute to the Clerks, who astutely did not count Ophelia’s vote when I walked through—quite rightly so, given that I have no idea of her views on the Government’s Brexit strategy.
I support this important motion. When I went on paternity leave—a little earlier than expected—in the run-up to Christmas, as a Back-Bench MP, I was able to clear my diary fairly easily, and my constituents were supportive, but of course I needed to be here to vote, and there were some important matters that I wanted to vote on. We should consider the use of proxy voting. I see that the Clerks use iPads when we vote, so—dare I say it—perhaps we could use an app. If we could vote without having to nod through the Lobby, that would be welcome progress. In those early days, as my hon. Friends have said, my duty as a husband and a father was to be at home to help in any way that I can, but I had to leave for many hours to come and vote here, so it would have been helpful if I had been able to vote from home or via a proxy. Formalising the process would also be helpful, because while the Whips were accommodating, the presumption was that I would be here for all votes apart from those that I had negotiated not to attend. I would rather that that was the other way around. When there are crunch votes, such as the Brexit ones, when I am sure that Ophelia would have said that I should be here if she could, I would come to vote, but the presumption needs switching.
It is important that we set the tone in this place. We should be doing the same thing that we have legislated for in the country, which seems perfectly sensible, but we also need to set the tone. Parenting is not a gender issue—at least it should not be—and I am of the firm view that a family friendly and gender-balanced economy not just is the right thing to seek, but would be good for economic growth and wellbeing.
The House may not be surprised to hear that I think that my wife is a remarkable and talented woman—
Thank you. I say that about my wife not least because during the snap election, when we were two months pregnant, I made it clear that I stood no chance of winning and that I would be able to apply for shared parental leave in my previous job as a lawyer. To make things worse, having actually won the election when I said that I was not going to—I am honoured to be here, of course—the local BBC news team had noticed a slight bump and announced our pregnancy to 1.3 million people in the region without checking first. When we received all these text messages saying, “Congratulations!”, we thought that they were about the election, but we suddenly realised that they were about Ophelia. We had not yet had the three-month scan, so we wondered how on earth everybody knew. My wife therefore had a bit of a bumpy road on the way to becoming a mum involved with a parliamentarian.
My wife is also my constituent, and she has said that it is okay for me to share her experiences over the past year, which have been quite distressing. It has been quite difficult for me to support her. She was the director of public policy at an energy company called Open Energi, which receives Government funding, and doing very well in that senior role. After the announcement of her pregnancy, she was told that her role was no longer needed and that she was being made redundant. Having worked so hard to achieve what she had, that was very distressing for her, but she is a formidable woman, so she decided to take her employer to a tribunal.
As a litigant in person, while pregnant, she cross-examined her former employers in front of a judge, who said that since the Supreme Court had decided that fees were illegal for employment tribunals, his time was increasingly being taken up by “these type” of cases. Can Members imagine the environment and the atmosphere? As one of only two women among 10 people in the tribunal room—there is no gender balance in employment tribunal hearings or sexual discrimination cases—the experience was clearly distressing, and I have now taken up that matter with the president of the employment tribunals. My wife sadly lost that case, so perhaps we need a debate about the application of burden of proof rules in this country, because it is down to women to establish a burden of proof that discrimination could have taken place, but employers can bring forward witnesses and documents to show that it did not take place—at the time, it was said that documents did not exist—and that makes it difficult for women to bring such claims.
As a father and a husband, it is perfectly sensible for me to want to lean in. It is normal for dads to want to lean in. I want my wife to achieve her aspirations as much as possible, and we want to give our children the best upbringing together. I support the motion not just because Parliament should be in line with what is happening in the rest of the country, but because it gives us the opportunity to set the tone for what we expect in a modern Britain. We should look at reforms for companies that receive Government money and at the judiciary—perhaps at even having a gender balance—and then we could achieve change in the wider economy, too. I commend the motion to the House and look forward to supporting in any way that I can.
If you do not mind my saying so, Mr Deputy Speaker, I am glad to see you in the Chair for this debate. I guess that might be bittersweet on some levels, but it reminds us very strongly that there are some fantastic parents here in Parliament. There are those of us who have grappled with the experience of being the custodian of a child and being a parent. In all honesty, I have met few finer examples of such people than those I work alongside here in Westminster, and we have already heard some of those stories today.
