LONDON — The U.K. parliament is set to become (slightly) more family-friendly with government plans to allow MPs on maternity or paternity leave to vote by proxy.
Ministers are drawing up a parental leave motion to put forward when MPs return from recess in September that is likely to include proposals to allow parliamentarians not physically in the House of Commons to nominate a colleague to vote on their behalf, according to an official with knowledge of the plans.
Critics of arcane British parliamentary procedure say such changes cannot come soon enough. They argue that House of Commons rules mean the legislature is more akin to a 19th century gentleman’s club than an inclusive modern-day working environment, and that more changes are needed to make it easier for MPs with childcare responsibilities.
But others argue that the current system of forcing those MPs who want to cast a vote to be present has its merits. By regularly bringing parliamentarians together, it prevents ministers from avoiding backbenchers who want to lobby them on government policy. It also prevents MPs from staying in their constituencies and focussing entirely on local issues.
Currently, there is no formal mechanism to allow MPs to vote remotely, meaning those on maternity or paternity leave are left with a blank on their voting record. Instead, the parties use an informal arrangement termed “pairing” which means that MPs who are unable to be in parliament for key votes — for example because they are on government business or a foreign trip — do not hand an advantage to political opponents.
“Anything we can do to attract people of all backgrounds to a career in parliament, especially young women, is a good thing for our democracy” — Andrea Leadsom
But pairing — whereby the whips who enforce party discipline arrange an opposing MP’s abstention to cancel out the absentee’s non-vote — relies on good relations between political parties and does not come with any formal guarantee.
Pressure on the ruling Conservative Party to create a more formal system for new parents has intensified after Tory Party Chairman Brandon Lewis broke a pairing arrangement with Liberal Democrat MP Jo Swinson in a crucial Brexit vote last month. She was on maternity leave so not in parliament but rather than voluntarily abstaining as agreed, Lewis voted with the government.
A furious Swinson branded Lewis’ actions “neither honest, nor a mistake,” adding that it was “literally not credible that of 9 votes today, Brandon Lewis ‘forgot’ that he was paired for the 2 crunch votes and those votes alone.”
The Tory Party apologized and insisted the incident was a mistake, but opposition MPs demanded that Conservative chief whip Julian Smith resign over claims he had put pressure on Tory MPs to break pairing deals to keep key Brexit legislation on track.
Andrea Leadsom, who as leader of the House of Commons is responsible for the legislature’s business arrangements, told POLITICO she is “absolutely committed to creating a family-friendly parliament.”
She said she was “pleased” parliament’s procedure committee has taken up her suggestion to look at how proxy voting could work. It published a report in May that suggested a noncompulsory proxy voting scheme should operate under the authority of the Commons speaker, who would certify the appointment of a proxy.
“All MPs, particularly new parents, should be able to carry out their duties in full, and I am looking forward to making progress on parental leave after the summer recess. Anything we can do to attract people of all backgrounds to a career in parliament, especially young women, is a good thing for our democracy,” Leadsom said.
Plans for proxy voting are also likely to win support from across the political spectrum, with the idea set to be supported by a group of 2017-intake Labour MPs in a pamphlet on modernizing parliament, which is due to be launched on September 12.
The series of essays has been spearheaded by MP James Frith, who was summoned to a Brexit vote 36 hours after the birth of his son Bobby. “It was made very clear to me, knowing that I was by then a new dad, that I had to be there,” he said.
“The voters don’t expect me to stop voting because of my life circumstances, but my life circumstances shouldn’t just be at the expense of the role I do” — James Frith
He emphasized the need for a “pre-ordained authority” to be the proxy, but also acknowledged the importance of physically being there to vote, allowing backbenchers to come into contact with ministers and shadow ministers.
“We don’t want an auto-response parliament: a kind of dial-in parliament. I’m not advocating that at all. But what we do want is a parliament that accommodates all eventualities.”
“The voters don’t expect me to stop voting because of my life circumstances, but my life circumstances shouldn’t just be at the expense of the role I do,” he said.
Another author of the pamphlet, Ellie Reeves, who is married to fellow Labour MP John Cryer, also backs proxy voting but wants reform to go further. She objects to the system of repeated votes on different amendments to the same legislation that can take hours to complete. She would like a more efficient system that allows MPs to register their votes in one go, rather than going “around and around and around the voting lobby over and over again.”
The current system is “a lot less family-friendly than it needs to be,” she said. Reeves and Cryer have a three-and-a-half-year-old son, Albert.
Cabinet Office minister Chloe Smith, one of the first MPs to take a newborn baby into the House of Commons chamber, is also in favor of proxy voting and former Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman, former Tory Cabinet minister Maria Miller and SNP MP Hannah Bardell co-wrote an article in June backing such plans.
“I wouldn’t be in Westminster debating the issues of state, massive issues of government, and that is actually what an MP’s job is” — Tom Tugendhat
But Tory MP Tom Tugendhat, who chairs the foreign affairs committee, is less enthusiastic and favors parties honoring the current pairing system. “If you have agreed not to vote you shouldn’t vote and that is that,” he said.
He is wary of allowing MPs not to come to Westminster. “If you don’t need to be in parliament then actually what I would do of course is I would spend most of my time in my community fixing local issues because that is something most people care about. I wouldn’t be in Westminster debating the issues of state, massive issues of government, and that is actually what an MP’s job is,” he said.
Tugenhart, who is married to French supreme court judge Anissia Morel, has also experienced the everyday difficulties of being an MP with young children — often playing what he describes as “radio roulette.”
“Radio Roulette is when you book live radio interviews and you know you are the only one who can do childcare and you are alone in the house — and so you do the interview down the link [hoping] your children either won’t wake up or they won’t make a sound. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose.”
He said he had “won rather a big game recently” when he managed to do the flagship 8:10 a.m. interview slot on the BBC’s Today program with presenter John Humphrys while changing his daughter’s nappy.
Humphrys was apparently none the wiser.