I beg to move,
That this House
has considered making Parliament a more modern, family friendly and accessible workplace.
It is a pleasure to open this debate. I place on record my thanks to the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate and allowing it time in the main Chamber. As the House is currently debating the restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster, now seems a good opportunity for a concurrent debate about how we can improve the workings of Parliament to better support Members, staff and the public.
I know that the appetite for change varies from Member to Member and that no single person has all the answers. Change requires addressing many complex issues and I hope that debates such as this give Members an opportunity to put across their views. Parliament is an old building, and its methods and workings are unmistakably historic. Many of our practices are globally renowned and often make our parliamentary democracy the envy of the world. In other ways, we are stuck in the past, perhaps too afraid of reform.
That is not to say that some family-friendly and accessibility reforms have not been achieved. Over the past few years we have seen the creation of an onsite nursery and the recent introduction of proxy voting, and we currently have a more diverse representation in Parliament than ever before. Those have been made possible by a vast array of people and I want to place on record my thanks to Mr Speaker, the former Leader of the House, the shadow Leader of the House, Government and Opposition Whips, the House of Commons Commission, the Procedure Committee, the Women and Equalities Committee, Mrs Miller and my right hon. and learned Friend Ms Harman, to name but a few.
Those of us who are keen to continue the modernisation of Parliament know that we cannot stop here, especially given that it is 1,306 days since the last debate on the family friendliness of Parliament, initiated by my hon. Friend Jess Phillips. From my own perspective, before entering Parliament, I was an employment rights lawyer for many years, specialising in maternity rights and family-friendly working. When my local MP retired at the 2017 general election, I agonised over whether to put myself forward, particularly as my son was only two at the time. It was the existence of the House of Commons nursery that made the decision to stand for Parliament possible. Two years on from that, with a husband who is also a sitting MP, it was the recent introduction of proxy voting that has enabled us to have a second child.
The fact that there has been change does not mean that we should stop there. If Parliament is to be truly representative of those we seek to serve, we must continue to look at ways to break down barriers for those who might consider putting themselves forward for public office. Shortly after my election in 2017, my hon. Friend James Frith convened 11 newly elected Members of Parliament to produce a pamphlet on ideas for reforming Westminster. Together we came up with a range of far-reaching proposals that showed that there are MPs who want to help to improve the workings of Parliament for the benefit of all.
In my experience, one area that we should consider for reform is how Members of Parliament vote. While I recognise and respect that some Members advocate remote electronic voting, given the importance of parliamentary votes I believe that the act of physically attending the Lobby to be counted is an important part of our democratic process. It helps to ensure engagement of MPs and I know many of us use the time to raise issues with other colleagues. However, the voting system in its current form is time consuming, particularly when there are multiple votes. With each Division taking around 20 minutes, if we have eight or nine Divisions, 650 MPs are left walking around in circles through the voting Lobbies over and over for hours on end. That is not an efficient use of 650 MPs’ time.
I wish to place on record my agreement with my hon. Friend on that point. In my four short years as a Member I have spent more and more hours walking through the Lobby in multiple votes, especially in the complicated votes on Brexit. We should be here to take part in the debate, and physically present in the Lobby, but we should be able to speed up the process and vote electronically.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her intervention.
I recall that, on the occasion of one of the EU votes, my Fitbit started buzzing because I had done 10,000 steps, but I had not left Parliament all day: I had just been walking in and out of the voting Lobby. It should not be like that. When we were voting on the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill—obviously an incredibly important issue—we were sometimes voting for nearly two hours, which is a long time and it could be done a lot more quickly. For many of us it is the difference between seeing our families that evening or not. As many will know, my son is a regular in the Lobbies. One vote at 7 pm means he can vote with me, but multiple votes means childcare having to be arranged and my not being able to see him that night.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I will talk a bit more about that later. This is as much about those who work here as those sitting in the Chamber. Parliament is about a lot more than just us.
There are ways in which we could make the process take less time and be more efficient, while still observing and respecting parliamentary traditions. In recent years, the Clerks have moved from paper forms to recording votes on iPads. Using simple and straightforward technology, we could move to a system in which multiple votes can be registered at the same time. That would not be possible where votes are contingent on one another but, as they rarely are, it could significantly reduce the time we spend voting. Not only would that be a far more efficient use of Members’ time, but it would make a huge difference to those with caring responsibilities or suffering ill health.
In addition, the system of hundreds of Members queuing up to give their name to three Clerks can lead to long queues in the Lobbies, and colleagues have struggled at times with the cramped and claustrophobic conditions. I recall the evening of
Alongside the simplification of votes, it is important to look at the certainty of the parliamentary week. We live in extraordinary political times, and a degree of uncertainty and unpredictability will always come with that, but there must be a way to improve the system to provide some degree of routine and certainty to the parliamentary timetable.
At present, we organise our diaries week to week by finding out the next week’s agenda in the business statement on a Thursday morning. If we have late votes on a Monday, it gives Members with caring or childcare responsibilities only one and a half working days to secure arrangements. This can be further complicated by the addition of urgent questions, ministerial statements,
Following publication of the “Good Parliament” report, I am delighted that the Women and Equalities Committee has just announced an inquiry into ensuring the House of Commons meets the needs of both men and women and how it can best address equality issues. The right hon. Member for Basingstoke may wish to speak on this in more detail but, 100 years since women were given the right to vote, only 32% of current Members are female, so it is vital that we use such inquiries not only to understand the barriers to greater female representation but to endeavour to remove them.
The inquiry’s terms of reference mention the lack of predictability in, and advance knowledge of, parliamentary sitting patterns. The inquiry would welcome written submissions from anyone with experience of these issues. I hope that many Members will use this opportunity to highlight previous difficulties.
Even the smallest changes can have a big impact in giving certainty to those who work here. For example, the Leader of the House could attempt to provide a provisional fortnightly rundown of the business of the House. The past 20 years have seen widespread and welcome changes to parliamentary hours, and the days of all-night sittings are, thankfully, long gone, but we could look again at this area, perhaps through a Speaker’s Conference, to better judge the feeling across the House.
Members whose families reside inside or outside London will have differing opinions on when is best for Parliament to sit and, although such conversations can be difficult, we should not shy away from having them in order to improve and modernise. We could equally consider deferring more Divisions or allocating set times for casting votes, particularly if lots of votes are to follow the moment of interruption, especially on Mondays when that comes at 10 pm. We could instead defer those Divisions to the next sitting day, for example, much as we do for other motions. That is not just for the benefit of Members, but it would give Clerks, House staff and security personnel a better understanding of their working patterns. After all, this debate is as much about them as it is about us.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the lack of certainty about things such as recess dates is a problem also because it does not allow people to plan holidays if they have children at school? That causes huge problems not only for Members but for staff in this place.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pre-empting my next point. The cancellation of recesses this year will no doubt have had negative consequences for the work-life balance of those who help to facilitate the work of Parliament. Without the Clerks, Committee specialists, librarians, catering staff, security personnel, cleaners or the many others who make up the Westminster family, Parliament would grind to a halt and cease to work effectively. Many are restricted to taking time off when the House is in recess. The cancellation of two weeks of recess will no doubt have seen annual leave revoked, holidays cancelled and valuable time with friends and family postponed.
Moreover, I am aware that many of our recesses, although designed to coincide with school holidays, often reflect only London term times. While that is helpful for those who live in London, there are many MPs whose children’s school holidays clash with when Parliament is sitting, placing additional pressure on those Members to arrange suitable childcare for those times. Parliament is often accused of being too London-centric, and although that is not always warranted, we should perhaps be more mindful of that in future when deciding recess dates.
