(Urgent Question): To ask the Leader of the House if she will make a statement on arrangements for Members on maternity, paternity or adoption leave and proxy voting.
I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to this urgent question. As I have said on many occasions, it is right that Members of this House have the opportunity to spend time with their new babies.
I want to start by saying that the situation that arose yesterday, where the pair between the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) was broken, was not good enough. I am very sorry that it happened. I am assured by the Chief Whip that the breaking of the pair yesterday was done entirely in error and will not be repeated. My right hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth has apologised directly to the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire for the mistake, as has my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip on behalf of the Whips Office. I have the utmost respect for the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire. In particular, her work on the steering group establishing the independent complaints and grievance policy has been invaluable.
I believe all new parents should be entitled to spend uninterrupted time with their new baby. This is vital for both the physical and mental health of parents and babies. The Government Whips Office has undertaken always to pair Opposition MPs on maternity leave from the start to the end of their leave, without applying any conditions. Should an MP who is on baby leave wish to vote in any particular Division, the pair will be re-established immediately afterwards for all subsequent Divisions until their baby leave ends. I am really sorry that an error was made yesterday, but I have been reassured that there remains a guaranteed pair for MPs who are currently pregnant or who have a new baby.
Pairing is a matter for the usual channels. I can tell the House that since the general election the pairing system has worked well overall. Almost 2,000 pairs have been arranged between Government and Opposition MPs. We have investigated yesterday’s result in the light of the broken pair to see whether the result should be changed. As it would not materially change the result of the Division, we will not look to take further action on this occasion. However, I sincerely hope that the House can accept the apologies that have been offered.
On the issue of proxy voting, I know this is a matter of great interest to many Members on both sides of the House. I am planning to ensure the House can have the debate in the September sitting, and I will update the House further about its scheduling in the usual way. No one was more disappointed than I was that the debate we scheduled was unable to take place due to the tragic events in Amesbury. I am sure all Members look forward to discussing the matter further at the earliest opportunity.
I thank the Leader of the House for her statement. I very much welcome the tone of what she says about the importance of maternity, paternity and adoption leave, and I am sure that is a matter of common accord across the whole House.
As the Leader of the House has said, as my party’s Chief Whip, I was given an undertaking yesterday by the Government pairing Whip that the right hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) would be absent from the Lobbies in accordance with the normal terms. I was therefore very concerned to learn that, although the right hon. Gentleman had not voted in the earlier Divisions or, indeed, even at the 6 pm Division, he had taken part in the Divisions at 6.15 and 6.30 pm. Obviously, this is a very serious breach of the convention. Within the usual channels, we rely on these agreements being honoured. The Government Chief Whip has apologised to me directly, and I of course accept that apology. It remains less than clear to me exactly how this came to pass, but I can pursue that directly with the Government Chief Whip outside the Chamber.
Yesterday’s events are symptomatic of a wider problem, which is the question of relying on pairing to provide maternity, paternity and adoption leave. It is using a 19th-century practice to provide for cover under 21st-century employment law, and that is no longer good enough. I can think of no other area of public or business life where this would be allowed to happen, and I have to say that I think the House should no longer allow it either. My question to the Leader of the House is: will she reconvene the talks between the parties with a view to devising a sensible and workable solution to this problem? It is clear from recent days that we are likely to have a lot more knife-edge votes in the months to come. The Leader of the House is absolutely right that the result was not affected by the breach of the pair last night, but that is not to say that, at some point in the future, if it occurred again, that would not happen.
Those who are absent from their duties as a result of baby leave should be able to go on leave without their cover being subject to this sort of convention and the uncertainty that comes with it. They should be allowed to enjoy those most important first months secure in the knowledge that their absence is properly covered. We now need a properly organised system of proxy voting, and it is apparent from last night’s events that we can no longer allow the situation we have tolerated thus far to continue.
