Since I was elected just over three years ago, several debates and Committee inquiries have rightly condemned unacceptable employment practices, and I have always thought this place at its best when we come together and defend the rights of our constituents to be treated with dignity and fairness, but our right to hold others to account can be compromised if we allow arcane and meaningless tradition to lead to such disgraceful scenes as those we saw recently when desperately ill colleagues were forced to leave their hospital beds to go through the voting Lobbies. We rightly condemn the exploitation of workers, but, with such scenes, we risk the response, “Who are you to judge?”
This Parliament has a long history of things that make us proud, but rather than learning from that history, we seem at times to be bound by it. In what other workplace would a woman be asked to discharge herself from hospital for something that could be dealt with over the phone? Imagine how we would respond if another employer said that the reason they were insisting she do it was that it had always been done that way. I welcome the concept of proxy voting for Members who have had a baby or adopted a child as a first sensible step, and I would urge, as others have done today, that we get on with it as soon as possible.
We have heard differing views on this, but I believe we should be going much further. The Procedure Committee’s proposals do not cover the disgraceful scenes I just referred to, and although it should be the expectation that we be present in this place for debates and votes, there are many perfectly acceptable reasons why it might not always be possible. These could include personal or medical issues, as well as being away on official business as part of our role—to be clear, I am referring only to such absences as arise from a person’s role as an MP, not other jobs, such as being on the Front Bench, or other private interests.
The current situation creates several very serious issues. In matters of vital importance, it effectively forces people to put their health at risk if they want the voice of their constituency to heard. Again, if that was any other workplace, we would not allow it. Not only is the current system potentially unsafe; it allows people to be conveniently absent if they want to dodge an issue, the recent vote on Heathrow being a particularly memorable example. I would advocate proxy voting not just for those who are absent on health grounds or who have taken maternity or paternity leave, but to remove a convenient excuse from those who do not have the guts to represent what their constituents want. I understand what the Chair of the Procedure Committee said about personal information being disclosed in creating the dispensations for medical-related absences, but I am sure we can do it while respecting confidentiality.
It has been 18 months now since we last discussed the report “The Good Parliament”, which set out an extremely modest set of proposals to improve how this place works, yet it is very difficult to see what progress has been made in implementing any of them. So much needs to change here, including certain ridiculous practices, such as filibustering, the absence of maternity, paternity, adoption and caring leave, and complex webs of procedure and protocols that can be impossible to explain and justify to our constituents. For example, the Order Paper lists 60-odd private Members’ Bills due to be debated next month. If people expect these Bills to become law, we have to explain that they are not going to but are still on the Order Paper. Let us ensure that this debate is part of the wider debate about reforming the way this Parliament works.
In how many workplaces does the finish time vary and change at very short notice? That is in no way family-friendly. In which workplace is it acceptable for colleagues to stop speaking to another colleague because they disapprove of something they may or may not have said or done? In which job would it be considered normal to engage with colleagues on social media—and, yes, I do mean people from the same party—with sometimes those comments not being acceptable in any workplace and not passing any dignity at work policy? We should be setting an example in here about how we treat each other with respect and dignity. Of course there is rough and tumble in politics, but some of the behaviour we see in this Chamber would be unacceptable in any workplace, let alone any school.
Where is it considered acceptable to shout at someone who is addressing a room? Too often we see this Chamber descending into a bear pit. Of course those involved are trying to put off the Member speaking, but often, I have noticed, there is a sexist undertone to that, and it only usually puts off people watching outside; it does not work on those in here speaking.
There is so much we can do about the culture here, but we can also change the rules governing this place, and if we can change the rules, we can hopefully improve the culture as well. Having an uncodified constitution should be an advantage for us in doing that; we should be flexible and moving with the times, but we seem to be bound by decisions and protocols that are hundreds of years old, dating from before women were even able to vote.
On proxy voting, as we have heard, there are examples of it working in other parts of the world. In Australia proxy voting has been in place since 2008, and in evidence provided to the Procedure Committee the Clerk of the House of Australia said he was not aware of any negative feedback about its use. New Zealand has two different systems for proxy voting, and proxy voting could even be found in the past in this place: until 1868—a bit before my time—Lords who were not present could vote by proxy, while in the Commons proxies were allowed in the medieval Parliament. We are not just stuck in the past; we are almost going backwards on some of these issues.
I believe that we can move to a system of proxy voting, and, as touched on already, we ought to be looking at having a full electronic voting system, which is common in many Chambers. The US House of Representatives has been doing that since the 1970s, and they may vote at any number of stations located throughout the Chamber. As we have heard, in the United Kingdom the Scottish Parliament and National Assembly for Wales both use electronic voting systems.