I think that my hon. Friend knows that I fully support what she is saying, having brought up a very large family when the hours here were pretty terrible. Before she finishes, will she address the challenge we face in wanting to make this place more attractive and somewhere that a woman thinks it is possible to have a family and a proper life? A lot of women are being put off by the daftness of our routines.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention; I know that he cares strongly about these issues. Parliament is a fantastic place to work, and being a Member of Parliament is a real privilege. There has been lots of change but, as I have said, we should not stop there. We should always be looking at how to break down barriers, make this a more accessible workplace and encourage more and more people to enter.
Parliament has to work for everyone and be open to as many people as possible. For our representative democracy to be truly representative, we have to look outside to make sure that our practices fully reflect society. When I show constituents around Parliament, we often get on to the topic of prayer cards. Many are surprised that we still participate in daily Christian prayers. While I find the process of prayers at the start of the parliamentary day a calming influence and the support of the Speaker’s Chaplain invaluable, by limiting that part of our procedures to Christian beliefs only, we are missing an opportunity to widen the appeal of Parliament and better reflect the country. I would fully welcome bringing other faith leaders into Parliament to offer a selection of readings that reflect the make-up of the communities that we represent. Likewise, for those of no religion, an apolitical “thought of the day” could be introduced. There is an opportunity here, too, to improve our customs to better reflect the world around us.
As I said earlier, while appetite for change varies from Member to Member, and while no one person has all the answers to improving how our parliamentary democracy works, it is clear that we must have more debates such as this to give Members a platform and an opportunity to express their views on how Parliament can best operate. It is undeniable that Westminster is often an outdated place. I am thankful for the previous efforts made by so many people to enhance and modernise our Parliament, including the Whips, who are always so understanding, particularly on childcare, but I acknowledge that they have to work within the existing frameworks.
As I hope I have made clear, this debate is not just about the work of Members. It is about making Parliament more modern and accessible for the thousands of other people who work on the parliamentary estate and those who wish to come here in future and make our democracy even more representative of those we seek to serve. Just as we needed the full transparency of proxy voting for those on parental leave, if we are to make Parliament a more modern, family-friendly and accessible workplace, we now need to make Divisions more straightforward and bring a degree of certainty to people’s work routines. If we can continue these conversations and set about enacting positive change, we will see our democracy flourish and reach our goal of becoming the Parliament that truly reflects society as a whole.
I congratulate Ellie Reeves on securing this important debate, and I look forward to hearing the other contributions. I commend the work that has already been done, particularly, as she says, by Ms Harman, Mr Speaker and many others, including the former Leader of the House, my right hon. Friend Andrea Leadsom. I am sure that the new Leader of the House will be a valiant champion of the need to ensure that this is a good place to work in future.
We have to start this debate with some cold, hard facts. We know that we are a group of people who are hugely committed to our communities, and that we are professional, sensible people, but all too often, this place can be portrayed as chaotic because of the way that we do, or do not, organise ourselves. That is not only down to the Government’s motions and the Order Paper. We have to start to look at how this place looks from the outside if we really are to resolve the problems that we face in respect of this place, not only as a workplace for Members of Parliament, but as somewhere that represents our constituents.
Winston Churchill once said that
“we shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.”
Never a truer word has been said of this place. I love this place and would never want to see Parliament move out of it, but we have to take it into account when we try to understand why it currently does not work as a workplace for so many people. The building was built for a time when this country was a very different place and very different people became Members of Parliament. How many people were wheelchair users back when this place was first built, or rebuilt after the fire? How many people were women? We know the answer to that one: absolutely none. This building was built and our procedures were set out when women and disabled people were not considered, and when dads had few responsibilities compared with those they have today. We have to take all these things into consideration as we move forward.
The right hon. Lady is making an excellent point, as did the previous speaker, my hon. Friend Ellie Reeves, but both are MPs quite close to London. The Speaker once came to Huddersfield and spent a lovely day with me. When he got off the train, he said, “This is a long way, isn’t it?”. It is 192 miles. In some senses, the perspectives of those of who come to work here from a long distance away are qualitatively different from the perspectives of people who represent London and south-east England.
The hon. Gentleman has brought up an important point. Part of the problem we have is that each one of us is very different. I am a commuting MP, and my journey to and from this place takes an hour and 40 minutes. I am sure it does not take the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge an hour and 40 minutes to get home—I hope it does not; otherwise, she needs to have a chat with her Mayor of London. It is wrong to sweep us all into a “London and the south-east” bag and assume that we all have the same challenges. It is different for each of us.
It is fundamental, though, is it not? The reason why we start at 2.30 pm on a Monday is because people have to get here from Scotland and the north of England, flying, using rail and so on, and these days we finish early on a Thursday because people have to get back to their constituencies. We are moulded a bit by the distances that many of us are from Parliament.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that those are factors to consider. In fact, one reason why I was not going to talk about start and finish times was because it is a specific discussion. If he will allow me to take issue slightly with what he said, I feel that certainty is far more important. We can all cope with a lot of things in life as long as we know what is going on. All too often, the chaos that I mentioned feels very real, not just to us and staff in our parliamentary offices, but to members of staff here. I have been asked a number of times in the Tea Room, “Ms Miller, do you know when the vote might come?”. People want to be able to plan their days. The way that this place is organised, and particularly the use of urgent questions, is a real problem for us, but I will come on to that in more detail in a moment.
Does the right hon. Lady agree that another factor that must be taken into account is whether the Government of the day have a majority? She was elected in 2005, and I suspect that between 2005 and 2015, there was a degree of stability in people’s ability to plan work, because successive Governments had a majority. When that is not the case, things become much more unpredictable.
I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s point, but it is not the point that I am making. He is right that there is an unpredictability when we have to deal with enormous issues such as Brexit. I suppose that I am talking about the things that we can control that we are not controlling, and that, I think, is part of a modern workplace. I will come on to that in a bit more detail.
We all agree that being a Member of this place is an immense honour, but that does not mean that we have to keep it in a time warp. Sometimes we feel the great pressure of the history of this place. We may not want to challenge what has gone before for fear of being seen to be disrespectful of it. We must acknowledge that that is a pressure on each of us as Members, perhaps in different ways.
Modernisation would help us to attract new and different people into being Members of Parliament. Yes, perhaps it would attract more women, more disabled people or people with younger children, but it would be people who want a less chaotic and more certain place in which to work—a place to which they feel they can contribute.
There is a much more fundamental issue here for all of us, regardless of our gender, sexuality or ethnicity. If we thought about this place in a more focused way, it would help us to retain Members of Parliament. This place is at its best when we have Members who have been here for many years as well as Members who are brand new, because that gives a perspective on procedure, debate and the history of this place. We need to work far harder at retaining MPs. Women in particular move away from this place far too soon. It would also help us to support better our staff in our parliamentary offices, and those parliamentary staff who support us so freely and so well. We have a responsibility to act to make sure that this is a modern workplace.
Another more fundamental issue that I will place on the table for others to comment on is trust in Parliament. We can take this debate today at a very superficial level—as being about women with children, childcare and nurseries—but it is also about how much trust people have in a workplace that looks more akin to the 18th century than the 21st.
The Brexit process has challenged people’s trust not just in parliamentarians, but in the nature of Parliament. We need to keep that in mind as we move forward and think very carefully about the challenge that the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge has put on the table today. We cannot continually kick into the long grass the need to modernise this place and to get to grips with some of the issues set out by her, me, Mr Sheerman and Tom Brake.
