As Shadow Leader of the House, I responded to the debate on Baby Leave for Members of Parliament.
The motion was: ‘that this House believes that it would be to the benefit of the functioning of parliamentary democracy that honourable Members who have had a baby or adopted a child should for a period of time be entitled, but not required, to discharge their responsibilities to vote in this House by proxy’. The Question was put and agreed to.
Below is my speech in full:
“I associate myself with the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Luton South (Mr Shuker), Mr Deputy Speaker. It is good to see you in your place. I say to my hon. Friend: that is what a feminist looks like. I also thank my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) for co-sponsoring this debate, along with the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller). My right hon. and learned Friend was a formidable role model when she was pregnant—with Harry, I think—and stood for election. It is fitting that, as Mother of the House, she should bring forward this debate. It is right for Members to debate this subject and for the Backbench Business Committee to have given time for it.
The right hon. Member for Basingstoke is always raising important equalities issues on her Committee, and I am sure that she, together with other members of the Committee, including my hon. Friend the Member for Luton South, will monitor what the Procedure Committee comes up with. Hon. Members will remember that the former Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, when they took paternity, were actually celebrated, whereas my hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) and for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds), when they took maternity leave, suffered abuse. My right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) was a Minister surrounded by gurgles and red boxes. They are all formidable campaigners.
The fact that women have suffered abuse and accusations of being lazy is unacceptable. Constituents want Parliament to be representative of society, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) pointed out. There are no implications for pay, as women are not away from work; they just want to cast their vote on behalf of their constituents, but sometimes they cannot physically be here, and it is right that we should consider this proposal, in addition to the process of nodding through in certain circumstances. I say also to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones) that Ophelia is lucky to have a hands-on dad.
I want to raise a few points that have been raised with me. It would not be compulsory to request this provision, but in my view there is a compelling case. Proxy voting will obviously have to be in line with party policy, and it does not equate to a free vote. The motion does not ask to widen proxy voting to other circumstances; only that it apply where a Member cannot attend a vote owing to caring responsibilities. All the motion does is enable women MPs to balance giving birth and looking after a baby with their work as an MP. All my hon. Friends who have given birth while MPs have carried on with their work in their constituencies and the House. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) and other hon. Members have pointed out, they know that in the 21st century they have to respond to emails—and they do so all the time. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) says she does not want to have any more children, but I have to break it to her: she is going to be a mum forever, even when they are older and have children of their own.
In October 2017, the Clerk of the House resubmitted to the Procedure Committee a memorandum on proxy voting in the House of Commons. The Clerk identified Members with caring responsibilities—limited to mothers of infants—as a category of Member that might qualify for a proxy vote. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham is right that this should be considered by the appropriate Committee, and more work should be done, following the motion, together with the work of Professor Sarah Childs and her report, “The Good Parliament”. This is going to be more of an issue as women MPs take their place and we move towards parity.
Debating this issue, as we women take our rightful place in the House, is a lovely way to celebrate the Representation of the People Act 1918, which gave 6 million women over the age of 30 the right to vote. My right hon. and learned Friend and the right hon. Member for Basingstoke, the co-sponsors, and all the Members who have spoken in this debate are wonderful role models. The parents of Ophelia, Azalea, Amélie, Theo and Ruby—all the wonderful little babies born to Members during my time in the House—have today, along with other Members, pushed the boundaries towards a good and more equal Parliament.”