WHEN you become an MP as a young woman at 28, you know there will inevitably be personal challenges ahead if you also have aspirations to have a family.
The pressures of balancing the late stages of pregnancy, as well as the intensity of newborns and the childcare beyond, are certainly not unique to being an MP, and all working parents will recognise these difficulties.
Far from a negative, it is essential that we have decision-makers with this real-life experience, taking decisions and working through laws which affect the public in a way which takes all of these challenges into account. You will only achieve that if the working practices of the Houses of Parliament are not so out of touch that ordinary people take one look and back away.
At seven months pregnant, I will be embarking on maternity leave before too long and a spotlight has been cast over what happens during parental leave for MPs after last week’s debacle at Westminster.
Two MPs recently gave birth, another is about to and I will be next. I am also aware of two members who are yet to announce their pregnancies and there will, of course, be expectant dads seeking to take parental leave as well. This reflects the changing demographics of Westminster which is only a good thing.
However, there are those who cling to some of the arcane procedures which underpin so much of the way day-to-day business is conducted in Parliament. This misplaced affection for the ways of the past risks undermining democracy in the future if we fail to adapt and transform Westminster into the modern workplace that it must become.
At the moment, if an MP is on maternity leave, there are no hard and fast rules about how it this works. MPs will usually take a period away from Westminster in late pregnancy and into having a newborn baby. They will then pick up their constituency activities for a period towards the end of that leave before returning to Westminster on a weekly basis for votes.
MPs on maternity leave are ‘paired’ for votes during that period. This means that their votes will not be cast, but the party whips will arrange that an MP on the opposite side will refrain from voting so that those votes cancel each other out. At its simplest, this means that a missing Labour MP will be ‘paired’ with a missing Tory MP with neither voting, denying either party a numerical advantage.
Pairing is a necessary practice beyond parental leave. With 650 MPs, there are all kinds of legitimate reasons why they may not be able to attend a vote and pairing has long served a purpose.
That is until it broke down last week when the Government was faced with votes that were much closer than it would have desired and with the Prime Minister’s reputation on the line over Brexit. A pair promised to Liberal Democrat MP and brand new mum Jo Swinson was broken when her pair Brandon Lewis, the Conservative Party chairman, cast his vote at the request of the Tory whips.
Having worked closely with the Government Chief Whip when we were both junior whips working for our respective parties, Julian Smith is a decent bloke and I am prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt that this was a mistake rather than a deliberate act. Others, however, are not so convinced.
Either way, it demonstrates that the only way I can have confidence that a vote has been cast on my behalf, and that of my constituents, while on maternity leave is to make the 200-mile journey from Halifax to London.
As lawmakers, we look to guarantee a period of protected parental leave for others, so we must also now consider how that works in practice for elected representatives.
This brings me to proxy voting. MPs recently voted to explore the possibility of proxy voting, whereby their vote can be used by another MP who votes on their behalf.
Although this would be remote working to some extent, rather than parental leave in its truest form, it does strike a balance given the unique requirements of elected representation.
It isn’t a straightforward fix, as MPs would have to make a judgement call about how well informed they were to use their proxy vote if they could not attend the meetings or debates associated with it.
In addition, do they go through the usual motions of having to explain to constituents why they voted the way they did? This potentially involves using social media, email and meetings, which would be the usual process, all while supposedly on parental maternity leave?
Either way, I hope that last week was the start of a conversation about how we must drag Westminster into the 21st century before good people, either with a family or with hopes of having one, think a role in politics simply isn’t for them.
Holly Lynch is the Labour MP for Halifax.