It’s no secret that the UK Parliament has had, and continues to have, a “woman problem” – this institution, which I left yesterday after its formal dissolution, does not reflect the electorate.
Every year the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) compile statistics on the percentage of women in parliaments. This year the UK is 56th at 22.8 per cent. This is near the world average and some might say “not bad”.
However, in three years’ time, we mark 100 years since women could be elected and progress has, frankly, been glacial.
Despite the efforts of the two main political parties, the chances of achieving a parliament that reflects the population soon is not high. Women are coming forward in greater numbers but they are in a minority compared to men. Is there more that we could, and should, do?
Much debate has been about the hours that the Commons sits and whether sessions can be more family friendly. Except for MPs with families in London, the majority will live in two places with the family home a long way away.
Two proposals that could improve the attractiveness of the Commons would be to de-mystify what actually happens, and increase the predictability of Parliamentary business.
The public don’t believe it, but the UK Parliament has more sitting days than most other legislatures. They’re led to believe the work of an MP is primarily in the chamber, so become frustrated when they see near empty benches, but the job of a MP involves much more. It includes Select Committees overseeing government departments, Bill committees analysing future legislation in depth, all-party groups meeting on specific issues as well as meeting representatives of campaigning groups.
In the constituency, the expectations of MPs have grown. A full day on Friday is the norm with recesses used to meet and visit local organisations. These demands could be recognised with fewer sittings, especially as we have seen a welcome reduction in legislation.
Other aspects of the job should be given a more prominent airing – time allocated for committee meetings and introducing constituency weeks when the chamber doesn’t sit. Not all local events happen on Fridays.
Such changes would enable MPs to plan work time better alongside making it easier to allocate family and domestic time.
The business of the Commons is only announced two weeks ahead, but it should be possible to give more notice. Accepting the necessity of last minute changes, this would help MPs plan when to be involved in particular issues.
While juggling a busy job with young children is never easy, a crèche on the Parliamentary estate and flexibility by political parties’ business managers (the Whips) mean it is possible to cope. Knowing that many female MPs have had children during their time in the Commons should give confidence to other women.
The media would no doubt have something to say about fewer sitting days – but surely we should be able to explain better what the role entails. Indeed, the perception that time is spent mainly in the chamber shouting at opposing MPs may be one of the factors that puts women off.
It would also be helpful if the media had a more grown-up attitude to women politicians, not portraying them as clothes horses but concentrating on what they say and do.
Michael Cockerell’s recent BBC documentary went some way to showing the more detailed work of MPs. In addition YouTube-style videos could be made and promoted exploring the different aspects of the working life of a backbencher. Some already exist, including an excellent short film on the important work of Select Committees.
Portraying the role of an MP as a unique and satisfying job should increase its attractiveness to women.
Most people I know want a job where their actions make a difference. When my constituent Christina’s son died from blood poisoning, I campaigned successfully to change the law on body piercing.
Keith, another constituent, suffers from dystonia. His inability to get an experimental operation on the NHS, led to meetings with health Ministers and subsequently to a change in policy.
Members of Parliament introduce and change legislation. They also question and lobby Ministers – there really is no other role like it.
Changes to the way Parliament works, along with show casing the less confrontational side, could go a long way to making the Houses of Parliament more attractive for women – and many men.
Meg Munn is the outgoing Labour MP for Sheffield Heeley. First elected in 2001, she is not seeking re-election on May 7.