Proxy Voting

Part of Scallop Fishing: Bay of Seine – in the House of Commons at 1:43 pm on 13th September 2018.

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Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Deputy Leader, Liberal Democrats, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs) 1:43 pm, 13th September 2018

Absolutely, and that is part of the challenge. What should someone do if they are in the middle of a feed and the Division bell rings? Do they stand up and try not to disrupt their baby, or do they feed in the Lobby, as the hon. Lady did? When babies are a lot older it is easier to manage those things, but there is a reason why proxy voting would be so helpful for parents of very young babies.

Above all, newborn babies are unpredictable. Duncan put it well to me the other day when he described being on parental leave by saying, “It’s like you need a bottomless well of contingency.” I just thought, absolutely. Someone can try to plan their day according to when their baby might respond best, when to go out, and when the baby is likely to sleep and be happy and not to fuss—in Gabriel’s case, that is early afternoon. Someone could be ready to head out, but then all of a sudden there is an up-the-back poo explosion, which means not just a change of nappy, but a change of vest and babygro. By the time they have cleaned all that up, the baby is hungry again, and by the time they have fed and winded them and are ready to go, they are more than an hour late for whatever it was they were doing.

That is not a massive problem if it means that someone has missed baby rhyme time, or if they have had to text an apology to a friend, who is also a parent and will totally understand that they will be late or miss the coffee they were going to have. Indeed, if someone does not manage to make it to an anti-Trump protest after all, nothing bad will happen. However, if it means that someone has missed a key vote in Parliament, that is an entirely different calculation, which is why it is so important to have a proper system for proxy voting.

Expressed milk is a lifeline for breastfeeding mums who go back to work, but it is not necessarily easy. As Gabriel is still just 10 weeks old, my diary has to accommodate slots for expressing or feeding several times a day, and I sit doing paperwork as the pump whirrs away noisily in the background. I am lucky; I have advantages that many mums do not enjoy. I have both a private office to express milk in, and the ability largely to control my diary. One member of parliamentary staff has been in touch with me to tell me of her frustrated attempts to find somewhere private to express milk when on the parliamentary estate. Although this debate is about voting, we must do better for breastfeeding mums who work in Parliament, whatever their role, and I hope that the House of Commons Commission will respond positively to that challenge.

We legislate here for the employment rights of new parents, but far too often those are flouted. In our country, 54,000 women a year lose their jobs because of pregnancy and maternity discrimination, and that is a huge disincentive for men who want to be more involved as fathers when they see the consequences and what happens to mothers. We must do better at enforcing those rights, and we must set the tone for this issue. To put it simply, we must put our own house in order and make this simple change to enable new parents to fulfil their responsibilities to their child and their constituents. We should get on with it.