To ask the Leader of the House of Commons if she will make a statement on the obstacles to introducing proxy voting in Parliament.
I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to this urgent question. I thank the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) for her question. I have great respect for her, particularly for her invaluable work on the steering group to establish the Independent Complaints and Grievance Policy. She has also been a strong voice on the issue of proxy voting and I know that many of us enjoyed seeing her in her place during the previous debate on this matter with baby Gabriel.
I am also delighted that the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) welcomed a new baby boy, Raphael, on Thursday. I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in sending our very best wishes. There are a number of Members right across the House who are expecting babies in the coming months and so I know that this matter is, quite rightly, of huge importance to many.
I profoundly believe that all new parents should be able to spend uninterrupted time with their new baby. That is vital both for the physical and mental wellbeing of parents and their babies. Working to give every baby the best start in life has been a passion of mine for many years, and during this time I have had the pleasure of working closely with many hon. and right hon. Members across the House.
I was delighted that the Prime Minister asked me to chair a cross-Government ministerial group in June to explore what more the Government can do to improve the cradle-to-grave effects that result from better support in this critical period of our lives. The group that I chair will make recommendations to relevant Secretaries of State on how the Government can improve the co-ordination and cost-effectiveness of early years family support, and identify gaps in available provision. I am delighted to be visiting Home Start and Sure Start in Manchester this Friday with the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell) to hear directly from parents about their experiences.
I assure the House that I am absolutely committed to making progress on the issue of proxy voting, and I am truly delighted to be able to confirm to the House today that a substantive motion on proxy leave in the case of maternity, paternity and adoption has been tabled today for the House’s agreement on Monday 28 January.
The motion I have tabled will largely follow the helpful recommendations set out in the Procedure Committee’s fifth report of the Session. It will facilitate baby leave for Members of Parliament and implement the House’s decision to agree to proxy voting in instances of baby leave.
The motion and Standing Order changes that I will table deviate in two minor ways from the drafting in the Procedure Committee report. First, the motion will provide for a pilot scheme of one year, with a formal review at the end of that by the Procedure Committee to ensure that it is working well. Secondly, for that reason, the Standing Order is temporary, and in agreement with the Clerks, the ability to make provision for proxy voting in so far as not provided for by the Standing Order was deemed unnecessary for the scheme to be fully workable. Those are the two minor changes.
This is a perfect example of how Parliament can work collaboratively to bring about important change, demonstrating the work of many colleagues from all parties, who have been determined to see this happen. This is a really positive moment for many colleagues across the House. There have been a number of constructive debates about this issue, and ultimately it is clear to me that the balance of opinion is that baby leave is a unique period of time and is crucial for new parents. This is a step forward, removing the choice between parliamentary and parental responsibilities and helping to make Parliament a more modern workplace.
I do hope that the House will be of the same opinion, and that it will fully support the motion next week to bring forward a pilot scheme for proxy voting.
First, I absolutely share in the congratulations that the Leader of the House is sending—I am sure from the whole House—to the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) on the birth of her gorgeous baby boy, Raphael.
I thought that things were pretty bad when, back in June in the heat wave, I was 10 days past my due date, but the Government’s response to the House’s instruction to introduce proxy voting gives a whole new meaning to the word overdue. In all seriousness, I congratulate the Leader of the House on her work and on getting to this stage; she is a genuine advocate. Those of us who have worked hard on this issue—the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and those of us who have recently been pregnant or are currently pregnant—know from our meetings with the Leader of the House that she has been seriously helping to drive this initiative within Government, I am sure to her frustration at times, because she is committed to this issue. However, it is shameful that last week the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn was put in the invidious position of having to make a choice—weighing up the potential health risks to her baby against whether her constituents could have their voice heard on the biggest issue of our time. Nobody should be put in such a position.
I would also say, for the record, that I think that it is disgusting that some have suggested that the hon. Lady was just trying to make a point. She was put in an impossible position and she made a choice. The judgment that comes from all corners of parents making choices like that, and all sorts of others, is out of order. We should respect the choice that she made.
Yes, the hon. Lady was offered a pair—that is what some people have said: “She was offered a pair.” but it is the Government’s fault that pairing is entirely discredited as a mechanism to enable pregnant MPs and new parents to discharge their responsibilities. I was nursing my two-week-old baby in July when I found out that the person I was paired with had voted anyway. He had not voted all day; he had voted in just the two Divisions that happened to be very close—one that the Government lost and one that they won. So forgive me if I am a bit sceptical about the assurances that we were given that that was a genuine mistake, because the result of the Chief Whip’s behaviour—as it then turned out, others had been asked to break their pairs too—was to cheat my constituents out of their voice on one of the biggest issues of our time: Brexit. So some Members of the Government—not the Leader of the House—have been dragged kicking and screaming to this position.
I also think we should put on record thanks to Esther Webber of The Times, whose article suggesting that it was the Chief Whip who was blocking this issue is, I suspect, not entirely unrelated to the date at which this announcement has been brought forward today, in response to this urgent question.