Mr Speaker, you know that I have been a Member since 2001. When I was first elected in June 2001, my younger son was 10 weeks old. I rejoice in the progress—much of it at your behest—that the House has made in relation to childcare since that time, but it was not always thus. When I was first elected, children were not to be seen and they were certainly not to be heard within the House. I fear I may suffer when I get home for recounting this, but I remember that I once had to change my younger son’s nappy in the Members’ Cloakroom—obviously, he should not have been there because he was not a Member—on a copy of the Daily Record, because there was no changing mat to be found. Whether it was novel for that sort of content to be found in the pages of the Daily Record I will leave others to judge.
We have come a long way, but anybody who thought that we had done it all and that there was no more left to be done was sadly disabused of that last night. Will the Leader of the House please take these concerns seriously? All my experience in this House tells me that when the House accepts the need for change at an early point we make sensible changes for ourselves. If we wait until change is forced on us, the law of unintended consequences will inevitably come into play.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his remarks and I completely agree with him. I am personally committed and resolved to try to improve this issue for new parents. I think that I have demonstrated that commitment in my response to the urgent question. It was the tragic events at Amesbury that prevented the debate from taking place. The Procedure Committee has done a good job in providing thoughts about how proxy voting could work, but it has raised a number of questions on which it will be important for us to consult in this Chamber before we make a final decision. Let me remind colleagues of some of them: when should a proxy be used; should it be used for every type of vote, including those on going to war or a closure motion, when, as we know, colleagues should be present in the Chamber; and should it apply to all business, private as well as public, or only to Government business. There is also the contested question of whether it should apply only to baby leave or to other circumstances. That is why I am so keen to have a debate in this place before we come to conclusions, but I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s tone and his desire to see this resolved. I share that desire and, as I say, I will ensure that we get that debate during the September sitting.
On the right hon. Gentleman’s point about my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip, he has already committed to engaging again with Opposition Whips to try to find a better process. For our part, the Government will be tightening the procedure by which individual paired Members are made aware that they absolutely must not vote and between which hours of the day. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be reassured by that.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her contribution and her commitment to bringing the debate back to the Chamber. Clearly, the Procedure Committee carried out the review, as required by the House. Will she undertake to look at the aspects of the fundamental issue of Members being required to be present on the Estate or in the Chamber to register their votes? If we are going to change the system, will she consider allowing people who are hospitalised or have other complications to do so, too? They do not choose to be away, but are forced to be away because of medical conditions.
My hon. Friend clearly highlighted why we need further debate. I feel that there is something fundamentally different about baby leave over other sorts of leave, and I also feel that, were the House to undertake such a significant constitutional change to our conventions, we should start small because of the law of unintended consequences. That is a matter for further consultation with the House and I look forward to the debate in September.
Order. Before I call other Members—I do want to hear others— in thanking the Leader of the House for what she said, I want to make the point, as much for wider public knowledge as anything else, that we know that the Procedure Committee looked at this matter and that many people gave evidence to the Committee, myself included, and I made it clear that I was personally perfectly happy with the idea of a proxy voting system in respect of baby leave in particular and that I would be happy to play my part in the operation of such a system.
For what it is worth, I think it is qualitatively in a different category from other requests for proxy voting, but that is a matter for the House to decide. The only other thing I would like to say, which is not directed at any one individual at all, is that I detect in the House and in representations made privately to me a very strong sense not merely that we should debate the issue again soon but that we should decide the issue and, if a change is agreed on, give effect to it. Obviously, if a change is not agreed on, that does not arise, but I think that there is concern about a potentially endless debate, which I feel absolutely sure the Leader of the House would not want and which I would not want. With good will, perhaps, and I think I speak for people on both sides of the argument, we can resolve the matter. I am sure that people would not want endless procrastination.
I thank the Leader of the House for her response and congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on his urgent question about this important issue. I thank you, too, Mr Speaker, for granting it.
