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Baby Leave for Members of Parliament
Debate between Mr Gavin Shuker and Hannah Bardell
Thursday 01 February 2018

(1 year, 11 months ago)

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Commons Chamber
Leader of the House
Mr Shuker Hansard
1 Feb 2018, 2:15 p.m.

The hon. Gentleman was generous to me in 2010, and he is generous to me now.

The second reason why I have never had a formal conversation with the Whips Office is because of the worry that this might look like a lack of professionalism or a lack of hunger. It is true that, having made the choice to support my family, it is much harder to have sharp elbows and to force my way to the front. I have been fortunate in being able to structure my work time so that I can be present for my daughter, but most people’s experience of having children while being in this place is of being completely frazzled all the time, and of trying to find a way to make it work.

Very sadly, my relationship with my daughter’s mum broke down during this Parliament. I take full responsibility for that but, equally, we need to be honest about the working practices of this place and their implications. The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) told me that among my intake, a quarter of marriages broke down in the 2010 to 2015 Parliament. We have to be honest about the implications of this place and its effects.

There are real issues with the current informal arrangements. For example, it is not just difficult but impossible to exercise shared parental leave, because we do not have a formal employment relationship. We make reasonable accommodations in all sorts of ways for Members with other issues. I do not believe we should dial down our parenthood to be representatives in this place; I think we should amplify it. By talking about it and normalising it, we might be able to get to a fairer society in which we close the gender pay gap, in which women’s roles in society are properly recognised and in which we approach all sorts of other issues through the lens of saying that normal life happens and it is an anomaly that we exist in this way.

Finally, there are currently procedures whereby we informally work with our Whips Offices to enable, in my case, two weeks off after the birth of my daughter, or longer periods, given the physical constraints, for many women who have had children. Again, however, there is pressure to come in, to be present and to vote.

From the other side, our pairing arrangements start from the basis that we know that certain Members will just not be around for long periods of time. That has a direct effect on those of us who need to pair so that work can proceed. For example, a Select Committee visit might not go ahead because we have already paired out what we can to cover illness or childcare. This is not a brag, but I have never requested to be let off the Whip for personal circumstances. I have never missed a vote because I have been ill—I have certainly been ill, but I have been present to vote—and I do not think people abuse the system, but there are restrictions.

Making these arrangements would not take power away from or give power to the Whips Offices. Whatever our standpoint on what would be a good outcome, this change would professionalise the House and make it much easier to plan for such eventualities. As a member of the parliamentary Labour party, I foresee no problems or restrictions in my party’s standing orders if I were to sign over my proxy vote to the Chief Whip so that I could take paternity leave or baby care leave. I am comfortable with that. There are ways around this situation, and it should not be something that is hung on a straw man.

Overall, this change is required, and it will have a profound impact on the way we work. It is the thin end of the wedge, although we should be clear that today we are just talking about the principle. We need to become better at looking after ourselves and looking after each other, because we do not want to cause unnecessary strain.

This job should be hard. Public leadership and public sacrifice should be just that—they should be sacrificial—but putting in place artificial barriers not only holds back women in this place, but holds back men, too.

Hannah Bardell Portrait Hannah Bardell (Livingston) (SNP) - Hansard
1 Feb 2018, 2:19 p.m.

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I was a co-signatory of the motion, but by a quirk of parliamentary procedure the fact I am leading in the debate for the Scottish National party means my name had to come off. I pay a huge tribute to the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) and the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), two women in this place I hold in the highest regard. Today’s debate has been completely consensual, as it should be on this issue, not just in this place, but across society. I am moved to quote the words of Emmeline Pankhurst, who said:

“We are here, not because we are law-breakers; we are here in our efforts to become law-makers.”

So getting to speak today and be part of bringing about new regulations and legislation in this place is very important, because, as one London Member said—I have forgotten her constituency—we have to reflect society but we also have to lead it. One hundred years on from women getting the vote, that is hugely important.

When I was thinking about standing for election, I thought carefully about whether I could do this, and there were two reasons for that. First, I knew I needed to come out and deal with my sexuality. Secondly, I wanted to have children. Those two things were somewhat interlinked, and there are some technical challenges that I have as a gay women that my straight counterparts do not. Regardless of that, being able to know that there are Members from across this place who support this process means that, we hope, the next generation of parliamentarians, be they male, female, from the black, Asian and minority ethnic community, and whatever their disability or ability, and whatever their sexuality, will look at this place and other Parliaments across the UK and think, “That is something I can and want to be part of.” This has therefore been an incredible debate.

As we look across the world, we see the Prime Minister in New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, is about to have a baby with her partner, and she is very open about that. We are taking steps forward. Testimonies have been read out, including by the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham, who mentioned my hon. Friend the Member for North East Fife (Stephen Gethins). I wish also to refer to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), who received an interesting email during the 2015 election. I am just going to read out the question and the answer she gave, because this typifies the debate and her excellent response shows how far we still have to go. The email to her read:

“Dear Alison

I am in favour of many of the SNP’s policies but am a little worried to find that you are mother of a (very) young family.

I can see how this could work with a seat at Holyrood but Westminster membership must pose a harder challenge.

It would help to know your solution before polling day.”

I emphasise the words “your solution”. It is incredible that anybody would write to a potential candidate and see the fact that they have children as a problem. An excellent “Channel 4 News” programme recently had the rapper Professor Green on it, and he spoke about why we need more people in politics who have been the subject of Government policy and are from different backgrounds and have different experiences.

My hon. Friend’s response to the email was as follows:

“Thank you very much for your email. I apologise for the delay in replying, but I wanted to give you a more considered response to your enquiry and give you some background as to why I’m standing.

I am certainly not alone among male and female candidates across the country in this election in being lucky enough to have a family; indeed the male Labour incumbent in this seat also has a young family.

The outgoing House of Commons was 22% female, and the average age of an MP was 50. More than 400 MPs, 62% of the total, are white men aged over 40. I think that Westminster ought to be a good deal more representative of the people it serves, and that can’t be achieved without more women.”

Inequality affects policy and it affects governance. I firmly believe that, with its poor gender balance, Westminster has made deficient policies in areas which affect families such as cuts in areas of child and maternity benefits. By contrast, with a slightly better gender balance Holyrood has taken on a great deal of issues in its remit which disproportionately affect women, such as free personal care, expansion of nursery education, and making law the right to breastfeed in public.”

She then went on to talk about how she had been a councillor over the previous five years and the challenges she had faced. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) was also a councillor in Aberdeen when she had small children. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central finishes her email by saying:

“I will cross whatever other bridges require to be crossed after the votes are cast and counted on the 7th of May.”

That is an excellent response.