This week, the House of Commons voted to introduce proxy voting for MPs who are new parents. The system will finally allow MPs to go on maternity or paternity leave, and nominate another MP to be a ‘proxy’ to vote on their behalf, instead of the antiquated practice of walking through a particular door in the debating chamber to vote in person.
Workarounds do exist for MPs who cannot be physically present, such as ‘pairing’ where an MP who is unable to vote is ‘paired’ with an MP of the opposite party who will also not vote, thus cancelling out each others vote. This voluntary, ‘honour’ based system is unreliable in these uncertain times and, like the electric fence in Jurassic Park, it can no longer be trusted to work.
We set up Pregnant Then Elected out of frustration that there are not enough people in parliament that have experienced the issues that working mothers face today. Be it pregnancy and maternity discrimination, the prohibitive cost of childcare forcing many mothers out of the workplace, or shared parental leave that’s not available to the 15% of the workforce that are self-employed. So given that “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em”, we designed a series of events aimed at getting more mothers into the corridors of power.
Issues affecting mothers and women in general are too often sidelined in parliament, and among the 68% of MPs who are men, there are some real prehistoric treasures. Father-of-six, Jacob Rees-Mogg, boasts about never having changed a nappy, and Philip Davies, a longstanding “anti-political-correctness campaigner” had tabled some amendments that would limit when proxy voting could happen. Davies also tried to argue that MPs on maternity leave couldn’t follow the debates if they weren’t there – I know this because I was watching the debate on TV from the comfort of the my sofa. However, as the SNP MP, Pete Wishart, quipped in the debate, “even dinosaurs may change their horns!” because Davies had also tabled some welcome amendments to include MPs suffering miscarriage or caring for seriously ill relatives in the proxy voting bill.
Female MPs know just how damaging their outdated workplace can be for new mums, and they have worked together across different parties to make this vote happen. Just this summer, the deputy leader of the Lib Dems, Jo Swinson, became one of the 54,000 women who suffer pregnancy and maternity discrimination every year. Like Dr Ellie Sattler in Jurassic Park, she had hoped the electric fence of ‘pairing’ would protect her from the dinosaurs. Yet as she sat at home nursing her two-week-old son she found out that her pair, conservative chairman Brandon Lewis, had been instructed to vote on a Brexit vote that day. This effectively ended her maternity leave, the electric fence was down, and she couldn’t trust the system.
Another MP, Emma Reynolds, spoke of being branded “lazy” for missing some Brexit votes, despite having given birth just weeks before the 2017 election. Proxy voting will end this unfair perception of MPs with new babies, as votes cast by proxy will now appear on MPs records. The straw that finally broke the stegosaurus’ back was when Labour MP Tulip Siddiq announced she had delayed giving birth to her son by caesarean section a couple of weeks ago because trust in the pairing system had been so badly eroded. The accompanying PR trainwreck spurred government into action.
This week, the balance of power shifted away from the dinosaurs and proxy voting was passed unopposed, a cool 100 years after Nancy Astor first took her seat in parliament. While we are thankful that from now on women will no longer have to choose between giving birth or representing their constituents, we are still a long way off a truly representative parliament. Unpredictable working hours, (the debate on proxy voting began at 10 pm), recess periods that seem designed to never align with school holidays, not to mention allegations of bullying and harassment, are just some of the barriers to parents making their way in politics. But for now we should savour this long overdue victory against the dinosaurs.