Political interview: Halifax's Holly Lynch on pregnancy, the juggle of life as a parental MP, and the minefield of Parliamentary maternity leave

With just a few weeks to go until the birth of her first child, Halifax MP Holly Lynch discusses pregnancy announcements, morning sickness, and the minefield that is Parliamentary maternity leave. Lindsay Pantry reports.

MP Holly Lynch pictured at the Elsie Whiteley Innovation Centre, Halifax.
Picture by Simon Hulme
MP Holly Lynch pictured at the Elsie Whiteley Innovation Centre, Halifax. Picture by Simon Hulme

FACING off at the dispatch box with Michael Gove on fisheries policy would be a concerning enough prospect for any young MP - but add in morning sickness, and it takes a whole different level of stoicism.

But for Holly Lynch, then keeping her new pregnancy under wraps, it was business as usual.

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And with just a few weeks to go before her first child is due, the Halifax MP is not winding down just yet.

Impending motherhood, however, has brought with it a new set of challenges, some that working women across the country will be overly familiar with, but others that are quite unique to her role as an MP - media interest, late night working, travelling up and down to London from her home in Northowram, and the parliamentary minefield that is maternity leave.

“It’s useful to be able to pick the brains of other MPs who have been through it,” she said. “Things like having to do a press release because you are pregnant is quite unusual.

“Speaking to recent parents Luciana Berger (Labour, Liverpool Wavertree) and Emma Reynolds (Labour, Wolverhampton North East), who were almost immediately hit with a snap general election close to the birth of their newborns last year, and had particularly challenging experiences for that reason, has been particularly useful, finding out what did and didn’t work for them.

“I remember having to be at the dispatch box only having been throwing up ten minutes earlier, having to face off with Michael Gove about fisheries policy. That was at a time when you don’t necessarily want to disclose to all of your colleagues and friends the situation and so can be quite difficult.

“That’s something that any women who’ve been through morning sickness can identify with, trying to balance professional commitments with morning sickness and everything that comes with that.”

One snippet of invaluable advice, from Ms Berger, was to sign up for National Childbirth Trust (NCT) classes, and while she was apprehensive, as a person in the public eye, they’ve been great, she said.

“It can be awkward - I didn’t know what it would be like walking into the room for the first time, as an MP, but it’s been great.”

Westminster currently does not set out parental leave guidance for impending MP parents, leaving it up to individual parties to decide. It’s a contentious issue, one that former acting Labour leader Harriet Harman has campaigned to clarify. Ms Lynch, who has been married to her husband Chris Walker, the head of a homelessness charity in Halifax, for almost four years intends on stopping work in the first week of September after some key events she is “keen to honour”, a couple of weeks before her due date, and returning to work after Christmas. But the thought of any time on leave is a balancing act between her responsibilities to her constituents, and those to her new family.

“You know if you are going to go into elected representation, as a young woman, at some point, that’s a dilemma and a balance that you are going to have to strike.

“But you’re in a unique category as an elected representative. You want to be a good mum, and a good parent, and that involves ring-fencing a bit of time to do that properly, but also, because nobody can come in and do your job for you through a period of parental leave, you know that the way that Westminster currently works, there is a little bit of a democratic void for the period when you are not able to go and cast your vote and take part in debates on behalf of your constituents. You just have to try and make it work.”

Despite her hopes to stay away from Westminster for a good few months, she’s been notified of some key votes that she would “either want - or be required - to take part in over that period before Christmas, Brexit being the most obvious one.”

MPs on leave, either parental or sick leave, or if they are out of the country through engagements, currently use a ‘pairing’ system where a member on the opposing side will agree to abstain from voting for balance. The system has recently come under scrutiny when Lib Dem Jo Swinson, who was on maternity leave, discovered her ‘pair’ Conservative Brandon Lewis, had been ordered to take part in a knife-edge Brexit vote last month.

Ms Lynch, 31, believes its time to look at the alternative - either proxy voting, or someone covering all of the MP’s duties.

“Whatever the reasons were for breaking that particular pair, as we go through some more, very contentious votes, which have very slim majorities, pairing will come under more and more pressure and Government chief whips therefore will come under more and more pressure and it’s a shame that we cannot come up with a better alternative to pairing that gives everybody a bit of clarity about who is voting.

“Proxy voting, where MPs on parental leave allocate their vote to another MP and ask them to vote on their behalf, would take us somewhere to ensuring votes were still cast in an MP’s absence. However, certainly for a short time immediately after having given birth, there may be a time when you cannot do your due diligence, in terms of working out the pros and cons of a vote, then having to explain to constituents your reasoning.

“By the time you’ve done all that, that’s not really parental leave either.

“Ultimately, I’d like to see a system when somebody comes in and covers for you so that your constituents do get a continuity of service from an MP and so that also relieves an MP of their duties for a short period of time so that they can just focus. But I think we’re a long way from delivering that at the moment.”

She stepped down from the shadow front bench and her fisheries, flooding and coastal communities brief before the summer recess, but still continues to work.

“I stood down from the front bench just before the summer recess and that was because we were expecting big pieces of legislation, particularly on fisheries at the start of the new year in September.

“It was only fair that somebody was able to come in and take over those responsibilities and have time to get their head into that particular role, and it also just relieved me of having to take up some of those additional travel requirements to our coastal communities at a time when I would be quite heavily pregnant. So I stepped down from the shadow front bench before the summer recess, with a few to start proper maternity leave two weeks before my due date.”

While she is on leave, her “great team” of staff will provide business as usual for constituents.

Stepping away from such an all-consuming role will however, have its frustrations.

“In some ways, it’s frustrating that there are campaigns that you feel very strongly and passionately about, that may have key moments in a window of parental leave. The Protect the Protectors Bill, for example, which the Yorkshire Post has been huge supporters of, will likely have Royal Assent, slap bang in the middle of maternity leave.

“I will always do anything I can to still keep in touch and follow those campaigns and promote them at their key moments. There will not be any shortage of fuss made when that Bill gets Royal Assent. But that is part of the challenge, you want to be a good mum, but you will not be able to avoid keeping a close eye on those campaigns and projects that you feel really strongly about. There will never be a good time really to have children.”

HOLLY Lynch was elected as Halifax’s Labour MP in 2015.

She was born in Halifax, which is “very much home, and will continue to be”, and attended Northowram Primary School, where “most likely” her son will also attend. While she believes impending motherhood won’t change her political approach, it is already having an impact.

She said: “Your political decisions will always be shaped by your experience, and any new experience will give you insight into what might need to change. So on a very simplistic level, we are looking at hospital reconfiguration - when you have to take your own personal decisions about maternity services, it gives you an insight you just didn’t have before, which is always useful.”