However, I ask the Leader of the House, why the delay? It has been nearly a year—five babies born; three more on the way. Does she appreciate the appalling message that that sends out about maternity rights? Fifty-four thousand women a year lose their jobs because of pregnancy and maternity discrimination, and the Government’s response has been completely inadequate. The charade that we have seen in this House just underlines that message.
The baby son of the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn is five days old. We in law do not allow new mothers to work for two weeks after their baby is born, which is why I am delighted that the Leader of the House says that the House will discuss this issue on Monday. May I ask her some practical questions? Will the motion have time allocated to it, so that it is not possible for a single voice to shout “Object!” and stop the debate happening? What discussions has she had with the Speaker’s Office to make sure that all the preparatory work is done, and that a scheme is in place, so that if the House approves the motion on Monday, the scheme can be in place on Tuesday?
Of course, that does not get round the issue of the voice of the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn being heard on Monday for that vote. Perhaps the Leader of the House might like to suggest a pair for the hon. Lady on Monday evening—I do not know what the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) is doing then, but somebody like him may well appreciate having the night off.
We have waited long enough for this change. Modernising the House of Commons is a slow and laborious process—frankly, it is often quite like childbirth—so let us get on with it. I hope that on Monday night I will walk through the Lobby with the Mother of the House, the Leader of the House and many modernising MPs from all parties to get this done.
I say again that I consider the hon. Lady to be a friend and I entirely understand her frustration. I will respond to her questions in turn.
First, the hon. Lady talks about the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq). As I said in business questions last Thursday, the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn was offered a pair. She has also received an invitation to be nodded through should she wish her vote to be recorded. That would obviously require her to come to this place at some point during the day before the vote, when her name would be recorded; but in the meantime, she is invited to have a pair. I understand that she had a pair yesterday.
As the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) knows, until proxy voting is in place, that remains the way in which those with illnesses and those having parental leave are accommodated. She will also be aware, as was said at the time, that the breaking of the pair in her case on, I believe, 17 July was done entirely in error. My right hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) apologised directly to her, as did my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip on behalf of the Whips Office. I apologise to the House again, but I can assure all Members that it is intended that a pair be provided for the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn should she wish it, as was the case yesterday.
The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire asks about the delay. She will appreciate that this is a fundamental break with the past in this House. She will also appreciate that I wrote to the Procedure Committee in November 2017, asking it to look into this matter, because it was a significant change for the House, and the Committee raised a number of issues that needed resolution. For example, when should a proxy be used? Could it be just for Government business? Should it be for private business? Should it be for a closure motion? Should it be for life-or-death decisions only? Those were very important questions. Also, who should offer the proxy? Who should be the proxy? Who should provide that role, and what sort of consequences does that offer for the individual who may be voting against their conscience on behalf of another Member? Finally, there is the question of whether proxy should be used only for those on baby leave rather than for those who are ill or who have other priorities.
Those were significant questions and I understand the hon. Lady’s frustration at the time it is taking, but we have had a number of very constructive debates, and I believe that we have concluded that the issue of baby leave is unique, and therefore should have priority. That is why I am able to bring this forward today.
Finally, with the breaking of pairs, I totally understand that in the hon. Lady’s case that was extremely regrettable, but she will appreciate that, as an informal system, there are a number of problems with the administration of pairs. I would very gently point out to her that five Liberal Democrat MPs—almost half of the party’s MPs—have broken their pairs in this Parliament alone. It is not unique to the Government side; a number of pairs have been broken through genuine errors. All hon. Members need to consider the fact that there is a strong commitment to making the informal pairing arrangement work as well as it possibly can.
I thank the Leader of the House for what she has said. The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) also asked what discussions the Leader of the House had had with my office, to which the answer is that the Leader of the House and I have discussed this matter from time to time. I have made extremely clear privately, as I have made extremely clear publicly, my desire for progressive change and my impatience with its absence. More particularly, what I would like to say to the hon. Lady and for the benefit of the House is this: I can assure colleagues that if and when the House agrees to the necessary resolution and Standing Order, I will ensure that I have a scheme ready to be activated, so that Members can rapidly—indeed, I think instantly—apply for a proxy vote, and their nominated proxy can then cast that vote the next day. I think colleagues will agree that that is crystal clear.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House not only for her statement but for her personal commitment to supporting, in particular, pregnant and new mothers—and new fathers—in Parliament. I fully support what she has outlined today. She talked about modernising the workplace. Proxy voting is only one aspect of modernising this, frankly, prehistoric workplace in Parliament. So many aspects of Parliament need modernisation, and change, as this issue has shown, is far too slow and fragmented. Where does responsibility for driving forward that change lie? I know that it does not lie with the Government.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for her comment and question. I completely agree with her. Many of us—if not all of us—across this House want Parliament to be a more family-friendly place. There have been a huge number of efforts, including by you, Mr Speaker, and by right hon. and hon. Members across the House to change the sitting hours to make them more family-friendly, for example. There are now better childcare facilities on the estate. There is a greater use of technology to make it easier to go about our jobs. We have done a huge amount of work, with cross-party collaboration, to bring in a new behaviour code and a new complaints procedure to make people feel that they can be treated with the dignity and respect that everybody deserves in this place. There is a huge amount more to do. I am committed to working with colleagues to make more progress. My right hon. Friend and I met only yesterday to talk about what more we can do, cross-party, to try to ensure that we have a more family-friendly Parliament that encourages people from all walks of life to want to come here and take up a role representing their constituents.
