[Fabian Hamilton in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the family-friendliness of Parliament.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hamilton, and I thank all the hon. Members who have come to Westminster Hall today; it is a pleasure to see people from all parties here. In particular, I thank the Deputy Leader of the House and my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn), the shadow Deputy Leader of the House, for attending. Although only one of those women is my hon. Friend, I have experienced sorority from both, and have felt them both urging me and other women forward in this place, and I wish to state very clearly that this issue is not a party political one.
We are here to discuss the family-friendliness of the Houses of Parliament. I wrote and amended this speech last night. Because of the Scotland Bill debate, I once again failed to ring to wish my children goodnight before bed or to check in with my husband, who was ill yesterday. As I typed this speech at 11.29 pm and the chimes of Big Ben began, the importance of this debate seemed incredibly acute.
I am not the first person to raise this issue; there have been champions, male and female, from all parties. As I seem to do every single day, I must give credit to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman). I credit her work over the years in changing Government policy, party policy and this place for the reason that I am standing here today. However, Mr Speaker has also been a champion, and I have just been hearing of other champions, including male champions from the Government Benches. In the spirit of full cross-party support, I must mention that it was a Liberal Democrat MP, the former hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire, who was the first MP to carry her baby through the voting Lobby. Every week now, I see Members with their children walking through the Lobbies, and guess what? Nobody dies. That change is absolutely a credit to her.
People have been campaigning on this issue for a very long time—I think that today we will hear about some people who campaigned on it before I was even born—and progress has definitely been made. We have come a long way from the bad old days of the 1970s. For me, that is best symbolised by the example of what was Bellamy’s Bar. Once, it was no doubt smoke-filled and gin-fuelled; I say that, although I have no experience of it myself. It sounds like quite good fun. Now, however, it has been turned into a nursery, so hurrah for progress. However, we still have an incredibly long way to go before this place is a proper family-friendly environment.
In the spirit of gender solidarity, I will give way to the right hon. Lady.
I thank the hon. Lady, who is a fellow member of the Women and Equalities Committee, for giving way and I commend her for securing this debate. I applaud her focus on a family-friendly Parliament, but should she not also consider a people-friendly Parliament? I want to see a Parliament that is representative of the country that we live in, so does she share my concern that the number of MPs who are from different ethnic, religious and social backgrounds, and the number of disabled people in Parliament, is not as high as it should be?
I thank the right hon. Lady for her intervention. I could not agree more. The two issues are potentially distinct but have an enormous crossover, and much of what I will go on to say today is about how there are so many barriers to so many different people coming into this place that Parliament is not a particularly healthy working environment for anybody: people with families and people without families; older Members and younger Members. An awful lot goes on in that place that acts as a huge barrier to people working here.
First, the hon. Lady is right to say that things have moved on slightly. When my daughter was born 18 years ago, during Divisions I had to leave her in the Lib Dem Whips Office with members of staff in their early 20s who did not have the foggiest idea of what they were supposed to do with a six-month-old. Things have improved slightly since then.
I apologise for not being able to stay for the duration of this debate, but I would like to take this opportunity to say how appalled I was by the abuse that the hon. Lady received recently. However, the point of my intervention is to say that I sit on the House of Commons Commission and clearly there is work under way, with which she will be familiar, which Sarah Childs is doing in relation to a gender-sensitive Parliament. I will make sure that, on Monday, when the Commission meets, this debate is taken into account, to see if there are issues that the hon. Lady and other hon. Members have raised that the Commission should examine.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his support in regard to my own experiences during the last few weeks of what it is like to be a woman in this place. I also thank him and the other members of the Commission for its continued work, and for offering to take back to it anything that is discussed here today. I very much hope that this debate and any debates on this subject become part of the bigger picture of the Commission’s work.
I will now say why this issue is so important, before going on to talk about some of the specific problems and some of the possible ways to address them. I am not trying to present any one possible solution as a silver bullet that will make us a family-friendly place. I am contributing to a debate that has been going on for decades and that I am sure will continue in the future.
Next spring is particularly important. As has been highlighted, Professor Sarah Childs will be publishing her final report on delivering a gender-sensitive Parliament, and there will be a parliamentary debate on the implementation of the recommendations of the Speaker’s Conference on Parliamentary Representation, which reported in 2010. That seems to me to be an excellent opportunity to debate this issue, and to build cross-party consensus to achieve real change. I stress again that we will get such changes only when we work hard together and not combatively, so that everyone in this place feels that they have been involved in this process.
First, why is having a family-friendly Parliament so important? I am not sure if I have made it particularly clear yet—I can be a bit shy about it—but I am a feminist and this is a feminist issue. However, that should not make anyone think that it is an issue that affects only women. It directly affects all people in Parliament who have families, and it indirectly affects every single person up and down the country. Parliament not being family-friendly affects MPs and parliamentary staff immediately and directly, but it also has a wider effect and impact in terms of representation.
On Saturday night, I was having a chat with my husband, who is and has always been the primary carer of our children, and a friend of ours, who is a single mum. We mulled over some of the ideas about how to make this place a more family-friendly parliament. Very quickly, they turned to the idea that, “Well, you knew what the job was going to be like. You don’t expect family-friendly oil rigs. It is just the nature of the job.” That is a fair point and one that I am sure will be expressed to me in the below-the-line comment sections of any newspaper that chooses to report this debate.
However, Parliament is fundamentally different. Yes, there are many jobs that are still not that family-friendly. It is the nature of jobs with a predominantly male workforce—something, of course, that we should challenge. However, it is not the job of oil rigs to reflect society; it is not the job of oil rigs to push for laws and regulations to improve families’ lives; and the world does not look at the people who work on oil rigs for an example of what our culture should be. But it is the job of Parliament to do those things.
My friend concluded our discussion on Saturday by saying that, as a single mother and sole provider for a young child, for her to be a Member of Parliament is virtually impossible. That statement alone should highlight the fact that we still have such a long way to go before this place truly represents the world outside.
The immediate impact is easy to see. Think of the large number of MPs who are mothers who stood down at the last election. Often, debate on this issue has mainly focused on female MPs, which is quite understandable, as the current situation is a huge contributor to the under-representation of women in Parliament. However, all too often we do not recognise that it does not affect just women MPs. It affects all MPs with care-giving responsibilities, and not just MPs who are parents. It affects those of us who have sick relatives, including husbands who have been unwell or ageing parents who we have to look after. All those factors should be considered in the round.
Male and female parliamentarians with young children or dependent family members undoubtedly need extra help, but they are only part of the story. The issue does not affect only MPs. Every MP has staff, as does Parliament itself. There are thousands of people who protect the building, work in the kitchens, sort the mail and do the research in the Library—there are even people who write down every word we say. Those people keep this place going. If it were all left to MPs to do, I am fairly certain that the place would grind to a halt in just a few days, if not hours.