I will not rehearse the points that have already been made, but I pay tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend Ms Harman and Mrs Miller for securing this debate. We have been discussing this issue for some time, and it is one small change that might make life a little easier in what is an incredibly hard and difficult job.
I do not believe that we should be exempt, or that we should not acknowledge the freedoms and flexibilities of a job for which we are well paid and which we love. It should be hard and it should cost us something, but if we can make small, incremental improvements that improve the lives of people here, not only us but the whole of our society will benefit.
Last night we discussed the renewal of Parliament, and today we are discussing our own arrangements. It can perhaps seem a little indulgent for parliamentarians to spend their time talking about themselves, but we are the only ones who can have this conversation. We are the ones who determine our working practices here, and rightly so.
My hon. Friend Jess Phillips referred to the famous internet meme in which MPs are packed into the Chamber to talk about their own conditions, but absolutely absent when a serious issue comes along, and she rightly pointed out that the meme is untrue. It would be nice to see people using the image of us talking about our conditions today. It is not a criticism to say that the attendance today is relatively sparse and that everyone is taking one position. I have spoken to many young fathers who have told me that they really want this change.
The hon. Gentleman, who is a colleague on the Women and Equalities Committee, says that we are voicing one view. He is right, but surely if anyone had a differing view, they would be here.
I could not agree more, which is why I feel confident that the motion will be approved. We should take confidence from that and encourage the Procedure Committee to consider the matter swiftly. I know that the Committee has already done some preliminary work on how such a system could work.
The model of care for a child in the first year of life is split between two parents, and that sets the pattern for child rearing all the way through the child’s life. All the studies seem to show that. If we want people to live up to the expectation of being present for their children, we should try to reflect that in our practice, too.
I have a four-year-old daughter, and I have always juggled life in Parliament with making the most of the flexibility that is offered on votes so that I can try to be present in her life. We all make it work, whatever our way of life, whether it means using some time on a Monday, getting back for the school run on a Thursday, or shifting days around at the weekend. We might take a day out in the middle of the week, but turn up for the votes later.
I have never had a formal conversation with my Whips Office about the implications of my having a child. I have never sat down and said, “Here are my working patterns.” Until now, I have never really broadcast what that looks like, and that is because of two fears, which probably play on the minds of young fathers as well as of young mothers.
The first fear is whether I might be open to criticism for not being hard at work. When I added up my time over my first year in Parliament, excluding the commuting, I was working a 70 or 80-hour week. That has eased off as I have got better at the job, but that fear should not be a legitimate concern. There is no shortage of work, and we are all doing it—it is fairly obvious when we are not.
I apologise for not being here for the full debate and for intervening now. I thank the hon. Gentleman for enabling me to spend a lot more time with my children after he won Luton South in 2010, which left me with another five years before I got into Parliament.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Our constituents should expect us to work very hard but, at the same time, we have to put processes in place so that things are not unnecessarily difficult, as is the case at the moment. We have some ridiculous processes that make things unnecessarily difficult, whereas the rest of the country has moved on.
The hon. Gentleman was generous to me in 2010, and he is generous to me now.
The second reason why I have never had a formal conversation with the Whips Office is because of the worry that this might look like a lack of professionalism or a lack of hunger. It is true that, having made the choice to support my family, it is much harder to have sharp elbows and to force my way to the front. I have been fortunate in being able to structure my work time so that I can be present for my daughter, but most people’s experience of having children while being in this place is of being completely frazzled all the time, and of trying to find a way to make it work.
Very sadly, my relationship with my daughter’s mum broke down during this Parliament. I take full responsibility for that but, equally, we need to be honest about the working practices of this place and their implications. Andrew Selous told me that among my intake, a quarter of marriages broke down in the 2010 to 2015 Parliament. We have to be honest about the implications of this place and its effects.
There are real issues with the current informal arrangements. For example, it is not just difficult but impossible to exercise shared parental leave, because we do not have a formal employment relationship. We make reasonable accommodations in all sorts of ways for Members with other issues. I do not believe we should dial down our parenthood to be representatives in this place; I think we should amplify it. By talking about it and normalising it, we might be able to get to a fairer society in which we close the gender pay gap, in which women’s roles in society are properly recognised and in which we approach all sorts of other issues through the lens of saying that normal life happens and it is an anomaly that we exist in this way.