The responsibility is shared, but on a point of fact, as I suspect the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) knows, responsibility on this matter was manifestly and incontrovertibly that of the Government, as the Procedure Committee recognised. That responsibility has been discharged today by the Leader of the House, and I thank her for it. It is very important that we proceed on the basis of factual knowledge and not of misguided perception.
I thank the Leader of the House for her response and congratulate the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) on securing this urgent question. I think Andrew is the only one of her family not to be in the Chamber. Thank you for granting the urgent question, Mr Speaker, because it has allowed us to get some further information.
It seems that it is not only the Prime Minister who returns frequently to this House and tells us that nothing has changed. It must be catching, as we have been promised yet a further debate. This is the second urgent question on proxy voting for baby leave in the space of six months, the last being on 18 July 2018 in the wake of the shameful events when a pair was deliberately broken by a Government Minister. The Leader of the House honoured her promise of a debate on 13 September. We have had two debates, and yet no further progress, despite there being broad agreement, and the will of the House being known, on the principle of proxy voting for baby leave. This House is debating and voting on one of the most significant issues that this country has faced, and yet last week a Member who was heavily pregnant, but who wanted her vote counted and recorded to fulfil her duties to her constituents, had no other option but to come to the House. It is time that we ensured that this is a modern workplace with modern employment practices for those with baby leave.
I know that the Leader of the House wants urgently to find a way forward and is not the block in the Government to these reforms. Today we hear about the Prime Minister of New Zealand—she knows that there is a work-life balance, even in that position. Everyone can find a way. Both Australia and New Zealand have a system, so there is absolutely no reason why we cannot look at those precedents and come up with our own solution.
I welcome the fact that the Leader of the House has announced not just a motion but a debate. Will it be on a voteable motion? Will there be time for amendments? For how long will the debate take place? Why, given the paucity of the Government’s parliamentary agenda, can the Leader of the House not secure sufficient Government time? She has not actually said how long the debate will be and whether it is on a voteable motion. Will she say, in response to the question by the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire and to mine, whether we can vote and whether this principle will be secured by a vote on Monday?
As I set out from the Dispatch Box on 18 July and 13 September, Her Majesty’s Opposition—the Labour party—support the principle of proxy voting for baby leave. As I have repeatedly set out, there is a way that baby leave can be introduced today, without the need for a debate, through public agreement by all the parties to nod through those on baby leave for every Division. As I mentioned in a previous debate, there is a way that we could ensure that those voting by this means are denoted with a star. I even offered the idea of a baby emoji—I am sure that someone will come up with that. That will give full transparency to the public as to how Members have voted.
On 13 September, I asked about the evidence that the Leader of the House was going to take. She said that she wanted to take evidence on unintended consequences and various other issues. Has she taken this evidence? When will she report back to the House on it? Could she share that evidence with the House, and at least with the Chair of the Procedure Committee, who is in his place? As I offered on 18 July, will she agree to meet me today to discuss this?
It is vital that we are a modern workplace—that those on baby leave can have their vote recorded and take part in our proceedings as they are elected to do. I appreciate that the Government are putting forward the motion, but it does not guarantee any time for us to debate or give Members a vote to decide on this matter once and for all. Will the Leader of the House please be clear on that? We need to make this Parliament the modern, progressive and equal Parliament that we all want to achieve.
Well, I do not quite know where to start, because the hon. Lady will be aware that, as I have just made quite clear, Members can be nodded through if they request that. If they come to this place, their name can be recorded. They can, equally, request a pair. So she is pointing out something that is self-evident. On her other point, proxy voting does require a motion of this House, so she is actually not correct to say that people can just be offered a proxy vote as of today. That would be to undermine the right of this House to take decisions on its own procedures.
The hon. Lady asks if there will be a debate and a vote. I thought I had made it clear, but perhaps not, that, as I mentioned in my remarks, the motion that I have tabled today will enable the House to take a decision on Monday on whether it wishes to accept the Procedure Committee’s report, as amended, or not. So it will not be a further debate, as she says. We have had a number of debates.
As I also thought I had made clear, the evidence I took was on issues such as what sorts of motions should be eligible for proxy voting, who the proxy vote should be made by, and what sorts of circumstances should merit a proxy vote.
Finally, the hon. Lady asks if I will meet her today. If she looks in her diary, she will see that we are supposed to be meeting this afternoon.
