I beg to move,
That this House has considered proxy voting in the House of Commons.
Today’s important debate has been eagerly anticipated by a number of Members across the House. It was, of course, scheduled for before the summer recess, but it was right that a statement on a matter of national security took precedence on that day. I am pleased, however, that we are able to hear the views of the House today, and consider the many issues surrounding the matter.
I have made my personal commitment clear—I want a House of Commons suited to our times. I pay tribute to all MPs who have helped to progress this important issue. Members of all parties have shown true commitment to making positive changes in Parliament. In particular, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) are vocal advocates of this matter. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) the Chair of the Procedure Committee, who has had to cancel several important engagements to be here for the debate today, and his fellow Committee members for their work and constructive engagement.
Over the past year, we have made great progress in modernising and opening up our Parliament for future generations. We have also debated some of the most important issues of our time, and that is where we see Parliament at its best. In this historic Session, we have sought to stamp out bullying and harassment by establishing the new independent complaints and grievance policy to ensure that everyone who works here is treated with the dignity and respect they deserve. As a House, we made the historic decision to restore the Palace of Westminster. That will create a workplace that is safe, accessible and fit for the 21st century while continuing to embrace the conventions and traditions of the House so that future generations can enjoy this place for many centuries to come.
We have prioritised ensuring that the House has the chance to debate the biggest issues that the country faces, whether on Brexit or the Government’s legislative programme, on which we have introduced 38 Bills. Twenty-three of them have already received Royal Assent. The almost 280 hours spent by Parliament in debating the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 demonstrate our commitment to ensuring that Parliament plays a central role as we leave the EU.
Throughout this year, we have been celebrating 100 years of women’s suffrage and I have been delighted to meet groups around the country to make the case for our parliamentary democracy. Every day, we are encouraging more women to engage in politics, as well as celebrating the great strides we have made in the past century, even though we all know there is still so much more to do.
I have carefully considered the issue before us today, and spent time speaking to colleagues of all parties. I take this opportunity to say again that my door is always open if Members want to make further representations to me on how we can make this work. We must make sure that we get this right the first time and look at all the options to ensure that new mothers and fathers can effectively represent their constituents, while at the same time allowing them to secure that vital early bond with their babies.
During the BackBench Business debate on the matter earlier this year, I was pleased to be able to set out my commitment to championing early-years attachment, which has been a personal priority for me for decades. I have worked with a number of charities on this very important issue and I am pleased to chair an inter-ministerial group to look at what more support we can provide for families in the perinatal period. I say to all colleagues in this House: make no mistake, I am committed to ensuring that the Government do all they can to allow new parents to spend that vital early time with their babies.
As I said in last week’s business questions, today is an opportunity for all views to be heard. While I commend the desire of some Members to introduce a substantive motion today, this will be a significant change to our voting practices and procedures, whereby Members, for the first time ever, will not have to be present to vote. I have confirmed that we will bring forward a substantive motion on the matter, but we must move forward responsibly, having had the fullest opportunity to consider all the implications.
Proxy voting will be a profound change to the procedures of this House, so we must get it right to ensure robust voting practice for generations to come. If we take this significant step now, in my view, we will have a fairer, more inclusive Parliament for future generations.
Following the debate earlier this year, the Procedure Committee produced a report that helpfully outlined how proxy voting could work in practice and how such a change in procedure could be facilitated through an amendment to Standing Orders. However, the Committee recognised that the proposals also included a number of outstanding questions, which I hope we can consider carefully today.
First, the Procedure Committee’s report did not seek to evaluate the particular merits of proxy voting or indeed to compare it with other reforms that could facilitate baby leave for Members. That is not a criticism. The Committee was, after all, responding to the resolution of the House. However, if the House is to take forward such a significant change properly, it is worth airing all the options and their consequences, including potential unintended consequences.
In particular, I would welcome views from Members on whether proxy voting should just be limited to new parents, and whether we are giving the correct support to those who suffer the heartbreak of losing a child. Consideration needs to be given to the types of business for which proxy voting should be available. For example, should a proxy be counted for a closure motion, or to determine whether the House is quorate, and is it right that Members should exercise a proxy vote on matters of national security such as committing troops into conflict? Who should exercise a proxy vote on the Member’s behalf? Would it be the choice of the Member to nominate, or should it be a system overseen through existing party structures such as the Whips’ offices? Finally, although I recognise this is not an exhaustive list and other Members will have further questions and points to make, what are the merits of the existing arrangements versus a new system? Pairing and nodding through can offer the flexibility and, importantly, the privacy as to their personal circumstances that many Members are looking for. Although this system has been rightly criticised in recent months, there is scope to make changes to existing systems to ensure that they are more transparent and fit for purpose.
Secondly, I would welcome views on the range of approaches, including, as I have mentioned, whether more formalised and transparent pairing or nodding through might be a simpler and more workable solution. I note, for example, that on 18 July the shadow Leader of the House made the case 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”.—[Official Report, 18 July 2018; Vol. 645, c. 430.]
Thirdly, I would welcome views on whether there is risk in having both a system of proxy voting and other existing arrangements running in parallel, and, indeed, whether that could have unintended consequences. Would a system of choice create an obligation to choose the complete transparency of nominating a proxy, when in fact some Members may wish to have the privacy not to disclose publicly why they are absent—for example, if there were complications with a pregnancy or, of course, in instances of bereavement?
Fourthly, Members of Parliament are office-holders, not employees. Whereas many employees have line managers, Members have 75,000-odd voters to answer to. I do not mean 75,000 odd voters; I mean 75,000-odd voters, just to be clear. Many employees can arrange cover if they go on leave or on holiday, but if a Member misses a vote in Parliament, no one else can take their place. So any change in voting procedures needs to recognise the unique employment status of a Member of Parliament.
Finally, the need for clarity will be vital. Avoiding confusion or error would require advance notice to the House, meaning that the flexibility to decide at the last minute to attend a vote or, indeed, to change one’s vote may not be available to that Member—and of course, if a Member chooses a proxy who is unable to attend on their behalf, not only is their vote lost. Without a robust voting system, we risk undermining parliamentary democracy at its core.
I really, genuinely look forward to listening to today’s debate. Having considered the views of the House, the Government will then bring forward a substantive motion as soon as possible. It is my intention, and the intention of many Members in all parts of this House, to make Parliament as family-friendly and accessible as it can be. However, it is important that we do not compromise the integrity of the voting system through rushed or badly thought through proposals. It is important that any new system has consensus in this House, because it needs to stand up to the test of modern life. I have raised a number of questions already, and I have set out some of the issues that colleagues have highlighted to me in recent months, to which it is important that we give consideration today.
I thank all those contributing to today’s debate and those who have contributed to the debate over the past few months. As someone who has campaigned, for over 20 years now, on the importance of early attachment and the first 1,001 critical days, I am determined that we get this right and that Parliament is a role model, not lagging behind. I look forward to taking the next steps in making sure that parents get that vital time to spend focused on their new babies.
I thank the Leader of the House for opening the debate. We had a Back-Bench debate on this subject on 1 February. This is the second debate, and I think, from what the Leader of the House has said, that there is going to be yet another, this time on a substantive motion.
Following the breakdown of the pairing system on 17 July, Mr Speaker, you said during the urgent question on proxy voting that
“there is concern about a potentially endless debate”,
“people would not want…procrastination.”—[Official Report, 18 July 2018; Vol. 645, c. 430.]
I am not sure what the Leader of the House was actually saying—whether she is going to take further evidence or is going to ask the Procedure Committee to look at this issue again. I cannot see how, other than through this debate, she is going to be informed as to what the procedure will be. Is it going to a be a formal committee, or is it not? They are very fine, warm words, but what we want now is action, because I had understood that everyone had agreed on the principle. Labour’s business managers have tried to discuss this with the Government; they have offered to meet to resolve it. Babies will have been born and grown up, gone to school, left school and probably gone to university before the Government finally agree on proxy voting.
I, too, want to move the debate forward. It is important to do that, because I had understood that we had all agreed on the principle of proxy voting, yet this motion seems to be narrow in merely discussing proxy voting in general. I want to focus on the process of how we could take this issue forward. I thank the Procedure Committee—its Chair and other members are here—for its diligence in undertaking the inquiry to ensure that this issue does not go away. The Committee reported on 9 May. In the meantime, hon. Members such as my hon. Friends the Members for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) and for North West Durham (Laura Pidcock) and the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) have all recently given birth. My hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) is about to give birth, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) is also pregnant. We want to act quickly.
The Leader of the House is right: hon. Members are not employees; we are here to represent our constituents, and our work in this place is undertaken in the Chamber, on Select Committees, on taskforces, in other Committees, and in our constituencies. This relates to the narrow principle of those giving birth who, for whatever reason, are unable to be physically present in the Chamber but are not incapacitated by illness or away on an official visit. We are not referring to a natural process as an incapacity, but one where the needs of a child are paramount, and the parent needs flexibility. Added to that, our hours are not normal working hours. Business managers were able to support women when they needed to be away, and were able to agree some concessions, but now, in a 21st-century Parliament, hon. Members consider that this should become a right.
My hon. Friend is making a strong case. I rise very conscious of time, as a dad with serious childcare issues to get back for. I have a nine-year-old daughter who expects me to pick her up and take her to her drama class this evening. I say that in the context of my needing to get away, sadly, but also in wanting to add the voice of a dad to this argument. Too often, it is left to women to make the case for this. It is as much dads like me who need, and believe in, the change that is going to come. I welcome the tone that the Leader of the House has taken. Once this has been put to a vote—I appreciated her assumptive tone—and we have decided that it is to become standard practice, do we really, as a human organisation, given that bodies make babies in nine months, need to take any longer than that to come up with this process by which we can reflect the rest of the country and, indeed, most of the world in doing our job even though we are parents?
My hon. Friend has eloquently put his case for being called early to speak, so that he can get back to his family. I recall when he came down to vote with Bobby in his arms, who had just been born. It is great to see a hands-on dad. A lot of men nowadays are hands-on dads who want to be part of their children’s upbringing.
We are now in a 21st-century Parliament, and we need a 21st-century solution. I get the flavour that the principle is more or less agreed by most Members, which is why I want to touch on the process, because that will inform the debate as to whether this modern practice is workable.
I know that there has been a great deal of discussion behind the scenes to come up with a workable solution. The Leader of the House touched on the process known as “nodding through”, which means that in specific circumstances where a Member is ill or infirm but is on the estate, they are verified as being that person by representatives of the Whips, so that they do not have to pass through the Lobby. That arrangement is in place because a Member may be physically unable to walk through the estate, but it may not apply to what we are talking about today, which is Members who are not here and cannot be here because they are about to give birth or need to be with their children.
I have read the note of the Clerk of the House and thank him for setting out the important point that there should be transparency in the voting process, as suggested in the Procedure Committee’s report. Members who have given birth and are unable to vote have faced a torrent of abuse for poor voting records, so we need to do something. It may not be possible to agree slipping or pairing arrangements, as the smaller parties may not be able to do so.
Incorporating the principle with the need for a record of Members not being present and Members being able to cast their vote in a transparent way could be undertaken in the following way. A representative of all the parties could meet you, Mr Speaker, when necessary to agree in a memorandum of understanding the names of Members who want to exercise a proxy vote for a duration. It would then be up to the House to agree how long that would be for after the expected date of delivery, and the agreed list would be presented to the Clerks in the normal way in the voting Lobby. The Procedure Committee suggested that there could be a sign near the name of the Member, with the name of the proxy. After the normal vote is recorded, a list could be added for the Ayes and Noes with the words “and by proxy”. The names of the Members who had exercised this right would then be in the official record. Alternatively, Mr Speaker, you could read out a list, as you do when naming the Tellers, of the people voting by proxy. That would then be in the record, and it would be necessary to say whether people had voted Aye or Noe.
There are a number of ways of listening to a debate now. Parliament’s 24-hour channel enables Members who are with their babies to continue to be part of the House and do their duty on behalf of their constituents, as the debate can still inform their vote, while balancing that with family life. As we all know, babies wait for no one, and rightly, we must put them first. With proxy voting exercised in a transparent way, Members can still fulfil their duties to their constituents at times when they cannot be present in this specific way, but their voice and that of their constituents can still be heard in Parliament.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate, as it largely centres on a report produced by the Procedure Committee, which I have the great privilege of chairing. On our various journeys, I am accompanied by a fantastic crew of able seamen and women. We get the rigging up, get the sails billowing and travel across many oceans. I have here a copy of our report. It is a serious and thoughtful bit of work, but it is not perfection. As colleagues will know, perfection is a plain and ugly thing; it is like a landscape painting without a point of interest or relief. There is no perfection in this report, just some pretty good ideas.
I would like to say a few things before I move on. I have really enjoyed getting to know the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman)— what a really nice woman she is. When I was a young man, before I got into Parliament, I would watch the TV and see this Cabinet Minister sweeping in and out, and there was an aura around her. There still is an aura around her, but she is a very warm person, and I have enjoyed getting to know her. The Leader of the House is a very warm person as well. She has been absolutely straight in her dealings with the Procedure Committee on this and other matters. I have so much regard for her because she takes her role seriously and she is straight, and I say that with absolute sincerity.
I am a Conservative Member of Parliament and a massive small “c” conservative. I am such a large small “c” conservative that I could happily find a place in the Labour Whips Office. If Momentum does not like that, it is because it does not have a sense of humour. Neither am I evangelical. Evangelicals are too certain in their own certainties. I am a thoughtful, considered person, full of reflection and self-doubt. I do not have all the answers, and neither does the Procedure Committee, but we get pretty close with this report.
Funnily enough, Mr Speaker, you have a central role in overseeing this process, because you will certify who the proxy is and who the Member of Parliament is who is seeking that proxy. It is very important that Members of Parliament retain the right to choose their proxy, because after all the vote belongs to the Member of Parliament. I have had suggestions from the Labour Whips Office, for example, that they should cast the vote on behalf of their Members. Funnily enough, the Conservative Whips Office thought, “What a cracking idea! We’ve got more in common than we ever thought possible.”
But I do not want the Whips to be involved in this. I would be more than happy to give my vote to, for example, the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas)—a man I trust implicitly. I go fishing with him, and we have spent happy days on riverbanks. I know that he is an honourable gentleman, and if I asked him to vote on my behalf, he would go through his Lobby and then go through my Lobby, and on occasions we might find ourselves in the same Lobby. It is very important for us to recognise that it should be the Member who decides whether to have a proxy, not to have a proxy, to go with pairing or to do nothing at all.