Last night’s events do not reflect well on this House; I am sure the whole House agrees. It is time that we ensure that this is a modern workplace with modern employment practices. The Leader of the House and I had both decided on 5 July that we would not give closing speeches so that we could debate proxy voting, but she has said that she wants the debate in September. Could she arrange for the debate to take place next week, as we have just a general debate? There is time to discuss that.
Last night shows why the Government must urgently introduce proxy voting for those on baby leave. The Prime Minister’s answer earlier to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) was simply not good enough. Consultation by this Government is always code for delay and obfuscation. Members of the Procedure Committee have taken evidence from you, Mr Speaker, and from all of us, and they have produced a report that we could debate immediately. I know that the Leader of the House wants urgently to find a way forward. Does she agree that proxy voting for those on baby leave could be introduced today without the need for debate through public agreement by all parties to nod through those on baby leave for every Division? We could ensure that those voting by such means were denoted by a “P”, or, to make it really up to date—and I hope Hansard have this—a baby emoji, giving full transparency to the public. Will she agree to meet me today to discuss this?
It is vital that we are a modern workplace and that those on baby leave can have their vote recorded and take part in our proceedings as they want to and as they are elected to.
As I have just said, my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip has already started discussions with Opposition Whips on exactly those lines and others. This House needs to decide how it wants to accommodate baby leave and I do not agree with the hon. Lady that we can just do that today. There are unintended consequences and implications of any solution we choose, and it is important that the House has the opportunity to debate the issue. It could be possible to have an earlier debate, but, of course, if I were to say that we would have a debate on Monday, the hon. Lady would ask why we were giving no notice. I felt it very important to ensure that suitable notice is given to enable Members to contribute to the debate in September.
We have to modernise. I come from a business background, I have worked in the public sector, and I have never experienced archaic practices like some of those that we have here. We have to change. We have to find an alternative, new way of voting. Dragging in sick and heavily pregnant Members does not send a good message to the public. It is not good enough for us to be okay in this place; we have to be better than okay. In everything we do, we have to display the very highest standards for the country to follow. I welcome what the Leader of the House has said. We need to debate this, and we need to do so fully. I accept that, but we must do so as a matter of urgency, and I worry that if the debate is in September we will have only a short window before we break again for the conference recess, and I want to have some sense that there is time for a vote and a decision. We need to do this with open minds, to decide it, as you say, Mr Speaker, and to embrace it and not be afraid of change.
I agree with my hon. Friend. I will table a debate, and we need to bring forward a solution with which the House is happy as soon as possible.
What happened last night was nothing short of appalling and underlines why the Scottish National party will have nothing whatsoever to do with these antiquated pairing arrangements. Pairing relies on trust and I am sorry, but we are absolutely right not to place our trust in Government Members. We have to ask how it was right that the right hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) voted in some of these votes last night and not in others, and why was it that the most important votes were the votes that he voted in.
We have to change the voting arrangements of this House. We see that every day in the absurd waste of time of a headcount in cramped voting Lobbies, but to be disenfranchised for having a baby in 2018 demonstrates just how out of touch this archaic place is and how these arrangements should embarrass and shame this House. No more of these ridiculous pairing arrangements—we need reform now that recognises the realities of the communities we represent. We have a perfectly good Procedure Committee report and I gave evidence to that Committee, chaired by the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker). All we have to do is agree and accept it. Surely now the Leader of the House can bring this forward at the earliest opportunity. Let us end this nonsense now.
As I have said, I will bring forward this debate at the earliest opportunity. I absolutely agree that we need to resolve this issue, but I gently say to the hon. Gentleman again, as I often do, that he has a perfect opportunity in the Lobby to come and talk to Government Ministers and to promote how he wants to improve the plight of Scotland. All he has to do is join us in our Lobby to be able to do that.
I think I can say in a non-partisan spirit that the Leader of the House is an optimist.