I welcome the Leader of the House’s statement to the House today. I fully support proxy voting. In my experience of having a baby while being an MP, the guilt that you feel, as a mum to a newborn, about having to drag a three-week-old baby across the country is immense. I lost count of the number of times I was called at the last minute to come and vote. I recall one occasion when I jumped on a train, baby in tow, voted, and got back to Yorkshire at 11 o’clock at night, only to receive a call saying that I needed to be back the next day. So I know that feeling of guilt and I am pleased that the Leader of the House mentioned the emotional impact on a new mum as well. We already have a fantastic nursery in Parliament that my little son, Clifford, attends. I understand that that was a pet project of Mr Speaker, so I welcome his bringing that to the House. Does my right hon. Friend agree that proxy voting will safeguard this precious mummy and baby bonding time?
I certainly love looking at my hon. Friend’s Facebook photos of little Clifford. It is great to feel that we get to see him a bit even though he is not often in the Chamber. Yes, I completely agree with her. What proxy voting will do for this place is to enable parents to have that precious bonding time with their new babies.
I thank the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) for securing what has turned out to be a fruitful urgent question. I very much welcome the Leader of the House’s commitment to ensure that we have the motion on Monday. It has been a long time coming, but I think we are going to get there at last. This episode has been profoundly embarrassing for the Government; I do not know whether the Leader of the House shares that embarrassment. I do not know whether it was the Whips Office trying to block this, but I will take the Government at their word. I welcome you saying, Mr Speaker, that if the motion is passed, proxy voting will be available the day after to Members of the House of Commons. Perhaps the Leader of the House can ensure that that is the case.
What happened to the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) shocked the country. Our constituents could not believe that in the place where we design the legislation that deals with safety at work, we were prepared to put one of our colleagues at such risk. Our 19th-century method of voting has totally and utterly failed. The discredited “nod and wink” pairing system is in tatters and lies in disrepute. It has relied on trust, and clearly that trust has been thoroughly and fundamentally broken by what happened to the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire.
The Scottish National party never believed in that system or trusted it. I am glad that we have been totally vindicated for never participating in pairing. As the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), who chairs the Women and Equalities Committee, said, we have to do more to modernise this place. This is a good start, but it is only a start. We have to start to ensure that we look after people in this House who are ill, indisposed or cannot make it to this place of work. We have to start looking at the practice of putting people in cramped Division Lobbies, at risk to their own health. Many of us heard my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) talking about her claustrophobia in the packed Lobby last Tuesday. We have to get beyond that. We have to start making sure that this place looks like a modern, 21st-century Parliament.
This is good news, and I welcome it. I look forward to discussing this later with the Leader of the House, when we will hopefully get a clear indication about how this will be done. This is good work, but there is more to be done. Let us get a move on and make sure that this place is safe for the people who come to work here.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is taking this matter up with the Scottish Parliament, which also has informal pairing arrangements. I am interested to know what steps he is taking to ensure that it comes into the 21st century at the same rate as the Westminster Parliament.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the situation for the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq). I can confirm that a pair is available for her, or, if she is on site during the day at any point before the vote, she will be nodded through, which means her vote will be recorded. That is the existing arrangement for those who cannot be here due to illness or other reasons. As I said last Thursday, I genuinely do not believe that any of her constituents would honestly require her to turn up here in a wheelchair when it was perfectly possible to receive the normal arrangements for people in this place with conditions. Members with long-term health issues were paired on that day.
I am genuinely delighted that we are making progress on this issue, but I urge all Members to recognise that we had 13 years of a Labour Government, with three female Leaders of the House, and we have had two Liberal Democrat Deputy Leaders of the House, and I do not believe that any of them brought in proxy voting. The Scottish Parliament has not brought in proxy voting.
Let us pause and have a moment of celebration. We are achieving something truly fantastic—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) shouts that this is not my idea. I am certainly not claiming credit for it. I am asking Members to celebrate the House’s achievement and what we can do when we get together and collaborate.
Mr Speaker, I am certainly celebrating the House’s achievement, just as I am celebrating seeing you break into a smile at the same time as the Leader of the House—it was like a parting of the clouds. You should try to do it more often; you work quite well together.
I thank the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House for closely involving the Procedure Committee in their work. This is good news. As Chairman of the Procedure Committee, I would particularly like to thank the Committee’s members for bringing forward a really good report that seems to have the House’s support.
Colleagues, there is a piquancy about the fact that, as we have been debating this important matter, a large number of children and young people have been observing our proceedings. Until a matter of moments ago, to boot, there was a young man up in the Gallery clutching a little baby—[Interruption.] Apparently, it was the baby of the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith)—[Interruption.] Ah, on cue! We are grateful to him.
Those watching our proceedings will be pleased to know that the next Member to be called is the person who has done more to champion women and equality in this House than anyone any of us can recall: the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), the Mother of the House, elected on 28 October 1982 and still in service here.
Thank you for your kind words, Mr Speaker, but this has been a collective endeavour. First, I would like to pay tribute to the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), who has been a champion of this for pressing reasons and reasons of principle. I thank her for securing this urgent question, and thank you for granting it, Mr Speaker. You have always been on the side of progress in respect of parents. As the hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns) said, you were a champion of the crèche here, and she explained why this measure is so necessary.
