It is a privilege to follow the powerful speech made by Jo Swinson, who shared her direct experiences with us all. My children were born a long time ago, but what I and my wife went through, when we both worked at that time, came back to me, even though back then we were in different worlds and different jobs. I congratulate the hon. Lady not only on her speech, but on how she has coped so magnificently with the difficult circumstances in which she found herself.
It is a privilege to make a short contribution to this debate, and I begin by congratulating my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House on her thoughtful and constructive speech. As a member of the Procedure Committee, I have had the privilege of serving under our Chair, my hon. Friend Mr Walker, whose brilliant speech highlighted the issues and his passionate commitment to ensuing that this matter is dealt with as soon as possible.
I have experience of being in the Government Whips Office. Indeed, as a former pairing Whip, I feel that I am in a unique position from which to comment on how we worked closely with the Opposition Whips Office to do the best we could in a pairing situation, with a Member matched with another Member so that they could be absent for a period of time. I put on record that while I was in the Whips Office—from 2012 until earlier this year—we worked well and tried, under existing arrangements, to accommodate requests for both maternity and paternity leave from right hon. and hon. Members. Such requests were always looked on favourably, and we also worked with people who had to be absent due to family circumstances such as illness or other important reasons. I think that we did that quite well. I also had the privilege to take over from the Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend Tracey Crouch, while she was away on six months’ maternity leave.
Having listened to the powerful and moving arguments made in our evidence sessions, I believe we have to make changes that are appropriate to this country and this Chamber in 2018. I particularly acknowledge the rational and logical arguments that were passionately put forward by Ms Harman and by my right hon. Friend Mrs Miller, who cannot be with us today. Both made brilliant contributions to our deliberations in Committee, and we tried to ensure that this change can be made quickly. This issue should not be parked; it needs to be dealt with as soon as possible. We also heard from a number of witnesses that the current situation is unsuitable for new parents. Powerful points have been raised in interventions, as well as in the speech made by the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire.
People outside this House do not understand how pairing works or what it is. It is an informal situation, and the absence is not publicly recorded. It has been pointed out, including by some of my constituents, that people are unaware of why Members are not present when they are actually doing valuable work with their newborn children. I strongly believe that bonding in the early years, which my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House mentioned, is important to forge the relationship between a new parent and their child, which provides the basis for a relationship that will, hopefully, continue throughout life.
I am well aware of the importance of not bringing Members back from maternity or paternity leave for votes in this place. As a former Whip, I know that votes here are very important—I think we all believe that—but there are other more important considerations, which the report highlights and takes into account, that need to be dealt with.
There is much still to debate—I am confident that this will happen—regarding how proxy voting can be implemented. I have to say that, like my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne, I am not in favour of change for change’s sake. Change has to take place because of a real need and because society has changed. I do not think that we should end the pairing system in other circumstances. This proposal is a one-off, and it is really important that it is implemented as soon as possible. This is different, and a powerful case for changing from the old way we have done things has been made.
Forgive me, but I would like to quote the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham, who said:
“We set rules for people outside this House to taken maternity, paternity and shared parental leave, and yet we ourselves have no system.”
That is quite a damning indictment, is it not, when we are making rules for other people? I know that, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said, we are different, but that does not mean that the basics should not be looked at, because human relationships are the same whatever our job or situation happens to be. Our job is unique, but these proposals are sensible.
I could not accept proxy voting for all absences. As I said, I do not believe that that is practical or desirable, but to me the arguments in favour of proxy voting for baby leave, or whatever we want to call it, are compelling. I believe this House would do a disservice to parents and children if we did not consider this very seriously and implement it as quickly as possible. On other fronts, the Whips Offices work closely together to help. I am not going to go down the route of whether pairs had been broken and so on because I do not think that that is helpful to this debate.
I apologise, Mr Speaker, but I have a constituency engagement that was already planned, so I will not be here for the end of the debate. I hope that you will forgive me, but I, too, did not anticipate the timing of the debate. I was privileged to be here when we debated this issue previously and I listened to the powerful arguments, none of which could be refuted. I therefore very much hope that proxy voting will be implemented for new mothers and fathers. We should take a different approach—and soon.