Tuesday’s failure by the government to account during a crunch Brexit vote for Liberal Democrat MP Jo Swinson, currently on maternity leave, is a scandal or a screw-up or both.
Whatever you conclude, however, the democratic deficit of that event could not more clearly highlight how a majority male Parliament making legislation according to centuries-old systems repeatedly fails to see and support women across the UK.
With Brexit blowing up politics as we know it, power balanced on a knife-edge and parties counting every vote more than ever, it has never been more vital for women’s voices to be heard. That means the 208 women in the House of Commons and also the women in houses across the UK who are still waiting, 100 years after gaining the right to vote, for the right to have their needs reflected equally in UK law.
Last year’s Conservative Party election manifesto pronounced: “We will take steps to help companies provide more flexible work environments.. We will provide parents and carers with the confidence to return to work when and how they wish.” Labour’s Manifesto (on the page helpfully entitled: ‘Women’) states: “Maternity discrimination is out of control.”
Is it ever. But the failure of Westminster’s pairing system shows the deeper truth of that statement and parties’ failure to deliver. Until MPs can create an internal system that recognises the lived reality of parents’ need to balance work with care then it can never be fully representative of the electorate and nor can it ever advise businesses how to make real change and, with that, a flourishing, fairer economy and workplaces.
Under the pairing arrangements, two MPs of opposing parties agree not to vote, effectively cancelling each other out and allowing one to be absent without affecting the result of the vote. It’s a creaky and unimaginative system that shuts down the voice of an entire constituency and also relies on the goodwill of the Whips who can refuse it in very close votes. So it’s a bit like the current UK law that says employees may ask for flexible working, but leaves a loophole for companies to refuse it. And we know how that is working out for women, who face a 19% pay gap in this country in part because because they are often forced, post-childbirth, to take poorly-paid, part-time work below their skillset so they can juggle care responsibilities.
Earlier this month, a debate on whether MPs on maternity, paternity or adoption leave should be able to vote by proxy was postponed. It’s now been rescheduled for September - it’ll be quiet then so I’m sure it will go ahead. Meanwhile, recommendations to formalise maternity, paternity and adoption leave have also been shunted into the long grass: under the current system MPs are not considered employees and therefore any parental leave systems are informal arrangements agreed with parties themselves.
Look at this and then consider the discrimination faced by working women every day. The Equality and Human Rights commission estimates that around 54,000 new mothers are losing their jobs across Britain every year. Many more testify to workplace bullying, harassment and demotions linked to their status as parents. Childcare in the UK is among the most expensive in the world, with providers closing their doors rather than struggle to provide services with the limited government funding on offer - yet women who are forced by this expense to turn down work are then tarred as work-shy by a welfare system that cuts the benefits they depend on.
How ironic that Jo Swinson’s silencing happened during deliberations to leave the EU, which has introduced or extended rights relating to parental leave, pregnancy and maternity protections, anti-harassment laws and equal pay.
How ironic that the failure of the pairing system meant that Brandon Lewis voted in favour of a Trade Bill that has not been assessed for its impact on workplace protections and rights, nor the potential damage to the public purse of higher tariffs.
How ironic that after David Cameron vowed to make Britain the most family-friendly country in Europe, his party is going to break that promise on both counts.
It’s impossible for Parliament to work for women when its procedures damage and neglect us every day. With such an uncertain future ahead of us it’s time for the seat of our democracy to pause and consider that investment in modern voting systems and parental leave is absolutely vital to protect democratic processes. Equality in the Westminster workplace is key to ensure equality for all.
Sophie Walker is the leader of the Women’s Equality Party