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Sunday, January 06, 2019

Why is the House of Commons operating in a time warp?

MPs like Jacob Rees Mogg may well convey the impression of living in a bygone age, indeed one feels that he and some of his fellow Brexiteers would be far more comfortable in the age of Palmerston, Earl Grey and Wellington, but that cannot be the standard by which a twenty-first century democracy measures itself.

It is not just the House of Lords which needs reforming. Some of the archaic practises of the House of Commons also need to be changed. We should no longer be catering for part-time MPs, who care for their non-political business interests in the morning, and have a long lunch at their club, before appearing in the House late afternoon/early evening to vote.

The vast majority of MPs do not behave like this. They are at their desk early in the morning and work through the day and into the evening hours. When they are not in Westminster, they are in their constituency. It is not a standard nine-to-five job by any stretch of the imagination, but that does not mean that MPs should suffer inferior working conditions to others.

Of course the biggest change since the days of Palmerston is the number of women in the House of Commons. There are some backwoodsmen who might still argue that a pregnant MP or a new mother has no business being in work. However, this is the twenty-first century and 99.99% of us are more enlightened than that. So, why is it taking so long for the Commons to reform its practises to allow new parents to do their job, in the same way as they would in any other place of work?

This is a question being posed by a number of MPs, frustrated at the glacial pace of change in the House of Commons. As the Independent reports, pregnant MPs are planning to challenge John Bercow to bring in changes to archaic parliamentary rules that force expectant mothers to vote right up to their due date.

They say that a cross-party delegation of MPs will meet the speaker this month to implore him to introduce a new baby leave system, which would allow proxy voting for new mothers and fathers:

Plans for a proxy voting system – where MPs can nominate colleagues to vote on their behalf – were unanimously approved in February 2018 but progress to introduce the measure has stalled, despite support from Commons leader Andrea Leadsom.

A newly formed women’s caucus in the Commons will now demand the system is brought in for a trial by 1 February, with three Labour MPs and one Tory expecting babies.

Maria Miller, the Conservative chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, told The Independent: “It has been kicked into the long grass and I think that is shameful.

“Any reform at all. The baby leave, how many debates have we had on that? We’ve had two debates on that and it still hasn’t gone through.

“We’ve got a delegation of pregnant women going to see him [the speaker].”

She added: “Whilst you have a push for more women to come into parliament, we have got to make it a place that’s attractive to a wider cross-section of women and most women would find it quite difficult to come to somewhere that is run the way this place is run, which is more like an 18th century gentleman’s club than it is a legislative body for the country.”

The current system for parental leave is informal and organised by the political parties, where whips make so-called pairing arrangements so an MP from a rival party does not vote as well as the absent politician.

When new mothers have to rely on an antiquated pairing system to do their job, and when MPs like Tory Chairman, Brandon Lewis can break those arrangements at politically convenient times, as he did with Jo Swinson, then it is clear that change is needed.
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