Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to enable representation of a constituency by two persons sharing membership of the House of Commons; and for connected purposes.
The Bill would introduce job sharing for Members of Parliament. At the outset, let me thank all those who have helped to shape the proposal, particularly Debbi King from Disability Politics UK, the QCs Karon Monaghan and Gordon Nardell and, of course, our House of Commons Clerks for their advice.
The motivation behind the Bill is to contribute to fulfilling the objective so eloquently set out in the report of the Speaker’s Conference on parliamentary representation in 2010. It stated:
“Justice requires that there should be a place within the House of Commons for individuals from all sections of society. If anyone is prevented from standing for Parliament by reason of their gender, background, sexual orientation or perceived disability, this is an injustice…While justice is the primary case for widening Parliamentary representation, there would also be real benefits for both Parliament and wider society if the House of Commons were to be more fully representative...We believe that a more representative House of Commons would be a more effective and legitimate legislature.”
The stark reality is that this House is certainly not fully representative of our society: more than 500 of the 650 MPs are male, so women are seriously under-represented; and there are only a handful of disabled MPs in the House, but there would need to be at least 65 if it was to be representative of disabled people in the population.
In recent years discussion has taken place about what changes could be made to remove barriers to people who want to become MPs and serve their country in that way. A number of organisations representing people with disabilities have expressed the view that there are some people whose particular conditions means that, although they wish to serve as MPs, they physically would be unable to do so on a full-time basis. Others representing carers and women’s organisations have explained that, although they might wish to serve as MPs, they did not want to give up their caring role and so wanted to combine the two jobs. That included not only parents with young children, but carers of elderly or sick family members. The reality is that the vast majority of carers in our society are still women, so not being able to combine more flexibly caring responsibilities and the role of an MP was seen as an issue that needs to be addressed if we are to secure greater representation of women in Parliament.
Over the past two decades, Members from both sides of this House and several civil society bodies representing people with disabilities and women have advocated the introduction of job sharing for MPs in order to assist more people with disabilities and more women to become MPs. I recall my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge) raising the call in the 1990s. The new generation of Members has taken up the cause; my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) and the hon. Members for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) and for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod) have all advocated change. The hon. Member for Devizes (Claire Perry) summed up the issue eloquently in a recent debate when she said:
“I have always thought that job shares—potentially having a Cabinet position as a job share—would send a powerful signal, allow women to achieve their best and also recognise the complexity of many of our lives.”—[Official Report, 22 March 2011; Vol. 525, c. 185WH.]
Many organisations across the political spectrum have urged consideration of job sharing, ranging from the Fabian Women’s Network to Women Liberal Democrats and the Fawcett Society. Two of the major charities that represent people with disabilities in our country, Radar and Rethink, included a call for job sharing in their submissions to the Government’s consultation, “Access to elected office for disabled people.”
Individuals have tried to stand for election to this Parliament and the Scottish Parliament on a job-share basis but have been barred on the grounds that the current law does not allow it. However, recent legal advice obtained by the Equality and Human Rights Commission has shown that that bar might be open to legal challenge on the grounds of discrimination under the Equality Act 2010 and various international conventions. In law, public bodies have a legal responsibility to make any reasonable adjustments to their operation to overcome such a bar. Job sharing could be construed as just such a reasonable adjustment.
Many Members have suggested that job sharing might be fine in principle but that there are real practical problems with its implementation. Let me deal with the practical questions. The Bill would be an enabling Bill establishing the principle of job sharing for MPs and dealing with the key questions of election, voting rights and the death or disqualification of a Member. That would leave further detail of implementation to secondary legislation that would be subject to the approval of the House.
The Bill proposes that the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 be amended to allow two people who have agreed to a sharing arrangement to stand for election in a constituency on the basis that, if elected, they would share the representation of the constituency between them and serve in Parliament on that basis. Each of the two Members elected for a constituency would be able to cast a half vote in votes of the House. If the two Members agreed and informed Mr Speaker or the person presiding during a vote, one of them would be able to cast a single vote. Not all the detail about the operation of the process are suitable to be addressed in primary legislation and would usually be the subject of secondary legislation or changes to the Standing Orders of the House.
