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30 January 2019

Proxy voting in the Commons: Necessary baby steps towards the Good Parliament

Sarah Childs, Professor of Politics and Gender, Birkbeck, University of London

How the pilot of proxy voting for MPs on parental leave came about – and why it's unlikely to be overturned

Baby steps towards the Good Parliament
Baby steps towards the Good Parliament

Missing the centenary year of women’s right to vote for and sit in the House of Commons by a month, Parliament agreed without a division to implement a pilot proxy voting scheme for MPs on baby leave on 28 January. Baby steps towards The Good Parliament for sure, but absolutely necessary ones. It might have been 23:30ish, hardly the most family friendly of hours for MPs and parliamentary staff, but this was a moment to savour. Clapping broke out; unparliamentary behaviour that incurred a general rebuke from the Speaker’s Chair. Watching from the Special Gallery, I sensed Mr Speaker’s heart was not in his admonishment. He has been a huge advocate for a diversity-sensitive House of Commons and was instrumental in delivering baby leave. Working with Clerks and the party leaders to have the system in place immediately, the first proxy vote was employed on 29 January.

To many women it will seem absurd that there was no formal system of MP’s baby leave in Parliament until 2019. Parliament legislates on maternity, paternity, and parental leave for other institutions and organizations. But too often Parliament does not think of itself as a workplace, nor one that houses women who will become mothers. The UK Parliament is not alone in having failed to make provisions. My brother in Canada was confident that his Parliament (read modern, liberal, hey they have Justin Trudeau) had such a system. It does not. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, some 25% of parliaments fail to make specific or match statutory provision. At Westminster, Holyrood, and the National Assembly all relied on the informal. Women MPs take maternity leave by requesting it from their Whips, whose goodwill they rely upon; when ‘necessary’, new mothers would find themselves having to travel to London to vote.

Recommendation 12 of The Good Parliament Report made the Commons Reference Group on Representation and Inclusion responsible for addressing this gender insensitivity. It should ‘Produce a ‘House Statement’ on maternity, paternity, parental, adoption and caring leave’. The ‘Mother of the House’, the Rt Hon Harriet Harman MP made it her first priority. Together, a motion was put before the Commons and agreed in February 2018. I suspect that some male MPs did not realize it was even being debated. The Procedure Committee was tasked to report how proxy voting could be made to work in practice. A second debate was held in September 2018, albeit one that had no voteable motion. There were concerns that this would mobilize the antis. The Leader of the House, Andrea Leadsom remained adamant that she was committed to introducing a voteable motion in the autumn of 2018, but it ultimately failed to materialize. Brexit politics undoubtedly disrupted parliamentary business but there were also suspicions that the delay was linked to the antipathy of Whips.

Two or perhaps three incidents seemed to make the difference. First, the breakdown in pairing in July 2018, when the Conservative Brandon Lewis voted when he should not have done; Jo Swinson MP’s baby was just a few weeks old. Second, in January 2019, Tulip Siddiq delayed her caesarean so that she could participate in the Brexit vote. Images of Siddiq in a wheelchair were telling, to say the least. Third, and this is disputed: reports that the Conservative Chief whip was the obstacle. Urgent questions were requested and allowed by Mr Speaker: baby leave was making the news and the symbols were all wrong. With very tight votes looming, pregnant MPs and their supporters were adamant that there could be no more delay.

Re-gendering parliaments is rarely easy. Historically designed for and by men, many parliaments have simply never really considered the needs of the parent and especially the mother MP, despite fathers having always been present in our parliaments. There has been reluctance to admit that politics should change: is it not for those women who want to be in politics to ‘fit’ with how parliament works? Some male MPs during the proxy voting debate could not quite understand why pairing was inadequate for the MP on baby leave. Emma Reynolds and Luciana Berger made clear – as had Harriet Harman on numerous occasions in the House and in the media – that MPs should not have to choose between caring for their newborns and representing their constituents. It was also implied that if too many MPs opted for proxy voting there would not be enough MPs for pairing. Is this a new form of women blaming?

There was also some ‘whataboutery’ in the debate. Calls for proxy voting to extend beyond baby leave to MPs with caring responsibilities and experiencing illness were made by a number of MPs; Philip Davies’s amendment to cover miscarriage was agreed to. For those who had been campaigning over the last few years it was rather surprising to hear the ‘thin edge of the wedge’ argument being deployed positively. Hitherto this had been the critique used against baby leave. It is not news to those in favour of baby leave that fathers are provided for unequally vis-à-vis paternity leave; nor that caring is hugely demanding for MPs; and that some MPs who are ill might want to be able  to vote.

Proxy voting for baby leave is a pilot. I doubt very much that it will be overturned. I’d wager that women MPs simply would not permit this. Jess Phillips had warned the dinosaurs before the vote. Its 12-month review should be an opportunity to do more. Those who are committed in principle to women’s equal presence in our politics and to creating The Good Parliament for all MPs must, as Maria Miller Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee suggested, act to ensure that change is neither piecemeal nor the responsibility of individuals ‘doing for themselves’ (and of course for mothers and fathers who come into Parliament in the future). The responsibility is for the House as an institution. Leaving the parliamentary estate, I bumped into a number of women MPs; there were celebratory hugs and recognition of the collective effort and continual pressure that had to be applied. There was also immediate discussion of what else needed to change. Their appetite for re-gendering the Commons is most definitely wetted not satiated.

This post originally appeared on the LSE British Politics and Policy blog.