We must also thank the Procedure Committee and its Chair. As soon as the House passed the motion, the Committee cracked on with it and did a thorough and excellent job. Who knew how exciting the Procedure Committee was? I also pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller). This is me railing ineffectively, but she had the idea that we should go to the Backbench Business Committee, to enable the Chamber to debate it. I thank the Committee for its role.
It is 31 years too late for me, but I am delighted about this, because it is really important. There are many babies of Members on both sides of the House in the offing. They are blissfully unaware of the Brexit debate, but these Brexit babies cannot wait, so I am delighted that we are getting on with it.
Finally, I pay tribute to the Leader of the House, who I am in no doubt has always been on the right side of the argument. I point out that I, too, was Leader of the House, and I failed to get this through. Whoever succeeds in these long decades of progress and these baby steps into the 21st century, all power to your elbow.
Of course, the right hon. and learned Lady’s baby steps in her day would now be teenage. She demonstrates what a wonderful Mother of the House she is by being so collegiate. I share her delight that this has been a cross-House effort and that we have got to the point where we can take this forward, which will be great news for all those babies. The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), is sitting beside me with her youngster kicking away, obviously signalling some approval.
As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on women in Parliament, I want to say a great big thank you for this step forward. I would like to see more women in this Parliament, and it is the women who are, biologically speaking, more likely to need to take maternity leave.
As someone who served in a Parliament for eight years that did not have any proxy voting or pairing and who saw women have to fly all across Europe to vote, I urge colleagues not to throw away the pairing system. Pairing offers flexibility, especially if somebody is unwell or has an urgent family matter. It is a really useful system. It needs to be more robust. Let us respect it and keep that option on the table.
My hon. Friend is exactly right; pairing has its uses. It is important that any parent on baby leave can choose to have either a proxy vote or be paired, if, for reasons of ill health or reasons associated with being a new parent, they do not feel in a position to make that decision. It is very important that they have the choice.
I join others in very much welcoming this important motion and the important step that is being taken. In the interests of keeping up momentum on the issue of reform, does the Leader of the House agree that, although this is a first step, what we really need in order to bring Parliament into the 21st century is electronic voting for all? I wonder whether she might explore that option.
May I ask the Leader of the House one question about the motion? I am sorry, but I have not had a chance to look at it yet. I know the Procedure Committee has suggested that there may be some exceptions where proxy voting would not be suitable in its view—for example, a decision on military conflict. I do not think I agree with it about that, but I am interested to know whether that is attached to the pilot that she is proposing.
I can say to the hon. Lady that this is a temporary Standing Order, and it follows the Procedure Committee’s view. I do not want to get this wrong: I know it will not apply to a closure motion, but it will apply to Government and private Members’ business. I suggest that the hon. Lady looks carefully at the Procedure Committee’s report for the finer details of exactly what is included and excluded.
The hon. Lady will obviously appreciate that the reason for making it a temporary Standing Order is so that the Procedure Committee can look at it after a year and decide, in hindsight, whether it is appropriate in scope, who gets to use it and who provides the proxy. In having such a pilot scheme, we will be able to address any residual concerns about its operation.
As many hon. Friends have said, people may wish to have a pair for other reasons, such as ill health or bereavement. The pairing system and its robustness seem to be in doubt, with an hon. Member coming in because they could not trust the pairing system, which is something none of us wishes to see. Will my right hon. Friend look at making this more robust, perhaps by ensuring that pairs are lodged in writing in advance—with you, Mr Speaker, the Leader of the House or whoever is thought to be appropriate—such that if someone votes in error, their vote can be discounted, thus restoring faith in the pairing system?
I think my hon. Friend makes a very constructive suggestion, and I will of course discuss it with other business managers. However, she will appreciate that the pairing arrangements are informal arrangements to accommodate people with a sudden need to be absent and so on. Therefore, as I said in answer to a previous question, there are occasions where the administration of them can break down. This is an extremely difficult thing to be absolutely 100% robust, but I know that the business managers are absolutely committed to making it as robust and reliable as they possibly can.
It is a pleasure to be back in the House and to be speaking because, as is quite topical in this discussion, I have just returned from six months away from this place to spend time with my new baby, Eli, who is up in the Public Gallery with my husband, Eli’s dad, Ben. I just want to thank the Government for honouring the pairing arrangements that they gave me during my six months’ leave. I feel I need to say that because that was not always honoured for all my fellow MPs who were also having babies around the same time.
Much has been said about pairing, and I want to put on the record that, while I thank the Government for honouring my pair, I would much rather have had the opportunity to vote—to vote by proxy—perhaps giving my vote to the MP for a neighbouring or nearby constituency who could cast my vote on my behalf, because I was at home and I was following what was going on on BBC Parliament. I remember watching the debate in September, sitting, with baby Eli on my lap, just as my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) is doing right now. Today, she is watching this on BBC Parliament, with baby Raphael, and she knows what is going on, so if there were to be a Division, she could cast her vote.
I stress to the Leader of the House how important it is that proxy voting goes ahead, because I do not think that pairing alone really brings Parliament into what, let us be honest, is the mid-20th century in terms of workplace rights. If we want to get into the 21st century, we have much further to go as a House.