Let me deal with some of the main questions that have been asked by Members about the practicalities of the proposal. Would the two job sharers have to be from the same party? It is proposed that that would be the case, and that would be covered in secondary legislation. What would happen if the job sharers disagreed on an issue and wished to vote accordingly? As the job sharers entered into a sharing arrangement before the election and were from the same party, one would expect them not always to agree on votes! I admit that finding a job share might be difficult at times. However, where there is a difference, they can each exercise their right to use their half vote. Frankly, single Members are often in two minds about something and end up abstaining.
What would happen if one of the job sharers left the party under whose banner he or she was elected? At present, there is no provision for forcing a by-election when a Member crosses the Floor of the House, but that is something Members might want to examine. It is not proposed in this Bill, but it would need to be taken into account by electors at a subsequent election. What would happen if one of the job sharers resigned, died or was disqualified? Because the job sharers were elected on the basis of a job-share arrangement, both would be treated as having ceased to be MPs.
Another question is what would happen in situations where electors were happy with the performance of one of the job sharers but not with the other and therefore would not want to vote. The job sharers would be standing as a team; that would be the job-sharing arrangement. The elector would still have one vote and be unable to split it, but would have to decide, in casting that vote, whether, on the basis of his or her overall judgment of their performance, the job-sharing team worked and whether he or she would vote for that arrangement in future. To be frank, there is very little difference between that and what happens at the moment, because electors will often take the view that because the person has stood for a party while, at times, not necessarily supporting the party line, they want to vote for the individual rather than the party.
What would happen if one of the job sharers became a Minister and were covered by collective responsibility? A job sharer would be able to fulfil a ministerial role to the extent of the time that they had to devote to the role on a job-share basis, and in appointing Ministers the Prime Minister would take that into account. This could, and eventually would, lead to job sharing for Ministers. With regard to collective responsibility, the job sharer assuming ministerial responsibilities would naturally cast his or her half vote in line with that requirement.
Would it be more expensive to have two Members per constituency? No, because the job sharers would share offices, facilities and staff. The parliamentary expenses of job-sharing MPs would be managed by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority under the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009 in exactly the same way as for a single MP.
Right the way across our society, in virtually every walk of life, in the public and private sectors and in most professions, job sharing is now a reality, and it has proved to be successful for the organisations and individuals concerned. In fact, there is substantial evidence that job-sharing arrangements are more productive than the employment of individuals. This House should not be the last bastion standing against a measure that could increase access for women and, in particular, for carers and people with disabilities being able to stand as Members of Parliament. We in this House should explore every opportunity we can to assist in promoting greater access for people who would like to serve as MPs. This would not be positive discrimination but simply the introduction of a practical administrative change to facilitate wider participation.
As I said, the main thrust of this proposal has come from organisations that represent carers and people with disabilities. It is a minor, modernising reform that could improve the representativeness of the House of Commons. If it allowed just one more person with disabilities, one more woman or one more carer to have the opportunity to serve their country in this House, it would be a beneficial move.
Every so often I hear a proposal that is so outrageous and unusual that I have to pinch myself to check whether I have heard it correctly, and I found this to be one such. There are many reasons why I believe that the idea is unworkable—so many that I fear that the 10-minutes rule will not provide sufficient time for me to do justice to them in this debate. I will therefore keep my remarks very brief.
This Bill is supposedly about increasing diversity. I do not accept that as a middle-aged white male I am unable to represent others who do not fit that description, be they female, from an ethnic minority, gay or disabled. It is nonsense to suggest that the composition of this House must exactly mirror the composition of the United Kingdom. I very much doubt that someone such as Winston Churchill would have ticked many boxes for diversity, and yet few would dispute that he spoke for the whole of our nation at the most difficult of times. We do not increase true representation simply by having people who look like others.