Problems with the availability and affordability of childcare, parental leave, unpredictability, and unsocial hours affect everyone in this place who has family responsibilities. When a Parliament is structured in such a way as to make balancing work and family difficult, it excludes people with families, and the wider effects of not being family-friendly are hugely troubling. The best people are put off applying, and we want the best people shaping the laws and opposing and supporting the process. Ultimately, that is what is best for the country, but someone with family responsibilities would definitely think twice about working here.
I come from working in a women’s refuge where all the staff were women and most of the service users were women and children, and I often joke that when I first walked into Portcullis House it seemed to me as though it were staffed entirely by young men called Will, Tom or Ben. I am sure that the huge workforce of young men is absolutely brilliant, but we must be more reflective of society. In my old job, we used to joke that we could employ a full-time obstetrician such was the pregnancy rate among our staff, but here weeks will go by without anyone seeing a pregnant woman walking around the estate. This is about our wanting the best people, and if we want fair competition and to attract the best, we should remove the barriers that prevent those exact people from applying to be Members and to work in this place.
In many ways, normal workplaces are much more family-friendly than Parliament. We have an awful lot of catching up to do. If at some point in the future we go beyond our current work practices, that will be good. We should be leading the way and setting an example. Not being family-friendly sends the wrong message to the country. We are a highly visible workplace—I feel like waving at the cameras now. The only jobs in which there are more cameras and microphones are those on chat shows. So what we do here matters. We should be a beacon of a proper 21st-century family-friendly workplace.
While we are thinking about scrutiny—the eyes and ears of the world on us—no one could fail to notice when glancing up at the benches in the Press Gallery that women are grossly under-represented in the press lobby, and I will wager—I do not have any empirical research—that mothers are even more so. I remember introducing the previous leader of the Labour party, my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), to the press pack on the day when he talked about how he was going to change the Labour party’s rules and make it so that more people could be involved, so that we could reach out and, essentially, reflect society a bit better. After he spoke, the press lobby grilled him and grilled him: “Do you really think that your party, or any party, or Westminster, is particularly reflective?” After he had walked out of the room, I sat in front of the press lobby—I was not a Member of Parliament then, just a woman called in to introduce the leader of her party—and I chastised them. There was not a single woman among them—these opinion formers, the people who tell others what happens in this place—and they dared to have a go at him about not being representative. The way in which this place is run undoubtedly changes what gets reported here—how the world sees us—and we cannot go on like this.
While we continue with the status quo and push back at any challenge, we are guilty of huge hypocrisy. I have spent all morning with the members of the Women and Equalities Committee discussing, for example, the barriers employers put before women who are pregnant, and thinking about the best strategies for reducing the gender pay gap caused by women having children. But how can we lecture others when our House is not in order? If we look around at this place, with its fancy history and ancient carvings—and the rather glam curtains in this room—we can see that are in a huge glass house. Yet we are chucking stones. We should sort ourselves out so that I and the other members of the Women and Equalities Committee have a leg to stand and do not look like fools when we make recommendations. What business do we have asking big business and big employers to do something we are simply not willing to do ourselves?
Almost everyone in this place, I think, gets this. There are still a few dinosaurs in Parliament, gradually hardening into fossils, but most people in here want this. So, what is standing in the way? What are some of the aspects of Parliament’s dominant culture that hold us back, and what can we do about them?
The week before last, my children ran around these halls and in the canteen. There was a notable singing—or rather screaming—competition between my youngest son and the little boy of my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell). It was half-term and, for some reason, the recess in the House does not marry with that occasion. My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby has raised the good—and seemingly obvious—idea of making recesses coincide with school half-terms. That idea has been proposed by men and women from all parties, and it is an idea whose time has come.
I will give way first to the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Sir Simon Burns) and then to the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray).
Will the hon. Lady accept that apart from the October half-term, the progress we have made means that most recesses dovetail with the state holidays and half-terms, except for Scottish MPs?
I absolutely agree. Progress has definitely been made. The October half-term is somewhat of an anomaly. I imagine that the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts was going to make that exact point about Scotland, as I will go on to do.
The right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Sir Simon Burns) did, in fact, steal my thunder in that the recess dates do not follow the Scottish school holidays, almost at all. That is important not just from a family-friendly point of view but from a representation point of view, and there needs to be some cognisance of that from the House authorities and the Leader of the House. They need to consider whether there can be some movement—a week here and there—that would allow us to perform our duties both as parents and as representative MPs.
I very much welcome those interventions—they both stole my thunder. I will come on to talk about how our holidays have definitely moved more in line with the UK’s school holidays, except where Scotland is concerned.
Going back to the idea of moving the October recess, I am aware of the well-rehearsed arguments about how that would make it too soon after the conference recess, but I simply bat that back and ask, “Why do we have a three-week conference recess?” This might be a scandalous idea, but why do we not have our conferences a bit earlier or, God forbid, hold them, as the Scottish National party does, on a Friday, Saturday and Sunday so that they do not get in the way of parliamentary business? We could then consider moving our holidays around to fit everyone in this place.
In solidarity with my Scottish colleagues, I must raise the issue of the Scottish education system. As has been outlined, its holidays—all the half-terms and the summer break—run completely out of kilter with the recesses in this place. I am not certain, but I think that Christmas might be at the same time in Scotland—it is a fairly national thing. The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) told me that the overlap between the recess here and the Scottish school holidays is only two weeks, which will allow him only the same fortnight each year to go on holiday with his family. He will therefore miss the same annual events each year in his constituency, which will affect his ability to represent his constituents. That seems completely unfair, given that my summer recess falls exactly in line with my children’s summer holidays. The hon. Gentleman asked me to raise with the Deputy Leader of the House the possibility of a three-week overlap, at the very least, for his family, and for other Scottish Members with children. That is a reasonable request, so it would be crass of me not to make it; this is, after all, the UK Parliament.
There will be push and pull between parents whose children live in London and the surrounding areas and those whose children live elsewhere. I would prefer longer hours in Parliament and to be at home in my constituency for more days of the week, but I know that that would not work for everyone. I was warned by people who have been in this place for much longer than me that if I ever wanted to see my children, I should move them to London, but my kids’ school, their friends and their life are in Birmingham. I could not expect my dad or my parents-in-law to up sticks to help me with the childcare as they do now. We should not want or need to encourage people to live in London, because that would make this place even more divorced from the lives of most of those whom we are here to serve.
Perhaps the hon. Lady will reflect on the fact that Members of the Scottish Parliament do not feel the need to move their families to Edinburgh, despite having to travel great distances, because that Parliament’s Chamber and parliamentary week are structured to ensure that things are more family-friendly. Perhaps we could learn something from that.
I spend an awful lot of time in this place, particularly with the Women and Equalities Committee, learning that there are many areas on which we could learn from Scotland and how it runs things. There are many, many things about how the Scottish Parliament is run, such as how the Members vote—the Divisions are held in a completely different way—that seem to be much more family-friendly. I encourage any commission that is taking place and the Deputy Leader of the House to consider how we might be able to mirror some of the existing models in Scotland. Scotland, much like Sweden, is some sort of panacea of all the good things that happen in people’s lives.