It is absolutely fantastic news that the House has come together to look at these much-needed changes. I pay tribute to my colleagues all across the House who have spoken about their experiences. My children are too old for this to be an issue for me. In my former life, before coming here, I was a human resources director, and I was the person responsible for writing policies. I say to the Leader of the House that I know how difficult it is to be in the position of writing such a policy—we all have the right intentions, but sometimes there are unintended consequences and all sorts of things that we have never thought about. Please will she pay great attention to the pilot study, with the input of the Procedure Committee and everybody from across the House, so that we get a sustainable, long-term solution?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the importance of making sure that this is correct. That is why it is a pilot scheme for one year. I am confident that the Procedure Committee will do its job in making sure that we review all the positives and negatives during that period.
I would like to put on the record my thanks to you, Mr Speaker, for your personal commitment to the introduction of proxy voting, as well as to the cross-party effort and, of course, to the Mother of the House for pushing this with the passion with which she always pushes quality issues. Thanks so much to the Leader of the House for laying this motion on Monday.
To reiterate what we have already heard in this debate, I want to say from personal experience that pairing may be an option that people want to choose, but for me it was not enough, because my reputation was questioned in a newspaper in relation to why was I not here and why I had the second worst voting record in this Parliament. I want to say to the Leader of the House that the reason why what she is going to do on Monday by laying the motion is so important—I hope we can get on with using this on Tuesday—is that Members should be able to have babies and have their vote registered. That is why proxy voting is such a massive step in the right direction.
I totally agree with the hon. Lady. I know that, in response to her raising this same issue during the debate we had a couple of months ago, the theyworkforyou.com website agreed to change what it was putting on its website about MPs who are on pairing arrangements because of maternity leave, so that it did not indicate that they were incredibly lazy. All of us expressed our disgust at the way she was treated in the press over that. It was a clear misunderstanding, and I hope that the new arrangements will ensure that will not happen in the future.
I am pleased to support the comments of the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) and my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, on which I am privileged to serve. I welcome the Leader of the House’s response today, and I thank her for all the work she has done on this important issue. Today is good news indeed. Does she agree that this place has to keep pace with the modern world and that proxy voting will certainly help with this, although there is much more to be done?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I know he did a job share with one of our hon. Friends who was on maternity leave, and it was very good of him to do that. I think all hon. Members are committed to dragging us into the 21st century, and it is quite right that we do that.
Last year saw a whole range of events in Parliament to mark the centenary of some women getting the right to vote, and this year marks 100 years since the first woman took her seat in Parliament. I was really proud to take part in a lot of those events last year, and I know a lot of progress has been made. Other Members have mentioned the House of Commons nursery, which enabled me to put myself forward for Parliament. I have placed on record my thanks to those who made that happen, particularly you, Mr Speaker. However, when we talk about wanting to have a more diverse Parliament and we have things such as the nursery, is it not a contradiction that we have not yet introduced proxy voting? Does the Leader of the House agree that it is long overdue, and that if we want to break down barriers to women entering Parliament, we do need to take this very swift action?
May I perhaps surprise you, Mr Speaker, by suggesting that I think this does not go far enough? I think that if this pilot scheme succeeds, as I hope and believe it will, it will probably pretty soon be extended to people who are unwell, because there are very strong arguments that people who are ill should be able to have a proxy for the same sort of reasoning that correctly underlies this one. However, does the Leader of the House agree that any move to something like electronic voting would be a retrograde step? The reason why we vote in person—there are many reasons why, but one of the principal ones—is that we can get hold of a lot of colleagues, principally Ministers or shadow Ministers, at the same time in the same place every day. That is the reason why we would be cutting our own throats as Back Benchers if we were simply prepared to press a button and leave it at that. Let us do this for the categories that need it, but preserve the rights of Back Benchers to be able to nobble Ministers in the Lobbies, because that is what they need.
My right hon. Friend demonstrates perfectly why some debate was needed before we decided to limit the proposal to baby leave and have a one-year pilot. Some Members argue that proxy voting should have a broader reach and include those who are ill or otherwise incapacitated. Clearly there are different views on how we vote, but those are for another day.
I am the older sister, yet I have been called second today—we will be having words later, Mr Speaker.
I too thank the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) for asking this urgent question, and the Leader of the House for answering it. May I just check the procedure for Monday? Is the intention to table a motion that we can vote on, or will it be introduced at the end of the day, in which case there is a risk that one Member will shout “Object” and stop the proposal going through? I know that the Leader of the House is trying to do the right thing, but we are all keen to ensure that we have proxy voting in place by the end of Monday.
Having had three kids, I have discovered a very useful piece of information, which I wish now to share with the hon. Lady: the oldest child makes the rules, the second child is the reason the rules are needed, and to the third child the rules do not apply. She is absolutely right to raise this issue. We have debated proxy voting a number of times and want to get on with it, so the plan is to bring it forward for the House to nod through. She is therefore quite right that if somebody objects, I will need to look at further measures, which I will do in very short order. This is the quickest way to get it through. Following that, as you have said, Mr Speaker, you will ensure that the detailed procedures are ready immediately thereafter. That will then need to be signed off by you, the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the leader of the Scottish National party’s Westminster team. Once those signatures have been received, it will be possible for proxy voting to take place on the next sitting day.