Mr Speaker, I sat on your diversity and inclusion panel, and we discussed this issue at some length. We identified that it is far more complex an issue than just baby leave, as important as that is. For example, as we speak, I understand that the Parental Bereavement (Leave and Pay) Bill is being concluded. That would give two weeks paid leave for those who lose a child. This is a complex issue, so I very much welcome that my right hon. Friend is bringing forward the debate, but does she agree that such a complex issue needs to be debated in full by all Members of the House?
My hon. Friend is exactly right: we do need to debate this. I have already given some examples of where as yet un-agreed factors are involved. I think that consulting the House in the September sitting will give us the answers we want and we will be able to progress very quickly after that.
I am afraid that it stretches credibility to think that the right hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) could remember that he was on a pair for all the votes in the afternoon and then happened to forget at 6 o’clock, when everybody knew from the start of the day that they were the most important votes. That aside, I support what my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) said. We have to get a wriggle on with this. We have massively important votes in October about the future of the country. If the debate is in September, will the Leader of the House guarantee that changes will be made before those big Brexit votes?
I will absolutely get a wriggle on. I point out to the hon. Lady that the issue of pairing is a matter for the usual channels, but as she will know, pairing can be per vote, and not necessarily for a whole day. I think that is where the error was caused. I understand the scepticism, but this apology is very genuine, and the mistake was very genuine. I ask hon. Members to accept that the pairing system does not quite work as the hon. Lady suggests it does.
I have recently been elected as the chair of the all-party group on women in Parliament, which is a great honour. I was paired last night to help an Opposition Member who wanted to make sure that his vote was not missed. I also spent a number of years in the European Parliament, which a lot of people say is very modern in its voting practice, but it does not have a pairing system. I often saw women with very tiny babies travelling all across Europe to Strasbourg to vote, so the pairing system that I have witnessed here appears to me to be quite modern and far from archaic. However, it must be robust and respected. As a mother of three who once had to spend quite a lot of time with her baby when he was very unwell, I say that maternity leave is important but so is compassionate leave, as is sick leave for one’s own reasons. I would like to see a proper debate so that all these types of leave can be properly respected, and not just baby leave.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving us something of her experiences, both in the European Parliament and here. She is exactly right: there are some complicated factors to discuss and I look forward to having that discussion as soon as possible.
Whips do get a bit of a bad rap sometimes. I must confess that quite a lot of Whips are among my best friends, including on the Government side of the House, and often they enable Members do their jobs effectively, efficiently and well. However, when we are at a moment such as this, when frankly, a kind of total war is going on on key issues that affect the nation, it is going to be terribly difficult to make these conventions last. We have already had nodding through abandoned. We used to have a tradition that Whips, and Government Whips in particular, never patrolled the Benches inside the Chamber to try to prevent people from moving motions and things like that, but we now see that as standard in all the debates. We have to move forward with a vote on this issue as soon as we possibly can, so that we just take the temperature down a bit.
The hon. Gentleman is often in this place when I am, and I completely agree with him that we need to continue to listen to people. We need to show people the utmost respect, which I certainly always try to do, and I know that he does, too. My colleagues on the Whips’ Bench are delighted to hear that he considers them to be his friends. I am always very grateful to hear his thoughts on these issues.
Well, they will be pleased to know they have some.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her very gracious statement and I am pleased that the apology given by my right hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) has been accepted by Liberal Democrat Members. As someone who was on maternity leave when the general election was called last year, this issue is very close to my heart. It did make me seriously consider whether this is something that I could do with a six-month-old baby. However, given the over 2,000 successful pairs that we have had in this Parliament, does the Leader of the House agree that we should not dismiss the entire pairing system because of one mistake?
Yes, my hon. Friend is exactly right. Without wishing to be hostile to anyone, there have been a number of broken pairs, which are always carefully looked at on both sides of the House. It is very difficult. As I say, a pair is not usually for a lengthy period of time. It can be for one vote because a Member has to go somewhere or is not back from somewhere. It is actually a very complex system. Errors do happen. Yesterday was an error and my hon. Friend is exactly right to say that we should not ditch the whole system because of the odd few errors here and there.