I hope that I am not stealing the hon. Lady’s thunder, as she might be about to come on to this, but has she considered the idea of job sharing for MPs as a way of ensuring better representation of women, for instance, and people with disabilities?
It is something that I have considered, and I was going to ask the Deputy Leader of the House what she thought of the idea. I am not entirely sure how it would work. I feel that if I were to job share, I would still end up doing exactly the same as I do now, which incidentally was what happened to me when I worked part time—I was paid for three days a week and worked for five. I therefore have some concerns about the idea. Constituents will want their MP regardless of whether it is their day. I know that Professor Childs has been looking into that, and it should be part of the debate.
When looking at a gender-sensitive Parliament, as opposed to a family-friendly Parliament, there is certainly an argument for considering the idea of job shares for those with Government positions. That would allow people with children—this largely affects women, I suppose—to take up positions in government from which they might otherwise be barred. While there might be an argument for that, I cannot see how job sharing for MPs would work, although I am willing to be proven wrong.
Work on timetabling would be a far less complicated way of making things a little easier. Why do we not find out about future business further in advance? Things have definitely improved in terms of hours, as I am sure we will hear from people who have been Members for a while. If we knew further in advance that we would have to be in Westminster or to stay late, it would make it easier to combine work and family responsibilities. It would make it easier to organise childcare in advance and would stop me constantly making promises to my sons that I often cannot keep when it comes to the day.
What does the Deputy Leader of the House think of giving us more warning in the business statement of future business, albeit recognising that issues can emerge that we cannot predict? Does she think that MPs or Ministers should be allowed to job share? What models could be considered around proper systems of parental leave, maternity leave, paternity leave and carers leave for everyone who works in Parliament, including Members, and what are the Government’s proposals?
The all-party group on women in Parliament produced a report last year that asked the House to reconsider the age at which children are allowed in the Lobbies. I think that some Members might be breaking that rule already, but does the Deputy Leader of the House agree the age should be raised from one year to cover all pre-school children—those aged from nought to four? Childcare costs are recorded and published as individual MP’s expenses, while disability allowances are aggregated, but that effectively disincentivises MPs from claiming for childcare costs, as they will have higher expenses claims than other MPs. What does she think about changing the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority system to deal with that?
The hon. Lady refers to IPSA. Does she feel that there is any room for a family impact assessment of some of the IPSA rules, especially regarding how children over 18 are not treated as part of the family? Does she have any comments on that?
There needs to be an overarching look at what IPSA provides and how it reports in respect of families. The right hon. Lady mentions dependents over 18, and while my children are much smaller, I remember how long I was dependent on my parents. We must always be careful in Parliament about making a rule for us that does not reflect the rules we make for those outside. Thinking about IPSA, I suppose this goes back to my point about how the press lobby often reflects some of the issues around this place not being a family-friendly environment.
I often hear of those MPs who are lauded for having lower expenses. My leader is a good example of that, but the truth behind the headline is that those MPs who live outside London, who have dependents and who claim the top-up for dependent children will always be seen to be claiming more, even though in my case that is only so that I can afford a place for my children to sleep when they are with me in London. The headline of “Greedy MP” will never tell that story. As has been suggested, I sometimes wonder whether this relates to how women are treated in the media. The idea of a greedy woman or a woman being away from her children is delicious to the media, and some of the ways in which IPSA reports on childcare costs and our expenses exacerbates the situation for women MPs.
Does the Deputy Leader of the House think that women should be allowed to breastfeed in the Chamber and in Committees? I realise that that would be ridiculously controversial, but I can tell Members from years of experience that putting off breastfeeding a baby makes you feel like you are going to die or explode at any minute. I can totally sympathise with colleagues with new born babies who sometimes need to do that quickly and suddenly.
How can we send out the message that we are family-friendly? The possibility of family days has been raised, when people in Parliament would be encouraged to bring their children to this place and we could discuss issues specifically affecting families inside and outside Parliament. We must be seen to be more like the people outside for them to trust us again. Would the Deputy Leader of the House encourage that idea?
Having a crèche is a lifesaver for many parents who work in Parliament. What does the Deputy Leader of the House think about keeping it open later on nights when officials, security staff, MPs and their staff, Clerks and others have to stay later? I am always wary when I have a deadline to pick my children up from childcare. We must be careful that we do not have one rule for in here and one rule for out there, but until the rules in here look like normal working practice out there, I think that we could get away with having the crèche open later.
Those are just some of the ideas I would like the Deputy Leader of the House to consider, and I look forward to hearing other Members’ ideas. My hero of the week is the Canadian Prime Minister who, when asked last week why he had appointed a 50% female Cabinet, said simply, “Because it’s 2015.” As a mum of two young children, a Member of Parliament and a resident of a different bit of the UK, I say that it is 2015, so let us get on with this.
Order. Before we continue the debate, I need to say that because of the number of Members who have indicated that they wish to speak, I am imposing, with the authority of the Chairman of Ways and Means, a five-minute time limit on Back-Bench speeches. I remind Members that for each of the first two interventions accepted during a speech, the clock will be stopped, with one minute added to the time remaining for the Member who gave way. A third or subsequent intervention will count against the time limit. The clocks on the wall will display the time remaining to a Member.
It is a pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Mr Hamilton. I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) on securing this important debate.
I will be brief. I am depressed to think that I came to this place when the hon. Lady was in her first year at primary school. The plus, though, is the strides that have been made in this place since then. When I first came here and through into the ’90s—I had two young children—the House of Commons sat from 2.30 in the afternoon, Monday to Thursday. On Monday to Wednesday, we were lucky if we finished at midnight; more often than not, it was 1.30, sometimes 3 o’clock, and very occasionally each Session we would go through the night.
Those were not family-friendly hours at all. Since then, due to work done by the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), John Major and others, as the hon. Lady mentioned, we have improved the situation, but more needs to be done. I personally would like Mondays to start at 11.30 am, like Tuesdays and Wednesdays. I know the argument is that Members of Parliament have to come down to London, but they could get up a little earlier or possibly come the night before, although that might be anti-family-friendly as well if they are not moving up and down with their families.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that if we were more efficient in how we dealt with business in the House, perhaps we could get through the week quicker? That would allow us to sit on fewer occasions, be in our constituencies as representatives more often and also carry out our duties as parents.
I could make a snide comment about the Scottish National party stopping its habit of forcing Divisions in the House of Commons, which might be more efficient, but I will resist that cheap jibe. What I will say is no, I do not agree, because we have a job of work to do. We sit 34 or 35 a weeks a year. We have the weekends—Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays if we are so minded—plus about 16, 18, 20 weeks a year to work in our constituencies. There is a job for us to do here. When the House of Commons is sitting, we should maximise the time and do that job rather than constantly whittling away the amount of time we work here. The less time we worked here, the less ability we would have to hold the Executive—the Government—to account, and that would be a big mistake.