Finally, there are currently procedures whereby we informally work with our Whips Offices to enable, in my case, two weeks off after the birth of my daughter, or longer periods, given the physical constraints, for many women who have had children. Again, however, there is pressure to come in, to be present and to vote.
From the other side, our pairing arrangements start from the basis that we know that certain Members will just not be around for long periods of time. That has a direct effect on those of us who need to pair for so that work can proceed. For example, a Select Committee visit might not go ahead because we have already paired out what we can to cover illness or childcare. This is not a brag, but I have never requested to be let off the Whip for personal circumstances. I have never missed a vote because I have been ill—I have certainly been ill, but I have been present to vote—and I do not think people abuse the system, but there are restrictions.
Making these arrangements would not take power away from or give power to the Whips Offices. Whatever our standpoint on what would be a good outcome, this change would professionalise the House and make it much easier to plan for such eventualities. As a member of the parliamentary Labour party, I foresee no problems or restrictions in my party’s standing orders if I were to sign over my proxy vote to the Chief Whip so that I could take paternity leave or baby care leave. I am comfortable with that. There are ways around this situation, and it should not be something that is hung on a straw man.
Overall, this change is required, and it will have a profound impact on the way we work. It is the thin end of the wedge, although we should be clear that today we are just talking about the principle. We need to become better at looking after ourselves and looking after each other, because we do not want to cause unnecessary strain.
This job should be hard. Public leadership and public sacrifice should be just that—they should be sacrificial—but putting in place artificial barriers not only holds back women in this place, but holds back men, too.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I was a co-signatory of the motion, but by a quirk of parliamentary procedure the fact I am leading in the debate for the Scottish National party means my name had to come off. I pay a huge tribute to Ms Harman and Mrs Miller, two women in this place I hold in the highest regard. Today’s debate has been completely consensual, as it should be on this issue, not just in this place, but across society. I am moved to quote the words of Emmeline Pankhurst, who said:
“We are here, not because we are law-breakers;
we are here in our efforts to become law-makers.”
So getting to speak today and be part of bringing about new regulations and legislation in this place is very important, because, as one London Member said—I have forgotten her constituency—we have to reflect society but we also have to lead it. One hundred years on from women getting the vote, that is hugely important.
When I was thinking about standing for election, I thought carefully about whether I could do this, and there were two reasons for that. First, I knew I needed to come out and deal with my sexuality. Secondly, I wanted to have children. Those two things were somewhat interlinked, and there are some technical challenges that I have as a gay women that my straight counterparts do not. Regardless of that, being able to know that there are Members from across this place who support this process means that, we hope, the next generation of parliamentarians, be they male, female, from the black, Asian and minority ethnic community, and whatever their disability or ability, and whatever their sexuality, will look at this place and other Parliaments across the UK and think, “That is something I can and want to be part of.” This has therefore been an incredible debate.
As we look across the world, we see the Prime Minister in New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, is about to have a baby with her partner, and she is very open about that. We are taking steps forward. Testimonies have been read out, including by the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham, who mentioned my hon. Friend Stephen Gethins. I wish also to refer to my hon. Friend Alison Thewliss, who received an interesting email during the 2015 election. I am just going to read out the question and the answer she gave, because this typifies the debate and her excellent response shows how far we still have to go. The email to her read:
I am in favour of many of the SNP’s policies but am a little worried to find that you are mother of a (very) young family.
I can see how this could work with a seat at Holyrood but Westminster membership must pose a harder challenge.
It would help to know your solution before polling day.”
I emphasise the words “your solution”. It is incredible that anybody would write to a potential candidate and see the fact that they have children as a problem. An excellent “Channel 4 News” programme recently had the rapper Professor Green on it, and he spoke about why we need more people in politics who have been the subject of Government policy and are from different backgrounds and have different experiences.
My hon. Friend’s response to the email was as follows:
“Thank you very much for your email. I apologise for the delay in replying, but I wanted to give you a more considered response to your enquiry and give you some background as to why I’m standing.
I am certainly not alone among male and female candidates across the country in this election in being lucky enough to have a family;
indeed the male Labour incumbent in this seat also has a young family.
