Liberal Democrat MP Jo Swinson with Duncan and baby Andrew
Liberal Democrat MP Jo Swinson with Duncan and baby Andrew

POLITICS

To achieve equality, we need our MPs to be able to care for their children

Unbelievably, MPs don’t currently get maternity or paternity leave. It’s a situation that leads to cruel working practices and women being undermined, says Louise Ridley

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By Louise Ridley on

Who are Britain's laziest MPs? According to the media, some of them are women with children.

In 2013, Lucy Powell, the MP for Manchester Central, was labelled Britain’s second laziest MP by The Sun, because her House of Commons voting record was empty for several months. In fact, she was taking time off to care for her newborn son until he was four months old. She had continued working, she just couldn’t get to London to vote.

You’d think that times have changed. The news last month that New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, is pregnant was cheered around the world. But she is the same woman who was asked if she planned to be a mother just seven hours into starting the job as leader of her party, something she called “unacceptable”. 

In the UK, the news that Jo Swinson, the deputy leader of the Lib Dems, is expecting her second child, was also met with congratulations. But she is the same woman who was told by a Labour councillor to “get a babysitter” a month after she gave birth to her first child. 

Our lip service praising politicians for having children is let down by a system that makes it incredibly difficult for them. Unbelievably, MPs don’t actually get official maternity or paternity leave. They can ask for it from their party whips, who can give it at their discretion. But, given that the whips enforce the party line, if you’ve been voting against your party the conversation may not go well.

If an MP can't be in parliament to vote, they are "paired" with an MP from a rival party who also can't be there and who would vote in the opposite way. It means their votes effectively cancel each other out and the overall result of the debate isn't affected by their absence. But their votes aren't recorded, so constituents don’t know how their MP felt on an issue and it can be mistakenly assumed that they aren’t doing much work.

 

Lisa Nandy, the MP for Wigan, told me that in the last month two male MPs have told her she isn’t committed to her job because she was unhappy about a 2am vote that meant she missed the train home to see her kids yet again, and had to find childcare at short notice

The future could be different. A parliamentary debate yesterday considered proposals to give MPs parental leave and let colleagues vote for them by proxy, in what was called a “major break with tradition”. MP Harriet Harman, who put forward the motion with Maria Miller, has pointed out that you can’t be on call while you are in labour – something that it beggars belief had to be said.

The debate showed that MPs with kids are quite the opposite of lazy. Tulip Siddiq said she spent nine days in hospital after giving birth and had to work from her bed “simply because there was no one else to do it”. Gavin Shuker told the debate that he was never asked about his childcare schedule when his four-year-old daughter was younger.

Happily, the motion was passed and it will now be considered by parliament’s procedure committee. Yet, even if it is approved, there’s still so far to go.

Politicians are often required to be at debates in London lasting late into the night, with no set finish time. Lisa Nandy, the MP for Wigan, told me that in the last month two male MPs have told her she isn’t committed to her job because she was unhappy about a 2am vote that meant she missed the train home to see her kids yet again, and had to find childcare at short notice. There’s a nursery in the House of Commons, but it shuts at 6pm, meaning many MPs are carting their children around the corridors at midnight.

Nandy also told me that, soon after giving birth, she was asked to give notice in person that she wanted to attend an event in the future, which would have meant a six-hour round trip with a two-month-old baby. It was only after the matter was escalated to the top of the House of Commons that was she allowed to “set a constitutional precedent” and give notice in writing.

Given these outdated procedures and rules, it’s hardly surprising that a report in 2014 found there was a significant “motherhood gap” in parliament – a clear underrepresentation of women with children compared with men who are fathers. It called for a “reconfiguration of political life so that it accommodates those who care”.

We’re always complaining that our MPs don’t seem human – that they don’t know what football team they support, tell terrible jokes or seem robotic. It’s no wonder some can seem hard to relate to when they operate in a system that can’t make allowances for something so basic and fundamental: caring.

MPs who have children aren’t lazy or uncommitted. At the moment, they are heroes.

@LouiseRidley

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Liberal Democrat MP Jo Swinson with Duncan and baby Andrew
Tagged in:
women in politics
Westminster
Maternity leave
motherhood

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