The Leader of the House should not underestimate the damage done by what happened yesterday. I urge her to look very closely, if she has not already, at the comments on social media. I have certainly received representations from my constituents today who are appalled by what happened in this House. We should be setting the example, not falling short of it. The public will have heard the apology from the Leader of the House, but why are the Chief Whip and her right hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) not here to listen to this urgent question—[Hon. Members: “He is here!”] My apologies, but equally, the sentiment of that apology will be diminished by the Chief Whip’s absence.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth is indeed here. When he and I spoke last night about this subject, he was very upset to hear about this problem. He was unaware. He was absolutely blameless in this, and he has apologised to the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire. He is here, so I hope that the hon. Lady recognises that. As for my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip, his deputy is here and he has apologised on behalf of the Whips Office, where the administrative error took place.
Clearly, there was a mistake last night. Happily, it did not affect the result of any Division. It is a mistake that cannot be repeated. Will my right hon. Friend reiterate to the House that anyone who is on maternity leave and requires a pair will get one?
Yes, I absolutely confirm that to the House. It was an undertaking given by the Government Whips Office and it remains in place. As I mentioned in my answer to the urgent question, if a Member wishes to come in for a particular vote, they can do so and then the pairing can be resumed straight after that vote.
As the Leader of the House will no doubt be aware, we had a lengthy debate on proxy voting, supported by all parties in the House, in which there was near unanimous support for it going ahead. In those circumstances, can we not have the debate on Monday and then refine the process, for which there is already support, over the summer, after which it could be agreed?
I was delighted to take part in the debate to which the hon. Lady refers. It was a very good debate. As I recall, there were about 10 or 11 contributors, but those contributions did not necessarily look at some of the broader issues around, for example, the unintended consequences of one person on parental leave deciding to take a pair and another to proxy vote, thereby potentially leading to misunderstanding among constituents. Such issues would be very personal to the individual. It is important that the House discusses these matters and draws a conclusion with the benefit of a proper debate.
My understanding is that a number of agreed pairings in place for yesterday’s Divisions were adhered to completely. Would the Leader of the House agree that, regardless of whether we end up with a form of proxy voting, we should not allow one error to cloud our judgment of the effectiveness of the pairing system, no matter how regrettable that error may have been?
My hon. Friend is quite right. We have had about 2,000 pairs in this Parliament. Some have been broken, owing to administrative errors, but nevertheless it remains a good means by which Members can take either urgent or unexpected absences and not have their votes just omitted from the overall Division result.
As a Whip, I like to think I have friends on both sides of the House. I suspect that a lot of people watching are finding out for the first time what the pairing system is. The lack of transparency is important. A proxy system, whether by a smile emoji or whatever, would allow for much greater transparency, scrutiny and understanding, and it would not just benefit Members who are new parents. Not only proxy voting but fixed decision times and electronic voting would help to end this farce of taking so much time walking through the Lobbies.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the issues of how we vote are looked at periodically, and I am always keen to consider the well-known views of him and his colleagues on electronic voting. Generally speaking, the House tends not to agree; its view tends to be that the way we vote currently is the right way. It also tends to consider that the pairing system is effective and useful, and offers the flexibility that all Members want.
Is my right hon. Friend aware of any systems in place in Parliaments around the world from which lessons could be learned? I tend to agree that there are intricacies involved in all this. For example, we are very conscious that we have independent Members. How would this work for them?
My hon. Friend raises important questions that would be part of the debate. Professor Sarah Childs, in “The Good Parliament” report, looked at other legislatures, as I am sure you are aware, Mr Speaker, and found that most—six in total—of the surveyed Parliaments had formal House leave arrangements, those being either general leave provisions or more specific maternity, paternity and parental leave provisions. Three did not but relied on informal party arrangements—Canada, Scotland and Wales. A single Parliament—Sweden—matched the country-level provision for all employees. So they do differ, but he is absolutely right to raise the importance of considering how other legislatures handle this situation.