The outgoing House of Commons was 22% female, and the average age of an MP was 50. More than 400 MPs, 62% of the total, are white men aged over 40. I think that Westminster ought to be a good deal more representative of the people it serves, and that can’t be achieved without more women.”
Inequality affects policy and it affects governance. I firmly believe that, with its poor gender balance, Westminster has made deficient policies in areas which affect families such as cuts in areas of child and maternity benefits. By contrast, with a slightly better gender balance Holyrood has taken on a great deal of issues in its remit which disproportionately affect women, such as free personal care, expansion of nursery education, and making law the right to breastfeed in public.”
She then went on to talk about how she had been a councillor over the previous five years and the challenges she had faced. My hon. Friend Kirsty Blackman was also a councillor in Aberdeen when she had small children. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central finishes her email by saying:
“I will cross whatever other bridges require to be crossed after the votes are cast and counted on the 7th of May.”
That is an excellent response.
I welcome the strong contribution the hon. Lady is making. She makes a point about the opposition candidates may face at the time of an election if they are a new parent, and I reflect on the abuse I got as a candidate from someone from a different political party who stood against me. He took to Twitter to criticise me for not attending an evening debate during that election period, accusing me of being timid for my refusal to attend. I told him that I had not refused to do any debates, but that with a newborn baby evening events are near impossible, and that I would gladly take him on any day. He responded by saying that he did not realise we were still in the 1950s, when only a woman could look after a child, and that he thought the Labour party believed in shared paternity. Let me take this opportunity to tell him strongly that the Labour party most certainly believes in shared paternity and champions it. My final response was to remind him that we had not been expecting a general election; that he did not know my personal circumstances; and that, as far as I was aware, men still could not breastfeed. I also suggested he might want to stop digging, but I left it at that. The point I am seeking to share with the House in telling that little anecdote is that the issue we are discussing today pertains to what happens in this House, but the point the hon. Lady is making about what happens at election time and how candidates treat other candidates, particularly on this issue, is still relevant. It shows that in 2018 we still have an issue to address.
I thank the hon. Lady for that and completely agree with the point she makes. This vote on this issue is not just about the technicality of how we cast our votes, although that is very important. Jess Phillips mentioned the thin end of the wedge and I agree with what she said on that. My hon. Friend Angus Brendan MacNeil has highlighted to me the issue of proximity and how he sometimes faces significant challenges with weather and geography. This is also about the discourse and narrative we have in politics with each other, and that the press have with us. Members have spoken about TheyWorkForYou and the digital environment, how our votes are recorded, and how all the systems and processes around politics and how we do it need to be more transparent and reflective. If we have a system whereby the vote is recorded for our constituency, it will be much, much more positive.
I wish briefly to pay tribute to my MSP colleagues, Angela Constance and Fiona Hyslop, both of whom are Cabinet Secretaries in a gender-balanced Cabinet and both of whom have had children while in office, as Ministers and as MSPs. They have paved the way and inspired me to stand. The Scottish Parliament made clear from the outset its commitment to inclusive and family-friendly workplace practices. As I have said, there is a seat for everyone; voting takes but a few seconds; and in its planning phase best practices from Parliaments across Europe were drawn up to ensure that in establishing the new legislature we could learn from some of the mistakes and successes from Parliaments across the world. We have a crèche in the Scottish Parliament, and not the stricter nursery system that is in place here. I pay tribute to the work the Speaker has done on that, but my hon. Friend Neil Gray has highlighted to me some of the challenges he has faced. His wife has had a child very recently and he has faced challenges in bringing children to this place, as the family room is sometimes misused by other Members or is used for meetings. He has had a great deal of support on that, but we need to look at such aspects of this as well. The Corporate Body in the Scottish Parliament has set out many inclusive practices, which include how business is done—finishing at five o’clock.