We have discussed that the period of eligibility for a proxy vote is six months from the point of birth, or it could be just before the point of birth. I know that the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) has some way to travel to get here, and, strangely, airplanes do not like to take pregnant women on board a month before the point of birth. There are logistical issues such as that. We also make provision for you, Mr Speaker, in extremis to extend that by four weeks, to recognise that there could be emergencies.
Before I continue, it is important that I also say nice things about the shadow Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), because I do not want to leave her out of this—she is looking at me in a circumspect way. She has been enormously helpful and always willing to give evidence to the Committee, and I thank her immensely for all the time she has given us.
Clearly, as both the shadow Leader of the House and the Leader of the House pointed out, the House will have to decide on the procedures around proxy voting and whether it should be used on, for example, closure motions. Our Committee says that when the House is seeking to establish whether it is quorate, proxy voting should not be used, and nor should it be used when we seek an early Dissolution for a general election on the two-thirds threshold.
Recognising that we play an important part in national and political life, we have to be mindful of our responsibilities to our constituents. Should a proxy vote be cast when we are committing our constituents’ children to a field of conflict? We need to be very careful in areas like that. I am feeling optimistic that, although this report is not perfect, it is travelling in the right direction.
There are some colleagues who rightly say, “But what about when a Member is very ill or caring for someone who is very ill?” That is a wholly legitimate question, but I would say this in response. In most cases, having a baby or bringing a child into this world is a joyous occasion that is difficult to hide and something that most people want to share. That is entirely different from battling a severe illness. I am absolutely not going to cast aside pairing, because pairing is very important for retaining anonymity. If we had proxy voting for an illness, a Member would have to declare why they had a proxy vote, and that would remove the cloak of anonymity. Before people ask whether this is the slippery slope, I would answer by saying, “Yes, it is the slippery slope if you choose it to be, but be careful before making that argument because it may lead you to some fairly difficult places.”
Do I have more to say? Yes, I do. I always have more to say, but I forget to say it.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for very kindly giving way, which gives him a moment to regain any thoughts he may want to add in conclusion. May I extend to him the thanks of Opposition Members and my thanks personally for the leadership he has shown in overseeing this report and the work his Committee has done? His report was done—concluded and published—in May, which was obviously a number of months ago. Does he share my view that there is an appetite on both sides of the House to see some quick progress on the outcome of his report?
That was a stunning intervention for three reasons: first, it was very good; secondly, it was delivered very well; and thirdly, I have remembered exactly what I wanted to say. The answer is yes, yes, yes, and this is what I wanted to say.
It is the case, and research is available suggesting that women coming to this place have fewer children before they get here and, if they are of child-bearing years, they have fewer children once they are here. As I have said, I am a dyed-in-the-wool small “c” conservative and I hate change. There are going to be people suggesting electronic voting. I will of course look into electronic voting, and I know it is important to some colleagues on the Committee, but I do not like it, and I will be honest about that. In case you had not gathered, Mr Speaker, I am not particularly a great fan of proxy voting, but I have to say that I am a greater fan of allowing as many women as possible to choose to come to this place, get elected to this place and, once here, prosper in this place.
That is all I want to say. This has been—we are in the early stages of it, but I imagine it will be—a good-natured debate. Once again, I thank all those colleagues who have contributed to this report with their evidence, time and good humour.
May I just say to the hon. Gentleman that the word “good-natured” could have been invented to describe him?
I am very glad that I can contribute to this debate, as it falls in the period when I am briefly back in the saddle before going off on a further period of leave in October. Colleagues will not be surprised that I, having introduced shared parental leave as a Minister, and Duncan have chosen to share caring for our new baby.
I want to put on the record my sincere thanks to you, Mr Speaker, and in particular to the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) and the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), for enabling me to speak early in the debate. The slight changes to its timing, with the urgent question and the statement, have made the feeding and expressing schedule slightly difficult. Gabriel will be arriving in the House in half an hour or so, so I really appreciate colleagues’ help in enabling me to make my speech at this point.
I do wish that I could say I welcomed this debate, which for some of us it is too little, too late. This House first resolved that Members with small babies should be able to vote by proxy seven months ago. Since then, Gabriel, Elijah and Solomon have been born, whom, instead of calling “honourable”, we might call the “adorable” babies for East Dunbartonshire, for Lancaster and Fleetwood and for North West Durham. Two more Commons babies are on the way, and I am sure colleagues will join me in sending good wishes to the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch), whose baby is due next week, and the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq), who says she wishes she could be here. Unfortunately, she is experiencing heavy morning sickness, but she has been a strong campaigner for proxy voting. I very much welcome the contribution from the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) and members of his Committee, who, to their credit, have produced an excellent report. They carried out the inquiry swiftly, and it is almost four months ago that they published their report recommending motions to be put to the House to make proxy voting on baby leave a reality, yet here we are having another general debate.
I can absolutely see the merit of looking at proxy voting more widely than in cases of baby leave, not least after the atrocious treatment of the hon. Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah) back in June. She travelled hundreds of miles in an ambulance from hospital, and was wheeled through the Lobby with a sick bucket on her lap. This does need to be looked at, but that is no reason to delay cracking on with the vote on introducing proxy voting for baby leave along the lines suggested in the report. It is better to take a step forward now than wait for perfection that may never arise.
I want to share the message one of my new fellow parly mums has sent me. She said:
“I am sick of being asked to vote on this and that by constituents and having to reply about pairing. People either don’t know what it is or they do because of how you were done over by the Tories—not a great advert!”
I have to say she puts it very compellingly. A cynic might conclude that, because all five pregnant or new mum MPs sit on the Opposition Benches, the Government are trying to kick this issue into the long grass. After what happened to me in July, I think I might be forgiven for being cynical about the Government’s motivations. I am sure the House can imagine my fury when I found out that the right hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) had voted in those two knife-edge Brexit Divisions, despite being paired with me, as I nursed my two-week-old baby.
Does the hon. Lady find it mysterious, as I did at the time, that the right hon. Gentleman actually remembered the pairing system on the other votes, which were not so close?
That really gave the lie to the line that this was some kind of honest mistake. It was, quite simply, a shameful act for the Government Chief Whip to ask a Member to break a pairing arrangement and for him to agree. It clearly was not an honest mistake, especially when it emerged that other MPs had also been asked to break their pair in those Divisions. I would say that, whether for reasons of maternity or illness or anything else, there is nothing honourable about deliberately breaking a pairing. It is cheating, plain and simple. What a sign of desperation!
However, on a more positive note, I want to put on the record my thanks to MPs from right across the House, and I include the Leader of the House in this, for the support they gave me when that happened. In particular, I say to those Conservative MPs who told their Chief Whip to take a running jump when he asked them to break their pair—unnamed, but they know who they are, whoever they are—that that is the behaviour of an honourable Member.
Despite the support of lots of people in the House, not quite everybody was supportive. On Twitter, I was told that
“duty comes before your health, happiness or family, if you’re not up to that, resign”,
“she should decide whether she wants to be a mother or an MP”.
A journalist wrote about
“whingeing women MPs who are not serious about parliamentary work”.
I have to say that one Member of this House questioned why on earth I could not spend five hours voting in Parliament in the evening with a two-week-old baby, because I had managed to spend 45 minutes in the afternoon at an anti-Trump demonstration a few days earlier. Well, I wonder why.
Maternity leave is a hard-won right, and no new mum should have to justify her activities when she leaves the house with her baby. Any parent of a newborn knows that just leaving the house is an achievement in itself. I do want to use my voice to help people who do not know what it is like and to understand the challenges so that they might be a little slower to cast judgment on new parents in future, and I want to talk frankly about breastfeeding.
When our first son was born, we tried everything to get him to latch on properly. We searched endlessly online for advice. We went to breastfeeding support groups, and we attempted every possible position to get a good latch. All the while, we were desperately trying to syringe enough expressed milk into his mouth, every couple of hours, so that he would not get ill. That was for only eight days, but it felt like an eternity. I am glad we persevered, because once you get the hang of it, breastfeeding is lovely, and frankly much less hassle than formula. Sleep deprivation can make people forget things, but if they are breastfeeding, that is one less thing to have to remember when they leave the house. Of course, not everyone can breastfeed, and the whole breast and bottle debate is just one more stick that is used to beat new mothers with. Parents need much more support and much less judgment.
This time round it was much easier to establish breastfeeding, but it still takes some time before mother and baby are confident and practised enough to get a good latch quickly at every feed. People are often less comfortable feeding in public in those early days—after a while, they can get up and answer the door while still feeding the baby and not break the latch, but at the beginning, they might find themselves staying perfectly still during a feed so that they do not disrupt the latch. A four-month-old can easily finish feeding in 10 minutes, but a four-week-old might take 45 minutes or more. Small babies can get confused switching between nipples and bottle teats, which is why the advice is not to use the bottle as well as the boob for the first four to six weeks. I doubt that such details have been discussed much in Parliament previously, but when we are considering how MPs can combine being a new parent with their responsibilities as an elected representative, it is important context.
I thank the hon. Lady for highlighting the challenges of feeding a baby, whether by bottle or breastmilk. I had to bring my baby in for a vote when she was around three months old. My baby was unable to latch on properly, even at that point, and I sat in the tea-room with a cover over me, trying to feed my baby and vote. I ended up feeding her in the Lobbies behind us, because I was determined and she wanted to eat. I do not think that is an appropriate setting for a baby of that age, and I welcome the hon. Lady’s comments. These are the realities for mothers across the House.
Absolutely, and that is part of the challenge. What should someone do if they are in the middle of a feed and the Division bell rings? Do they stand up and try not to disrupt their baby, or do they feed in the Lobby, as the hon. Lady did? When babies are a lot older it is easier to manage those things, but there is a reason why proxy voting would be so helpful for parents of very young babies.
Above all, newborn babies are unpredictable. Duncan put it well to me the other day when he described being on parental leave by saying, “It’s like you need a bottomless well of contingency.” I just thought, absolutely. Someone can try to plan their day according to when their baby might respond best, when to go out, and when the baby is likely to sleep and be happy and not to fuss—in Gabriel’s case, that is early afternoon. Someone could be ready to head out, but then all of a sudden there is an up-the-back poo explosion, which means not just a change of nappy, but a change of vest and babygro. By the time they have cleaned all that up, the baby is hungry again, and by the time they have fed and winded them and are ready to go, they are more than an hour late for whatever it was they were doing.
That is not a massive problem if it means that someone has missed baby rhyme time, or if they have had to text an apology to a friend, who is also a parent and will totally understand that they will be late or miss the coffee they were going to have. Indeed, if someone does not manage to make it to an anti-Trump protest after all, nothing bad will happen. However, if it means that someone has missed a key vote in Parliament, that is an entirely different calculation, which is why it is so important to have a proper system for proxy voting.
Expressed milk is a lifeline for breastfeeding mums who go back to work, but it is not necessarily easy. As Gabriel is still just 10 weeks old, my diary has to accommodate slots for expressing or feeding several times a day, and I sit doing paperwork as the pump whirrs away noisily in the background. I am lucky; I have advantages that many mums do not enjoy. I have both a private office to express milk in, and the ability largely to control my diary. One member of parliamentary staff has been in touch with me to tell me of her frustrated attempts to find somewhere private to express milk when on the parliamentary estate. Although this debate is about voting, we must do better for breastfeeding mums who work in Parliament, whatever their role, and I hope that the House of Commons Commission will respond positively to that challenge.
We legislate here for the employment rights of new parents, but far too often those are flouted. In our country, 54,000 women a year lose their jobs because of pregnancy and maternity discrimination, and that is a huge disincentive for men who want to be more involved as fathers when they see the consequences and what happens to mothers. We must do better at enforcing those rights, and we must set the tone for this issue. To put it simply, we must put our own house in order and make this simple change to enable new parents to fulfil their responsibilities to their child and their constituents. We should get on with it.
It is a privilege to follow the powerful speech made by the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), who shared her direct experiences with us all. My children were born a long time ago, but what I and my wife went through, when we both worked at that time, came back to me, even though back then we were in different worlds and different jobs. I congratulate the hon. Lady not only on her speech, but on how she has coped so magnificently with the difficult circumstances in which she found herself.
It is a privilege to make a short contribution to this debate, and I begin by congratulating my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House on her thoughtful and constructive speech. As a member of the Procedure Committee, I have had the privilege of serving under our Chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), whose brilliant speech highlighted the issues and his passionate commitment to ensuing that this matter is dealt with as soon as possible.
I have experience of being in the Government Whips Office. Indeed, as a former pairing Whip, I feel that I am in a unique position from which to comment on how we worked closely with the Opposition Whips Office to do the best we could in a pairing situation, with a Member matched with another Member so that they could be absent for a period of time. I put on record that while I was in the Whips Office—from 2012 until earlier this year—we worked well and tried, under existing arrangements, to accommodate requests for both maternity and paternity leave from right hon. and hon. Members. Such requests were always looked on favourably, and we also worked with people who had to be absent due to family circumstances such as illness or other important reasons. I think that we did that quite well. I also had the privilege to take over from the Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), while she was away on six months’ maternity leave.
Having listened to the powerful and moving arguments made in our evidence sessions, I believe we have to make changes that are appropriate to this country and this Chamber in 2018. I particularly acknowledge the rational and logical arguments that were passionately put forward by the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) and by my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), who cannot be with us today. Both made brilliant contributions to our deliberations in Committee, and we tried to ensure that this change can be made quickly. This issue should not be parked; it needs to be dealt with as soon as possible. We also heard from a number of witnesses that the current situation is unsuitable for new parents. Powerful points have been raised in interventions, as well as in the speech made by the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire.
People outside this House do not understand how pairing works or what it is. It is an informal situation, and the absence is not publicly recorded. It has been pointed out, including by some of my constituents, that people are unaware of why Members are not present when they are actually doing valuable work with their newborn children. I strongly believe that bonding in the early years, which my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House mentioned, is important to forge the relationship between a new parent and their child, which provides the basis for a relationship that will, hopefully, continue throughout life.
I am well aware of the importance of not bringing Members back from maternity or paternity leave for votes in this place. As a former Whip, I know that votes here are very important—I think we all believe that—but there are other more important considerations, which the report highlights and takes into account, that need to be dealt with.
There is much still to debate—I am confident that this will happen—regarding how proxy voting can be implemented. I have to say that, like my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne, I am not in favour of change for change’s sake. Change has to take place because of a real need and because society has changed. I do not think that we should end the pairing system in other circumstances. This proposal is a one-off, and it is really important that it is implemented as soon as possible. This is different, and a powerful case for changing from the old way we have done things has been made.