Some of the groundwork has been done with “The Good Parliament” guide, and I think that all of us would want to put on record our sincere thanks to Professor Sarah Childs for what she has done. Some of those changes, as the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge said, have come into play. The nursery is very important, not just for us, but for our staff. My staff use that nursery, and I can keep great staff, which I might not otherwise have been able to do, because we have that nursery.
Proxy voting is long overdue, but being modern is not just about people who have small babies. My very small babies are now very large babies; in fact, the youngest is 17. It is actually even more difficult—you might have some sympathy with this, Madam Deputy Speaker—to look after a 12-year-old, if you have no childcare, when you are trying to go and vote or have been called in for a meeting during a recess. On more than one occasion, my children were parked with a policeman at the back of the Speaker’s Chair—thank goodness for those policemen providing that help and support—because nothing else was available. As we think of modernisation, we must think more roundly about the pressures on our lives at times other than those very important times when we have small children, and that we think about buildings and procedures hand in hand.
I hope that this debate will make us feel that we need a clear plan for moving forward. I pay tribute to Sarah Childs for her report. I pay tribute to the work that the Speaker has done, the work done by the Commons reference group on representation and inclusion, and all the other elements of work that has been going on, including, obviously, around the Cox report. Many, many different things are happening, but to me, it all feels very fragmented. As somebody who is incredibly interested in this issue, I have found it very difficult to keep up with what is really going on. The right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington, who is on the Commission, will of course know far more than I do, and will be on top of it all, but it can be very difficult for many of us to know the long-term vision for this House as a modern workplace.
It feels very much as though—this is meant not as a criticism, but as an observation of fact—modernisation is being considered in quite a piecemeal way. We need to think about the risks that that poses to our being able to hold people to account for delivery of modernisation. We need to have clear managerial responsibility for modernisation. At the end of this debate, who will be responsible for making sure that the things we have talked about actually happen? I do not think it should be the Leader of the House, because he is also part of Government—it should be wider than that. We need to think about the procedures and the processes in play.
One immediate and very deep concern that I have is for the mental health of our parliamentary and constituency staff, and of Members of Parliament, because the chaotic approach and uncertainty that I mentioned are well-known triggers for mental health problems. If we do not act quite swiftly on this, we are at risk of being widely criticised for not acting. Constant uncertainty has an impact. We do not know when debates will start every day, because we do not know how many urgent questions there will be. We think, “Does that mean I will have to cancel or move meetings?” Of course, it is not just us who do that—it is also our parliamentary staff. Some Members who do not have parliamentary staff here have to do it themselves. It is a very inefficient use of time.
The hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge highlighted inefficiencies around voting, but I would say that the issue is much more widespread than that. The right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington talked about Brexit. Yes, that has certainly brought a lot more unpredictability into the system, but we could take control of a great deal of that unpredictability and that chaotic feel.
I call on those who are able to influence these matters to hold an urgent review of the House timetable. I would be interested in the Leader of the House’s comments. He is relatively new to the post, but I am sure that he already has well-formed views on these things. Could we, for instance, put urgent questions before questions and debates? If these questions are so urgent, let us have them before we start the day. As the hon. Member for Huddersfield said, most Members of Parliament are here in London. The vast majority are not like me, commuting on the train. We could therefore perhaps have urgent questions at 8.30 am, before the day starts, so that they do not disrupt the flow of Members’ days—or perhaps from 9.30 am to 10.30 am, to help people with caring responsibilities. That would be a way forward. It seems straightforward to me; I am not sure why we do not do it.
When I joined this place, I had three children, the youngest of whom was three. I have a husband, and I care for two elderly parents who live with me. I am a living and breathing sandwich generation person, and I do not think we speak up enough for sandwich generation people. We often hear people with young children talk, but we do not hear those with caring responsibilities talk enough. I believe greatly that we should all do more to look after our elderly and ailing parents. As well as talking about nurseries, we need to talk about elder care issues, for not only ourselves but our members of staff.
We need a Parliament to be proud of, that attracts the best to stand for election and to be members of staff here, regardless of their age, ethnicity, gender, sexuality or caring responsibilities. Our building, procedures, culture and philosophy here are hugely important—they shape our Parliament, but what should also shape our Parliament is the people we represent. How does a young woman who comes here to visit me feel when I take her into Committee Room 14, which I love, and she sees no women on the wall, just a group of extremely old men? How does any person from a black and minority ethnic background feel about how representative this Parliament is of them when they see nobody of any minority ethnic background on the walls? I will probably now be corrected; there will be someone somewhere. How does a wheelchair user feel when they have to use the service lift to get around?
We need to take all those issues into account when we talk about restoration and renewal. How do people feel when their meetings with their MP are cancelled at a moment’s notice because three urgent questions are granted on the day, with little notice, causing the sort of chaos that we now see daily?
I apologise for not having been here for the beginning of the debate; I hope I am not being discourteous. I am listening carefully to my right hon. Friend, and I agree strongly with most of what she says. However, I am concerned about her suggestion of having urgent questions at some other time than when the House is sitting. Surely the whole point of an urgent question is that a Member of Parliament —a Back Bencher—can raise an urgent matter, and the Speaker may or may not allow that to occur. If there is a special slot for UQs at some time other than when the House is sitting, surely they would lose their entire purpose.
My hon. Friend is right. I suppose I am suggesting that we would sit from half-past 9. Moving towards a more nine-to-five approach to our day here would not only be better for people who live in London; this place would then look a little bit more like everybody else’s workplace. I do not know whether the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington experiences the same thing, but when I am on the train in the morning, my constituents say, “Why were you on the train at 20 minutes past 10 on Monday night? That can’t be a very effective use of your time.” I am not particularly suggesting that we should have urgent questions when the House is not sitting. I am just suggesting that we need to think about organising them into the day, so that they do not continually create a sense of chaos, with no one knowing when debates will start or finish.
I thank the right hon. Lady for giving way again; she is being very kind. She has paid a lot of tributes, but I hope she does not mind me saying that she has missed one. Having been in this place a long time, I know that it became civilised because women came here. I do not want to use the “B” word too often, because I will get a bad reputation, but Tony Blair made a hell of a difference to this place. He helped to increase the number of women in this place, and women have changed it a lot since 1997. There is much more to do, but we should put it on the record that women have already civilised this place almost unrecognisably from when I was a young MP.
That is an interesting reflection. Having a broader range of people in Parliament, regardless of gender, would also have a civilising effect, but I tend to agree. It is nice to have a Parliament that resembles the constituencies we represent.
This is such an important debate—perhaps even more so than the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge intimated. It is about trust in this place, because if this place does not look like anything else and does not act in an apparently professional and organised manner, we undermine our constituents’ trust in a place that is there to represent them and their views. Parliament enables us to serve our constituents, and we need to ensure, in planning for the future, that this is a place they can relate to and is accessible for them. Right now, we can make real change quite quickly and create far more certainty in our days by stopping the use of UQs at the beginning of the day to delay, amend or sometimes even obliterate debate completely because of the number that have been granted.
I will close my remarks there, but reflecting what the hon. Member for Huddersfield said a few moments ago, let me say that when I first met you, Madam Deputy Speaker, you said: “Women in this place have to work twice as hard as men, because we are still not 50% of the people here.” You are absolutely right, and hon. Ladies will know that. Part of my contribution to the debate was really to reflect on the comment you made to me all those years ago. We do need far more women here to have the civilising influence that the hon. Gentleman was talking about.