I do not want to talk too much about the place. Instead, I wish to focus on some of the other experiences here. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North talks about how she travels to Westminster by plane. Most airlines do not let women who are more than 36 weeks pregnant fly; for Flybe, it is 34 weeks. After having a baby, women cannot fly for at least a week and probably for more like a fortnight. As other hon. Members have mentioned, a woman who has had a C-section may not be able to fly for six weeks. So what happens if my hon. Friend has another baby? She has said she had no intentions of having any further children, so although we might not have put women off standing for election, we might have perhaps put them off having children, although I remain undeterred—I declare an interest as someone who aspires to be a parent. My hon. Friend says that being away from Westminster purely because she cannot travel here would be very unfair to her constituents and mean they would be unrepresented. My hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts said his wife was lucky to have their son during a recess, and that he had fantastic staff who assisted and ensured that everything was covered in the constituency, but that these matters needed to be formalised.
It seems incredible that 100 years after women got the vote we are debating the fact that they cannot take part fully on behalf of their constituents and in debates. We know that parliamentary work is not just about walking through the Lobbies and voting; it is about being in the constituency. Having an open and accessible Parliament, in whatever part of the UK, will ensure that people, from whatever walk of life, but particularly women, parents and aspiring parents, feel able to take part in democracy by standing for election, and it will make the life of those women, particularly those parliamentarians due to have children very soon, significantly easier. I hope that the House and the public are listening carefully to the testimonies today.
I associate myself with the remarks made by my hon. Friend Mr Shuker, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is good to see you in your place. I say to my hon. Friend: that is what a feminist looks like. I also thank my right hon. and learned Friend Ms Harman for co-sponsoring this debate, along with Mrs Miller. My right hon. and learned Friend was a formidable role model when she was pregnant—with Harry, I think—and stood for election. It is fitting that, as Mother of the House, she should bring forward this debate. It is right for Members to debate this subject and for the Backbench Business Committee to have given time for it.
The right hon. Member for Basingstoke is always raising important equalities issues on her Committee, and I am sure that she, together with other members of the Committee, including my hon. Friend the Member for Luton South, will monitor what the Procedure Committee comes up with. Hon. Members will remember that the former Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, when they took paternity, were actually celebrated, whereas my hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) and for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds), when they took maternity leave, suffered abuse. My right hon. Friend Yvette Cooper was a Minister surrounded by gurgles and red boxes. They are all formidable campaigners.
The fact that women have suffered abuse and accusations of being lazy is unacceptable. Constituents want Parliament to be representative of society, as Christine Jardine pointed out. There are no implications for pay, as women are not away from work; they just want to cast their vote on behalf of their constituents, but sometimes they cannot physically be here, and it is right that we should consider this proposal, in addition to the process of nodding through in certain circumstances. I say also to my hon. Friend Darren Jones that Ophelia is lucky to have a hands-on dad.
I want to raise a few points that have been raised with me. It would not be compulsory to request this provision, but in my view there is a compelling case. Proxy voting will obviously have to be in line with party policy, and it does not equate to a free vote. The motion does not ask to widen proxy voting to other circumstances; only that it apply where a Member cannot attend a vote owing to caring responsibilities. All the motion does is enable women MPs to balance giving birth and looking after a baby with their work as an MP. All my hon. Friends who have given birth while MPs have carried on with their work in their constituencies and the House. As my hon. Friend Tulip Siddiq and other hon. Members have pointed out, they know that in the 21st century they have to respond to emails—and they do so all the time.
My hon. Friend Jess Phillips says she does not want to have any more children, but I have to break it to her: she is going to be a mum forever, even when they are older and have children of their own.
In October 2017, the Clerk of the House resubmitted to the Procedure Committee a memorandum on proxy voting in the House of Commons. The Clerk identified Members with caring responsibilities—limited to mothers of infants—as a category of Member that might qualify for a proxy vote. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham is right that this should be considered by the appropriate Committee, and more work should be done, following the motion, together with the work of Professor Sarah Childs and her report, “The Good Parliament”. This is going to be more of an issue as women MPs take their place and we move towards parity.
Debating this issue, as we women take our rightful place in the House, is a lovely way to celebrate the Representation of the People Act 1918, which gave 6 million women over the age of 30 the right to vote. My right hon. and learned Friend and the right hon. Member for Basingstoke, the co-sponsors, and all the Members who have spoken in this debate are wonderful role models. The parents of Ophelia, Azalea, Amélie, Theo and Ruby—all the wonderful little babies born to Members during my time in the House—have today, along with other Members, pushed the boundaries towards a good and more equal Parliament.
