As the Speaker welcomes cats into the chamber, last night his deputy criticised my parenting for bringing my toddler to the voting lobbies. She demanded I hand her over to her instead, despite being a stranger to my child. Such outward hostility towards making parliament family-friendly does little to improve the perception Westminster is out of touch with those it seeks to serve. When 41% of the population think democracy doesn’t work, refusing to accept the status quo becomes even more important, not just for equality, but to protect democracy itself.
Today’s news that the procedure committee has decided parents accompanied by babies are forbidden in the House of Commons – in contrast to many other legislatures around the world and previous custom – yet again reinforces the impression Westminster isn’t a 21st century workplace, but a rarefied debating club for the elite. This decision will not affect me. Both my children are now too old to sit quietly so I can speak, but it speaks volumes about how determined some are to send the message that mothers are not welcome unless they pretend their children don’t exist.
Like many parents, I have taken both my children into work, not to prove a point, but out of necessity. The lack of adequate maternity or paternity cover for MPs means the alternative was my constituents going unrepresented. The report recognises without such cover there is a risk the public will feel they cannot elect women. Despite promises, almost a year on from the birth of my second child, no work has been done on what a maternity policy might look like – something that ironically we legislate to compel other workplaces to do.
Some on the committee suggested such concerns are London-centric, as if bedtime for babies is set on a regional basis. And the report failed to speak to anyone who isn’t already in parliament about whether there were barriers to participation. Other MPs shrug and say our job isn’t “normal” so what do we expect, as if that makes antiquated ways of working justified. As we have seen with so much, when Westminster marks its own homework it often decides all is well, to the horror of the British public. Outside in the real world, women repeatedly report they are told their children will suffer if they become MPs – unlike their male counterparts. Campaign groups Pregnant then Screwed and the Fawcett Society are aghast at the impact this has on policymaking, with childcare costs virtually ignored in the cost of living debate, and maternity rights now under threat as part of the Brexit legislation. Little wonder then that while more women have been elected in the last two decades, most are either childless or have grown-up children.
We should never stop fighting for everyone to be able to have both the career they want, and a job that allows them to spend time with their children where and when they want, so that they are more than a photo on their desk. The place that makes the laws on what rights parents have has a vital role to play leading this debate rather than stifling it. Yet, working in a place where some wander round boasting about never having changed a nappy and leaving notes on the desks of those working from home accusing them of being lazy, it’s embarrassing how backward parliament is compared to modern workplaces across the country. Flexible working isn’t an indulgence. As our economic competitors are showing us, it’s critical to a more productive economy.
Today shows parliament will not change from within. With elections only every few years our chance to secure that from outside cannot be missed. That’s why we set up the MotheRED fund to provide grants to mothers to stand for parliament – and to send the message that the parents missing from our politics aren’t a problem to manage, but potential talent we should seek out. That those coming forward are so very different to those currently elected – with a third being from black and ethnic minority backgrounds, a fifth with children with special educational needs and a third single mothers – reflects how it’s not parents who aren’t political, but our body politic that isn’t set up for parents. This report may be a missed opportunity, but the demand for modernity will only grow louder.