Forgive me, but I would like to quote the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham, who said:
“We set rules for people outside this House to taken maternity, paternity and shared parental leave, and yet we ourselves have no system.”
That is quite a damning indictment, is it not, when we are making rules for other people? I know that, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said, we are different, but that does not mean that the basics should not be looked at, because human relationships are the same whatever our job or situation happens to be. Our job is unique, but these proposals are sensible.
I could not accept proxy voting for all absences. As I said, I do not believe that that is practical or desirable, but to me the arguments in favour of proxy voting for baby leave, or whatever we want to call it, are compelling. I believe this House would do a disservice to parents and children if we did not consider this very seriously and implement it as quickly as possible. On other fronts, the Whips Offices work closely together to help. I am not going to go down the route of whether pairs had been broken and so on because I do not think that that is helpful to this debate.
I apologise, Mr Speaker, but I have a constituency engagement that was already planned, so I will not be here for the end of the debate. I hope that you will forgive me, but I, too, did not anticipate the timing of the debate. I was privileged to be here when we debated this issue previously and I listened to the powerful arguments, none of which could be refuted. I therefore very much hope that proxy voting will be implemented for new mothers and fathers. We should take a different approach—and soon.
First, I would like to thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) to speak before me, because it is important that she gets back to her baby. There is an irony that we are discussing such matters today. I encouraged her, because I am a fan of such things, to bring her son into the Chamber. I did that in Glasgow City Council—I got away with it because everyone was too scared to tell me no. In yesterday’s Prime Minister’s questions, Members were far, far worse behaved, and far, far noisier, than any baby I have ever seen, so I think that babies could get along in here fairly well on most occasions.
This debate calls for a discussion on proxy voting for Members with new babies, including in relation to adoption, and not just for women Members of Parliament. That is absolutely the right way to look at this. Opportunities to take care of, and to bond with, the child should be given to mothers, fathers and adopted parents equally. I would like to briefly focus particularly on women, who statistically will benefit from this procedural change the most.
If we want a society that tackles inequality, we need a reasonable cross-section of society to be making policy from the grassroots up. Women are sadly still under-represented in politics, and that can lead to policies that do not take women’s experiences into account. At the weekend, I spoke to Radiant and Brighter, a group in my constituency, at their “Bright Futures” talk. I said to the women in that room to look at Parliament, but not to think that they cannot be part of it. I said that they should look to be coming behind me and for my job, because their experiences are entirely different to mine. They deserve to be in here as much as anybody else—perhaps more so, given the contributions from some people—and they deserve a place in politics. Their voices deserve to be heard. At the moment, however, they are not being heard.
Women are not a problem to be retrofitted to this place or to the economy. When women’s voices are not heard, that leads to policies such as the two-child limit on tax credits which means that women have to prove to the Department for Work and Pensions that a third child was conceived as a result of rape. That applies to women who have no recourse to public funds getting their period on the bus when they cannot afford sanitary protection. It leads to situations such as split payments on universal credit being taken up by only 20 women in the whole of UK in June, because it is too dangerous for women to do so. Those policies have been made in the absence of women’s voices and the policies are poorer as a result. We therefore need to get more women in here and we need to look at the structures we have in place to achieve that.
I want to encourage every girl to stand up and make her voice heard, whether in her school, in her community, in council chambers across the land, in the Scottish Parliament, in Assemblies or in this place. Women do not put themselves forward for election to the same extent as men. We can pretend that this is a matter of preference, and that women are not as interested in politics as men, but we know that that is just not true. The reality is that this situation is a constructed one. It is a consequence, at least in part, of some of the policies in this House.
Mary Beard, in her book “Women & Power”, writes:
“You cannot easily fit women into a structure that is coded as male, you have to change the structure.”
The structure in this House is inadequate for women and for families. I am sure that nobody would want their daughter to work in an environment where they were subject to online abuse, judged by newspapers on their appearance or behaviour, and not entitled to maternity leave. The hon. Members for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) and for East Dunbartonshire spoke passionately about the abuse they received because people were judging them on a structure that was coded as male and had no place for them.
Does the hon. Lady agree that it is precisely because we do not have proxy voting that we give the perception that this place does not work for women? I think back to the time when I stood in North East Derbyshire, when Natascha Engel was the MP. I was confronted by a lady who said that Natascha Engel was not doing her job properly because she had three children. In fact, people can do their job properly while having three children. I hasten to add that I threw that constituent’s vote away because I found her views so appalling. Surely this is about perception. We can and we must do more, otherwise we will never show that this place is right for all.
I absolutely agree. When I was a standing as a candidate, somebody said to me, “I hear you have two children. How are you going to manage this?” I asked him whether he had put that question to the incumbent in the seat, because he also had two children, which put him in his place slightly, but he felt that that was a legitimate question for me. I am pretty sure that nobody would have asked the male incumbent in the seat that question.
I gave birth on Good Friday last year, four days before the general election was called. Somebody locally said to me, “I didn’t think you’d stand again because you’ve just had a baby.” When I said, “Would you say that to my husband?” he did not really say anything in return.
Absolutely. That will be the experience of many women in politics who have stood for election to this place, and of many women who did not stand because they thought they would be judged on that basis. I have good colleagues who are councillors in Scotland who feed their babies in council chambers and get on with their job as best they can. Councillors, of course, are not afforded maternity leave either. That is a big issue, because if people are not even going to take that step on the first rung of politics—some councils are very male, too—we need to look at this issue right across the board. A good place to start by example would be this place right here.
The Minister for the Cabinet Office said in response to an urgent question on this subject that rushed procedural changes often leave the House repenting at leisure. I would make the case that this would not be any kind of rushed change—quite the opposite. Dr Sarah Childs’ “Good Parliament” report was published in 2016, and the report from the Procedure Committee came out in May this year. We have had lots of time to consider this. We have had female MPs in this place for 100 years, with Constance Markievicz elected in 1918 and Nancy Astor taking her seat in 1919. Women are not a new phenomenon. We have been having babies for quite some time. There are 209 women who are currently entitled to sit in this place. We have dithered quite long enough on this matter. Babies have been conceived and born while we have been considering this matter, and that will continue to happen until we get a resolution. It is just not fair to put Members in the position of being judged in the media for their actions when this place could ameliorate some of those issues.
Some Members have suggested that pairing is the answer to maternity leave. The SNP does not take part in pairing for many reasons, not least because of the question of trust, to which the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire alluded. In addition, Members of other parties and independents do not have the option of pairing, so the system is inadequate. We saw during proceedings on the Trade Bill the consequences of somebody breaking a pair. The trust in the integrity of the system, such as it is, breaks down; the system is too fragile to base our procedures on. The hon. Lady found herself in quite an unfair situation, because she was then subject to further scrutiny of and questions about her ability to be an MP.
The breaking of pairs has been commonplace. In other debates about the issue, hon. Members have mentioned how many pairs were broken, when and under what circumstances. Because the system is so opaque, we do not know for absolute certain whether that is true. I share Opposition Members’ cynicism about the fact that if there were more Government Members, this might not be such an issue.
In addition to the fact that we have to place trust in Members of other parties, there is no formal mechanism for recognising when pairing has taken place. The Member in question is simply registered as not having voted, with no explanation or mitigation. That characterisation of a paired vote is quite unfair on those who are on baby leave, because there is no other option. Effectively, the system disfranchises two Members, and the Member who is paired with the person who is off on baby leave has to explain to their constituents why they did not vote. Their constituents can quite legitimately say, “You’re not pregnant. You don’t have a baby. Why shouldn’t your vote be counted?” It is difficult to explain this opaque system to constituents. We need to look at it, because it is unfair to disfranchise two Members for the sake of making a poor system work.
I agree very much that, as has been said, a Member should have the choice to exercise a proxy vote as and when they wish to do so. I think that we can trust each other—this is the basis of all that we do in this House—to use that proxy vote wisely. Members have mentioned such things as voting to send troops into war. It will be the decision of a person who has a proxy whether it is appropriate to use it. I am pretty sure that nobody would want to use a proxy in such circumstances; I think they would move heaven and earth to be here on behalf of their constituents. They would be judged, quite rightly, in the light of the circumstances. I think that we can trust each other to take responsibility for that and to use proxy votes as and when they are required, as the Procedure Committee report sets out.
There has been discussion of health issues and other perfectly legitimate reasons for absence. The clear instruction from the House to the Procedure Committee was to look specifically at baby leave, and we did so thoroughly and diligently. I, for one, would be happy to explore those other issues further, because we are not adequately looking after those who face bereavement, health problems and disabilities any more than we are looking after new parents. We should not duck proxy voting on that basis. We should see how it works for a small but important group of Members, and we can quite legitimately review the process after a year to see how it has been used in practice. We should take up the suggestions in the Procedure Committee’s detailed report, which lays out how such a scheme would operate—and, indeed, how it operates in Australia and New Zealand—and work out how to fit it to our circumstances.
The question of geography was raised briefly in an intervention. Geography gives rise to specific difficulties for Members who largely have to fly to get to this place. For someone who comes from Scotland, Northern Ireland or some other parts of the country, flights are necessary to get here in any kind of reasonable time. It would be no more reasonable to suggest that someone should come from Aberdeen on the train, which would be extremely stressful during the late stages of pregnancy. Some airlines will not allow pregnant women to fly after 32, 34 or 36 weeks, and women will not be able to fly after a C-section on medical advice. Recognition of the situation of women who are in those circumstances must be built into the scheme. Simply to impose a tight six-month cut-off would not necessarily take into account circumstances prior to giving birth.
It is an enormous privilege to be elected to this place, but it comes with trade-offs. It is very difficult to have work-life balance as an MP. Economic research has shown that women often value time flexibility over salary when they make career choices, and we have some way to go to make this House an attractive option for women. The hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) talked about the decisions that women make when they come into this place. Are they going to have any more children, or will they opt not to do so? The antisocial and inflexible hours make it extremely difficult to plan ahead for childcare or family commitments, as other Members have said. I, too, want to get back to Glasgow this evening. Proxy voting would be a welcome step forward in making a career in politics that bit more accessible and that bit easier for parents. If decisions are made only by the MPs who can come here because it is easy, we will miss the voices of those who cannot come here because it is hard.
We in the SNP look for further changes. Debates can take all night, because they involve going through the Lobbies to record votes. It can take hours to vote on several amendments to a Bill. According to the Institute for Government, in the past year we have spent nearly 48 hours voting—just voting—in this place. The House of Commons could look to the Scottish Parliament for an example of a more efficient system. Votes are cast electronically in the Chamber, and Members can vote yes or no or abstain in a matter of seconds, rather than 48 hours. That means that more parliamentary business can be achieved within fewer working hours, so there is more chance that a Member’s child will be able to pick them out of a line-up at the end of the parliamentary Session.
I agree with everything that my hon. Friend is saying. In the Scottish Parliament, votes happen at a fixed decision time every day. The fact that Members know when the votes will come, as well as the fact that the votes happen over a very short period of time, makes it much easier for people with all kinds of caring responsibilities to plan their day.
I agree that that helps with planning. There have been so many occasions recently when we have had to change our plans at late notice because of votes, business or other things. Getting a wee bit more certainty into the parliamentary diary would be to the advantage of us all, and it would help with our work-life balance and associated stresses.
The hon. Lady is being generous with her time. This view may not be shared by many other Conservative Members, or indeed Members from other parties, but I completely agree with her when it comes to taking two hours to complete eight votes. In my days in business, we would all have been fired if we had executed eight trades in two hours. Does she agree that if we were to introduce electronic voting, it would make sense also to require Members to spend time in the Chamber during the debate before voting? It is slightly nonsensical that at the moment people can vote at 9 o’clock on a Monday night, having spent no time in the Chamber whatsoever. With electronic voting and that tag-on, we could end up seeing more Members in this Chamber, which is what the public want, I believe.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, up to a point. I think it is a myth that an MP must at all times be in the Chamber before they vote; we know that that is not true. How many people are here today? If the motion were put to a vote at the end of the debate, a lot of people who voted would not have been here. Sometimes we are in Committees, servicing Westminster Hall or doing other things in this building that mean that we legitimately cannot be in the Chamber for an entire debate before we vote. We need to be realistic about the fact that there are many things going on outwith the Chamber at various points during the day, but it is important to know what we are voting for and to take responsibility for it.
I will give way, but I am coming to the end of my speech and I know that other people want to speak.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. I used electronic voting for many years in the European Parliament. It was my experience that when electronic votes came along—sometimes, there were many hundreds of them—Members did not know what they were voting for, and they frequently voted without checking the detail. I have found that having to put one foot in front of the other and go through the Lobbies focuses the mind, and I believe that that is what our constituents expect of us.
I think the experience in the European Parliament, where there are many votes—many more than we would have here—is slightly different. I question whether all Members of this House know at all times exactly and specifically what they are going through the Lobby to vote on. I am pretty sure that if we did a quiz on the votes that have taken place this week, most people would not be able to say what we have voted for. That is a weakness of our democracy, but it is the reality.
We must take the important step today of endorsing proxy voting to level the playing field for parents in this place, and to ensure that equality of representation is reached before any further time passes. It is important that women’s voices are heard. We have had lots of chat about unintended consequences, but at the moment there are very real consequences for people’s participation in this place, as well as for those who look to us for guidance.
The hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) mentioned perfection. We are dealing with people here. We will never achieve absolute perfection, and we should not wait for it. We should seek it, but we should not wait for it. We should get on with the job, and let proxy voting go ahead as soon as possible.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), although I do not agree with her about electronic voting. However, I do agree with her on one point. I have lost track of the number of occasions when people have asked me, “How do you cope being a Member of Parliament with three children?” In fact, that was once said to me when I was standing next to a male Member of Parliament who had twice as many children as me, in the same age bracket. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) has guessed which Member I am referring to. I did not seek his permission, so I will not mention him formally. That Member could not recall being asked even once how he was coping as a Member of Parliament with six young children. It is one of the frustrating questions that female Members of Parliament are still asked too often, but in my view we more than cope, and do so extremely well.
I well remember, about 10 years ago—before I was a Member of Parliament—sending a text to my manager. It read, “Sorry I can’t make the meeting tomorrow. I am in labour.” As I sent that text, I knew that the manager would be fine without me at the meeting the next day, but I also had peace of mind as I sent it, because I knew that for the following six months I would not have to think about my day job at all, and I certainly would not have to go into my place of work to see people unless I wanted to. How I spent those six months would be utterly up to me, and if, for instance, I spent quite a lot of time knocking on doors, because I was standing for Parliament at the time, that was entirely my choice.