Nothing that I have heard today suggests that this idea, even if it could ever be made into a practical possibility, would produce the desired result. The plan to have a Parliament made up of Tweedledees and Tweedledums would open up a constitutional can of worms—and for what? For example, what if two heterosexual white middle-aged barristers decided that it would be quite a nice idea if they both shared the job of being an MP while continuing their practice at the Bar? How would that help to increase the diversity of this House? We hear much criticism of politicians who have jobs outside Parliament, yet this Bill would cement the practice into law and make it the norm.
If the Bill is supposed to be a measure to help disabled people, I fear that it is simplistic and, indeed, patronising to many current and former Members who have performed and continue to perform their duties with such distinction. Are the advocates of the Bill really suggesting that just because someone is female, black or disabled they are capable of doing only half the job on a part-time basis?
We have heard that Members would have half a vote each or a joint vote if there were agreement, but what if there were no agreement? What if both MPs took a different view and cancelled each other out, leaving their constituents unrepresented? But of course, as Members on both sides of the House will appreciate, our role is about much more than just voting. Who would constituents contact with a problem—one of them or both of them? What would happen with this dual approach as regards Select Committee membership? Would one half of the job-sharing duo hear some of the evidence and then the other half hear the rest, so that we finished up with neither of them having heard it all? Indeed, how would it be decided who was elected to serve on the Committee in the first place?
Next, what about debates in this House? Would both Members be entitled to be called? Would both be entitled to table questions? Would every constituency in the country be required to have two Members? If it applied only to some constituencies, then surely those with two Members would have an advantage over those with a single Member. As everyone will be aware, with 650 Members there is already insufficient space in this Chamber for them all to have a seat. How on earth would we cope with double that number?
As some Members may be aware, I think that it is particularly important that private Members’ Bills are properly scrutinised. Therefore, if I were to represent a constituency as one half of a job-sharing duo with someone else who shared my concern that private Members’ Bills should be properly scrutinised, we could together, on behalf of just one constituency, debate one Bill for a very long time.
Would those sharing the same role have to be from the same party? What would happen if two people from the same party were elected and then one of them decided to change parties? How would that work? Would there have to be some form of electoral pre-nuptial agreement? Would that become the norm? What would happen if the agreement were breached? Who would adjudicate in the event of a dispute?
I am not convinced by the “two for the price of one” argument. It is hard to see how two people would not, at some point, need extra staff or office space. They would need a bigger taxpayer-funded residence in the capital or even require two separate residences in London if they represented a constituency some way away from Westminster. At the very least, there would be two sets of travel expenses.
I think that most people want to see fewer politicians, not more. This proposal runs the risk of being the thin end of the wedge. I dread to think what would happen if the number of Members of the European Parliament were doubled, and how long would it be before we had double the number of councillors, elected mayors or, indeed, police and crime commissioners?
So far, despite considerable media attention, this proposal does not appear to have attracted much public support. Despite a letter to The Guardian in September, signed by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and more than 40 other influential people, urging people to sign an e-petition on this very subject, when I last checked it had only 403 signatories. Perhaps after today’s debate others will be tempted to sign it and, if it reaches the 100,000 barrier, who knows what will happen? We may return to debate this whole issue again.
The proposal starts off as a politically correct attempt to increase diversity, but ends up as a potentially dangerous attempt at constitutional meddling that would break the historical link between an MP and their constituency. I do not propose to divide the House on whether the hon. Gentleman should have leave to introduce the Bill, because, in view of the importance of these matters, I think that the House should have the time and the opportunity—ideally over several Friday sittings—to debate them at great length, so that the concerns that I have outlined can be expanded on.
Question put and agreed to.
That John McDonnell, Dame Anne Begg, Robert Halfon, Lorely Burt, Caroline Lucas, Sheila Gilmore, Mr Virendra Sharma, Meg Hillier, Jeremy Corbyn, Jon Cruddas, Mr Frank Field and Mr Tom Clarke present the Bill.
John McDonnell accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Tuesday 27 November, and to be printed (Bill 91).