We need to look more at the recesses, which have improved dramatically, as have the hours. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley made a point about programme motions. To start with, I was not in favour of those, but they do give a clarity and a consistency to our debates so that we know more about what is happening when, and we make our speeches and judgments on the basis of that. We need to look at all that. Of course, Scotland has a problem with regard to its schools’ summer holidays. We could see whether we could fine-tune when we go into recess in July to accommodate Scottish Members of Parliament. That would be perfectly reasonable.
I am very pleased to see the change in the composition of the House of Commons. Again, in the 1980s, both the Labour and Conservative parties were predominantly white, male and middle class. The situation has now improved beyond all recognition, partly through the efforts of Tony Blair as well as of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, with the A-list from 2005 to 2010. What we have seen is far more women in this place, which is absolutely right, although we need more; far more people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, which is right because that reflects what goes on in this country; and, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) said, people with disabilities. We have got to be a representative Parliament.
Does my right hon. Friend not agree that the overwhelming majority of Members are still white males?
I would not agree that an overwhelming majority are. I certainly think that a significant minority are female and non-white, and not all white male MPs are middle class. There is a range of backgrounds, funnily enough, in both parties. Everyone stereotypes the Labour party as the party of the working classes and the Tory party as the party of the middle and upper classes, but that is not true if one looks. There are a lot of differentiations both ways. There is even—one immediately comes to mind—an honourable public schoolboy who used to be a member of the shadow Cabinet until the recent leadership election, which shows how some barriers have broken down.
A slightly more controversial subject is the question of breastfeeding. We have to be careful that, in pushing for a more realistic approach, we do not give the tabloid press the opportunity to ridicule us. I may be old-fashioned, but I share the view of the last but one Speaker of the House of Commons, Speaker Boothroyd, who, when asked on a point of order by a Labour MP for Swindon, Julia Drown, whether it would be possible to breastfeed in the House of Commons Chamber, said that when she saw her checkout girl at Tesco’s breastfeeding, she would allow it. [Interruption.] Sorry?
I was merely making the point that one cannot scan items and breastfeed at the same time.
The hon. Lady is absolutely correct, but I think the point behind Speaker Boothroyd’s comment was right: there is an appropriate time and place for breastfeeding. I am simply offering a word of caution; we do not want this issue to degenerate and the merits of the case to be undermined because we are ridiculed for what is proposed.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
No, because I do not have much time—I am not sure how much time I have got.
Order. I call Dr Rupa Huq.
The other day at about 8 o’clock, I found myself heading back from the mother of Parliaments, which is—I still pinch myself—my workplace. I was heading from tube to road with a neighbour of mine from a few doors away, who said, “Late night at work, was it?” I was not fast enough to say no, this was an early night; as all Members know, it can be a lot later than that on a Monday.
Last night I did not even see my 11-year-old, who started high school this year. All the parenting guidebooks would say that that is a crucial time to be with one’s child. Until we get elected to this place, we do not really know what goes on in here. I have been here for six months and I am still acclimatising. We do not know what time we will get away until the day itself, and that unpredictability is part of the problem that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) so persuasively highlighted.
To those on the outside, a debate such as this, as the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Sir Simon Burns) mentioned, will not get a lot of sympathy. We are seen as overpaid and all the rest of it, but, after six months here, I have worked out that this place is many things. It is awesome in the true sense of that word: awe-inspiring. It is traditional and humbling, but one thing it is definitely not is family-friendly, so I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this timely debate today.
A Mumsnet survey from 2011 found that 91% of MPs would not describe their job as family-friendly. One of the early visits that I hosted here was for a school party from Ellen Wilkinson school in West Acton; I am proud that my constituency has a school named after a woman Labour MP who led the Jarrow march. In the Q&A bit afterwards, one of the girls said to me, “Why are there so few women MPs?” Partly, we take that for granted when we are on the inside, and my hon. Friend highlighted well the inside/outside divide on these issues. In my reply, I cited the family-unfriendly hours. On Mondays, I have been getting away at half-past midnight—and I am always the first person to leg it. Even when I was heading home at eight o’clock, and my neighbour thought it was late, I had been trying to get away quickly.
The Speaker’s Conference on parliamentary representation talked of the
“inflexible and unwelcoming attitude of the House towards families”.
That should not be so. However, as my hon. Friend said, we need reform on many levels. We need to be a modern Parliament, to reflect the communities we seek to serve; otherwise, we will have an ever-narrowing talent pool, and the big fish in that small pond will be self-replicating professional politicians. My hon. Friend mentioned that the Labour party’s previous leader—indeed, the three party leaders at the general election—had done nothing other than work for head office; they were backroom boys who had become leader. We need people from outside who have had other adult workplace experience and can bring in fresh thinking.
How would we define the average family in the UK today? The definition would have to take into account 2 million single parents. Gingerbread remarks that, contrary to media reports,
“these days, bringing up children on your own is actually a very normal part of family life in the UK.”
One in four dependent households is now a single-parent family. As a parent, every working mother constantly feels guilt about where their loyalties lie. If they work in a place such as this, that is magnified and multiplied severalfold, and that is even truer if they are a single parent. Flexibility in the workplace has been legislated for, but it seems not to apply to this place. Wherever people work, flexibility has a stigma attached to it, and they are made to feel embarrassed about even asking for flexible arrangements. However, that is even truer in the House. Gingerbread states that 57% of single parents work and that their average age is 38, contrary to the Daily Mail stereotype of their being feckless, teenage, brown-faced people.
All the research shows that mums are under-represented in this place, and single mums even more so. It takes a certain type of person to be an MP—we have to be shameless exhibitionists and a bit megalomaniac, and we must have a sense of public service and an ability to adapt. If all those things stifle diversity, that is a bad thing. We have to balance all these things.
To some extent—we heard this from the right hon. Member for Chelmsford—the idea that we have always done things this way—
Order. I am sorry, but you are out of time.
Really? There is so much more I could have said.
There always is. I call Alison Thewliss.
Thank you, Mr Hamilton. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I thank the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) for bringing this important issue to the House. I am glad to have had the opportunity to participate in a number of debates on issues—whether tampons, breastfeeding or whatever—that are particularly important to women across the country.
It is perhaps difficult to ascertain how family-friendly the House is, but I have been able to bring my children down once in the six months I have been here, and that was during recess.
I have shared that experience. I have not been able to bring my one-year-old down terribly often. Part of the problem is that, although there is a nursery here, it does not have a crèche facility. Children have to use it full time. Does my hon. Friend agree that looking at that issue could help?
Yes, absolutely. There are 40 places in that nursery facility—it is a nursery, not a crèche, and there is no drop-in. I went to inquire whether it might be possible to bring my children down during the Scottish summer holidays, and it was not. Another limitation is that the nursery is for children up to the age of five; if they are older than that, there is nowhere they can go.
It is unfair of us to ask members of our or the building’s staff to look after our children while we nip off to vote. That is not what they are here to do; they are here to do their job, and childcare does not form part of that—I think we would also find that was true if we looked at their IPSA job descriptions. The nursery is also incredibly expensive, so it is not accessible to the vast number of staff in this building. In addition, there are only 40 places. Given the number of women and family members who serve this building, that is woefully short of what is required.