That was, however, a much more normal job. What we do here is not a normal job. We have to represent our constituents, whether we are in sickness or in health. There is still governing—and opposing—to be done, and campaigning to be done, whatever our physical condition. Unlike my former job, in which I could be given that kind of maternity leave, this job is, in many respects, a bit more like running one’s own business. It cannot be switched on and off. I will say, though, that it is far more flexible than the jobs that many of our constituents do, which is an advantage for parents here—as well as, I believe, far more rewarding, which probably motivates all of us.
I personally think that, in many respects, being a Member of Parliament is a good job for a parent. I say that because I am so often asked by young women, and young men, who are thinking about whether to stand for Parliament, “How can you do it, and have a family?” So much of what people hear and perceive about Parliament is that it is a difficult, or even impossible, to be a Member and a good parent. It is important for me to put on record that I really do think that that is possible. It can be made to work. It is not easy, but in many other jobs it is not easy to combine work and being a parent. One has to work hard at it, but it is possible to be both a good and active parent and a Member of Parliament.
Here we are in the Chamber on a Thursday afternoon. We can often choose whether to be here or not on Thursday afternoons. On some Thursday afternoons I am here, and on others I am in my constituency, doing constituency work; but on some Thursday afternoons, I collect my children from school. I was not able to do that very often in my former job, before I was a Member of Parliament. On the other hand, I frequently work in the evenings. There are swings and roundabouts, but overall I believe that this can be a good job for a parent.
As other Members have pointed out, too many men and women are put off by the idea that it is not possible to combine being a Member of Parliament with being a good parent, and I truly believe that our democracy is the poorer for that. We want a diverse membership of this House of Commons. We want people who are older, and people who are younger. We want those whose children have flown the nest, those who are planning to have children, and those who are in the middle stages of life with young children—and, of course, those who have not had children and do not intend to have them. We need the full mix.
We also need a Parliament that consists of an equal number of men and women. Looking around the Chamber, I see that this afternoon the number is fairly even, but, as we all know, that is unusual. The women are usually very much outnumbered, and that is something that we need to change.
There are many reasons why women do not tend to put themselves forward. They have concerns about, for instance, being in the public eye, and very real concerns about abuse directed at themselves and their families. I know that that has been experienced by some Members who are present today. There is also the problem of a lack of confidence among many women, and a reluctance to follow such an uncertain career path. Another reason, however, is doubt about whether this is a good place in which to work, and we have to change that perception. Part of that involves ensuring that both men and women know that if a woman is going to have a baby, she, or her partner, will not have to rush in to vote when that baby has been newly born.
Both the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson)—who is no longer in the Chamber; I think that she is with her baby now—and the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) brought to life the experience of being a new mum, juggling whatever else one is doing with feeding the baby, whether that involves breastfeeding or expressing, or trying to combine those things. Goodness, I remember the chore of expressing. I would do anything to avoid it. We should not make that something that women know that they will have to do, and work out how to do, if they are going to have a baby while being a Member of Parliament. It is something that we must fix, and we must get on with fixing it sooner rather than later.
We do, of course, have the pairing system. Some MPs with children have told me that for them the system worked very well, but for others—including some who have spoken today—it has not worked at all. I have heard from new dads that it has not worked for them. One of our colleagues who became a father relatively recently was not paired for the birth of his child, and did not know whether he would be able to be present when the child was born. As it happened—just because of the way things worked out—he was able to be there, but in the weeks and days running up to the birth, he did not know that it would be possible. Similarly, in the days after the child was born, he did not know that he would be able to be with that child, and neither did his wife.
Does my hon. Friend not agree that some things in life are more important than a Whip’s instruction? [Laughter.]
I think that each Member should probably make his or her own judgment on whether to do as the Whip says, but I think it would be better to have a system whereby Members can be confident that they can be where they need to be for the birth of a child, without worrying about whether they will have the Whip’s support for whatever else they might want to do when they come back after spending time with that child.
As I was saying, the pairing system has worked for some, but it certainly has flaws, and, as we know, there are examples of pairs being broken on both sides of the House. There is the question of whether the system should be made more formal. I know many Members will disagree with that, but, whatever the reason for a pair, would it not be better to be confident that it will definitely happen? I think we should consider that seriously, because it is such an important part of how Parliament works.
That brings me to the proxy voting proposal, to which the Procedure Committee has clearly given significant consideration. My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) spoke convincingly about that and about how, though the Committee recognised it might not have achieved perfection, it had given the proposal an admirable amount of thought, which clearly it has, and I support much of it. It has the big advantage over pairing of enabling MPs to continue to use their votes. As I said, this is not a normal job. Our constituents still need representing, even if we cannot make it into Parliament, and it is not right for them to go unrepresented just because their MP is a new parent. Proxy voting would enable Members to make sure that their constituents’ views were still heard.
I have heard some say that a new parent would not want to spend their time scrutinising legislation and deciding how to vote, but it is just a fact of this job that they would have to get going pretty quickly after having their baby and make sure they knew what was going on. I cannot see a way of avoiding that; we have all taken on the responsibility of exercising our vote. That said, a new parent cannot be worrying about actually getting here to do it.
The proposal falls short, however, in its provision for dads-to-be. If I understand the proposal correctly, it would give new fathers a two-week period in which they could exercise their right to a proxy vote. I am concerned about the period running up to their partner’s due date—for instance, the two weeks before the due date—as well as when the baby has arrived. Certainly for my second and third children, I pretty much banned my husband from travelling. When he announced he was taking a flight a week or so before the due date, I said, “No, sorry. You’re going to be here”. As many of us know from experience, babies can take a long time to come, but sometimes they can come really quickly.
I particularly feel for fathers-to-be who have constituencies further away from Westminster—hon. Members from Scotland, for instance. A dad-to-be with a wife expecting any day cannot be coming down here to vote; they might make the vote, but there is every chance they will miss the birth of their child, which is not good for them, their partner or the child. We should, therefore, consider a longer period for new dads, as well as for new mothers. Overall, however, we should be considering this proposal very seriously and moving forward promptly.
One of my children has a birthday in August because I thought I should make sure she was born in recess. I realise now that it is a bit hard on her, because it means she is the youngest in her year—not something I thought about at the time because I did not have school-age children—but, genuinely, she was born in August because I wanted her to be born in the recess. As it turned out, I was planning for an election that I did not win, so the exact timing did not matter, but the point is that I, as a parliamentary candidate, was thinking, “I need my baby to be born in recess because of the lack of maternity provision in Parliament.” That needs to change.
I feel very strongly that we need more women in Parliament. We need more dads in Parliament, but we particularly need more women in Parliament—women who want to make a difference and be good mums—so that they can get their voices heard. In my experience, Parliament has come a long way in becoming more family friendly, but it has a lot further to go. Making progress on proxy voting would be an important step forwards.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately), because she is an example of exactly why this change is needed.
Proxy voting was not an issue back when the House of Commons was overwhelmingly male. When I came in, it was 97% men, 3% women, and most of the women were older and either had had their children or were childless. In the decades since, however, there has been the most enormous change in society, and that has been reflected in the House. The hon. Lady is a part of that change, in that she expects to work, and to do her best at work; she expects to be a mum, and to do her best as a mother; and she expects the father to play his part.
That transformation has happened outside this House of Commons, and we must reflect it, and it has changed the people and the demography in the Commons. It is not just about encouraging women to enter Parliament, because women are already here. In the Labour party, 43% of Members are women. There are women MPs on both sides of the House and in all parties, and many of them are young, which again is reflective of the world of work outside. It is right that the House of Commons be representative of men and women’s lives outside.
We need to recognise that things have changed and that we must change our procedures to keep up to date. The most fundamental thing is that we are elected to vote on behalf of our constituents. Women MPs who have had babies are saying, “We want a proxy vote. We do not want to lose our right to vote on behalf of our constituents just because we are having a baby.” We should see this as a way of making our democracy work in the light of the changed demography of people in Parliament.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) and the Procedure Committee. Who knew how exciting the Procedure Committee was? It has done an excellent job. It has taken evidence and deliberated and produced an excellent and timely report on a big issue. He says that, being a Conservative, he is against change for change’s sake, and it is right that we guard against unintended consequences and comb through proposals—that is what the Committee is for—and not just make change for change’s sake, or grab a headline with some gimmick. We must think about whether it is actually needed and, if it is, how it should work, and the Committee has done an excellent job on that.
Several hon. Members are concerned that the proposal might change the character of the House—that it might mean that nobody attends debates or talks to each other because they are voting remotely—and have wondered whether it might be the thin end of the wedge and lead to proxy voting for sickness, bereavement or caring responsibilities. In response to that concern, we have listened to some useful comments from the right hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Sir David Evennett), who has the advantage of having been in the Whips Office, and the hon. Member for Broxbourne. Having a baby is different from being ill. For a start, there is usually much more certainty about having a baby. Someone has either had a baby or not had a baby. If the processes require it, a birth certificate could be provided, but it is very straightforward. Likewise, someone has either adopted a baby or not adopted a baby.
With illness, some discretion must of necessity be exercised in respect of how long it lasts and what sort of illness it is. This process engages the Whips with that individual Member to try to work out what the situation is; somebody might be better and then come back for a bit, but then have to be off again. The system of proxy voting we are proposing suits situations in which people are having children, but situations involving illness and bereavement have by and large been well served by the pairing system. The Whips Offices have changed in their attitudes over the years and do try to help Members struck down by illness or bereavement.
The hon. Member for Broxbourne mentioned that another difference between sickness and having a baby is that Members might want privacy in the former case. It is quite straightforward for Members to allow constituents to know that they have just had a baby or are pregnant, or for a new father to explain that he has just had a baby, but there are many reasons with physical or mental health why Members might not want to go into the issue with their constituents as to why they are not there; that might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back in their trying to deal with the situation. For that reason as well, the transparency of proxy voting works well with maternity and paternity, and the discretion and personal approach allowed for under pairing works better for bereavement and sickness.
For many Members the matter we are discussing will not be an issue personally. For me it is about 30 years too late; it was an issue, and I can remember all the things the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) talked about in her brilliant speech. So for many of us, mainly either men or older women, this is not an issue, and we should be respectful of, and listen carefully to, those for whom it is an issue, because I do not want to hear younger men saying that they now want to do some proxy voting when their baby is young, or younger women having babies saying they want a proxy vote, and then say, “But I don’t think you should do that.” What is important is that they have been elected to come and serve in this House and we must listen to what they tell us about how they feel they can best do their job. Those of us who do not have a direct stake in this issue should tread a bit carefully and make sure not to cut across the strong and more or less uniform will of the young women who are having babies who say they want their vote recorded.
I will trespass on some difficult territory by dealing with the question of the big votes such as on putting our troops in harm’s way and committing them to conflict, and say that we could look at this argument the other way around. If a constituency has elected a Member of Parliament, perhaps that is the vote the constituents would least like to lose and when it is most important that the MPs cast their vote. We could say the same about the enormous decisions on Brexit and propose that perhaps those votes should not be cast by proxy, but constituents might again feel it is one of the most important votes so their Member of Parliament should be allowed to have their vote.
We had a good debate on 1 February at which point it was unanimous that the House proceed and invite the Procedure Committee to look at this. The Procedure Committee has looked at it and has produced an excellent report, and I thank all the Committee members as well as its Chair. We now have the Procedure Committee report, with its draft resolution. It has considered all the changes of the Standing Orders that would be necessary and all the circumstances, so we are ready to roll with this.
Perhaps I am going to need to have some discussions with the Leader of the House, who I know is very much on this; she knows what she is talking about and she is thinking about it and is trying to get it all worked out sensibly. However, there is the possibility that we could have a Backbench Business motion, which would be a votable motion that would simply put to the House the motions drafted by the Procedure Committee making the necessary changes to Standing Orders. If the Leader of the House is going to bring forward substantive change along the lines of the Procedure Committee report, we will not need to go ahead with our Backbench Business Committee motion, but it appears that there might be a lot more deliberation. I was a bit worried that perhaps she was asking many questions that are either not relevant to what we are looking at or that have already been answered by the Procedure Committee. The Leader of the House and I need to work out whether we just cut through the process and have a Backbench Business Committee motion and enable ourselves to crack on with this.
We have had a very good debate, and many women outside the House will have listened to the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire and understood the process. The House is more representative now than it ever has been, and I think we should crack on with this reform.
It is an honour to follow the Mother of the House, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), who has led this debate from the beginning. I pay tribute to her for her work not only on this issue but on other transformational issues that she has raised in order to reform the House of Commons. I did not participate in the debate on 1 February, but I listened to all the contributions from Members across the House, and I have served as a member of the Procedure Committee under the excellent chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), sat through all the evidence sessions and participated in the discussions leading up to the excellent report that we have produced.
It is fair to say that the contribution from the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) has drawn the attention of the House to the difference between a new mother and a new father, and to the reason why a new mother will need to be absent from the House for far longer than a new father. The Procedure Committee looked at several issues, including parental leave not only for mothers and fathers but for newly adoptive parents. I think it was the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) who drew our attention to the need for newly adoptive parents to be able to bond with their children, particularly as they are not the natural birth parents. It is important that those actions can be taken during those early stages.
The right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham talked about the duty of individuals to come and vote in this House. That is quite clearly why we are elected. Up to now, the principle has always been that an individual MP had to be present in the Chamber, or on the estate if they were incapacitated, where their vote could be counted. We are now considering whether we should change that fundamental principle. Having sat through all the evidence, I completely understand the case for changing it, but we should remember that the Procedure Committee did only what the House asked us to do, which was to look at the issue of baby leave for new parents. That is why we need to be slightly cautious here. This is a debate on the principle of proxy voting in general, as well as on the specific issue of baby leave, and we need to look at how things have changed.
The fundamental issue involved is a Member’s right to vote in this House on his or her views. I would probably go to the ends of the earth to oppose the principle that the Whips should take over a Member’s right to vote. I almost always vote with my party, but not always, and I defend my right as a Member to stand up for my constituents, as opposed to just my party. I would therefore absolutely oppose any proposal that the Chief Whip or any other Whip could go through the Lobby and cast a vote on my behalf. If we are going to introduce these changes, the fundamental principle has to be that it is not the Whips who determine which way a vote should be cast.