Let’s be as good as Sweden, shall we? Depriving the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), who was at home taking care of her three-week-old baby, of a pair last night was disgraceful, but depriving her of the opportunity to represent her constituents was unacceptable. I was on so-called maternity leave last year, and was hauled in several times, sometimes late at night, when my baby was only five months old, so pairing is not enough. I was not able to represent my constituents in that time. This is not complicated; it is simple. Will the Leader of the House commit that in September, when we have this debate, it will be on a votable motion and that if it is passed we will proceed to introduce the proxy voting arrangement as soon as possible?
I am told by the deputy Chief Whip that in fact the hon. Lady’s pair was not broken by the Government at any time, so if she came into the House, that was her choice. It is important to make that point, given the accusations around. The Government have been very clear that we will honour pairs for baby leave. On the hon. Lady’s other point, as I said it is important that we debate some of these issues by way of a consultation in this place. As she will have heard, having sat through this urgent question, there are different, important and opposing views, so it is important that we have a proper debate.
Obviously, none of us would see dragging someone who is terminally ill or heavily pregnant through the building as the best way for a modern Parliament to operate, but neither would any of us want to see Divisions like those in the New Zealand House of Representatives, which basically involve the Chief Whip of the relevant party holding up a hand and exercising a block vote on behalf of all their Members. Does the Leader of the House agree that it will never be possible to offer an exhaustive list of each situation in which a pair could be considered, and that even if a proxy system came in, the pairing system would still need to exist?
My hon. Friend is quite right. The Procedure Committee report proposed that hon. Members taking baby leave should be able to choose between proxy voting and a pair, even from vote to vote, so the complexity would obviously increase; nevertheless it is important that we have choice and flexibility.
The Chair of the Procedure Committee will attest to the fact that I have been a proxy voting sceptic—until yesterday. Does the Leader of the House agree that the right hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) has done for proxy voting what the hon. Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) did for the private Members’ Bills process?
The hon. Lady is being extremely unfair to my right hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth. It is absolutely clear that he was unaware that he was breaking a pair. It was an administrative error.
Does the Leader of the House share my disappointment, from talking to potential parliamentary candidates, at just how many of them are put off standing for Parliament altogether because of the widely held perception that this place is inconsistent with family life or even the aspiration to a family life? How many potential fantastic MPs have we lost on both sides of the Chamber because of that reputation? Can she assure me that she will do everything she can to make sure that this place becomes friendly for anybody who wants to stand for Parliament, no matter what their stage in life?
My hon. Friend raises a really important point. We need many more people to come forward, particularly women, and to be compatible with good, solid family life, it is vital that we look at how we manage things in this House and improve on it.
In her statement, the Leader of the House told us that 2,000 pairs had been arranged without error until last night, but I note that since then, in her responses, she has backtracked slightly to ease herself through this discussion. People will take from that what they will, but given the closeness of the votes on Brexit this week, which I think has driven this so-called administrative error, the simplest way forward would be for her to adopt the good and thorough work of the Procedure Committee and put its recommendations to a vote. She says that she is supportive, so why is she trying to wriggle out of this?
The hon. Lady is wrong on two counts. I said that the pairing system had worked well overall. As I have made clear, there have been more than 2,000 pairs in this Parliament and several have been broken because of errors. The vast majority were broken by Opposition Members, although I do not want to be at all partisan over this. It is a complex administrative system and errors have occurred. She makes a good point about the importance of bringing in new processes, but the Procedure Committee did not set out a prescription; it raised a number of issues that the House would need to decide on, such as, for example, what business should be proxy votable—all business, just Government business, business Monday to Thursday, closure motions of the House, private Members’ Bills on Fridays? These are the questions that the Procedure Committee rightly raised and the reasons why the House needs to debate this further.