I was glad that the hon. Lady mentioned the staff in this building, whether they work for Hansard, serve food or work as cleaners. They are required to work when we are required to work, and that is also not family-friendly for them. Indeed, it is even truer for them, because they do not get the benefit of the expenses that we get as part of our duties in the House. We need to be mindful of them and of the family-unfriendliness of the House to the wider staff population.
I want to mention breastfeeding because the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Sir Simon Burns) mentioned it. As far as I am concerned, the appropriate time and place to feed a baby is when it is hungry, regardless of when and where that may be. I have breastfed at Hampden Park in the middle of a football crowd, at bus stops and anywhere else my baby has been hungry. As a Glasgow city councillor, I breastfed my child in meetings, including committee meetings, and nobody had a problem with that. My baby was happy, it was not crying and it was not disruptive, because it was being fed. That was true of both my children. That issue needs to be better understood.
There is also an issue about the culture in this building and the way people behave. As far as the young researchers who come here are concerned, that is perhaps the way things have always been. However, I was at a reception earlier, and there was wine on the table. That was a lunch time. Is that really appropriate? Is the culture we want to encourage in this building that people go for a glass of wine at lunch time or at a dinner reception, or that people stay late and go to the bars between votes? That is not a family-friendly culture either, and it is not a good place for the building where laws are made to be. We perhaps need to consider that as well.
The right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) raised the issue of sharing positions. There are issues around that, and we are elected to serve, so we need to do that. However, I believe the French Parliament has the “suppléant” system, under which those who are elected have someone who follows on behind them. If they become a Minister, that person steps in to cover their constituency duties. We could perhaps look at that example of something another Parliament does as one potential model, although it is not the exact model, because we are talking about something different.
I have been reflecting on what the hon. Lady has been saying. Many of the working parents listening to the debate will not be able to take their children, including those who require breastfeeding, into work. Does she agree that, by making this place more family-friendly in the first place, the requirement for us to bring children into work would be less acute? I speak as a mum of three, who came into the House in 2005, when my youngest was three, so I have lived the experiences she has talked about.
We could set an example as a workplace where children are seen as part of the wider family of the people who work here. For me as a parent, it would be ideal if all workplaces, if necessary, had some way of ensuring children are looked after. That might involve flexible working hours, and there are many workplaces where people can have flexible hours and where that is encouraged. We need to think about the message this place sends out and the way we do our business.
My hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts talked a little about the way the Scottish Parliament works and its debates are conducted. There are stricter time limits there. Members might say that that would mean they did not get to say all they wanted to say in a debate, but it does encourage people to be a bit more focused. For example, we would not have the situation we had during the debate on the Scotland Bill last night, when somebody without a great specific interest in the issue talked for nearly half an hour, eating up all the time for debate. The Presiding Officer in the Scottish Parliament would take a much stricter line on such behaviour, and that is perhaps something we could look at. In the interests of greater efficiency in debates, it would also be helpful to know the business further ahead of time, because we do not get the opportunity to plan for it. When things come up at the very last minute, as they often do, we are forced to rush from one place to another to try to be there for debates.
Having said that, I do not want to take up everybody else’s time in the debate, so I will leave it at that. I thank the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley again for raising this important issue.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) for securing this wonderful debate. The contributions have been of high quality, and I hope that Professor Childs’s inquiry will make substantive proposals on where the reform process should go next.
I want to share a few reflections on my experience as the mum of two children under five. I passionately agree with sentiments that have been expressed about the need for this place to reflect the country. If we do not look like the country and offer working practices that appeal to it, we will never attract the talent and diversity we need or truly represent the United Kingdom. That, for me, is at the heart of the debate.
I pay tribute to past Members, and some who are still in this place, including you, Mr Hamilton, for their hard work and the hard-fought battles they have won. They have made Parliament a far more family-friendly place than it would have been 20 years ago, and certainly 50 years ago. I benefit from that work, but we cannot stop at where we are, and we certainly cannot go back. These debates and the work of Professor Childs are important to make the House of Commons a beacon of best practice. We should be ahead of the game, not behind the curve, which is where I feel that we currently are. After five months here, it does not feel like a very family-friendly place.
I agree with the hon. Lady, but how can we avoid the trap that when we set an example, we will get things that many people in other workplaces will not get, so the changes will be seen just as Members of Parliament looking after their own and getting privileges, for want of a better word, that other people will never get?
That is a great intervention. First, we are behind the curve compared with working practice in much of industry, and the charitable and public sectors, and that is a problem. Secondly, 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.
Women are already under-represented here, but women with children are even less well represented. Research in 2012 found that 45% of male Members of Parliament had children compared with 28% of women. I do not think that parents of any background are attracted to this place, and that is a problem.
My experience of being a parent—I think that this is true for men and women—is that I have changed beyond measure. I understand how hard it is to be a parent, and to balance trying to earn an income and to be a good mum with caring responsibilities for elderly relatives. Such experiences will make people in this place better law makers, so we must attract women, and both women and men who are parents. I want to be the Member of Parliament for my home town in Yorkshire, but I also want to be a mum, and I do not think anyone in this place should have to make a choice about that. It should be possible to be both, but currently it is quite hard to get it right. I share the sentiments that have been expressed about that situation.
All of us who are Members of Parliament knew the working deal when we applied for the job. People come here with their eyes open, but I had not realised quite how hard things would be. I am desperate to encourage people to apply for this job, but we must make it more appealing. The experience has been quite hard—getting home after midnight and not seeing the kids for four or five nights in a week is tough. The unpredictability of the business of the House is a challenge. I have probably spent five hours in the past couple of weeks trying to organise childcare because there were changes affecting votes and business, and whether something was on or off the Whip. That was such a headache, and while I know that every working parent in the country has headaches, I do not think that we need to do things in that way. We can be much more effective.
I agree with the comments of the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) about not having a crèche here. My kids are regularly dragged here, and then I have to ask a member of staff to look after them when I run in to vote. If there were a nice place for them to go where they had mates and toys, that would be such a relief for me. I think we can be flexible about breastfeeding. I breastfed on demand for four years, probably, and it is doable. It is possible to be discreet about it; there is no need to be overt. Lots of places of work offer that opportunity. We should take on the popular press if it is critical and say, “This is what women do; get over it.” It is good for children, so we should advocate it.
More efficient management of business would be a good thing. I agree that there could be shorter time limits on interventions and speeches, and that points could be made much more effectively and business could be more efficient. The European Parliament also does that. We should look to the best practice in other Parliaments, as well as in industry and the charitable sector, which are ahead of us. I welcome the debate and Professor Childs’s work.
If the next speaker is brief, we can fit in another.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Hamilton. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) on securing this important debate. I stand with her against the abuse that was directed towards her recently and praise her courage in standing up to bullies. She is a great example.