Mention has been made about whether a Member casting a proxy vote should be present in the Chamber to observe all or part of the debate before voting, and whether they even need to know what they are voting for. It is for individual Members to ensure that they are informed as to what they are voting on and how they vote. That is their job. From that perspective, it is not necessary for someone to be in the Chamber listening to every single word that is uttered in a debate before they come to a conclusion and cast their vote accordingly. It is therefore equally possible for a Member to watch the parliamentary channel remotely and then instruct someone to vote on their behalf in a particular way. That is perfectly reasonable with new technology. However, we need to consider some precautions. If we are going to make a change, it should enable new parents, new mothers in particular, to exercise their vote, but there should be no unintended consequences.
I completely agree with the Procedure Committee’s report, which says that proxy votes should not be used at all in matters such as counting towards the quorum, a closure motion or other technical votes. We need to consider the circumstances in which proxy votes should apply. When the measure is introduced—I look to the Leader of the House to propose how it should operate—it should be done in such a way that we can review the process after, say, 12 months to ensure that we have not introduced unintended consequences or other problems.
I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s speech, and I know that he has given the matter a lot of thought. Several hon. Members have mentioned unintended consequences, so will he spell out what he is talking about there?
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. When individuals seek to exercise their right to vote, we have to decide whether proxy votes should be allowed on all votes or just certain votes. For example, what if an individual is absent because they are on maternity or paternity leave and an important private Member’s Bill comes up on a Friday? We know that few Members attend such debates on Fridays, even though everyone has the right to do so, so should proxy votes apply on those days? Equally, what happens if the appointed proxy says, “I’m not going to be in the House that day.” There could therefore be unintended consequences for private Members’ Bills.
Similarly, Thursdays tend to be Backbench Business days. Debates are not always well attended, and the motions rarely lead to votes, so should proxy votes apply to Backbench Business debates, which can be quite different, perhaps relating to matters of conscience, for example? We also have debates that are definitely matters of conscience when party Whips do not apply at all, such as House business debates. Should we allow proxy votes in those debates? We can allow that provided that there are clear, explicit instructions from the individual who is on leave to their proxy, but that could lead to issues of transparency. A proxy could vote for a new mother at home in the way that they expected her to vote, but it could turn out that she did not want her vote cast in that particular way. That would be embarrassing for the individual Member and for the proxy.
We should therefore proceed with a degree of caution. If we introduce proxy voting, it should apply to all Government business, particularly to Second Reading debates and those that are programmed and quite clear. I have a concern about, for example, Report stages or Committees of the whole House. Will a mother with a new baby be considering how to vote? The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire laid out the problems that a new mother can face. Will they be following the debate and instructing their proxy to vote? We could be voting half a dozen times in an afternoon. We need to make sure that proxies vote in the right way on these issues. We should be cautious about these particular circumstances.
I will be brief because I will touch on this in my speech. I am listening carefully to what the hon. Gentleman is saying about unintended consequences. Let not the perfect be the enemy of the good. I would not have minded if any of those little things had happened when I was on maternity leave, because at least I would have had most of my votes cast. In the current circumstances, none of my votes were cast. I kindly say that I can live with those unintended consequences.
I understand the hon. Lady’s view that she can live with it. All I am doing is pointing out the consequences that could apply if such a system were introduced.
We should also have a clear position that proxy votes are the Member’s choice—they should not be compulsory in any shape or form—because individuals who want to preserve their privacy may not wish to disclose that they have had a child. However, we should look a bit further than just the principles of maternity and paternity leave. We have to consider the terrible fact that not all pregnancies go to term and, very sadly, mothers lose their babies. We should consider proxy votes for their bereavement and recovery. There is a mixture of problems in those circumstances.
I have also considered the time I had an emergency hospital admission in 2013. I had a life-threatening problem and was admitted to an NHS hospital as a result. I was off from the Queen’s Speech—10 May, to my recollection—until 5 July. My constituents, therefore, did not have my vote cast in this place on 43 occasions.
That was an emergency. I had an emergency operation and a period of convalescence thereafter. I could not walk for much of that time. Walking down the stairs or across the road, or going to a constituency function, was about as far as I could possibly go. I could not come down here to cast my vote.
I was paired with an Opposition Member on all of those occasions, but I have examined some of the lists, and on several occasions I would not have voted with Her Majesty’s Government. My personal vote therefore was not properly recorded on those occasions.
My point is about individual Members who are suffering from a long-term, well-documented illness, where surgeons and doctors expect them to be absent from the House for a period of time. Over the past few years a number of Members have been absent with well-documented, long-term illnesses that were backed up with medical certificates. If we are to introduce proxy voting for any reason at all, we have to take into account individuals with long-term illnesses that are clearly documented—I am not talking about people with a cold, flu or whatever—and who are therefore going to be absent from the House for an extended period of time.
At the moment, as others have said, there is no record of why an individual has not voted, just that they have not voted in a particular Division. Externally, people might be saying, “Is it because you are too lazy? Is it because you cannot be bothered? What is the reason?” We have to look very carefully at the proxy voting arrangements not only for new parents but for Members who are off for extended periods of illness.
I completely oppose the principle of Ministers or other individuals who are on Government business saying, “I’m going to be away on Government business so I need a proxy vote for an extended period.” I oppose that 101%. The slippery slope that the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham talked about is a concern. The way forward is to make sure that we conclude any changes to the way we work in a considered fashion, but we should look not just at certain limited aspects but slightly wider, to make sure that all votes in this House are considered in an appropriate fashion, as Members would wish them to be, but for allowable reasons only.
I come back to the Procedure Committee report and the Standing Orders that we have proposed, which are very limited because they are restricted to the issue of parental leave, as opposed to other issues, one of which I have mentioned and think should be considered and included. It may be that we start by dealing with long-term parental leave and then look at other aspects at a future time, but it is important to consider all the reasons why people are absent from the House through absolutely no fault of their own, so that their votes can be cast or the reasons why they are not cast recorded. Those reasons should be recorded only if they so choose, though, because people who are on long-term absence for other reasons may not wish for that to be disclosed, for all sorts of reasons.
I urge a degree of caution, but also some cautious speed, because having debated on this subject on 1 February, we should now get on with the job and get a system into operation so that we can review it after a period of time and make sure that it works for all Members and encourages people to participate in this place.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I must express regret that it is only a general debate on the principle of proxy voting, rather than a debate on a motion that would provide any means to implement it. The debate about implementation has been going on since 1 February. In the interim, we have had multiple debates, an excellent Procedure Committee report, a cancelled debate in July, and a breach of the pairing system followed by an urgent question on that matter, yet we still do not seem to be much closer to allowing Members the ability to decide on whether we make changes to our parliamentary system.
If Parliament is to remain vibrant and keep pace with our ever-changing modern world, we need to make it as open and accessible a workplace as it can possibly be. We must ensure that there are no barriers to people standing for Parliament. I welcome the recently published Fabian Society pamphlet “New Brooms”, which was co-ordinated by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Frith). It was authored by Labour MPs from the 2017 intake, including myself, and brings together ideas for parliamentary reforms. At the pamphlet’s launch yesterday in Speaker’s House, I spoke of the hard work that has already been done to modernise Parliament, but also about what more can and must be done.
To those watching our proceedings in the months leading up to the summer recess, Parliament looked like its old, archaic, inaccessible self. They would have seen the indignity of unwell MPs being wheeled through voting Lobbies; heavily pregnant Members, who would otherwise be at home, having to vote; and the scandal of the Tory Whips breaking their pairs in a bid to avoid a defeat on the Trade Bill. Such events are not the example that we should be setting, nor are they an advertisement for a modem, forward-thinking democratic institution.
As a former employment rights lawyer who specialised in maternity discrimination, and from my experiences raising my own family, I know how important the early months are for a child and their parents. Being a Member of Parliament is a rewarding and fulfilling job. In the short time I have been here, I have been able to do so much and have found the experience wholly enjoyable and rewarding. Representing our constituents in a place like this is a job like no other. But for the next generation of MPs and those who are already here, we must adapt to modern times and create a Parliament where there is nothing that would put somebody off becoming an MP.
Parliament is a lot more family friendly now than it has ever been. We can shore that up by taking the next logical step in this endeavour and bring in proxy voting for parental absence. As someone who, along with some of my fellow MPs in the 2017 intake, has discussed the idea of parliamentary reform with Mr Speaker, I am grateful to a whole host of Members who have strived to make this place as family friendly as possible over the past 20 years or so.
My son had just turned two when the snap election was called. As someone whose husband is also a serving MP, I can say that, without the House of Commons nursery, I would not have been confident in putting myself forward for Parliament. The service that the nursery provides has been invaluable to me throughout my first year as an MP. I want to place on record my thanks to those who have made the nursery possible, including Mr Speaker and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), and also to those who work there and run it today.
The ability to take my son through the Division Lobby at the end of the day has also been immensely helpful. Often, when I pick him up from nursery, he asks me whether we are going to vote. If there are not any votes, he gets very upset. When the Division bell sounds, he jumps up excitedly and runs towards the Chamber, often insisting on giving his name to the Clerks as we go through the Lobby. We did have a bit of an incident just before the summer recess when he wanted to go and vote with one of his friends from nursery school. Unfortunately, his friend from nursery is the son of two Conservative MPs and he had a little bit of a meltdown when I explained that he could not go through the Lobby with them.
Joking aside, voting with a young child in tow is not without its problems. With a small baby, the practicalities would very often render it impossible. Some 20 children have been born to serving female MPs since 2010, two of whom are my niece and nephew, the children of my sister, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves). I know that she has previously spoken in this Chamber about the difficulties she has experienced in juggling family and work life after her children were born.
Parliament and its systems can feel archaic and old fashioned at times and I am pleased at the direction that we are moving in to make our democratic institutions more open and accessible to those who work here. I also want to put it on record that I recognise the challenges that working parents face across the world of work. I have raised many times in this Chamber the issues of inflexible work, maternity discrimination and lack of work-life balance that many working families face.
One of my lasting memories from my own maternity leave was expressing milk in the toilets of the Royal Courts of Justice as I did not want to miss a big court case in which I had been involved. As Members of Parliament, we should lead by example and ensure that we can provide a decent working environment for parents.
I welcome the Procedure Committee’s report into proxy voting and parental absence and note the written submissions, including those from the women’s parliamentary Labour party and from my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) in his role as chair of the all-party group on fatherhood. The proposals, both in the evidence submitted and in the subsequent report, are reasoned, proportionate and thorough. Ultimately, however, transparency should be at the forefront of our minds when implementing any changes to the way our Parliament works. Part of the issue with the existing pairing system is the disparity between what the public sees and what the public knows; pairing is very much a behind-closed-doors process, and we saw that before the summer recess.
As Members noted in the previous debate on this subject, as a result of our existing schemes, some MPs have been the subject of unfair and disproportionate criticism following their taking time off after having their children. MPs work hard on behalf of their constituents and having a child while in office does not change how seriously we all take our roles. It is imperative that any system that adopts proxy voting has openness at its core and is transparent with Mr Speaker, the House and our constituents.
We should also take into account the experience of other legislatures who have introduced similar measures. I do not advocate that we adopt wholesale systems that are used in Australia and New Zealand, but we should understand that they have enjoyed a successful implementation and have no doubt modernised their Parliaments. However, Members should remain in charge of their proxy arrangements, rather than handing it over to their respective party whips.
I welcome the recommendation in the Procedure Committee’s report that proxy voting should be available to all Members, whether they be new mothers, new fathers or adoptive parents. It is key that no Member of this House should feel excluded or question whether they should be entitled to a proxy vote when they become parents. Furthermore, this debate is not solely about women. As we continue to strive for full equality, we must continually recognise the role that fathers, and paternity leave, has in our society. As I said at Women and Equalities questions this morning, I have long been an advocate of shared parental leave and a greater emphasis on paternity leave as key ways of reducing inequality in the workplace. If we, as a Parliament, can put in place measures that promote that, it will be a worthwhile exercise for Members and wider society.
Proxy voting is the next logical step in our endeavours to modernise and we must now have a vote on a substantive motion so that we can take that forward. I hope that all hon. Members will embrace the opportunity to enact positive change.
It has been a great pleasure to listen to many Members talking about their experiences; I would like to add some of mine. It is a great honour to chair the all-party group on women in Parliament and to have the opportunity to talk to some of my women colleagues about their experiences.
I am lucky to be the mother of three wonderful children—they are now much older than children. I remember that every pregnancy was different, that every baby when they arrived was different, and that every childbirth experience was different. I particularly remember my experience with my second child, who was not due for three weeks when I felt something rather strange and I picked up my bag from under my desk at work and said, “I’m going home.” Two hours later, I was standing in a large pool of water. How glad I was that that had not happened on the trading floor.
Every mother and father needs flexibility in the system so that they can have the time that they need pre-birth, at the birth and after the birth, in those important early days, weeks and months. It was moving to hear about the much more recent experiences of the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) and the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves).
I have long been a champion of having more women in Parliament. I admit that that is a bit selfish, because when I was first elected to the European Parliament as the only female MEP for the East of England it was very lonely. Once, outside the M25 and east of the M11, there was not a single other Conservative woman Member of Parliament. Now there are 10 of us and there is a lot more comradeship. It is important that we support each other. Women continue to be a minority in Parliament, but the support has made our jobs easier. I sometimes find that people outside Parliament ask, “How do you cope with working in a place where women are not respected, not treated as equals and harassed all the time?” I say that that is not what I feel when I do my job here, but we can do more to support each other and we must continue to support the next generation. That means ensuring that we have a modern Parliament and modern maternity leave.
When I talk about modernising Parliament, I do not mean a move towards electronic voting. We should take care before making such a sweeping change. As I said earlier, my experience of voting in the European Parliament was that we sometimes had many hundreds of votes. It is easy to vote electronically, so people can decide to vote on every minor change. There are then hundreds of votes and people often stop focusing on what the votes mean.
I learnt early in my time here that when we have to put one foot in front of the other and walk through the voting Lobby, that makes us focus on the decision we are about to make. It was quite public at the time, but at the start of a particular debate, I did not know which way I would vote. It was only after listening to the debate and the reassurances that Ministers gave at the Dispatch Box that I could decide, on the basis of the evidence and the arguments, how I wanted to vote. Those are really important parts of this parliamentary democracy that we must hold on to.
I have had the experience of seeing how pairing works here. In the European Parliament, which is considered so modern, there was no pairing. Sometimes I saw women having to fly literally all across Europe with tiny babies because they wanted to be present for a crucial vote. Our pairing system does give flexibility, but it is not perfect, and it can be made more robust. For example, we should be able to register that we are paired. Then, when we went through the Lobbies, the tellers, who have their iPads in front of them, would be able to say, “Hold on a second—you were registered for a pair: had you forgotten that?” Sometimes things can be a bit confusing if a vote arrives earlier or later than expected and one might not have realised.