I am delighted to hear the right hon. Lady say that. The situation has improved somewhat since those days, but it has a long way to go. I can say that with the impartiality of the Chair, because I do not think there is anyone who will disagree.
First, I ought to mention that when I applied to speak in this debate, I told Mr Speaker that I might have to leave the debate slightly early, and I apologised for that—ironically, for family reasons.
I want to speak mainly about the accessibility part of this debate, but I will mention one or two other things briefly. When Mrs Miller mentioned that there are no ethnic minority portraits in the Palace, she said somebody would stand up and correct her, and that is what I am going to do. I have seen one, and that is Shapurji Saklatvala, who was the MP for Battersea North a long time ago, before the war. He is one, but what about David Pitt or Learie Constantine, who were both Members of the House of Lords? I have seen no illustrations of them. In particular, Learie Constantine was a giant of 20th-century politics. His actions led to the first Race Relations Act in the 1960s, among many other things, and he was the first non-white peer to be appointed, again in the 1960s. There is no recognition of Learie Constantine or, for that matter, of David Pitt, who equally made a great contribution.
I want to mention one other thing before I move on to accessibility. To this day, it is more difficult for women to be MPs, particularly if they are travelling from a long way away from Parliament. I can remember one example. I will not name this particular individual because she is a friend of mine, and I have not warned her that I was going to mention it. When I was first elected in 1997, I remember one of the many women elected in that intake, who was a terrific MP and a great speaker. If anybody in this Chamber saw her speak, they would have thought that woman was going places—that she was going to be in a future Cabinet, or whatever. She had small children and a constituency about 100 miles from Parliament, and within weeks she said to me, “I’m going to do one term, and then I’m off. I just cannot juggle everything I’ve got to do with the hours.” Some things have improved, but many of them still have a long way to go.
My hon. Friend, because of his family history, knows about this subject better than almost anybody I know. I was a friend of his father and I am still a friend of his mother, who had adjoining constituencies to mine. He will know, because he has that dual perspective, how different it is being a Member of Parliament with a constituency in, say, Yorkshire—a long way away—and being a London MP. If we are going to modernise this House, we have to balance the two very carefully indeed.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I think things have changed to a large extent. He mentioned my dad, who was an MP here in the 1970s, when there were all-night sittings. From 1974 to 1979, just on our side of the House, we lost 17 MPs in five years from heart attacks, strokes, haemorrhages and all the rest of it. Things have changed, but as I have said, they still have a long way to go.
The hon. Gentleman is being generous in giving way. Might the colleague he mentioned have benefited from job sharing for Members of Parliament, if that was something we had introduced?
That would be quite tricky to introduce—we could probably have a whole week of debates about such things, so I will not dwell on that.
Let me move on to accessibility. We all have disabled constituents—members of local associations, Liberal Democrat organisations, or constituency Labour parties—who come to see us, often in wheelchairs. They find it difficult to get in and out of the Palace of Westminster, despite the efforts of staff who work hard to make things as easy and accessible as possible for those with disabilities. A lot of community groups, particularly Afro-Caribbean community groups, tend to have an older age profile with members who often walk with difficulty or are in wheelchairs, and who find it difficult to get in and out of the supposed mother of Parliaments.
Some years ago I was not an MP but a trade union officer. I was the political officer for what was then the Transport and General Workers Union and is now Unite the union. It is the biggest union in the country, and has a large number of disabled members. I remember organising a lobby, and as usual with lobbies the meeting took place on the main Committee corridor. We were campaigning to keep the Remploy factories open, and the industrial officer who organised that lobby with me was Jennie Formby, now general secretary of the Labour party—I still work with her. There was only a small group of people in wheelchairs, but I vividly remember it taking an hour and a half to take those people from the Committee corridor to Carriage Gates where they could get in cabs. Even getting people picked up in cabs was tricky—it was not just about getting them from the corridor to Carriage Gates.
This is supposedly a people’s Parliament, but if a large section of the population cannot easily get in and out, can it really be that? We must change things. I am not sure exactly how we should change them in a building such as this, which, as the right hon. Member for Basingstoke said, was built in a different era and for very different needs, but they must change. We must be able to get people who have serious or lesser disabilities in and out of Parliament, so that they can get to Central Lobby, Westminster Hall, the Committee corridor and the upper Committee corridor. If we cannot do that when work takes place over the next few years, we will struggle to call it a people’s Parliament.
I thank my hon. Friend Ellie Reeves for securing this important debate, and other colleagues for their contributions.
I wanted to speak in this debate because I think there are two purposes to the drive to continue the reform of Parliament. The first is to ensure that Parliament is as attractive a workplace as possible for as many people as possible. I am always disappointed when, either on a school visit or in my constituency, I ask people to put their hands up if they would like to take over from me as the next Member of Parliament for Bristol North West, and there are very few people—this includes young children and people at my coffee mornings or my constituency pub politics—who want to do that. I am sure there are a whole host of reasons why people might not want to become a Member of Parliament, but it is a huge shame for this Parliament and for our country.
One of those reasons—this is true especially for women, because even with hands-on fathers such as myself, women still bear the burden of child caring responsibilities, as does my wife, who I pay tribute to today—is because people see the chaos. People see the lack of planning, the living in two locations, and think, “How on earth could I do the school run or deal with nursery?” As I am now learning, with multiple children that becomes even harder. We must continue to reform this place so that it is somewhere to which people from across the spectrum of our community wish to come and contribute, and answer that public service calling. People need a workplace that works for them and their family.
I should also make the case for fathers. As I said, my wife still bears the childcare burden because of the inflexibility of what happens in this place, and I am disappointed by that. We should always remember that dads want to spend time with their children and families as well, and in this modern age people should be able to balance those obligations with their choice of career. Many of my peers who work in business or in other organisations increasingly take employment and career choices that mean they have more flexibility to be with their families: maybe not working on Fridays, taking an early or a late finish to be able to do the school run, or being in an annualised hours position where they can take school holidays off. Many of our wives are successful people in their own careers. We want to be able to help them and contribute to raising our families, so that they can pursue their careers alongside us.
Parliament has an important role in setting the tone, not just in the delivery of democracy in this House but in what we as a Parliament expect from the wider economy. There have been many debates in this Chamber and in Westminster Hall about the impact of difficulties around childcare, family choices and practices in the workplace: the fact that dads are not having access to shared parental leave because it will have an impact on their career, and the “mummy track” impact on mums, losing the salary and seniority they deserve as a consequence of caring for children. We need to be saying that we want reform in this place, as well as in the wider economy. We should set the tone here and then legislate, through the Government, to ensure that the same is the case for the wider country.
We should give thanks, as other hon. Members have, for the progress that has been made. As a new Member, I did not know that the nursery in 1 Parliament Street used to be a wine bar. That was news to me. Apparently there was a debate about whether we needed one less pub in this place. I do not know why we have a pub at all. I know that might be a controversial statement, but I have never had one in my workplaces before. A nursery seems perfectly sensible, and I welcome that.
I benefited from proxy voting after the birth of my second daughter, Edie, when I was able to proxy vote via my hon. Friend Kerry McCarthy. There was a clear distinction between the arrival of my first and my second. My first daughter, Ophelia, was born when we were having crunch votes on Brexit. My phone was ringing in the delivery suite, asking whether I was available to vote. I was allowed off the Whip on that occasion, but in the immediate days after the arrival of my daughter, when a father wants to be at home to help and contribute, I had to come back and forth to vote. Proxy voting has solved that, but—this was mentioned in the debate on proxy voting, because I was here for it—dads are only able to benefit from proxy voting for two weeks. If I want to take more time in a shared parental leave setting, as I could do in a workplace outside of here, I am unable to do so. That is one example of why the case for reform and modernisation needs to continue.