As part of being more family-friendly, MPs should be able to be good employers to their staff who have roles as family members and carers. It is vital for MPs to be good employers and to set an example, but the opportunity to do that is being denied to us in a number of ways. MPs’ staff take on a heavy workload with many stresses to support our work. Sometimes they are as stressed as we are, and they are also husbands, wives, daughters, sons and parents, with the responsibilities and occasional emergencies associated with that. A couple of years ago a staff member of mine suddenly needed compassionate or carer’s leave because of a family medical emergency. Of course she took the leave—I told her to take it—but as she was a vital member of my team dealing with case work, I needed to cover her role. I was appalled to learn from the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority that our staff contracts do not cover compassionate or caring leave.
MPs should be able to be good employers and to offer leave to carers. As my hon. Friend said, how can we talk to big business about what it should do if we do not hold ourselves up as a good example? At a recent meeting on carer’s leave, I heard of the good example set by Centrica, which won a best for carers and eldercare award from Carers UK for its excellent policies. It rightly believes that supporting carers reduces turnover and cuts recruitment and training costs. It also has an employee-led carers network. MPs should be able to support the carers among their staff, and IPSA’s policy should allow for carer’s leave. We used to be able to give such leave before IPSA changed that—the old contracts allowed it.
I hope that the House will raise that matter with IPSA and ensure that we can offer what a caring employer should be able to do for its staff who are carers. I ask the Deputy Leader of the House to include that issue alongside the many others that she has been asked to think about, and to help to ensure that it is put to IPSA.
I am fairly new to the House, having replaced Dame Dawn Primarolo, who came to the House in 1987 as a young woman with a young child. That was unusual at the time, when there were only 44 women MPs. I know from the work she did and led, and the work of the all-party group on women in Parliament, how much progress has been made. I am certainly a beneficiary of that, including in my constituency, which selected another woman, with three dependent children of school age. I hope to follow my predecessor’s example and am delighted to be part of the debate.
I am the mother of three boys aged 16, 13 and 10. I understand that it is quite unusual to turn up here with children already at school. I agree that one of the great things about joining this place has been the reaction among families in Bristol. My children’s friends, and the teachers and support staff from their schools, have stopped them in the street—it is quite emotional—to say, “Isn’t it fantastic what your mum is doing?” Local journalists have said to me on the side, quietly, “How are you going to manage it? That’s quite impressive.” The reaction from wider society to a woman joining Parliament at this stage with growing children has been a real shock to me. It has been a pleasure to take responsibility for making it easier and to say to people, “Actually, a lot of people leave home during the week to do their job.”
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way when time is short. I concur with all the comments made about family-friendliness with regard to children, but looking at it from another angle, does my hon. Friend agree that MPs who are carers of other family members also need time to talk and for family time at the end of the day? For instance, my husband was very ill with cancer last year and needed attention. He does not need a crèche in this place, but other family members certainly have needs.
I absolutely agree. I will come on to make a similar point about looking after older people.
From the mouths of babes: in the summer, my 10-year-old said to me that a boy in his class told him that he does not see his dad in the morning because he leaves Bristol before he gets up, that he gets back from work late, at 10 o’clock, and that he is away at work five days a week. I have generally been able to get home on a Thursday to pick up my 10-year-old, so I take the point made by others that some people have it worse than many of us. We are sometimes able to flex our working days and to plan around our home life. I think my little 10-year-old suddenly thought to himself, “I’m a bit better off than many others.”
I said that I was going to mention caring for older people. My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North East (Colleen Fletcher) made a good point about caring for spouses and other family members. That is very important, especially for people in their 50s and 60s.
I concur with my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) about the culture here, particularly on a Wednesday, when there is a noticeable difference in the number of photographers, journalists and lobby groups—particularly young men—in this place. That reflects the fact that family-friendliness is about not only MPs and perceptions of privilege, but the wider political culture in which we operate. I praise our journalists, photographers, lobbyists and so on for their work, and I hope that by having this debate, we lend some support to that wider movement.
There are lessons to be learned from the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments about the predictability of the agenda. As the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Sir Simon Burns) said, we should commend political parties. It was only through all-women shortlists that the Labour party was able to force itself to take the issue seriously and to build a weight of numbers. The Conservative A-list has also helped. We must welcome the number of women who have come into Parliament as Scottish National party Members. There is a good opportunity for Parliament to lead on this issue.
Order. According to my calculations, each of the Front-Bench speakers has about nine minutes.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hamilton. I thank the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), my Select Committee colleague and fellow feminist, for securing this debate.
This building—this institution—was not built with women or families in mind. I direct Members’ attention to the Lady Members’ Room, to which I was introduced in my first week here. It appears to be a place with comfortable chairs that harks back to the days when women were expected to iron and adorn themselves with doilies—lovely, I am sure, but I am quite confident that that would not be seen in the men’s rooms.
This House ought to consider the reality that there are currently more male MPs than there have ever been female MPs. That is an astounding statistic and things cannot continue like this. What does that say to women and girls? What will the gradual effect be on the idea of women in powerful positions in the world? We must educate women and girls, and also men and boys, and show that this place is representative of society as a whole, but we can do that only when it becomes so.
One morning I found an SNP MP ironing in the Lady Members’ Room, so the hon. Lady is quite right.
We all need to iron; it is not gender-specific.
What message does this place send to young people wishing to start families? It is, “Politics is not for you.” This place will be representative of only certain sections of society if we dismiss the role of parenting or undermine it by indicating that the House is only for the big boys or people who can, as the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Sir Simon Burns) said, get out of their beds earlier or travel down the night before. Those attitudes, and many like them, are the very reason—
I do not want the hon. Lady to misrepresent what I said. I was talking about how the hours on a Monday could involve us starting from 11.30 am, as we do on Tuesday and Wednesday. It is self-evident that in order to go to work on Monday morning, Members who are not based in London would either have to come down to London the night before, which is not very family-friendly, or to get up early on Monday morning. That is just a fact of life.
I recognise the right hon. Gentleman’s comments, but I do not need a lecture on the geography of this country and how difficult it is for Members from rural and urban communities to get here.
But you do on being accurate.
I will continue. The right hon. Gentleman’s attitude only reaffirms the need for this debate.
To be clear, this is not about questioning the commitment of female Members—or, indeed, any Members—to their jobs. When will this place begin to advocate a greater emphasis on shared parenting or consider additional caring responsibilities?
My colleagues on the Women and Equalities Committee will be all too familiar with my ability to champion Scotland as a beacon, and this is an area in which there has been more progress than in the House of Commons. The Scottish Parliament sits until 5 pm each day, whereas this House can sit as late as 11 pm, or continue for even longer. Voting in the Scottish Parliament takes seconds, while voting in this House can take anything up to 20 minutes. The Scottish Parliament has a crèche that is open until the close of business, and it sits for three days a week, allowing Members two days in their constituency properly to fulfil their roles. The Scottish Government have one of the first gender-balanced Cabinets in the world. All three party leaders in Scotland are female. None of them were backroom boys, and I am sure that they would not like to be known as such, although I am not suggesting that that was what the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) meant. Thirty-five per cent. of Members of the Scottish Parliament are female, and the SNP will go into the Holyrood elections with more female candidates than ever before.