I have spoken to mothers who are MPs and have been paired during maternity leave. One Opposition Member told me of a really terrible experience. She was paired throughout her maternity leave, but then deeply harassed by the press and accused of being lazy—“The laziest Member of Parliament”. That was because her voting record had shown that she did not vote, but it did not show that she did not vote because she was paired or explain that she was on maternity leave. It should be possible for Members, if they wish, to have their pair made public.
It is also important, however, as other Members have said, that people should be able to keep their pair private. One evening I was paired with an Opposition Member who was very sick and did not wish that to be made public. I was very honoured to be able to respect his wish that his vote was counted, and I stood back in order to make sure that he did not feel that he needed to be called back here.
I also spoke to my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), who said that she was prepared to have it mentioned in the House that she was on parental leave for six months between 2016 and 2017 and that she supports proxy voting. I think that one of the reasons why mothers, especially, say that they support proxy voting is that although pairing does give a great deal of flexibility, they feel that they want a moment of saying, “I want my vote to be positively registered for this,” as opposed to pairing, which just means that we step back and neither person votes. They would often like to see their positive support for a policy on record.
However, there are a number of questions, many of which have been raised today. Who does one appoint as one’s proxy? It would need to be somebody who one trusts deeply, and perhaps understands one’s own local issues. For example, some Members who were involved in the Heathrow vote had very strong issues in their area that meant that they might have voted differently from their Whip. It is important that if we take the proxy route, people should have the right to choose their proxy. If somebody has decided that they want to have a proxy for their voting, should they also say that they will stand away from constituency issues—that they would not go campaigning, for example, during that period because they had decided to have a proxy? That is a fair question.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) asked what care there would be for the mother of a baby who had died, which is a terrible circumstance. My understanding is that in any other career, the mother of a baby who had died would receive normal maternity time off and maternity rights, and we should have the same sort of process.
We should remind the House that we are office holders, not employees, so the circumstances for employees do not apply to us. The particular issue that I raised was about allowing a proxy vote to be used during that time of bereavement and proper recovery for the mother.
I thank my hon. Friend for making that clear. We are office holders, not employees. The responsibility is different but, on this issue, it would be right to give a parent who has lost their child—that has never happened to me, and I cannot even begin to imagine how challenging it must be—the same right to choose a proxy, should they wish to. Others may not wish to. It is all about choice.
One other group of parents that is very challenged—not just in this place but in this country—is the mothers and fathers of very premature babies. They often spend many months in the neonatal unit and then find that by the time they get their baby home, they have run out of parental leave. The charity Bliss does amazing work to help those with very premature babies, and that small number of families should get extra support from society.
The question has been raised of who else should be able to have a proxy vote and whether this is about more than just parental leave—which, by the way, I agree means fathers, mothers and adoptive parents as well. For example, should proxy voting cover the circumstances that I remember with my third child? I went back to work very early, having just started my own business, and found myself suddenly with a very sick three-month-old child. I had stopped my parental leave and needed to go back into hospital. Should a parent be able to restart their leave?
Those are challenging issues that one would need to look at as the system evolves, which is why I support the idea of introducing proxy voting with a trial. We can then see how it evolves. My suggestion is that it should just be for parental leave—fathers and mothers of babies, including adopted babies—and not widened out to other issues at this stage, even though people need time off. In parallel, we should also look at how we can make the pairing system more robust.
I want to begin by thanking the Procedure Committee for producing its report. It occurred to me, as I was listening to the debate, that this is like all big changes, although I think we are making this out to be a bigger change than it is. Before we had the smoking ban in public places, people saw all sorts of unintended consequences, but once we did it, we thought, “Why did it take us so long?”
It is absolutely right that every workplace—this place included—should recognise that having a child is a life-changing event for new mothers and new fathers, and should try to be as family-friendly as possible. I share the concern of the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) that we are not being ambitious enough. We should not be timid.
If we agree with the principle of proxy voting, which I think everybody here does, we should extend it to people in other challenging circumstances, such as Members who are suffering from illness, Members who have a spouse or close family member who is living with an illness, or Members who are dealing with the death of a child or partner. People have talked about the special bond between parents and their new baby and said that that is why this category should be different, but while it is very important for parents to spend time with their new baby, it is also important for Members of this House to be able to spend time with a loved one who is dying. If we accept the principle of proxy voting, we should be more generous in our application of it. When proxy voting is brought in, it will be in the form of a pilot, and I would like that pilot to be more inclusive.
The hon. Member for Harrow East said that some MPs may not wish their constituents to know if they are very ill. It would be odd for an MP to be less visible in their constituency, so their constituents might well be aware of the fact that they are not around as much and might therefore deduce that they are ill anyway. I do not think that that is as big a deal as it might seem at first glance.
Everybody agrees that all workplaces should do all that they can to recognise and accommodate the demands of being a new parent, particularly a nursing mother. In this place, however, my concern is that, by limiting proxy voting to just nursing mothers, we must make sure that we do not forget fathers and make sure that they are given the same consideration as new mothers. I would like us to consider all circumstances that create challenges for Members turning up to vote. If we are going to do this, we should show a bit more ambition.
Many people have talked about how being an MP is not like any other job—the role is unique. Before and since becoming an MP, I have heard people say that MPs should set the standard that we would expect society to adopt, and that we should live up to those standards. Some Members may well have been here—I do not know, but the Mother of the House might have been—when the right to paid maternity leave was finally won for women. We know that paternity leave for fathers is still very much in its infancy, and many men do not feel able to take up the opportunity of paternity leave from their workplaces.
My word of caution in all this is that, as much as I support proxy voting, I do not want the House to do anything that might unwittingly set a precedent, even symbolically, for some unscrupulous employers in any way to interfere with or erode paid maternity leave. Women on maternity leave—that time is very important—should be on maternity leave, and they should not feel under pressure to vote, write emails to their boss or meet whatever the particular demands of their workplace are. We need to be careful not to send a signal to employers that women on maternity leave and men on paternity leave can still do some tasks, such as write the odd email.
I am talking not about MPs, but about the signal we may send to bosses. I know that fathers often, depending on the size of the company and the nature of the place in which they work, feel uncomfortable about taking paternity leave, and there is not as much acceptance of it and understanding as we would like. I just ask the House to be careful that if we bring in proxy voting—I think that we should—we in no way send a signal to any employer or workplace that maternity or paternity leave is not sacrosanct. It is sacrosanct, and it must be. It was too hard fought for to be compromised in any way.
Our job is to protect workers in the workplace. We know that pregnancy discrimination is still a big issue, and that is a stark reminder of how fragile the rights of new mothers can very often be. Let us not do anything to compromise or erode such rights. Research recently commissioned by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that some 54,000 working mothers per year are forced out of work in pregnancy through discriminatory practices. Let us tackle that, and let us protect nursing mothers and new fathers. Regardless of what we do in the House, when maternity leave is taken out there, it must still remain sacrosanct. It needs to be protected absolutely, not compromised, eroded or undermined in any way whatsoever.
A Member of Parliament recently described to me how the phone rang in the labour ward when his wife was in labour a number of years ago, and it was not another lady or her husband seeking to come on to the ward, but the Government Whips Office asking how long he thought he would be. In this story as he recounted it—the Member of Parliament confessed that his memory of the event was somewhat hazy—the Whips Office rang a number of times in the course of the night, and I do not think the calls were pastoral checks on his wife’s progress. As the evening went on, he eventually ended up with what he described as “two hours of paternity leave”, before being summoned back for a “very important Bill Committee.” It will surprise no one to know that, according to his recollection, there was subsequently no vote in that Committee. We have come a long way since then, even in the Whips Office, although the sad fact is that if that story were repeated now, the Whips would nag Members on a mobile phone rather than the hospital phone—so perhaps we have not come that far.
Within the context of total support for everything that many Members have said about the necessity of introducing this specific change, I would like to raise some points. As has been said, although on the one hand we should introduce this measure as quickly as possible, we should also implement any changes in such a way that we do not need to revisit them. That is why I support a trial period, but we should not start to implement anything before we have a decent idea that it might work.
I am pleased that on the specific issue of parental leave we are talking about proxy voting rather than electronic voting or anything else. The process of an individual walking through the Lobby—or being nodded through in small number of cases—is something that we should fight to preserve at all costs. I came to this place expecting to think that we should abolish the voting Lobbies, have electronic voting and ditch the adversarial nature of the Chamber, but although we often produce far more heat than light, the nature of the physical process of walking through a Division Lobby with our peers is profoundly valuable. It also gives Members valuable time to lobby Ministers and try to get something done.
I was about to say that that is a reason for SNP Members to join us in the Government Lobby. I appreciate that Opposition Members walk through a different Lobby so they do not have that advantage, but even then the physical process of being together in the same room is a valuable opportunity to nobble people, whether they are in government or not—I know that Opposition Members have taken that opportunity on a number of occasions. It is unreasonable to suggest that simply moving to digital voting would solve more problems than it would create.
My hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) has had to tend to some people who were taken ill in the voting Lobbies because they were crushed, cramped and hot, particularly in summer; they are certainly no place for babies or pregnant women. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is completely inadequate?
We should not move too much into a debate about air conditioning. I agree that an awful lot about the process could be improved, although that would not lead me to go as far as to suggest that getting rid of the whole physical process would be progress. I appreciate that such systems work well in other Chambers, but I echo the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) who spoke about the European Parliament.
The emphasis on proxy voting as an individual process, rather than digital voting, is hugely important. I do not seek to make the best the enemy of the good, but we must be extremely careful about how we might manage if proxy voting goes wrong, for whatever reason, and ensure that we do not allow honest mistakes to crowd out the idea of doing something worth while.
My second, broader point is that once we introduce some form of proxy voting, we will have a series of conversations with our constituents about what is a legitimate reason for a formal proxy vote, as opposed to a pair or something else. We all know of situations where Members have been genuinely very ill and obviously unable to vote. Why would that not be a cause for a proxy vote? I know the Procedure Committee has covered this issue in great detail, and I know it is perpetually the job of this House to stand at the right point on a slippery slope on a whole host of issues, but we have to make sure that we are prepared, as we go through this process, to have the right set of answers and the right set of parameters. It will not simply be a question of illness or baby leave or whatever; constituents will reasonably say to us that MPs have other hugely important duties outside this House and ask why we should not be paired or proxied for those duties.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. He poses some very searching and important questions. I would say, in the purest terms, that my ambition to see the introduction of proxy voting for women who have had a child is to allow and encourage more women with children to come to this place and to have children when they are here. It is no higher ambition than that, but it is an important ambition.
I absolutely agree. As I say, I do not want, for a moment, to present myself as standing in the way of that ambition. What I want to do is make sure that this process works as well as it possibly can from the outset. I think that that process should be what allows more people to come into Parliament in the long run, so I think we are all on the same side.
We need to have a sensible conversation about proxy voting. If we are going to live in a world where far more people, through the experiences of the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), get in touch with us and have conversations with us about pairing, is there room then to say that we should be transparent about whom someone is paired with and what pairing looks like, so that people better understand the arcane procedures of this place, if we are to say that keeping those arcane procedures to some extent is the right thing to do? We have had situations where people have said, “I was paired with the hon. Member for x,” but the hon. Member for x did not know that they were paired with that person on the other side.
There are a huge number of consequential issues. We should not use that fact as an excuse not to do a version of what has been proposed, but we should absolutely be prepared to see where this takes us. We should understand that while, to use the fashionable phrase, the red lines might be around digital voting or proxy voting, we will have to have cogent answers on a whole load of issues that go way beyond the simple and narrow issue we have practically been discussing in this debate. The issue of proxy voting goes far, far wider than that. We should use this opportunity to get it right and to fix some of the wider stuff, and we should try to seize that opportunity as quickly as we possibly can, while also seeking to ensure that they are long-term solutions.
It is a great pleasure to speak, yet again, on the issue of proxy voting for MPs who become new parents. I welcome the announcement the Leader of the House has made today that there will be a substantive motion and a vote on this issue. I would just say to her that there is some urgency to this debate. The biological clock is ticking: three hon. Ladies have recently given birth and two are expecting. When we had this debate in February, we were in a similar situation. It is a great thing that younger women are coming to this place and having babies while being Members of this House, but the procedures of the House have not yet caught up. I hope the Leader of the House will perhaps say a little more about the timing of the vote in autumn. I hope it will be soon after conference recess. I hope we are in the final trimester of the gestation of this new policy.
I have three key messages to the Leader of the House and the House. First, why would we not do this? Why would we stand in the way of new mums and new dads having a voice and a vote in this House while they are on a system of leave—albeit an informal one—and forging that bond with their babies?
Secondly, let us not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. I noted carefully what the Leader of the House said about all her questions regarding the set-up, and I understand that she wants to get it right. All I would say is that the current system—I will go on to talk about pairing in a minute—is so imperfect that the proxy voting system, even with the unintended consequences that the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) set out a moment ago, would be so much better than what we have now. I have had some recent experience of the current arrangements.
My third key message—I have said this already, but I cannot stress it enough—is: let us get on with it. I gave birth last Easter, on Good Friday, and I thought I might have a quiet maternity leave. I did not think that there would be an election, despite the speculation, because the Prime Minister seemed so intent on not having one. Four days later, however, my husband and I were proven wrong. We were a little shocked, it has to be said. I recognise the picture painted by the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), about the tensions, difficulties and stress of holding down the quite almighty job of an MP and being a parent, as well as the criticism that we receive because of that, and I will share some stories about that.
I had to run an election campaign with a newborn. Obviously, there is no way of legislating to avoid that; it was just bad timing. I am not suggesting that we can get around that one. I then took leave between July and December last year. I had to come in to Parliament to swear in, otherwise I would not have been paid. I was given a little bit of leeway with the cut-off point, because I was struggling to make sure that somebody could be at home caring for my baby so that I could get into London. I did not really fancy coming in with him at the time.
I am not, on this occasion, accusing the Whips of breaking a pair, but our Whips Office felt it was important that I came in three or four times, I think, during that period of leave, once on quite a late vote on a European matter. Although I was supposed to be on leave from the House, barely a day went by when I did not deal with a constituency matter. As the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) said, that comes with the territory, because we are our own bosses, in a way.
