New mums being penalised for taking time away from work is a story that is sadly all too familiar. But, this week, a case in parliament has illustrated just how inaccessible work can be made for those on maternity leave.
Jo Swinson, the deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats and MP for East Dunbartonshire, gave birth to her second son, Gabriel, on 29 June and is currently on leave. Because of this, Swinson was "paired" with Tory chairman Brandon Lewis so she could care for her newborn son during the Trade Bill vote, an arrangement that meant that neither MP would be allowed to vote, their absences cancelling each other out.
But, flouting their agreement, Lewis did go on to vote with the government, helping Theresa May narrowly avoid a humiliating Commons defeat. The Lib Dems voted against the government alongside Labour, the SNP and some pro-EU Tories, but the government won by 307 to 301.
"This is calculated, deliberate breaking of trust by government whips to win at all costs,” Swinson wrote on Twitter.
"Brandon abstained in afternoon divisions, but voted in the two crunch votes after 6pm. There's a word for it – cheating."
Labour's shadow equalities minister, Dawn Butler, accused him of 'making politics even more inaccessible for new mums'
Lewis has since apologised for the "honest mistake", as has Cabinet Office minister David Lidington, a key ally of May. He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that it was a "genuine mess-up" on his party's behalf which "clearly should not have happened".
An informal system of “pairing” is run in the House of Commons, whereby MPs on maternity leave are “paired” with someone from a different party so their absence does not affect the result. If two members from opposite sides of the House both agree to miss a vote, they cancel out each other's vote and neither member need turn up.
While Lewis did not take part in most of the day's Trade Bill votes, he took part in the two closest votes – the one on customs and another on medicine regulation, which the government lost. And, as the agreement between parties is informal, Lewis has proved just how easy it is to ignore the little provision there is for those on maternity leave.
In the wake of the events, Labour's shadow equalities minister, Dawn Butler, accused him of "making politics even more inaccessible for new mums", and Harriet Harman added that the incident highlighted the need to allow MPs on parenting leave to nominate a proxy on their behalf – a principle backed by the Commons earlier this year. Now, Swinson has said parliament should make a binding decision on introducing proxy voting before it breaks up for its summer recess on Thursday. Her case has shown how overdue these measures truly are.