It is a huge pleasure to see you in your place, Mr Deputy Speaker.
We have heard some excellent, personal and informative speeches today—they certainly took me back to the horrors of those early days. I opened yesterday’s debate by describing it as a debate that should have taken place 40 years ago. I say again: this is a debate that should have taken place 40 years ago. I pay tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend Ms Harman for the way she opened the debate. She has been a consistent champion of these issues throughout her career, and it is certainly fitting that she, as Mother of the House, should have secured this debate today. I also want to recognise the total commitment of my right hon. Friend Mrs Miller, the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, who has supported and promoted so many issues that affect women and equalities in this House. I absolutely agree with all Members here that it is essential that we address the issue of baby leave.
The motion before the House presents two issues for consideration. The first is the need for Members of Parliament to take baby leave. I think we can all agree that new parents must spend time with their babies and be enabled to do that. The second issue concerns how we reconcile that with the question of how and whether Members should be able to vote in the House of Commons during any such leave. I thank the all-party group on women in Parliament, until recently chaired by my hon. Friend Mims Davies, now by my hon. Friend Rachel Maclean, for its hard work in this place promoting equality for women, and also the Commons Reference Group on Representation and Inclusion, chaired by Mr Speaker, which is tasked with following and implementing, where possible, the recommendations made in Professor Sarah Childs’ “The Good Parliament” report. I want to put on the record my thanks for the important work that those groups have been taking forward.
As the House might be aware, I have championed secure early attachment for many years and have worked with charities on this vital issue. I was for nine years chairman and trustee of OxPIP—the Oxford Parent Infant Project—a charity that helps parents struggling to form a secure bond with their babies, and when I became MP for South Northamptonshire, I set up NorPIP —the Northamptonshire Parent Infant Partnership—to provide help to all those new parents struggling across the county. I even persuaded my hon. Friend Victoria Prentis to become a founding trustee.
Now, through the national charity I set up, PIPUK, five further parent infant partnerships have been set up around the country. I am delighted that more families can seek support for the earliest and probably the most important relationship we ever have—because a baby’s lifelong emotional health is profoundly impacted by his or her earliest experiences in the 1001 critical days of the perinatal period. I was proud to hear Luciana Berger mention the cross-party 1001 Critical Days campaign that I set up in 2011, and which commands support from across the House.
The mental health White Paper published just before Christmas states that there is a need to commission research into interventions that support better attachment and improve the understanding among professionals of the importance of low-stress, healthy pregnancies and secure attachment.
Like the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham and my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke, my children are now a bit older than babies—my eldest is 22—but the excellent speeches today did take me back to my early experiences, when I was not in this place. I had, I think, a 46-hour delivery. I had just been promoted to senior executive at the bank for which I worked and was required to be back after 11 weeks. Following that, I also had a good dose of post-natal depression to deal with. So, I totally empathise with all those Members who have spoken about their experiences here. I am very committed to ensuring that those who come after us do not have to suffer those same problems.
My hon. Friend Mr Walker sat next to me during the first part of this debate. He was telling me that his brother, who works for the civil service, is looking forward to six months’ shared parental leave. My hon. Friend is himself expecting a baby with his wife; he is asking nicely for two weeks’ leave. To his brother I say: how’s that?
I do not know whether my right hon. Friend remembers, but she was pregnant the first time we met. That is a few years ago now. I think we were on the selection trail together as well. Does she agree that, as important as it is, this debate is a first step in our efforts to make this place a much easier place not only to be a parent but to be somebody who cares for their broader family?
My right hon. Friend is exactly right. There is a lot more to life than this place. That may seem extraordinary to all of us, but we are all human beings. We are parents, we are daughters and sons, and we have responsibilities. This debate is timely as we seek to support these matters in this House and continue to break down the barriers that could discourage women and men from pursuing a career in Parliament.
The motion suggests that the way to resolve the issue of baby leave is through the introduction of proxy voting. Although I absolutely support the need to make the House more accessible for new parents, it is also important that we recognise the possible consequences of any reforms. With that in mind, in November last year I wrote to the Chair of the Procedure Committee, my hon. Friend Mr Walker, copying in the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke. I asked the Procedure Committee to consider the matter of baby leave and proxy voting, and for the Committee to set out its views to the House.
