Life

Why are women MPs still having to choose between politics and parenthood?

Labour MP Stella Creasy is having to “beg” for funding for maternity cover while pregnant. It’s a stark reminder of how the UK’s antiquated political system hurts female MPs.  

To outside observers, the British political system can often seem bafflingly archaic. And this can occasionally be quite amusing, in a cringe-worthy sort of way. Remember last December, when Brighton Kemptown MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle grabbed the ceremonial mace in the Commons in protest at the government’s handling of Brexit? Watching a room full of politicians scream at a man waving a big golden stick around is, objectively, pretty funny. And you only have to look at the global fascination with Speaker John Bercow (he of the “ORDER, ORDER” bellows) to realise that some of our parliamentary procedures seem like a Monty Python sketch to the rest of the world.

But when it comes to Westminster’s antiquated attitudes towards politicians who are pregnant or parents, it’s hard to find much to laugh about. Under current rules, MPs on parental leave are not automatically entitled to paid cover for the essential work they do outside of parliament, such as constituency casework or spearheading campaigns. This is because – somewhat unbelievably – the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa) still doesn’t formally recognise that politicians go on maternity leave.

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Since new mothers are tied to their babies in a way that new fathers are not, this effectively means that women MPs have to make a choice. Do they have a child, accepting that their constituents may suffer if they can’t secure the funding to hire someone to fill in for them? Do they put off pregnancy, worried about the political ramifications of disappearing into maternity leave without cover? Or do they try and do both – juggle the needs of a newborn with the demands of being an MP – and risk running themselves into the ground

Jo Swinson
Jo Swinson was failed by the pairing system while on maternity leave

Of course, it’s not just in politics that pregnant women and new mothers face a raw deal in the UK. Just last year, research by the Equality and Human Rights Commission revealed that around one in nine mothers in Britain had been dismissed, made redundant or treated so poorly that they felt they had no choice but to leave their job after having a baby, while 44% of employers saw women who had more than one pregnancy while in the same job as a ‘burden’. 

As the place where laws are made, parliament should – in theory – set an example to the rest of the UK by its approach towards pregnancy and motherhood. But for years, Westminster has tacitly endorsed the idea that extreme professional, financial and physical stress is simply the price that working women must pay for having a baby.  

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This week, Stella Creasy shed new light on how difficult it is to square the circle of motherhood and politics. The Labour MP is currently expecting a baby, having previously experienced two miscarriages. Writing in The Guardian, she said that Ispa’s refusal to recognise that MPs take maternity leave means she has been forced to “beg for extra staff funding – or give up any chance of spending time with my child to make sure my constituents don’t miss out”. No expectant mother deserves this kind of humiliating, anxiety-inducing treatment. That it is routinely meted out to female politicians in 2019 is extraordinary.

Creasy is not the only woman MP to come face to face with Westminster’s outdated attitude towards pregnancy and parenting, which Women and Equalities Committee chair Maria Miller has described as being stuck in the “18th century”. Parliamentary hours are notoriously unfriendly to politicians with caring responsibilities, and until very recently, MPs were not entitled to any official parental leave at all. If they wanted to take time off to give birth or care for an infant, they had to seek an informal arrangement with their party – and they were still only able to vote on bills and amendments if they visited the House of Commons in person. 

Harriet Harman
Harriet Harman has been pushing for better maternity rights for female MPs for decades

This meant that a political party could seriously lose out if one of their MPs took time off to have a baby. It was a system “set up for a Parliament full of men”, Labour MP Harriet Harman has said, men whose “wives [were] at home looking after their families, so they could decide the affairs of state”.

An informal system known as ‘pairing’ – whereby an absent MP was matched with an MP from the opposing party, who also agreed not to vote – was supposed to support MPs on leave. But it was deeply flawed. Less than a year ago, Liberal Democrat deputy leader Jo Swinson was paired with Conservative Brandon Lewis while she was away on maternity leave. He went ahead and took part in two key Brexit votes anyway

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This betrayal destroyed women’s trust in pairing arrangements to the extent that Labour’s Tulip Siddiq went against medical advice to delay a caesarean in January, so that she could take part in another crucial Brexit vote.

“Let me be clear, I have no faith in the pairing system,” Siddiq said at the time. “In July the [government] stole the vote of a new mother.” The sight of the MP arriving in the Commons in a wheelchair to vote, so heavily pregnant she could hardly stand, sent shockwaves through the country. Male MPs still outnumber their female counterparts by more than 2:1; it’s not unreasonable to assume that some women will be put off entering politics due to the obvious challenges of balancing a parliamentary career with motherhood.

Labour MP Tulip Siddiq
Tulip Siddiq delayed childbirth to attend a Brexit vote in person

Since January, there have been some important changes. Shortly after Siddiq gave birth to her son Raphael, the Commons voted to introduce a year-long trial of proxy voting, allowing MPs who are absent for one of three reasons (because they are about to give birth, have recently become a parent or have experienced a miscarriage) to nominate another MP to vote on their behalf. MPs also voted in favour of giving MPs entitlement to “baby leave”: two weeks for men and six weeks for women. 

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But Creasy’s story is a reminder that there is still much work to be done before politics is a truly hospitable place for mothers and women who hope to have children one day – not to mention male MPs who, unlike Jacob “I have six children but have never changed a nappy” Rees-Mogg, actually want to be involved in their children’s lives.

It seems unlikely that any changes will be spearheaded by the man most likely to be our next prime minister, Boris Johnson, who won’t even confirm how many children he has fathered. But if women like Creasy, Harman, Siddiq and Swinson keep the pressure on, things will change. Because they have to. They have to. 

Images: Getty Images 

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