I should pay tribute and thanks. There are, of course, some benefits to raising a family here in Parliament. I shall just share a short story, which is loosely related to the topic today. My wife took my two daughters to see her sister-in-law in Washington DC recently. Of course, to take children on to a plane they need passports. It was very easy to get my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge, as someone with standing in our community, to sign the passport documents to authorise that my daughters are real. Sadly, my hon. Friend forgot to put her passport number on the form. My wife went to the passport office. I was in the constituency, an example of having to live in two locations, and received a call from my wife in distress. It was the last date to be able to get the passports sorted, otherwise the trip would have to be cancelled. My hon. Friend was in her constituency being busy, too.
Much to our relief, my right hon. Friend John McDonnell turned up at the passport office here in London and filled in the form in place of my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge, until he realised that he had lost his passport, which was why he was there, and could not sign off the form. To the rescue was my hon. Friend John Cryer, the husband of my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge. Between the chair of the parliamentary Labour party, the shadow Chancellor and two Labour MPs, we solved the passport problem. Why on earth we could not just put a form in the post like every other family, I have no idea.
On that note, Madam Deputy Speaker, I again congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge on securing this debate. I congratulate other right hon. and hon. Members on continuing the push for reform at pace, to make this a place where mums and dads who want children and want to be able to spend time with their family will come and contribute to the public service and leadership of our country, so that together we can lead that change for the economy, too.
I, too, congratulate Ellie Reeves on this excellent debate. It is sad that it is not more broadly attended because it is an important topic. As a Member of Parliament who has to spend anywhere between 10 and 15 hours a week travelling to and from my constituency, I was grateful to hear of the great experiences that others have who travel shorter distances.
Members have made important contributions. The late and much-missed Jo Cox said that we in Westminster
“are behind the curve compared with working practice in much of industry, and the charitable and public sectors, and that is a problem…
if we act differently and change the culture and working practices here, we can change how others operate. We should do that, because we are here to change and improve the United Kingdom.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 602, c. 46WH.]
I could not agree more. If we are to make laws and policies that are forward thinking and progressive, we must get our own house in order.
When I came to this place, I could not help thinking it was a cross between Downton Abbey and Hogwarts. I know people have great affection for the Houses of Parliament, but there is no doubt it is stuck in the past. It is steeped in great history, but it is not forward looking enough. It has a rich history of failing to be a workplace that is anywhere near as functional or inclusive as it should be. Darren Jones spoke of his shock and surprise when he arrived here to see how many pubs there were. I shared that experience.
Of the many places I have ever worked—the corporate industry, the energy sector, other MPs’ offices, foreign Governments—the only place I have seen something similar is the media. I started at Good Morning Television the year after the last pub in the building had been closed, and it was closed for a very good reason. People often visit us here in our workplace—for example, we bring constituents into this place—and it is still a mystery to me that there are so many pubs and places to buy alcohol and that alcohol is served during the day at receptions.
None the less, progress has been made. When we introduced proxy voting, I think we all breathed a sigh of relief. It has been interesting to hear from male colleagues whose partners have recently had babies or are about to have them and who have missed out on proxy voting but who will now benefit from it. My hon. Friend David Linden has just introduced a proposal for extended parental leave for those who have premature babies. That is a sensible proposal that I hope the Minister will consider.
Dame Laura Cox’s report last October concluded that a
“culture of deference, subservience, acquiescence and silence” was enabling abuses of power and the mistreatment of colleagues to go unchecked. It should not have taken one of our colleagues having to come here in a wheelchair on the day she was due to give birth to force proxy voting through. She was incredibly brave in what she did—she stood by her principles—and it is because of her that we have finally taken that step forward.
We have heard many stories about an endemic culture that normalises bullying and harassment, which continue to permeate our politics. That is the sad reality of decades and centuries of ancient tradition in this place. We have plans to refurbish this place. It is predicted to cost between £4 billion and £6 billion of taxpayers’ money just to bring this place and the other place up to standard. The Scottish Parliament, which will shortly celebrate its 20th anniversary, cost a little under half a billion pounds. We could build between eight and 10 Scottish Parliaments for the cost of the refurbishment. Some argue that this place would be better turned into a museum and that we could build a new Parliament in another part of the UK.
I did not want to stop the hon. Lady’s flow, but she referred earlier to the Cox report and the grievance procedures. I hope that she will have noted that we have secured a short debate on the Floor of the House next Tuesday to press for progress in those areas. I hope that she will be able to support that debate.
The right hon. Lady has read my mind, because I was coming to that. I am glad to see that among the threadbare business for next week there will be an update on that important piece of work. It is very important that we move that forward. I commend her on the important work that she and the Women and Equalities Committee, which she chairs, have done on this. She said that the Brexit process had challenged people’s trust in politics and in this place. I agree with that and would go further: it has exposed the crumbling relic of a democratic institution that this place is. We face the prospect of having a candidate for Prime Minister who wants to prorogue Parliament and have a no-deal Brexit, which will have a devastating impact. How will we get public trust if we cannot even have proper business and legislation in this place?
The right hon. Lady talked about the built environment and the paintings around this place. I have had the good fortune to sit on the Speaker’s Advisory Committee on Works of Art, and it has been a privilege to do so and particularly to see the work that has been done on the 209 Women project. I commend all those involved in that project, but during that period, I learned that 25 times more money had been spent over the past 20 years on buying pictures of men for this place than had been spent on buying pictures of women. Let us not forget that the photographs of the female parliamentarians who took part in the 209 Women project were taken by female photographers, who were not paid, which is a really important point. When we are trying to support women and their work, we must remember that they should be properly recognised. Without radical changes to this place to make it more inclusive, we will not properly reflect society.
We have made significant strides. We are the gayest Parliament in the world, or one of the gayest, and I am proud to be a woman who is gay in this place. When I stood for election and for selection, I stood against four men. I looked at the line-up and thought, “Why do I want to do this? Why do I want to go up against four men to go to a place that is very male dominated?” I did it because I wanted to be part of the change that I know many young women cannot see.
In Scotland, we have also made significant strides. We have a gender-balanced Cabinet. When Nicola Sturgeon became First Minister, she was one of only a handful of leaders in the world to do that. It is really important that we have politicians who are hard-working, relatable and can bring their personal experiences to this place. We saw that in the most recent election. There are Members across this House with a vast array of life experiences, but we have to make sure that we have that not just in Parliament and its elected representatives, but in our media. I often look up at the Press Gallery, at the press who are looking down at us, and I do not see many female faces or people of colour. It is really important that we have people reporting on our politics who are as diverse as possible.
We have had contributions from Members who have spoken about access to this place. If this building was being built from scratch today, there is absolutely no way that it would meet health and safety standards. The hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge talked about the voting system. We have proxy voting, but electronic voting would save us a huge amount of time. On the last count that I did, which was in March, I calculated that we had spent 205 hours—five and a half working weeks—just voting. Given that Parliament sits for only 35 or 36 weeks a year, a huge amount of time is being wasted just on voting. Nobody is arguing that we should not be here debating and voting. That is extremely important, but as Mrs Miller said, perhaps we could have an allotted time for urgent questions and have predictability in our business, particularly when we have people travelling from our constituencies, businesses and other organisations to come to see us in Parliament. Having to cancel meetings at the last minute and not being able to get back for children’s events and caring responsibilities is a ridiculous situation. There is no other such employment anywhere. We do our constituents an injustice, and in my view, we cannot properly represent them and their issues when there is such a lack of predictability, progress and activity from a legislative perspective. Brexit has dominated so much of the legislative timetable that it has created and exposed the inadequacies of the system.
