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Points of Order

Volume 652: debated on Monday 14 January 2019

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Thank you for agreeing to hear it. The House will obviously be fully aware that we have a very important vote tomorrow in which all hon. Members will want to take part. My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) is nine months pregnant and due to have a caesarean tomorrow. She should not have to choose between going through the Division Lobby in a wheelchair while nine months pregnant, having postponed her caesarean, and losing her right to vote. If the Whips were to agree, and with the agreement of the Leader of the House, would it be possible, Mr Speaker, for you to facilitate a proxy vote so that she can have her baby and have her vote? The House agreed to this change in principle in February last year. In the circumstances of tomorrow’s important vote and my hon. Friend’s pregnancy, would it be possible for that to be arranged?

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Can you advise me on how to expedite the process of introducing proxy votes? How many babies do we in this House, collectively, have to have before we see any change? I will probably be on my second before we have a policy to introduce proxy votes. There should be some urgency in implementing this reform of the House.

Let me respond to the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) and the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds). In the first instance, I think it worthwhile to be candid in saying that I am advised—of course I seek advice and must then hear what the advice is—that it is not within the gift of party authorities, although I would argue that they are in a sense House authorities, to facilitate proxy voting for tomorrow. I respect that view, although in all candour I am not sure that I agree with it, but it is tendered to me in good faith and I put it out there for the House to know.

I believe it is absolutely essential, not just for the rights of the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) but for the reputation of this House as an institution approaching, or starting to take an interest in, the modern world, that she should be facilitated to vote tomorrow. The notion that she should have to be wheeled through a Division Lobby would, I think, be regarded by very large numbers of people as completely uncivilised. That should not have to happen.

It has been suggested to me that—in a departure from, or at any rate an extension of, the normal nodding-through arrangement, which ordinarily applies to somebody who is indisposed but on the parliamentary estate—the hon. Lady could be nodded through and her vote counted even if she were, in fact, in a hospital bed at the time. I do not rule out that possibility and for my part I would be happy, on my own shoulders, to agree to that. Personally, I think it preferable that the hon. Lady should have a proxy vote, but that seems to me to depend on cross-party agreement. I have been approached about the matter by the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on women in Parliament, the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), who wrote to me very recently. It is good to see her in her place—forgive me, but I had not seen her. If she wants to come in on this exchange, she very properly can, or not if she does not wish to do so. I wrote back to her making it explicitly clear that I have made clear from this Chair my support for, and willingness to assist in the introduction of, proxy voting for the purposes of baby leave. I have done that several times.

It is important for the House to know, and for those attending our proceedings to be told, the facts of the matter. The issue has been debated twice in the Chamber. The first was on 1 February last year in a debate under the auspices of the Backbench Business Committee. If memory serves, that debate was secured at the instigation of the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham. On that occasion, the proposition that proxy voting for baby leave should be introduced was passed, if I am right, nem con—that is to say, without opposition. Subsequently, there was a general debate in this Chamber on 13 September last year in Government time. There was no Division of the House, so there is no recorded vote, but my recollection is that there was strong support for the change on that occasion. The Leader of the House, who I think was present at the time, indicated her desire to expedite progress on the matter. From my own contacts, I understand it to have been very much her wish to bring about change before the end of last year.

If I may say so, and I will, it is extremely regrettable that almost a year after the first debate, and more than four months after the second debate, the change has not been made. Frankly, that is lamentable—lamentable—and very disadvantageous and injurious to the reputation of this House. If an agreement can be reached between the usual channels today—I am chairing in the Chamber, so Members will need to come and tell me what has been agreed—I am very happy to facilitate a change for tomorrow, preferably in the form of a proxy vote for the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn, but at the very least something to ensure that she can be nodded through.

It really is time, in pursuit of the expressed view of this House, that reactionary forces are overcome. If people want to express their opposition, let them not do so murkily behind the scenes; let them have the character to say up front that they oppose progressive change. I hope we can get progressive change. What better opportunity to do so than before our historic vote tomorrow? I hope I have made my own views clear.

That partly deals with that. I am now in the hands—I say this for the benefit of our observers—of a very formidable band of colleagues. They will help make it happen.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. While I utterly support the idea of proxy voting for women such as our colleague the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq), we have people who are absent from the Chamber and from Parliament with a varying range of illnesses, or who have partners or family members who are terminally ill. The issue needs to be dealt with across the range.

That may very well be so, and I am not unsympathetic to the hon. Lady’s proposition, but I was speaking pretty much off the top of my head, and what I did not say but should have said, because it is part of the pattern and the picture, is that the Procedure Committee was invited to consider this matter. I gave evidence to it, as I know other Members did, and the Procedure Committee specifically endorsed the idea and was looking for a resolution to be put to the House. Ordinarily, such a resolution would be put to the House by the Leader of the House. I very much regret that that has not happened, but pragmatically I am seeking, on the back of discussions with the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham, to broker progress not next month or next year, or at some unspecified point in the distant future, but with effect from tomorrow. The wider issue of other categories can and should of course be properly considered by the House of Commons.