I had the stress and strain of thinking about when I might have to travel to London to be here to vote, and I received some criticism from some people—let us say that it was a minority. One constituent told me that I was not worth the money, because I was on maternity leave. They said that my salary was not justified, because I was not here to vote. A national newspaper said that I had the second-worst voting record, although its staff did not ask me about it before they published the article. One of my hon. Friends was called one of the laziest MPs in Britain. It is ironic that the journalist was lazy, because he did not care to check with her why she had not been here.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman)—I pay tribute to her for the tremendous work she has done on the matter—said that she did not have a vested interest. I do have a vested interest, because what if my husband and I decide that we want to have a baby? Or what if, as the Chair of the Procedure Committee, the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), said earlier, the current arrangement dissuades us from doing so?
The news report that the hon. Lady mentions was also inaccurate because she was in her place of work. She has two places of work: her constituency and the House of Commons, and it is important that we inject that fact into this debate. We never stop being Members of Parliament. We go home to our constituencies, where we are Members of Parliament.
I could not agree more. As I said, although I was on informal maternity leave, in every week of that maternity leave I checked emails, I phoned the office and my staff texted me—although they were careful about not bothering me all the time. That comes with the nature of the job, and I am not complaining about it. However, I am saying that it would have been much easier for me if I had not had, on top of that, the stress of wondering whether I should be here, and the criticism that I have described; and if I had had the right to have my constituents represented during that period of leave. I will give my reasons for thinking the pairing system is inadequate in a more formal way shortly, but I wanted to share that experience with other Members.
During our debate about this issue on 1 February, I explained to the House what had happened a week after I had given birth. I held an election meeting with members of my local party, and I think that if the situation arose again, I would not do so. My husband, who watched me make my speech, said, “I cannot believe I let you do that.” I think we underestimate the stress of giving birth. It is not just about forming a close bond with the baby, although that is obviously the priority. To have a healthy baby, one must be a healthy mum. Giving birth is physical, right? And it is hard. Whether a woman has a caesarean or a natural birth, it will take her some weeks to recover. The last thing that she will want to do is hop on a train, or to be driven to London, in order to vote. We must be able to find a way of dealing with this, even given all the complications and the questions raised by the Leader of the House.
Let me now quickly give my reasons for thinking that the pairing system falls down. First, in the case of close votes it is either suspended or broken. We heard from the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire, who had given birth three weeks before the vote in which her pair was broken. As she rightly said, that cannot be seen as anything other than cheating. Once the trust is gone, it is difficult to rebuild it.
Secondly, new mums have been attacked for missing votes. I have gone through that. I want to place on record my thanks to TheyWorkForYou, which, since our debate on 1 February, has put a banner on my page on its website saying that I was absent between July and December last year, so that the numerology takes that into account. People had been able to look at the website and see that I had not been here for many votes, so I am grateful to TheyWorkForYou for making that change. Perhaps, though, it should not be up to another organisation to be transparent about what is happening in Parliament. Perhaps the parliamentary website should do the work of TheyWorkForYou. The representatives of TheyWorkForYou tell me that they rely on generous donations, and I think that they do a good job, but perhaps we should do it for them.
My third point is the most important, and I mentioned it earlier. Only proxy voting, not pairing, will allow Members who are new parents to represent their constituents and vote in Parliament by nominating a colleague—not a Whip!—to vote on their behalf while they are with their newborn. That, I think, will be particularly crucial in the autumn. I do not want my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch), who is due to give birth next week, to be worrying, in October or November, about whether she will have a say on the Brexit deal that the Prime Minister will bring back. I do not want her to have that worry. I want her to be able to forge a close bond with her baby and enjoy her maternity leave, albeit, perhaps, with some constituency responsibilities.
Fourthly—this has already been mentioned today—pairing is not well understood. If we say “pairing” to our constituents, even if we put it in context, they may think, “That’s a bit odd; what is it?” It is not transparent, and I understand that it does not extend to all Opposition parties.
Fifthly, the later stages of a pregnancy are quite tiring. I remember being here with a massive bump, bobbing up all the time. I think I managed to make some sort of arrangement with the Speaker that I would put my hand up. This is a demanding job. There are, of course, other demanding jobs, but travelling up and down the country is not easy.
My main message today is “Do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” I listened carefully to what was said by the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), who is no longer in the Chamber, and I asked him what the “unintended consequences” were to which he was referring. If the worst of them is that my proxy would not be here on a Friday to vote on a private Member’s Bill on my behalf, or would not be here to vote on my behalf in a Backbench business debate, then so be it: I can live with that. A proxy voting system, even with those minor imperfections, would be so much better than what we have now.
This Parliament has more women than any before it, we are still outnumbered by two to one, so we are still nowhere near being gender equal—we do not represent the country in terms of ethnicity either. We have made huge progress, but we still have a long way to go. These changes, which I hope we could make quickly, would send an important signal to new mums and dads—I hope that these proposals will be extended to fathers who take shared parental leave, because at the moment only 5% of dads take up that right in the workplace—and send the message to young men and women thinking about a career in this place but who also want to start a family that they can do both.
Since I was elected just over three years ago, several debates and Committee inquiries have rightly condemned unacceptable employment practices, and I have always thought this place at its best when we come together and defend the rights of our constituents to be treated with dignity and fairness, but our right to hold others to account can be compromised if we allow arcane and meaningless tradition to lead to such disgraceful scenes as those we saw recently when desperately ill colleagues were forced to leave their hospital beds to go through the voting Lobbies. We rightly condemn the exploitation of workers, but, with such scenes, we risk the response, “Who are you to judge?”
This Parliament has a long history of things that make us proud, but rather than learning from that history, we seem at times to be bound by it. In what other workplace would a woman be asked to discharge herself from hospital for something that could be dealt with over the phone? Imagine how we would respond if another employer said that the reason they were insisting she do it was that it had always been done that way. I welcome the concept of proxy voting for Members who have had a baby or adopted a child as a first sensible step, and I would urge, as others have done today, that we get on with it as soon as possible.
We have heard differing views on this, but I believe we should be going much further. The Procedure Committee’s proposals do not cover the disgraceful scenes I just referred to, and although it should be the expectation that we be present in this place for debates and votes, there are many perfectly acceptable reasons why it might not always be possible. These could include personal or medical issues, as well as being away on official business as part of our role—to be clear, I am referring only to such absences as arise from a person’s role as an MP, not other jobs, such as being on the Front Bench, or other private interests.
The current situation creates several very serious issues. In matters of vital importance, it effectively forces people to put their health at risk if they want the voice of their constituency to heard. Again, if that was any other workplace, we would not allow it. Not only is the current system potentially unsafe; it allows people to be conveniently absent if they want to dodge an issue, the recent vote on Heathrow being a particularly memorable example. I would advocate proxy voting not just for those who are absent on health grounds or who have taken maternity or paternity leave, but to remove a convenient excuse from those who do not have the guts to represent what their constituents want. I understand what the Chair of the Procedure Committee said about personal information being disclosed in creating the dispensations for medical-related absences, but I am sure we can do it while respecting confidentiality.
It has been 18 months now since we last discussed the report “The Good Parliament”, which set out an extremely modest set of proposals to improve how this place works, yet it is very difficult to see what progress has been made in implementing any of them. So much needs to change here, including certain ridiculous practices, such as filibustering, the absence of maternity, paternity, adoption and caring leave, and complex webs of procedure and protocols that can be impossible to explain and justify to our constituents. For example, the Order Paper lists 60-odd private Members’ Bills due to be debated next month. If people expect these Bills to become law, we have to explain that they are not going to but are still on the Order Paper. Let us ensure that this debate is part of the wider debate about reforming the way this Parliament works.
In how many workplaces does the finish time vary and change at very short notice? That is in no way family-friendly. In which workplace is it acceptable for colleagues to stop speaking to another colleague because they disapprove of something they may or may not have said or done? In which job would it be considered normal to engage with colleagues on social media—and, yes, I do mean people from the same party—with sometimes those comments not being acceptable in any workplace and not passing any dignity at work policy? We should be setting an example in here about how we treat each other with respect and dignity. Of course there is rough and tumble in politics, but some of the behaviour we see in this Chamber would be unacceptable in any workplace, let alone any school.
Where is it considered acceptable to shout at someone who is addressing a room? Too often we see this Chamber descending into a bear pit. Of course those involved are trying to put off the Member speaking, but often, I have noticed, there is a sexist undertone to that, and it only usually puts off people watching outside; it does not work on those in here speaking.
There is so much we can do about the culture here, but we can also change the rules governing this place, and if we can change the rules, we can hopefully improve the culture as well. Having an uncodified constitution should be an advantage for us in doing that; we should be flexible and moving with the times, but we seem to be bound by decisions and protocols that are hundreds of years old, dating from before women were even able to vote.
On proxy voting, as we have heard, there are examples of it working in other parts of the world. In Australia proxy voting has been in place since 2008, and in evidence provided to the Procedure Committee the Clerk of the House of Australia said he was not aware of any negative feedback about its use. New Zealand has two different systems for proxy voting, and proxy voting could even be found in the past in this place: until 1868—a bit before my time—Lords who were not present could vote by proxy, while in the Commons proxies were allowed in the medieval Parliament. We are not just stuck in the past; we are almost going backwards on some of these issues.
I believe that we can move to a system of proxy voting, and, as touched on already, we ought to be looking at having a full electronic voting system, which is common in many Chambers. The US House of Representatives has been doing that since the 1970s, and they may vote at any number of stations located throughout the Chamber. As we have heard, in the United Kingdom the Scottish Parliament and National Assembly for Wales both use electronic voting systems.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about electronic voting, and he is citing the House of Representatives in America. I think he should look at the quality of debate in many of those Chambers before extolling the virtues of electronic voting too vociferously.
I think there are many factors that influence the quality of debate in America, not least the party system and the way it is funded. To put that all down to electronic voting might be a slight oversimplification.
As we have heard, going through the voting Lobby gives us a chance to talk to Ministers about important constituency issues, but, as has also been said, only very rarely are Back-Bench Members, certainly on this side of the Chamber, in the same Lobby as Ministers, and I think chance meetings like that are not the best way to be doing important business on behalf of our constituents.
In conclusion, I think the proposals of the Procedure Committee are—pardon the pun—a baby-step towards a modern Parliament; they clearly fall some way short of the workplace protections our constituents have and a long way short of where I think we should be as a modern forward-thinking democracy. But at least we are discussing this, even if it is a century after the first woman was elected to this place.
However much I disagree with the process of English votes for English laws, that has shown that we can change our procedures quickly when there is a desire from the Government. So let us hope that we do not have to wait another century for further progress and we see the same commitment from the Government on this issue that we saw from them on introducing English votes for English laws, and that the recommendations in the “Good Parliament” report are used as part of a wider debate about how we conduct ourselves so we, and our constituents, have confidence that Parliament operates in a transparent, modern and effective manner.
I want to start by paying tribute to the Mother of the House, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), not only for the work that she has done on this but for the point that she made earlier about the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg). One of the things I have been reflecting on this afternoon is the idea that because we are officeholders and Members of Parliament, we are different. Given what we saw yesterday, I think that members of the general public sometimes forget that although we are officeholders and Members of Parliament, we are also human beings. Far too often, that is lost from folks’ consciousness.
I rise to speak partly to back up some of what the hon. Member for Bury North (James Frith) said, and I also want to speak as a father. I had no intention of being here today. I have mentioned before in the House that I am an expectant father. My wife and I are expecting our second child, and her official due date is 21 October. However, this has been a complex pregnancy, as was the case with our now three-year-old son, and my wife has now been taken in for a C-section the day after tomorrow. So for me, proxy voting is incredibly personal. I know, now that we have been given the business of the House, that the Agriculture Bill will have its Second Reading in the first week back after the recess, but I will not be here to vote on that Bill.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend—and he is a friend—the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), who is also my Chief Whip. I went to him at the beginning of this week and said to him, “Patrick, I won’t be able to be here in the first week back after the recess.” It will not be a simple case of my daughter being born and coming out of hospital. When my son was born, he ended up in intensive care for two weeks, followed by a week in the special care baby unit. Men normally get two weeks’ paternity leave, and on occasion such as those, they have to go straight back to work before their child has even come home, so I am grateful to my colleague for allowing me to be slipped that week.
I have sat through this afternoon’s debate feeling incredibly frustrated by the fact that this issue has been kicked into the long grass time after time. The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) touched very nicely on the question of English votes for English laws. As a Scottish nationalist politician, I have views on that subject, but what we noticed when English votes for English laws were introduced was that the Government had no problem at all bringing forward the necessary changes to Standing Orders. We did not have to have countless debates on the general principles involved. When the Government decided that they wanted English votes for English laws, they came up with the changes to Standing Orders and put the measures in place. There were a hell of a lot of unintended consequences, but it was good enough for the Government to bring in those changes at that point, and I believe that it is good enough for them to bring forward proxy voting now.
Perhaps the reason that I am annoyed and a bit emotional today is that proxy voting will not help me on this occasion. There will be no proxy voting in place when I miss that first week back, and I will not be here to vote on the Agriculture Bill or on any other matters that come up that week. I say to the Leader of the House that there is consensus among Members of Parliament on this issue. There was consensus on 1 February this year. I sat in that debate knowing that we were expecting a baby later in the year, and I went home and told my wife that it looked as though we were going to get proxy voting. I knew fine well that my child would probably be in intensive care for two or three weeks. The reality is that if we had gone full term to 21 October, Parliament would have been back in session and I would have missed countless weeks here. At the time, I said to her, “It’s okay, we will have proxy voting.” It is sheer luck that we will be in recess for the vast majority of the time that I need to be away from here. My message to the Leader of the House today is crystal clear. There is a clear consensus in the House today: get on with it.
As we consider the scope of proxy voting, it is worth looking at how we do things in this House when it comes to voting. As a relatively new Member of Parliament, it took a while for me to get used to the ways and procedures of this place, including the ways in which we vote. On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with having to vote in person and being required to be physically present in the voting Lobby within eight minutes of the bell sounding. However, there are exceptions to that rule, one of which involves nodding through.
It is a long-established custom and practice that if a Member of Parliament is on the parliamentary estate but, because of some physical inability, cannot get to the voting Lobby, they should be allowed, with the agreement of the Whips, to cast their vote by being nodded through. That custom was torn up and trampled on by the Government on 19 June, when the Government Whips refused to honour a request to allow a Member who was on the parliamentary estate, having been brought here by ambulance, to be nodded through. Instead, they insisted that my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah) be wheeled through the Lobby in a wheelchair with a sick bucket in her lap. Surely Parliament should be about trying to ensure that Members have a fair opportunity to vote. The Government Whips’ approach on 19 June was deliberately anti-democratic as their actions resulted in making it harder for Members to vote, even when they wanted to but physically could not do so without help.