I echo the enthusiasm expressed by colleagues across the House for a look at our voting processes and how we might make them more family-friendly. In the meantime, does my right hon. Friend agree that the pairing system can be transparent? Those who are paired can say that they are paired and with whom they are paired, as, indeed, the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) did yesterday on social media.
My hon. Friend is right. Let me reiterate the undertaking by the Government Whips Office to provide even greater process, so that individuals who are paired will be specifically told the duration of the pair and with whom they are paired. I think that that will also reduce the number of errors. I can only say again that what has happened is extremely regrettable, and that the Whips are very apologetic about the error.
As a former employment rights lawyer specialising in maternity discrimination and flexible working, I have been shocked by some of the outdated practices in this place. While I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for relaxing the rules to allow my son to go through the voting Lobby with me, it really is time that we became a modern 21st-century workplace. Given that many Members have recently given birth or are currently pregnant, I echo the calls for an urgent vote on proxy voting before the summer recess, before it is too late.
The hon. Lady says that she is an employment lawyer, in which case she will know very well that Members of Parliament are not employees but office holders. It would be a very fundamental review that would say that MPs should become employees. The hon. Lady would have to consider by whom they would be employed, and the subsequent taking on of modern employment regulations. She has not been clear about what she is after, but I am absolutely clear about the fact that we will be debating this issue. We want to provide proper baby leave for new parents, but the hon. Lady cannot possibly suggest that we should become employees in order to do so.
I have a quick question for the Leader of the House. I wonder how many times Members, mainly on her own side, raised with her, prior to the proposal for baby leave, the need for a new system for sick Members of Parliament. It seems to me that they have all become incredibly committed to such a system, in what I would call “whataboutery”, since the suggestion about parental leave. Did anyone ever raise the issue with her before?
Yes, a good number of people. For example, my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood), the Parliamentary Private Secretary, was absent for a considerable length of time with a very serious life-threatening illness. For as long as this Parliament has sat, there has been the need to provide pairing for people who are extremely ill suddenly, and the issue of how best to manage those processes has always been raised. The suggestion that baby leave is a unique problem for the House is simply not true: there are clearly other issues that Members want to raise in the debate.
Mary Beard has said:
“You can’t easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure.”
Pairing is such a structure. It is not transparent, and, in fact, it seeks to disenfranchise two MPs rather than enfranchising one. Will the Leader of the House bring the Procedure Committee’s report to the House before the recess, so that we can vote on it and stop pregnant women being disenfranchised?
Let me say again that I am absolutely committed to ensuring that women will be able to spend time with their new babies, and the fathers, including in cases of adoption. It is vital that they are able to do so. I have made it extremely clear that I will arrange for a debate during the September sitting, and we can then make fast progress.
This morning, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on child care and early education, I hosted a lobby consisting of more than 100 nursery and childcare providers. They spoke to me at great length about the challenges that new parents face when they go back to their workplaces, and about maternity discrimination. Does the Leader of the House think that we, here in the House, have the moral legitimacy to lecture those in other workplaces about maternity discrimination and unfair practices when our Government have cheated a pregnant woman out of her vote in the most underhand manner?
I fundamentally disagree with the hon. Lady’s assessment, but I absolutely agree with the nursery workers whom she mentioned about the vital importance of women being treated fairly. What she is seeking to do is simply to politicise this issue, at a time when the Government have made it absolutely clear that there are guaranteed pairs for anyone on baby leave and that what happened yesterday was an error.
The Conservative party appears to have an issue with women. That has been made clear by the sexting scandal and the fact that only a third of the Cabinet are women, and now the chairman of the party has broken with parliamentary protocol and betrayed a new mum. The Leader of the House promised that pairing would take place when she withdrew the previous debate. How can we be sure that the Government will keep their word on anything now?
We are on our second female Prime Minister. In case the hon. Lady had not noticed, the Leader of the House of Commons is female. In case the hon. Lady had not noticed, the Leader of the House of Lords is female. What is very clear to those on this side of the House is that it is her party that has a problem with women.