“Being a member of Parliament is a demanding job, and it is important that we give due consideration to the impact that this can have on work-life balance, childcare and baby leave”.
So she has made clear her support.
Following my letter to the Procedure Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne said to me that, should the motion be agreed today, the Committee will undertake an inquiry into proxy voting. I welcome that, as it is clear from the debate that a number of important questions need to be considered, some of which I shall now set out briefly.
Giving Members of Parliament the right to baby leave raises a number of potential questions about the duties of Members and the rules by which they are regulated. As colleagues will know, Members of Parliament are appointed representatives of their constituencies and are not regulated by the same employment rules that apply to other members of the workforce. Introducing baby leave might lead some to suggest that MPs should be treated as employees, which could of course have wider implications.
The introduction of proxy voting would also mark a departure from conventional voting practices in the House in several ways. For example, when Members vote in a Division, it is expected that they do so having had the opportunity to attend the Chamber. I think we can all agree that television and 24-hour reporting—let alone Skype, Twitter and everything else—gives Members the opportunity to follow business from further afield, but any change will need to be carefully considered, and we would need to decide who would act as a proxy and how the system would be regulated.
It is important to note that Members of Parliament are elected by their constituencies as individuals, so it is implied upon their election that their votes cannot be transferred to another MP. The appointment of a proxy voter could be perceived as a reduction of personal accountability. Any changes will therefore need to ensure that personal accountability is maintained.
In addition to those questions, and as I said in my letter to the Procedure Committee, a number of alternative suggestions have been made, aimed at addressing the needs of new parents who are undertaking the duties of an MP, while also making sure that their constituents have adequate representation in Parliament. One such example is that all political parties represented in the House could agree a memorandum of understanding and agree to the same terms, which would allow their MPs to take parental leave and formalise “pairing” arrangements across all parties.
I appreciate the thoughtful way in which the Leader of the House is approaching this matter from first principles and setting out some of the issues mentioned by Members. Will she go slightly further and acknowledge that there is a reputational issue around Members of Parliament not being present to vote and thereby being reported as absent, when actually they are taking up the responsibilities that she has said are vital?
I am certainly not advocating one route over another; I am merely pointing out to the House that these issues need careful consideration, which is why I wrote to the Procedure Committee and why I am delighted that it will hold an inquiry.
The Clerk of the House has prepared a helpful memorandum on proxy voting, which is available on the Procedure Committee’s website and which I encourage Members to read. It explores some important issues, including by looking at the approach in other Parliaments and, as has been alluded to, our own medieval tradition of allowing voting by proxy. I am sure that not many pregnant women were involved in those days, but still, they found a way. Should the Procedure Committee launch an inquiry—I am told that it will—I would encourage all colleagues to submit their views. I have no doubt that the many insightful contributions today will be of great value to the Committee.
This is an important debate, which has really caught the attention of Parliament in recent months. As Leader of the House, I want to make it absolutely clear that if we can agree the way forward on baby leave, I will drive it forward with my total commitment.
I warmly welcome you back to the Chair, Mr Deputy Speaker; it is great to see you here with us.
This has been a really important debate and I thank all Government and Opposition Members who have contributed. People have spoken in deeply personal terms about profoundly constitutional issues. They have shown passion for their families and for their constituents. Nobody has spoken against the motion, so this has been an important debate to shape the Procedure Committee’s proceedings. The Committee needs to take the matter forward with focus, clarity and expedition. After a debate such as today’s, we do not want this issue to go rustling off into the long grass. That will not be acceptable.
I thank all Members who spoke in the debate. We must all be an alliance for progress on this issue. All of us who are in the Chamber must make sure that this actually happens, and that the issue does not disappear for decades more. I am sure that we can have that purpose and intent. I would like to apologise for the fact that I had not thought about the situation of SNP Members, who do not even have pairing. I feel embarrassed about that and, even for the very short time before the Procedure Committee comes forward with a rule to shape how we do proxy voting, we must make some arrangements that reflect the situation for the SNP right away.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
believes that it would be to the benefit of the functioning of parliamentary democracy that honourable Members who have had a baby or adopted a child should for a period of time be entitled, but not required, to discharge their responsibilities to vote in this House by proxy.