Another such exception is the pairing system. If a Member knows that they will be absent from a vote, they can, with the agreement of the Whips, be paired with an opposing Member, with their pair agreeing not to vote in a Division from which the other Member will be knowingly absent. However, as the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) said, pairing does not apply among other parties, such as the Scottish National party. On Tuesday 17 July, the pairing arrangement was broken twice by a Member who voted in favour of the Government by opposing two amendments to the Trade Bill in close votes while the non-voting Member, the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), was recovering after having given birth just a few weeks earlier.
Our antiquated system of voting needs reform, but considering how long it takes for change to happen and the systematic failure to honour customs and traditions in recent months, it is time for at least one change to happen—and soon. We need another exception to the rule: the introduction of proxy voting in the limited circumstances of Members being absent from the House by reason of maternity, paternity or adoption. Following my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) securing a debate on 1 February 2018 and a resolution about proxy voting—it was nicknamed “baby leave”—being passed without dissent, the matter was referred to the Procedure Committee to explore further.
As a member of the Procedure Committee, I and my colleagues had the pleasure of hearing from a number of hon. Members and knowledgeable people about the pros and cons of proxy voting, and their experiences of being a parent and a Member of Parliament carrying out their duties, one of which is to vote. We heard about how, in the glare of social media, Members of Parliament have been accused of being lazy because their voting record shows that they have not voted when they were absent due to pregnancy or having just given birth. We heard from one hon. Member who said that he felt compelled to vote in a Division only days after adopting a child with his partner for fear of criticism about his voting record. On an entirely separate note, the Procedure Committee may want to look at how an active abstention might be recorded to help to differentiate from absenteeism, but I digress.
The Procedure Committee also heard from a Member who said that she was not allowed to fly after a certain number of weeks due to her pregnancy. The NHS recommends that pregnant women should not fly after 37 weeks, although that figure varies from airline to airline. As such, that is a barrier to access due to a physical condition, and the House needs to try remove all such barriers that discriminate against Members who are unable to carry out their duties. The Committee heard from Whips who said that there was nothing wrong with the present system of informal pairing, although they might not be so full in their praise of the system following recent events. We also heard from learned Clerks of this House and constitutional experts about how such a scheme could be implemented.
Following its thorough scrutiny of the issues, the Procedure Committee produced a report entitled “Proxy voting and parental absence” on how a non-compulsory proxy voting scheme limited to cases of maternity, paternity and adoption could operate. Although many Members have said that they would like any system to go further, that was the remit that the Committee followed, although I would like to see us go much further. The Committee looked at how and when a proxy would be appointed, in which Divisions a proxy could vote, how those votes should be recorded, and how the Standing Orders should be amended. Much of what we have heard in this debate was captured by the Committee when we were working on our report, which outlines how we could implement any proxy voting proposals. The system is ready to go, and we need a substantive vote soon.
The Procedure Committee, which includes many fine constitutional minds, also considered that if the report’s recommendations were to be implemented on a trial basis this year, which marks the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act 1918, it would send a positive message to women of child-bearing age and men that this House is becoming more family-friendly by making a minor concession. This is the 21st century after all.
Sadly, we are still some way off having a 50:50 Parliament. Although 32% of MPs are women, much more needs to be done to attract more women to stand for and get elected to Parliament. We should get rid of any antiquated practices that discriminate against new mums or heavily pregnant MPs. If we do not, what message are we sending to young women and girls who might aspire to become politicians?
The House has previously taken some strides in that direction by changing the times that the House sits to make them more family-friendly, and by establishing a nursery in Parliament. By accepting the Procedure Committee’s proposals, we would be taking one step further in getting more women to stand for Parliament and in modernising the House to make it fit for the 21st century. There is still much more that needs to be done, but proxy voting would be a big step in the right direction.
With the leave of the House, Mr Speaker, I will wind up on behalf of the Opposition.
I know that you have been here since 9.30 am, Mr Speaker, so you must be slightly frustrated. I am pleased to see that you have had a break, although I know you have great stamina. I start by paying tribute to you, because you must be frustrated in another sense, as you commissioned the “Good Parliament” report. That report flagged proxy voting, not least because the Parliaments of Australia and New Zealand have this process —the two processes work in slightly different ways, but they do work.
The Prime Minister of New Zealand has just given birth. She is also facing the criticism that women have to face nowadays, but she has had the support of the people of New Zealand, who said, “Our Prime Minister looks like us. She does the things that we do. She has had a baby and is balancing her working life with her family life.”
Again, I thank the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) and members of the Procedure Committee, who I will name because they took the trouble to contribute to the debate: the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), my hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden), for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous)—he has just made a very thoughtful contribution—and for Ogmore (Chris Elmore), and the right hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Sir David Evennett). I will be coming back to the contribution of the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) in a minute. Sadly, the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) has had to catch a flight, so she has apologised to all of us for not being here for the wind-ups.
The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), who has obviously also had to leave, has shown exactly why new mums, dads and, of course, adoptive parents need breathing space. In her important contribution, the hon. Member for Glasgow Central made an important contribution in which she said that we have to make a decision soon. The hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) said that sometimes the pairing system can work, and it does. I remind everyone that proxy voting is a choice; it is not mandatory.
What can I say about my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), other than that she has driven this issue forward, and she did so way before 1 February? I am sure that she, too, will want to see quick progress. As she said, we are ready to roll.
The hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) made an important contribution. He knows that, throughout the years, we have been covered by pairing and nodding through, and proxy voting is a much more up-to-date and much more formalised system.
I remember how my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) was vilified and how, as she was sitting here during the previous debate on this issue, TheyWorkForYou decided to change its mind on the policy—and rightly so. All credit to her for going through an election at a very difficult time. She is my constituency neighbour, and we all felt for her.
The hon. Members for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) and for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), and my hon. Friends the Members for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) and for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), all made important contributions.
We are a modern Parliament, and we are up to date in certain aspects. That will continue but, as the Leader of the House and I have both said, we are not employees. We have different ways of working.
I wish the hon. Member for Glasgow East and his wife all the very best at this exciting time. We should all be with our newborn children—it really is a wonderful time. I am sure that his wife will be in very good hands, and mothers do need to take that extra time after having a C-section. You do need to be on hand; I am afraid that you will have to do all the heavy lifting—[Laughter.] Sorry, Mr Speaker; I mean the hon. Member for Glasgow East will have to do the heavy lifting, not you. I hope you are not going to be there. You have a job to do here, and we need you.
Proxy voting is a choice and it is tied up with the business of the House. It is right that the business managers should manage the business. We are in a hung Parliament. Members who use proxy voting should not have not to spend time finding a proxy. I hope that the process that I outlined earlier can be considered. The Leader of the House mentioned to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham that they should have a conversation about how to drive this issue forward, but it is important for the business managers to be involved, too, so I hope that the Leader of the House will ensure that the business managers of all parties are involved.
The Leader of the House said that she wants to take more evidence on unintended consequences and the various other issues that she outlined. Who will take that evidence? Is it a question of Members writing to her? Is she going to refer anything to the Procedure Committee for further inquiry? How long will the process take? What is the timeframe within which we can expect a substantive motion?
Finally, I wish to recognise that the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire has returned to the Chamber with baby Gabriel, who is asleep—I hope that that is not because of my speech. Perhaps we should all be quiet.
I wish to work with the Leader of the House, as do, I am sure, all our business managers. We have to get this right—and soon.
With the leave of the House, I will also make a short closing speech and welcome baby Gabriel. I shall try to be very boring and quiet and not make anyone laugh at all.
I really do sincerely welcome the thoughtful debate that we have had. Again, I thank the Procedure Committee for its helpful response to the debate earlier this year, and I thank all those who have made contributions today. I gently remind those who—courteously in some cases, less so in others—advocate urgency and have criticised the fact that a few months have elapsed that Leaders of the House and business managers over the years have never achieved progress in changes to voting procedures. I am grateful for today’s debate because, as I have said time and again, this is a significant change and I am determined that we get it right. I am also determined that it is this Government who make that change—in fact, that it is me as Leader of the House who makes that change. There is my ambition.
We have had some fantastic contributions. My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker)—as you rightly say, Mr Speaker, a good-natured fellow—is a strong advocate for modernising Parliament. He made a good case for limiting proxy voting to baby leave rather than extending it beyond that, for reasons of privacy, which I thought really resonated around the Chamber.
We heard an excellent speech from the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), who was quite understandably critical of the Whips. For the record, I wish to repeat the words of the Prime Minister on 18 July in response to a question from the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman). She said:
“First, may I say to the right hon. and learned Lady that the breaking of the pair was done in error? It was not good enough and it will not be repeated. My right hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) and the Chief Whip have apologised directly to the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire”.
She went on to reassure all right hon. and hon. Members who are having babies that we
“will continue to guarantee a pair for MPs who are currently pregnant or who have a newborn baby.”—[Official Report, 18 July 2018; Vol. 645, c. 410.]
It is important that there is no sense of the Government not being committed to ensuring that new parents have time to spend with their newborn babies. But, as many Members have said, we can and will go further.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Sir David Evennett), a member of the Procedure Committee, made a strong pitch in support of change to help new families. As a former Whip, he recognised that more needs to be done and was keen to support proxy voting.
The hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) made a strong case for why we need more women in politics, and she is absolutely right. To attract more women into politics we need a new, more modern Parliament. May I just say that she apologised to me for having to get going for a flight, which is entirely understandable.
My hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) pointed out in a beautiful way the experience that she had with one of her children when she was not a Member of this place and how it can be very tricky in all circumstances, but, of course, it is so much more difficult if a person is a Member of Parliament and an office holder who is unable to be flexible with the demands of giving birth. She was quite right to make her points and she gave some helpful thoughts on the process of proxy voting.
The right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham spoke very powerfully about why women should not lose the recognition of their vote. The key point here is that being paired is just not good enough; it is not right for the women or for their constituents that their vote should not be recorded. She also made a plea that those for whom this is not an issue have sympathy for those for whom it very much is a live issue.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) talked about broadening the issue of proxy voting to include those who have serious illnesses. It was one of the issues that I was keen to have raised in the House today. He was right to raise it. He himself was forced to be absent for a considerable amount of time, and he said that he would have liked to have had his vote counted as well. It is important that we consider, in a pilot scheme or at the end of a pilot scheme, whether proxy voting should include other areas, although I do not get the impression from the debate today that there is a broad appetite for that.
The hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) gave us the benefit of her knowledge as an employment rights lawyer specialising in maternity leave. It was also lovely to hear about her son’s excitement about voting. Is it not wonderful to hear about somebody who wants to vote? A Whip once said to me that we spend most of our lives trying to get to this place, and, as soon as we are here, we spend the rest of our lives trying to escape from it. It is the ultimate irony.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) spoke warmly of her own children and the potential embarrassment of the sudden arrival of No. 2. She warned against electronic voting from her experience in the European Parliament as she considers that it can mean that Members are simply not well informed because they tend not to attend the debate. She is a strong advocate for pairing and says that she wishes that it had been offered in the European Parliament, and suggests that possibly better enforcement of pairing—perhaps more transparency—could be a way forward. She also mentioned my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) who is one of our colleagues who has recently experienced maternity leave and who is a strong advocate for proxy voting.
The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) made the case for a broader approach to the use of a proxy. She suggested the example of a parent of a Member dying or being extremely ill. She said that, perhaps, it should be considered in that broader context. She also gave strong words to support all maternity and paternity rights, which as I am sure she will agree is a priority that has been expressed right across the House.
My hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) talked about the situation of a Member—presumably it was a Member from some time ago—where the Whips were actually calling the delivery suite and asking how long he was going to be. We can all laugh about that now, but, as we saw in that play “This House”, those sorts of things were not uncommon. We have come a long way, but there is a long way to go. He advocates a trial period for proxy voting and that we consider the scope. He is also a strong voice for the current way that we vote through the Lobby to enable Members to have time with Front-Bench Members of all parties.
The hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) made a very strong speech and gave us an insight into her own maternity arrangements, in which she was dealing not with voting in this place, but with the even more challenging situation of a general election. I can let her in on a story. When I was having my third child, I was dealing with the final round of a selection committee. My daughter was born at home at 2.30 in the morning and at 8 o’clock that evening I was appearing in front of the committee. The mad things that we do! Anyway, I congratulate her on having coming through it with such good humour. She also talked about the stresses and strains of that maternity period. It is incredibly difficult.
The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) advocates modernisation to give the same protections to this place as we have in the workplace. He is also a strong fan of electronic voting. He will find some support for that in this place, but, dare I say it, not a huge amount of support. Nevertheless, his views were interesting.
To the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), I express my sympathy, wish him good luck and send every good wish for the new arrival who is due the day after tomorrow. We will all be thinking of him and wishing him and his wife a safe delivery. He spoke movingly of the difficulties for dads when their partners really need their support. I am incredibly sympathetic to him, as I know all hon. Members will be.
Last but not least, the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) spoke strongly about the pairing system and his view that it does not work. Pairing is a complicated, quite manual, administrative process, and more than 50 pairs have been broken by the Opposition, some yesterday. I gently point out that it is administratively intensive to enable people to be paired. With the greatest good will and the intention to do all we can to make the system more robust, pairing is nevertheless complex and it is not right to say that breaking it is always deliberate. That is far from the truth. The hon. Gentleman also gave a helpful analysis of the benefits of proxy voting, to which we all listened with interest.
In my opinion, and as expressed by many during the debate, it is important that any new scheme should be time limited to give us the opportunity to evaluate it once a period of time has elapsed. I am grateful to the Procedure Committee for indicating that it will review any new scheme, and I think that it is important that the pilot should be implemented permanently only if the Committee can reassure the House that it has worked well.
Significant changes to procedures in the House need to be carefully considered and evaluated. For example, colleagues will know that the independent complaints and grievance policy, which has just been established, has reviews built into it at six and 18 months. I personally think it is right that any new procedure for voting should have similar checks and balances. [Interruption.] Is that baby Gabriel, alerted possibly to something he does not agree with?
I am minded to accept the majority of the recommendations of the Procedure Committee’s report, which provides a good basis for a pilot scheme. However, I do not think that our ambitions for modernising Parliament should be limited to the question of proxy voting. There is much more we can consider when looking at what we can do to modernise this amazing place of work and make it a more family-friendly environment for both those who are here to vote and those who are not.
As I said when I opened the debate, there is no question in my mind but that we need to make progress. I will reflect carefully on today’s debate, which has been incredibly helpful, and I intend to bring forward a substantive motion as soon as possible.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered proxy voting in the House of Commons.