19/07/2018 09:15 BST | Updated 19/07/2018 09:15 BST

Pairing MPs Is No Longer The Answer - Parliament Needs Proxy Voting

How can we be trusted to ensure that society becomes a reality of we cannot ensure an MP is able to represent her constituents in a vital vote?

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It almost beggared belief.

A 21st Century parliament, making a crucial decision but depending on a 19th Century system to ensure fairness. It failed, of course.

It was only afterwards that I discovered that the failure had left my friend and colleague Jo Swinson feeling betrayed by the Tory government. And I had to agree with her.

Jo is currently on maternity leave, and was promised by Government whips that she would be ‘paired’ during crucial Brexit votes while she is at home spending time with her newborn son.

Pairing is a longstanding parliamentary mechanism whereby two MPs of opposing parties agree to miss a vote in the Commons, cancelling each other out. It’s an informal arrangement agreed by party whips to deal with circumstances like illness or, as in Jo’s case, baby leave.

As the Trade Bill progressed through its final stages this week, Jo was assured that she would be paired with Tory party chairman Brandon Lewis.

But on Tuesday night, the two closest customs divisions of the day - which the Government scraped through with just four and six votes respectively - Brandon broke the agreement and voted.

We were later told that this was an ‘honest mistake’, that he was told by his Whips to vote in error in fast moving circumstances. But I’ll let the reader decide whether its credible that out of nine votes, Brandon Lewis “forgot” that he was paired for only the two most crucial.

But whether a failure by mistake or design doesn’t, in the final analysis matter. It was a breach of trust, and a failure not just of the system but of Jo Swinson and many others. With this shambles of a Government, we should hardly be surprised. But as Jo said last night, just how low will they stoop?

But more than this specific incident, the failure of the system is symptomatic of a wider problem. It is surely beyond doubt that pairing is not the answer for MPs having babies. We need to haul Parliament into the 21st Century, and introduce proxy voting as soon as possible. It has after all already won approval in a parliamentary debate and was, we were assured supposed to be implemented by now,

Women have fought for decades for equal rights, and Jo herself has been at forefront of the fight for equal parental rights, and a better system for women in parliament.

The irony that this happened on the centenary of women being given the vote is by no means lost on me. It also undermines confidence that we, as law-makers are able to build a society in which women can have the same career as men, and in which maternity and paternity leave are equally respected.

How can we be trusted to ensure that society becomes a reality of we cannot ensure an MP is able to represent her constituents in a vital vote?

54,000 women lose their jobs each year in the UK due to pregnancy and maternity discrimination, and despite claims to want to fight these “burning injustices”, the Government’s response to this problem has been shockingly poor.

And how can they address the burning injustices which riddle all sectors when they can’t even get their own house in order?

Whether it was a cock-up or conspiracy, the fact that this has happened makes you wonder what exactly is going on. How did the Government let this happen, and why wasn’t a proxy system already in place?

The Leader of the Commons, Andrea Leadsom, agreed months ago that such a system needed to be put in place. If the Government had followed through on their word, I or another colleague would have gone through lobby and voted for Jo, and her vote would have been registered.

But ministers insist on dragging their feet on this issue. When Andrea Leadsom delayed a recent decision on proxy voting, pregnant MPs were assured that they would be paired when necessary. Tuesday proved that this was an empty promise.

A 21st Century parliament not just relying on 19th Century practises, but clinging to them and we need to do something about it, right now. 

Christine Jardine is the Lib Dem MP for Edinburgh West