I wish you well in your toddling endeavours, Mr Speaker, although I hope that is not necessary. I associate myself with everything the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) said and welcome the excellent announcement by the Leader of the House. I declare an interest, as my wife and I are expecting our first child in just over six weeks’ time, so I might be making an early application. With regard to the one-year trial, how will that work ahead of a birth? I am keen to take advantage of proxy voting post birth, but for those of us who represent constituencies far from London—if I am in the Chamber after 5 pm, I cannot physically get back to Moray until about noon the following day—will there be an opportunity not only to share the first few days of their child’s life, but to be there for the birth?
I am happy to discuss this with my hon. Friend in more detail, but the idea is that the normal rule will apply so that the two weeks of parental leave for fathers under proxy voting would be available from the birth. However, there is equally an expectation that it might be necessary to take that at another time, so that can also be facilitated, under the terms of the Procedure Committee’s report, which I encourage him to look at in detail. He and I can then discuss the matter further.
I am thrilled and associate myself with all the thanks to all the people who have already been thanked many times, including the Leader of the House. I am certain that someone will try to object on Monday, so I am going to drop what has been quite a pleasant and collegiate discussion so far. Would she like to join me in warning that I will personally make a misery of the lives of anyone who comes in here on Monday and objects, based on their patriarchal, paternalistic, draconian and old-fashioned sensibilities? What does she think is the likelihood of this getting through on Monday? I would also like to say that it will not just be me making their lives a misery; it will be me and my feminist army.
I welcome this statement. Does the Leader of the House agree that it is right that the absent Member should choose the name of their proxy, rather than the Whips, and that they should have an absolute right to change that name upon giving written notice that they wish to do so?
I am pleased to subscribe to the feminist army of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips); I will be a proud member and glad to serve. Will the Leader of the House confirm that if somebody does shout “Object” on Monday, the motion will fall? It is unacceptable that one male Member of this House can override the overwhelming will of everybody else in this place just to get their own way, and on an issue that will not even affect them. Will she give that serious consideration? What will she do to ensure that such Members do not play silly games on Monday night, given that babies are expected sooner rather than later in this place? What else will she do to implement the findings of Professor Sarah Childs’s report “The Good Parliament”, which has been far too long in the implementing?
As the hon. Lady will know, it is for individual Members to examine their consciences and act accordingly. I sincerely hope that all hon. Members will support the motion. It is clear that there is huge support for it across the House. As I have said, in the event that somebody does object, I will look in very short order at what I need to do to bring it back again for the House to reconsider. With regard to Sarah Childs’s report, the hon. Lady will be aware that these matters are not entirely for the Leader of the House: they are matters for the House, and the Commons reference group is a cross-party group. I am always keen to hear from right hon. and hon. Members and would be delighted to discuss it further with her.
I hope that I can be counted as a member of the feminist army of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips). When I entered the House in 1979, it was a horrible place to have a family. We had about 19 women MPs and it was totally family-unfriendly. It was miserable. I have a large family. As the House will know, I have three daughters and a son—we had four daughters but lost one—and now many grandchildren, four of whom are granddaughters. When I was a young MP, this place was chauvinist and the atmosphere was both undemocratic and unsupportive of those with families. I am just thankful that an army of women came into this place. I remember the dramatic change in 1997, when more women came in than ever before, and they transformed this miserable place into something democratic and warming, and made it a lovely place to come to work. People forget how the arrival of those women not only transformed our democracy but made our politics more pleasant, and I want to put that on the record. I also want to say that I saw a lot of Speakers who could not have cared less about families, women or equality, but you have championed this, Mr Speaker, and I salute you.
I think that the whole House enjoyed and concurred with the hon. Gentleman’s remarks. He does a very good job of showing himself to be a feminist, and those of us who join that brand of feminist determined to make the House a more modern place welcome his views with open arms.
Today is a good day at the office. Although we are taking a small step forward, it is important. I want to push the Leader of the House a little further on the point that the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) made about whether, after the pilot of a year, other groups may be considered suitable for proxy voting. I think particularly of people who are seriously ill, perhaps with cancer, and undergoing treatment but who want to register their vote in the House. During the pilot year, could work be done on that, ready for the end of the pilot, to see whether proxy voting needs to be extended further?
The hon. Lady raises an important point. As we have discussed in the two debates and several urgent questions on this in recent months, some people believe that proxy voting should be extended, but nevertheless, there is cross-House agreement that the pilot should be restricted to baby leave, which covers a critical and unique period of life. However, I agree that, once the Procedure Committee’s review is under way, we should consider whether other matters should be included.