When will this place begin to consider the long-term, sustained impact of juggling professional and personal commitments? How have the strongest relationships surpassed many of the challenges that the job entails? How do we continue as a family-friendly, positive working environment? When will this House consider the reality behind the rhetoric? On gender-balanced Cabinets, smashing the gender pay gap, reducing inequalities and dealing with maternity discrimination, is this place really setting the standard? Let us get this House in order first.
If we present everyone with the reality of long hours, arduous travel and endless hours of debating, the House may never progress. This House must be more family-friendly, diverse and progressive. Most importantly, it must also be representative, so let us get this House in order.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hamilton. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) on securing this important debate and thank her for her excellent contribution.
Last night, I left the House at about 10.40 pm, after votes. I understand that that is decidedly early for this place, but it is even earlier than the leaving times of the Doorkeepers, the catering staff, librarians and all the other staff on the parliamentary estate who work around the operations of the political business of the day. The reality is that, when parliamentary life is so unpredictable, neither staff nor MPs can easily plan their real lives outside this place. The concept of family-friendliness is often seen in narrow terms—that it is the women MPs who have children who want a system to suit them. The right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) said we should have a people-friendly Parliament. We should have a system that suits as many people as possible and that suits their lives as much as possible, and that includes the staff who work here as much as the MPs, the men as much as the women, and those with family caring responsibilities other than children.
Making parliament more family friendly is a crucial step towards achieving equal representation for women in politics, which, unfortunately, we are far from achieving. In 2015, only 29% of Members of Parliament are female. The UK is doing worse on female representation than Uganda, Zimbabwe and many of our European neighbours. The good news is that we have increased the number of female MPs since the election in May, and we have now overtaken Afghanistan—just.
Equally important to this debate is the motherhood gap in the House of Commons. That is to say, female MPs are significantly less likely than our male colleagues to have children. My hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Jo Cox) transposed the figures a little, but the studies conducted during the previous Parliament showed that although only 28% of male MPs had no children, the figure for women was much higher—45%—which suggests that women view the life of an MP as incompatible with caring for a child. The system is geared towards the traditional view that parliamentarians are men with a wife at home to look after the children. There is no consideration of modern families that do not fit that outdated concept. The same goes for staff in this place. Are single parents, new parents and carers less likely to consider working on the parliamentary estate as a career when the system is so unpredictable? I do not know; perhaps the Minister does.
The Government have worked hard to present themselves as a modern, representative, “UK now” Government, but failing to take seriously such inherent issues in the system, which present themselves again and again, leaves our great Parliament looking more stuck in the dark ages than the gothic arches under which we sit. This matters, because a House of Commons that is truly representative of the population of the United Kingdom will be more attuned to the needs of the public. For example, it was following a surge in the number of women MPs entering Parliament 20 years ago that the gender pay gap started to be properly measured and began to close. Similarly, some of the issues that most desperately need addressing today are those that parents are acutely conscious of, such as the need for affordable childcare and the need to ensure that the housing market works for our children’s generation.
I thank all hon. Members who spoke today—particularly those who shared their personal experiences of how difficult the House can be for Members with children. I know that there is only a small sample of Members here today, but in a survey conducted by Mumsnet, which another colleague spoke about earlier, two thirds of MPs said that their job has a negative impact on their family life. One MP surveyed said:
“I have a two-year-old daughter and no-one cares if I don’t see her.”
Another senior MP said:
“I never saw my children grow up and I’ll regret this to the day I die.”
I think that is a terrible indictment of a modern working environment.
A number of excellent points have been made by colleagues today about how Parliament is failing to be family-friendly. If, as the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) said, councils can make accommodation to allow new mums to bring their babies into the chamber and, as has been mentioned, the European Parliament allows elected Members to breastfeed babies during debates, is it not time for this place to open itself up to a 21st-century way of working, rather than hide behind Victorian values?
Hon. Members said that the tabloid media might seek to undermine breastfeeding parents in this place. If breastfeeding continues to be viewed as the exception rather than the rule and does not become commonplace then, yes, it is open to ridicule.
It is not just about elected institutions. I served as a non-executive director of a primary care trust 10 years ago, and I was able to bring my young child along to health authority meetings and breastfeed without any fear of anything going wrong. A wide range of other bodies also manage to do the same.
There is nothing more to add to that; it is the perfect example of how it can work in different environments.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley kindly credited me for proposing that parliamentary recesses coincide with the school holidays, but I do not think I was the first to propose that. We need to take a long, hard look at how we operate. It is ludicrous that we are about to go on recess, but half term was two weeks ago. I am not going to see my son for an extended period. I have been reduced to being a parent for three nights a week, which does not feel very satisfactory. As other hon. Members said, Scottish schools’ summer holiday periods coincide with just two weeks of parliamentary recess. Giving greater consideration to planning our sitting days around term times would greatly benefit not just MPs but House staff, but that does not seem to be forthcoming. The Government still have not announced the House’s recess dates for Easter, which is just four months away. Will the Minister tell us whether there is any justification for that, other than tradition?
This is not just a legislative Chamber but a workplace and, I think, a museum. We welcome visitors from around the world to view the Palace. We invite constituents, businesses and charities to meet us, so where are the signs for the baby changing facilities? Where are the designated areas for breastfeeding? We should be leading by example and showing what a modern working environment can be. How can we lecture employers on flexible working and childcare provision if we cannot get it right ourselves and do not even seem to be trying?
Professor Sarah Childs from the University of Bristol, who is here today, has been appointed to carry out an independent assessment of gender inequality in Parliament. When I last asked the Minister about what changes are being planned to make Parliament more family friendly, she just said that the Procedure Committee had looked at sitting hours and decided not to make further changes. In this debate, we have heard that there is a wide range of other issues that we should consider in the round. I hope the Minister agrees that, once the report is published, it is right and proper to have a debate in the Commons Chamber in Government time so we can properly debate its findings.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hamilton. I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) on securing this debate. Just six months into being a Member of Parliament, she has certainly made an impression on the House. She is right to say that this is not a partisan issue. I know she is a busy lady. She sits on the Women and Equalities Committee, and she is also a member of the Backbench Business Committee, which I believe is meeting at the same time as this debate, so she has had to sacrifice her presence there to be here. In its previous sitting, it seems that there was a minor fracas about international men’s day, which continued on “Daily Politics”. When I saw it, I wondered whether it had become a parliamentary version of “Snog Marry Avoid?” I do not expect her to say which it is.
The hon. Lady widened the debate beyond MPs to the demands on all staff—particularly House staff. I pay tribute to all staff who help us in our roles as Members of Parliament. This issue matters to the House. Perhaps I should encourage the House of Commons authorities to make more widely known what happens in relation to flexible working, nurseries, childcare schemes in our unusual summer holidays, career breaks and so on. That information is useful, and I will ask the House authorities to extend it further and especially to new Members.
We should also recognise that we are employers in our own right, so we must be role models when we work with our staff. I tell my team off—I do not know whether they are watching—if they work later than a certain hour. I give them notice and tell them that if they keep doing it, I will have their keys removed and kick them out at a certain time. It matters that we are role models, as has been said many times already in this debate.