I understand that people like the banter and to have a wee chat in the voting Lobbies, but for goodness’ sake, we live in a modern world. We should be able to have those meetings and engage with one another. It just exposes the inaccessibility of the Government and the inability to get answers from them that people feel the need to use the time in the voting Lobbies just to corner other people, because they cannot get the proper responses, meetings and time that they feel they need.
I want to use this opportunity to draw to the attention of the hon. Lady and other Members present to the fantastic opportunity that we have with the Northern Estate programme, as part of which we shall build a, I think badly named, temporary Chamber—a Chamber that could in fact be permanent. If we cannot get reform here—which is quite difficult to do, because there is a certain amount of inertia—we should make sure that for that temporary Chamber, which we will be sitting in from about 2025 onwards, those issues are at the very least tested, so that if they are successful, they can be reintroduced here when we come back to a new Palace of Westminster in 2031 or thereabouts.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that important point. However, if I am still here in 2031 and Scotland is not an independent country, I will eat my hat, quite literally. The thought that I would still be having to come to this place horrifies me.
We do not have a seat in the Chamber for every Member. So many times I have heard people argue, “We need to queue up and vote in the Lobbies because people need to be here for the debate,” yet we can only fit half the Members of this place into this Chamber to listen to a debate. For goodness’ sake—it is common sense. Let us have a Chamber that is big enough. I know of so few Parliaments—I have been in Parliaments all over the world, including Malawi at the beginning of last year—that do not have electronic voting. The European Parliament and the Council of Europe have it, as do the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is not difficult, so for goodness’ sake, let us just get on and do it.
Jess Phillips, in a recent speech, made a point about half terms and summer breaks. She included reference to experiences in Scotland. In parts of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, the recesses do not match up to the holidays. I have colleagues who sometimes have an overlap of less than 10 days, so they cannot even get a break with their families. I am in no doubt that we have a huge amount of privilege being in this place, and this is not about having a rant and a moan; it is about saying to our constituents, “Look, we could do a much better job for you, and a much better job by you, and more people—women—from across the social and the economic spectrum could be encouraged into this place if it had a proper, modern working ethic.”
I shall finish by reflecting on some of the experiences of my staff, many of whom have been with me since I was first elected. About the end of 2015, we started an all-party group on deaths abroad and consular services, because we had two constituents—women—who had been killed abroad in suspicious circumstances. Since then, we have taken evidence from about 60 families across the UK who have lost loved ones abroad. That has been a harrowing and deeply distressing experience for me and my staff—nothing like the experience that those families have had, but none the less, the vicarious trauma that my staff and I have experienced has been significant.
We have worked with the parliamentary authorities to get the right emotional support, and it has become very clear to me that there is not appropriate emotional support for staff members. All our staff members do an incredible job, and they often have to deal with distressing and difficult constituency work. We must do much more, through the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority and the other authorities, to ensure that our staff get the proper support when they come to work for an MP, because we are all individual employers and we have a very important responsibility to our staff to ensure that they are properly protected. They will only be able to serve our constituents properly if they get the right support, and this place will only be a modern Parliament that can properly reflect all parts of the UK and all people who live in it if we can make it a modern and sensible working place.
There are some heavyweight names attached to the motion: that of my right hon. and learned Friend Ms Harman, Mrs Miller, and my hon. Friend Ellie Reeves, who opened the debate with an outstanding, wide-ranging speech. It was right to bring this matter to our attention and to keep it on the agenda.
Before my hon. Friend John Cryer goes off to do his bit in childcare, I have to say that it is good to see that my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge has dispatched him to do that. It would be interesting to hear from him on what it was like to be the child of an MP. It certainly did not put him off. He was also an older child of another MP—both his father and his mother were Members of Parliament. It is good to see him in his place, but we accept that he has other duties to go and do.
Many Members are probably not aware that the sitting time changes were thanks to Dame Joan Ruddock, who pulled together a group of cross-party Members. We consulted and voted on the various proposed times. It is pleasing that the Health Secretary, a hands-on-dad, was also involved.
My hon. Friend Darren Jones was part of a group of new MPs, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge, who contributed to an important Fabian Society pamphlet about change. I wrote the introduction. I did not agree with all the suggestions in the pamphlet, but it was good to see that new Members were proposing changes.
A number of reports have been published. Many Members have referred to “The Good Parliament” by Professor Sarah Childs, which was commissioned by the Speaker and published as long ago as 2016. Its 43 recommendations address three parliamentary dimensions. Even before its publication, people were making trivial remarks such as “Oh, it is about everyone using the same toilet.” Professor Childs had to arrange many meetings to try to convince people that hers was a serious and hard-hitting report.
As I have said, the report identified three parliamentary dimensions. The first was “Equality and Participation”, which asked
“how a diverse group of MPs might be selected for, and elected to, Parliament”.
The second, “Parliamentary Infrastructure”,
“covers everything from the buildings and furniture of Parliament to the official rules and working practices”.
The third, “Commons Culture”, looked beyond the formal rules to examine the parliamentary culture and its effect on diversity.
Who selects parliamentary candidates is a matter for the parties. My hon. Friend Mr Sheerman, who is not present at the moment, has put the responsibility for all-women shortlists squarely on Tony Blair. I would say to him that many members of the Labour party, women and men, fought long and hard to secure all-women shortlists. As a result, 49% of the parliamentary Labour party are women. That movement rose from the grassroots to the higher echelons of the party, and 1997, when so many women were elected to Parliament, was an important milestone.
Does the hon. Lady agree that some fantastic organisations are working to improve diversity in the House, notably Operation Black Vote? I mention OBV by way of an apology to her and also to the Leader of the House, because I have to attend an event that it is hosting here this afternoon. The event will finish by 5 pm, and if I do not leave I will miss the opportunity to support and, perhaps, mentor a person from OBV to ensure that people from ethnic minorities are better represented in the House.
I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman, and I congratulate Sir Simon Woolley on his elevation in the Queen’s birthday honours. It is well deserved. I mentored someone from Operation Black Vote last year. It has an incredibly good set of people who come from different backgrounds; the person whom I mentored worked in social care. That is the kind of organisation that we need to have.
I do not know if you are aware of this, Madam Deputy Speaker, but the Commissions of both Houses have responded to the UK gender-sensitive parliament audit, the first ever such audit produced in the UK. The Commissions are monitoring and publishing annual progress against four of the audit’s priority recommendations. The kind of recommendations that they are prioritising are
“Developing a parliamentary policy for children and families”,
informed by good practice in other Parliaments;
“responding to the Cox report, and…forthcoming inquiries” on bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct; awareness of the support available to MPs, peers and staff
“to address abuse and threats via social media”; and making information
“more readily available on the different groups or organisations in Parliament with specialist knowledge…and clearly signposted” in order to
“support parliamentarians to take account of gender impacts in their work”.
We are pleased that the monitoring will continue.
Many Members have mentioned restoration and renewal, which gives us an opportunity to focus on the physical aspects. We need to make life much easier for people with disabilities or hearing difficulties. In new buildings such as Portcullis House, it is much easier for those with hearing difficulties to hear people. Everything possible has to be done to make Parliament accessible.