I welcome the Leader of the House’s statement. It starts to reduce the perception that the mother of Parliaments is frozen in time, although of course, if a Member shouts “Object” on Monday, that perception will be reinforced. Will she join me and others in all parties who campaign for other reforms, such as ensuring that there is adequate seating in the Chamber for all Members, electronic voting and, indeed, job sharing for Members of Parliament?
Indeed, I am sad.
I ask the Leader of the House, in all sincerity, if, as I fear and perhaps she fears, the proposal does not go through on the nod on Monday, how soon will she bring back a substantive motion with a vote? The following day, we are expecting votes on Brexit legislation, which means that my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq), who has a new-born baby, could lose out again. I am sure that the right hon. Lady agrees that that is simply not acceptable.
I have certainly made it clear that the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) should be able to spend critical time with her baby, and I sincerely hope that she will avail herself either of nodding through, or a pair in the event that proxy voting is not available. However, as I have said, in the event that somebody regrettably decides to object on Monday, I will table a substantive motion as soon as possible.
As it happens, I do not have children, although I was told categorically by an eight-year-old in Ton Pentre school last week that I have two sons, aged two and six, which goes to show that the internet is not always accurate. Perhaps it was another Chris Bryant.
All my friends in the House who have children say that the most useful thing for them is certainty about when votes will be held and when the end of the day will come. Of late, we have had a lot of Tuesdays and Wednesdays that have gone later than 7 o’clock and votes at strange times, and we do not have any certainty about whether the proposal will be accepted next Monday. I urge the Leader of the House to think again about whether it is possible to have a 45-minute or hour-long debate on Monday, with a vote at the end so that we have a guaranteed chance of getting this through. While we are talking about certainty, many parents are uncertain because there are rumours that there will no longer be a February recess during half-term. Will the right hon. Lady make it clear whether that will happen?
May I be another to congratulate the Leader of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) and all others who have finally succeeded in overcoming the forces of reaction? However, in all candour, doing this on a nod or nothing basis on Monday night simply risks affording the dinosaurs the opportunity to bring the Chamber into disrepute one more time. A 90-minute debate is all it would take and surely there must be availability in Government time for that.
This obviously comes too late for my children. My sons were four years and 10 weeks old when I was first elected, and the modern working environment would have made a big difference to us. However, the guilt and the conflicts do not end when we come back from maternity or paternity leave. There is another good 20 years at least to look forward to in that respect. While we have the wind at our back for once on such issues, can we start looking at other ways in which we can make this somewhere that parents can find their place in the nation’s affairs? That should apply not just to parents who choose to raise their family in London, where the question of whether a vote is at 7 or 8 o’clock will make a big difference, but those who choose to raise our families in other parts of the country, especially in relation to sittings in school holidays.
The right hon. Gentleman makes some serious and well-received points. I agree that it is extraordinarily difficult to be a parent in this place. I reiterate that we need to see what more we can do and that I am always delighted to hear from any hon. Member who wants to discuss specific, constructive suggestions that might carry the will of the House to make us a more family-friendly Parliament. It is vital that we enable more people from more diverse backgrounds, particularly with families, who want to express their views and make the world a better place, to be Members of this Chamber.
The Mother of the House also deserves great credit for the way in which she put forward, as the equality Minister in a former Labour Government, a raft of measures to level the playing field between men and women in the workplace, some of which eventually had the support of my former boss, Lord Hutton. Can the Leader of the House suggest ways in which the House could encourage more fathers of new-borns to take up shared parental leave to level the playing field between male and female MPs?
I would like to think that, when the motion is passed, new fathers in this place will want to be role models for other men throughout the country by taking parental leave and demonstrating the importance of fathers in the lives of their new-borns and in supporting new families. I sincerely hope that all male MPs who have new-borns will take advantage of that opportunity.
I commend your efforts, Mr Speaker, and those of the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) for getting us to this point. I also commend the Leader of the House, who I know has met great resistance from some of her crustier colleagues. We cannot allow those crusty colleagues—we know who they are; the Leader of the House knows who they are—to shout “No” on Monday, so I encourage the Leader of the House to go to them and ensure that much pressure is put on them so that the proposal gets through. I say that as someone who is fortunate in that my son, Finlay, was born in the summer recess, so this would not necessarily have applied to me. Will the Leader of the House explicitly highlight how new fathers will be affected so that we too can take on our responsibilities at home properly?
The hon. Gentleman may know that one of my hon. Friends spoke in one of our earlier debates on proxy voting about timing the birth of her baby in the summer recess. The baby was conceived to be born in the summer recess—fine-tuning the event specifically so that she would not have the problems we have discussed. I absolutely understand the challenges that new families in this place face. The hon. Gentleman asked what will be available to new fathers. It will be proxy voting for the two-week parental leave available to fathers—that is what is proposed for the pilot scheme. For mothers, it will be six months of proxy voting, again in line with the Procedure Committee’s proposals.
I thank all colleagues and reiterate my thanks to the Leader of the House for her work and commitment, which are apparent to everyone. We are not quite there yet, but we are closer than we were, and we hope that the matter will be resolved on Monday. Let me be the first to say thank you to her from this Chair for what she has done.