We are unique in a certain respect: although we should and do represent wider society, we are the masters and mistresses of our own destiny from the day we are elected until we put ourselves forward for re-election. We should consider how we perform our roles as parliamentarians. The issue is not about being superwoman or superman, but being conscious that we are representing people when we are in the Chamber, when we scrutinise legislation, when we become Ministers and when we work in our constituencies. Our party leaders expect us to be here to vote on important matters, but, as we have discussed in previous years, to some extent we can work with the usual channels to ensure we have a sensible, proactive family life. Although I do not have children, I believe that such accommodations are often willingly made.
I take the point made by the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Sir Simon Burns), who said that things were more difficult in the past. Thank goodness for technology. Those of us who are parents are able to use FaceTime, Skype and what have you to keep in touch with our children. Would it not be more appropriate for this House to use technology to enable us to work more effectively as representatives, rather than use technology as parents?
The House is using technology more and more, but the hon. Gentleman may want it to go further. I passed a colleague other day who was on FaceTime celebrating with their daughter the opening of her birthday presents. It was a sweet and charming moment and is something that simply was not available until recently.
I am conscious that I have to give some time to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley, so I will try to get through a few of the issues raised in the debate. Quite a lot has been said about the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority and people’s demands. It is important to ensure that the public understand that decisions about pay, pensions and expenses are made by IPSA, which puts its schemes out for consultation. It is statutorily obliged in the first year of a Parliament to undertake a specific review, to which I strongly urge Members to respond.
I made personal representations in the previous Parliament about colleagues who live on the fringes of London and yet have to dash for the train rather than participate in Adjournment debates, for example. The challenge of maintaining a family while working here and in the constituency is well known, and IPSA has changed following the initial backlash after the 2009 expenses issues. Beginning with a strict regime, I believe that it has made a bit of a journey and I encourage it to consider such matters more.
Specific issues were raised by, among others, the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) and I will take them up with IPSA. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley made a particularly useful suggestion about changing how IPSA reports on childcare. On media responsibility and how expenses are reported, I often say that I claim the expenses necessary in order for me to fulfil my role to my constituents, and my newspaper has finally got that fact.
On timetabling, the hon. Lady suggested that she would probably sit for longer in order to spend less time here. There was an active debate in 2012, about which I had a brief conversation with the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn), about the fact that the Select Committee on Procedure considered the matter in the previous Parliament. Sitting hours are very much a matter for the House, and the Procedure Committee is the right avenue to re-explore them. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Sir Simon Burns) referred to the idea of an earlier start on a Monday, but I am conscious of the fact that people come from the four corners of the United Kingdom and that Sunday as a special family day is important for them. That is a strong argument and is why the House voted unanimously in 2012 to keep the later Monday start, while protecting the current eight and a half hours of sitting time.
On the other Parliaments in the UK, which sit for three days and then have two constituency or family days, I suggest to the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) and the others who made that point that I find amazing what we manage to squeeze into four or four and a half days. There is then the suggestion that the House should sit for more weeks, but I am unsure whether that would lead to the right balance. The way that the parliamentary timetable has evolved allows people to be here for three days a week in most weeks if that that is what they choose to do; the issue is about judging what is best for oneself.
It is important to stress that a recess is not a holiday. Many people use recesses to undertake constituency work, and it is not right to suggest that we are not in touch with our constituents if we are not in our constituencies on a Friday as we have decided to be here for a private Member’s Bill. I have always felt that if Parliament is sitting, the reasons for my being here and not necessarily in my constituency are valid.
On knowing about business slightly further ahead of time, I do not have the Chief Whip’s understanding of exactly what is happening in both Houses, but we do, to be fair, try to give two weeks’ notice of the business being conducted. Some of that is because the timetabling at our end depends on what is happening in other House, and the relationship is not always easy to predict far in advance, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley may recognise following recent debates in the other place.
The decision in the previous Parliament to switch the Tuesday sitting hours from 2.30 pm to 11.30 am was close and was made on the basis of a majority of only 15. There is a strong view that what might work for people who are based in London does not necessarily work for people based elsewhere, and that debate may continue in this Parliament.
On voting, it is important that we keep debates with votes. I understand that the Speaker, in conjunction with the Chief Whips of each party, has made arrangements regarding young children going into the Division Lobbies. I am not aware of any issues. Regarding time limits on speeches, I do not like the Scottish or European Parliaments’ way of allocating time to parties, because it really impacts on the opportunities for Members from smaller parties to contribute to debates.
Will the Minister give way?
I will have to sit down in one minute’s time, but I will give way briefly.
I am grateful. The problem with the Speaker and the Whips making arrangements is that there are no hard and fast rules. Unless such things are laid down, it is not always clear how people can seek to make this place work better for them.
I will ensure that I speak to the Opposition Whips so that they have a session with their MPs to discuss the matter, as has already happened on our side.
Moving on to breastfeeding, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford referred to the Betty Boothroyd test, which I believe still stands. We may talk about it being the 21st century, but this is a workplace and it is not something that people enjoy wider than that. I do not believe that there is a big view in the House to make the shift at this time.
Probably the most difficult issue is that of recesses, school holidays and so on. I have done quite a lot of work on this and noted that the Scottish and Northern Irish seem to follow similar holiday patterns and the English and Welsh follow theirs. I cannot go into too much detail now as time is against me, but the business managers are listening. Some 10% of MPs are significantly disrupted by this matter, and it so happens that there was a three-week overlap this summer between the end of the recess and the beginning of Scottish schools restarting. That is something that we will consider carefully. Conferences tend to be booked five years in advance, and I understand that conversations are under way to try to see what we can do in the next Parliament.
I am not sure that I have been able to cover quite everything. I agree with the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley on job sharing, which would be very difficult. On maternity and parental leave, however, the coalition Government brought in the concept of shared parental leave. We are masters and mistresses of our own destiny, so it is up to us to decide how we address that, but it has always been more than well accommodated by Government. I am sure that the House will continue have further debates on this and other matters, and I appreciate Members’ representations today.
I thank all hon. Members who gave their views today. I welcome some of the Deputy Leader of the House’s assertions, in particular around the limited holiday possibilities for the Scottish representatives. The debate will not go away today; it will continue year in, year out. For every push back from the Government Benches, we need to ask ourselves, “Why?” Nobody has died. My mother always used to say to me, “Nothing bad happened if nobody lost an eye,” which did not help me when my son went to have an eye operation. There always seems to be push back on why these things cannot happen.
The Government would love to control every minute of parliamentary time, which would be bad for Parliament and for the country. Flexibility is often to the benefit of the Opposition.
I recognise that the Government are not alone in controlling what happens here, but this place is not representative at the moment. That is a simple fact. All of today’s speeches from people with caring responsibilities, be that for their children or elderly relatives or partners who may have been unwell, make that perfectly clear. When I leave this place, I want to see 50:50 representation of women and men.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).