The right hon. Member for Basingstoke is right: a number of reports are coming out and we must make sure we do not lose sight of any of them. They need to be pulled together; the House authorities are aware of that, and certainly the Clerk of the House has his eye on how they will all pull together.
I have a genuine question: the Clerk of the House is not responsible to Members here; how do we solve that problem? It is very difficult for Members to know who is responsible for these things, because the Clerk cannot come to the Floor of the House.
I did not mean that they were responsible; ultimately it is a matter for the Commission to pull those reports together. Reports will come to the Commission and will then be disseminated. I do not know whether the right hon. Lady is aware of this, but many of the responses given to the Commission are disseminated; if she checks her inbox and the parliamentary intranet she will see that everything that goes on in the Commission is published, as are any reports that need to be brought to people’s attention.
There is political will on this. It is not just a matter for the Leader of the House and the Opposition parties. We will work together, but certainly the Commission is the governing body at this stage, until things change—if they do; and if people want a more accountable Commission, that is what will happen. At present, however, these matters are for the parties nominated to the Commission, and the Clerk of the House. It is not for individual MPs to take it on themselves to do these things, although I have to say that when individual MPs have good ideas and take them to various places such as the Commission, they come to fruition. The right hon. Lady sat on the Speaker’s reference Committee; I know she is not on it currently, but that shows that there are good things that people can pull together. Things can and do happen.
Does the hon. Lady think the current House of Commons Commission is accountable, and if not, would she support change?
Well, we are all elected, and we are all appointed by our parties; we also have two non-executives who sit—[Interruption.] The right hon. Lady says we are appointed, but the Leader of the House and I are on it by virtue of our parties through the usual channels; that is the way it works. I am sure she is not casting any aspersions on the previous or current Leader of the House. It is an interesting way of working. The Clerks—the House authorities—have to be responsible for the way the House operates, and then things are done through the Commission. the fact that we have a Commission is very good. I sat on the House of Commons Governance Committee; we heard evidence on how things it works, and things changed as a result of that. There is an opportunity, if Members wish, to have another House of Commons Governance Committee—whether the Leader of the House and I would be on it, I do not know. The work is disseminated, however, as the right hon. Lady will see if she checks the intranet.
Of course we also have the Cox report, and Alison Stanley has now reported on whether the independent complaints and grievance scheme works. Her report makes for interesting reading. A unit has been tasked with implementing some work. We have a newly appointed independent director of cultural transformation, Julie Harding, who is doing town hall meetings with staff and trying to understand what goes on in order to get cultural change, and that will continue.
In a previous debate, I said I did not know what was happening to Professor Sarah Childs’ recommendations, and suggested that we do what is normally done to keep track of projects: have a Gantt chart, on which we collect all the recommendations. As the right hon. Lady is Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, I wonder if she might look at the report three years on, and commission a further inquiry on where we are on Professor Sarah Childs’ report and how many recommendations have been actioned. People thought the proxy voting was going to be difficult, but it has been as smooth as possible and works really well.
The right hon. Lady’s Committee produced a report on women in the House in January 2017, and I notice that the Government rejected all six of the recommendations in their response in September. One recommendation was that all the parties should aim for 45% of their Members of Parliament to be women. Her Committee also said that section 106 of the Equality Act 2010 should be implemented. The Government responded that they did not want to do that, and that they would rather just talk to the political parties, but I wonder if the Leader of the House could take that away and look at it, and perhaps report back at a later date. Many hon. Members have touched on the fact that we are becoming a diverse Parliament. I have to say that 31 of the 52 minority ethnic Members are from the Labour party; 19 are from the Conservatives, one is from the Lib Dems and one from the Independent Group. Exactly half are women, so we are getting it right on that score.
Another important report, “Race in the workplace” by Baroness McGregor-Smith, was published on
“The time for talking is over. Now is the time to act.”
More importantly, on
Hon. Members will know that we always talk about the gender pay gap, and that is important because this Parliament not only looks at itself but also looks outside. A key figure shows that in 2018, women worked for free for 51 days of the year because of the gender pay gap. We must close that gap as soon as possible. We Labour Members feel that we have a proud record on progressing women’s rights. We brought in the Equal Pay Act 1970, the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, the Equality Act 2010 and the minimum wage, and we introduced Sure Start. Our shadow Cabinet is nearly 50% women, and we hope that that will continue. The important thing is that many people outside this place perhaps cannot afford the things that we can, such as their own workplace nursery. If we were to implement our policies, the extension of the 30 hours of free childcare would make an important difference to women in the workplace generally, whether or not they ended up in here, and families on the lowest incomes would be eligible for additional subsidised hours on top of the 30 hours.
It is vital that we make this place fit for the 21st century for everyone who works here, who visits and who wants to come here. We all want our Parliament and our democracy to thrive, so we should be continuously looking for opportunities to improve it, and I know that all Members, whether new or old, are constantly doing that. As we look for opportunities here, we must recognise that changes can be made through legislation, and that as we change ourselves, we can also change society to make it more equal.
I thank all those who have contributed to a valuable and wide-ranging debate, and especially Ellie Reeves for sharing with us her many ideas, which were clearly built on her experience, in another life before Parliament, of workplace and maternity rights. I also recognise that John Cryer, who is no longer in his place for the very good reasons he gave, and my right hon. Friend Mrs Miller put their names to the motion. In mentioning my right hon. Friend, perhaps I may take this opportunity to thank her for the work that she does as the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, and say that I particularly look forward to the prospect of working closely with her in the weeks and months ahead.
As I said, we have had a wide-ranging debate. That is part of the nature of the solutions we all look to when we seek to have a Parliament that is fit for the 21st century and to ensure that the heritage, the wisdom of the ages and the things that make this Parliament work extremely well—there are many; we tend not to focus on them and to take them for granted—are preserved while we move forward positively. That came out in the debate. As I listened to the various contributions, I noted the wide variety of areas on which hon. Members rightly alighted. The hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge mentioned the onsite nursery, electronic voting, the recess dates, school holidays and parliamentary Prayers. My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke mentioned commuting to Parliament, retention of MPs and staff, proxy voting, mental health, the parliamentary timetable—especially UQs—disability access, restoration and renewal, women in Parliament and ethnic minority portraits.
The hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead mentioned accessibility and disabled access and Tom Brake mentioned job sharing in an intervention. Darren Jones referred to shared parental leave, and I was gratified to learn that his eldest daughter shares the name Ophelia with one of my daughters: it is a lovely name. I will certainly take away from this debate the wonderful image of several Labour Members and the shadow Chancellor failing to fill in a passport form at the Passport Office: I am sure there were very good reasons for that happening on that occasion.
This is an important debate. If our Parliament is not properly accessible, does not project an image that gains the trust and respect of the public or is not truly representative of the country at large, it is a pretty poor state of affairs. I accept that more can be done at every turn. On the point about representation, “The Good Parliament” report has been mentioned. It is an excellent piece of work. It gives the figures: at present, just 32% of Members of Parliament are female, and the figure for the House of Lords is just 27%. On just that one metric, that is clearly not right, and much of the debate has understandably been framed in the context of how we address that particular issue, along with several others.
I pay tribute to my predecessor, who did some excellent work in several areas that have been raised this afternoon, not least of which is proxy voting. We should not forget that Tulip Siddiq was the first to exercise a proxy vote on
One of the aspects that did not feature in everybody’s contribution, but is very important and was raised by the shadow Leader of the House, is the independent complaints and grievance scheme, on which much additional work now needs to be done. I look forward to working closely with her on that. My predecessor did a great deal to move that element forward.
As we fall over ourselves to say that things are not right or are archaic, and all the rest of it, we should not overlook the progress that has been made or, indeed, assume that we are stuck in a previous century, because many good things are occurring. There have been changes to the sitting hours, which many Members mentioned. Most recently—this was during my time here—we made a number of helpful changes in 2012. We now have childcare facilities for those aged three months and above, up to five years, the family room off the Lower Waiting Hall, the baby-changing facilities and various other things that are advances in their own right.
A huge amount remains to be done, of course, which I would categorise in at least four areas. The first is a change in the culture of the House of Commons and the Palace of Westminster, particularly through the independent complaints and grievance scheme, which has a role in ensuring that we have a system that has zero tolerance for harassment and bullying in any form. I join the shadow Leader of the House in thanking Julie Harding, the independent director of cultural transformation, for her work, particularly in that regard.
The Alison Stanley report, the six-month review of the scheme, has been mentioned. The scheme has now been going for about a year, and the report has made some interesting recommendations. I look forward to working with the shadow Leader of the House on reviewing those recommendations, particularly on the efficiency of the system, training requirements and resourcing.
There are outstanding matters across the three strands of the Cox report, most notably on the second and third strands. As Hannah Bardell may have mentioned, we have a debate on the report next Tuesday and I urge all those present to join us. I will have another outing and we will be able to discuss these matters in even more detail—something to look forward to.
The second area is about supporting parents, and many Members specifically mentioned the piloting of proxy voting. We need to see where we go with that. Clearly we could take other avenues. We could broaden the scope of proxy voting to different situations, and I look forward to looking at that closely.
A number of Members commented on the working hours of the House, which the Procedure Committee has previously looked at in detail. There was a survey on these matters in 2017. The problem, as with so many of these issues, is finding consensus. It is for the House to make these changes, and it is for the House to come together and form consensus on any proposal that may be made.
Several points have made about the organisation of business, and I will briefly touch on one or two of those points. My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke raised an interesting idea about the timing of urgent questions, although it contains the nub of the problem with many such ideas. Although it may have some beneficial effects in one respect, it has more negative effects in another. It is about balancing the two. Specifically, if we had urgent questions very early in the parliamentary day, we would still need all the processes that happen in the background leading up to Mr Speaker’s decision on whether to grant an urgent question. That would be shifted several hours earlier and would therefore cause problems earlier in the day, although it would perhaps solve some of the problems for others later in the day. We need to debate and consider such things closely, and I would be happy to sit down with my right hon. Friend to have a closer look at her suggestions, if she would like to do that.
The hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge talked about the possibility of deferring Divisions late at night, which is an interesting suggestion, and at least one hon. Member talked about the Whips and the valuable role they play in pairing, slipping and so on. They are often the unsung heroes of the parliamentary processes. I say that as a former Whip and therefore somebody who fully grasps, should I say—to be generous—the impact that they can have upon one’s future.
Accessibility is very important. We have a real opportunity with the restoration and renewal project to get some of these things right, and I am very excited about that. The matter was raised by the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead, who made some strong points. As the shadow Leader of the House pointed out, it is not just about lifts, ramps and those kinds of things. Often, it is about the acoustics, lighting, security and technology—all these things that make buildings more accessible.
My final point is about technology in this place. There are great opportunities to use technology better here. The hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge pointed out that we could speed up voting by holding multiple votes at the same time on iPads, provided the votes were not contingent on each other. We have real opportunities to look at using technology to do things differently, although we have to be careful in considering change in those areas.
To respond to the hon. Member for Livingston, I am not particularly drawn to the idea of electronic voting. There are clearly some benefits, but I am very drawn to the idea of Members getting together at a moment in time when conversations with Ministers and others can occur. That is important, and the second point to underscore is that spending the time to get here and do that means that we have to think more about what we are voting for than we would by, alternatively, clicking something or touching a screen.
To be slightly self-indulgent, I would like to float my own idea, which I first floated in 2011. It went absolutely nowhere, because it was obviously far too frightening and radical, but maybe we have moved on. The idea was to have a list of those about to speak up on the annunciator, so that if we knew that the Leader of the House was going to speak in two or three speakers’ time, we could scamper to the Chamber to listen to his pearls of wisdom.
There could be an even greater benefit—I know that I am straying into dangerous, radical territory, Madam Speaker, but let me finish my point at least—because if that information were known several speakers in advance, it could be communicated to the wider world through technology. I could be sitting on a bus and an app could suddenly ping to tell me that Valerie Vaz would be on her feet in 10 minutes. I would obviously not dismiss that fact for a second, but would press “Yes, please, I’m absolutely gagging to hear from the hon. Lady”, whereupon she would appear on my screen. I could listen to her or perhaps to my local MP on that bus trip and become more engaged with Parliament and my Member of Parliament. Part of the problem is that we do not know when Members will be called to speak, so that might be one idea.
I have to say that I find myself in agreement with the right hon. Gentleman on that point. I am a member of the Council of Europe, and that is exactly how it operates. We know the order of speakers well in advance and exactly how much time we will get to speak—there is none of this increasing or reducing the time limit; it is much more organised. So he will have my support if he brings forward that proposal.
I thank the hon. Lady very much, although I am not sure that I have the support of the Chair—I am desperately trying to hold everybody together, which I might just about be able to manage. If the hon. Lady would like to discuss that further with me, I will be happy to do so, although of course I raise these points fully aware that they are far more complicated than the manner in which I have presented them might suggest.
Perhaps I should conclude and leave a minute or two for the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge to respond to the debate, if she would like to. Again, I thank everybody for their contributions. I have listened extremely carefully to everything that everybody has said and my door is always open. The mission to reform Parliament is deep and complicated, and it often faces considerable resistance from all sorts of different directions, but the House has my commitment that I am happy to work with Members from all parties to see how we can improve matters.
I thank everyone who has taken part in the debate. I said at the outset that no single person has all the answers in respect of the modernisation of Parliament, but this afternoon has been an important opportunity to enable Members to put forward their different views on this important matter.
My hon. Friend Darren Jones talked about the role of fathers in all this. It is important that we do not forget the role of fathers, who are increasingly, and rightly, now playing much more active roles in their children’s lives. I will benefit from my husband, my hon. Friend John Cryer, having two weeks of proxy voting when I have our second child. We did not have that when I had our first. Equally, many colleagues and friends of mine in the world of work are able to take shared parental leave with their partners, but that is not open to us. It is incredibly important to look at the role of fathers.
Mrs Miller summed up perfectly the chaos of Parliament and what it is like here never to know quite what is going to happen during the day. It is a really unusual way to work and is unique to Parliament. We never quite know what is going to happen, what is going to be on the Order Paper and what questions are going to come up. That not only affects those who have caring responsibilities, but can be detrimental to the working lives of MPs and those who support us in our roles. The right hon. Lady has some fantastic ideas about how we can be clearer about our procedures and how they work.
Several interventions related to the role of staff. I hope that, when we talk about this issue in future, we do not lose sight of the fact that hundreds of people work in Parliament supporting the work that we do. We need to be mindful of their needs and their roles.
The right hon. Member for Basingstoke talked about the need to have a clear plan and procedure. It is important that we do not go away from this debate and never talk about this subject ever again. The last broad, general debate on making Parliament more family friendly was around three years ago. It is important that we keep up these conversations and do not shy away from the ongoing debate about reform.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered making Parliament a more modern, family friendly and accessible workplace.