Commons Proxy voting gets a step closer – watch Jo Swinson’s blistering speech

Proxy voting for MPs on baby leave might be in place by the time of the crucial Brexit votes next Tuesday night.

In response to an urgent question from our Jo Swinson today, Leader of the House Andrea Leadsom confirmed that MPs would get the chance to pass a motion implementing the move on Monday.

However, if just one MP shouts “object” the whole project could be delayed further.

Many people were horrified that Hampstead and Kilburn MP Tulip Siddiq was put in the position where she had to delay the caesarean section which would bring her son, Raphael, into the world, so she could vote in the Brexit debate last week.

However, Jo’s urgent question was prompted by this story in the Times(£) which suggested that it was the Tory Chief Whip Julian Smith who was the main road block to progress.

The reason this is so urgent is that, while Jo was nursing her newborn son Gabriel back in July, thinking she was paired with Tory chairman Brandon Lewis, she was let down. Lewis voted, amid reports that Smith had been ordering his MPs to break pairs.

Jo had called for his resignation as a result of yesterday’s story and secured an urgent question for today.

In Jo’s first decade in Parliament, she was pretty careful, always very measured, much more so than she was behind the scenes. Now she’s just letting rip with what she feels, which is really good to see. She also placed some quality shade in the direction of Philip Davies, for whom the nation of gender equality is still a bit of a mystery.

She said:

First, I absolutely share in the congratulations that the Leader of the House is sending—I am sure from the whole House—to the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) on the birth of her gorgeous baby boy, Raphael.

I thought that things were pretty bad when, back in June in the heat wave, I was 10 days past my due date, but the Government’s response to the House’s instruction to introduce proxy voting gives a whole new meaning to the word overdue. In all seriousness, I congratulate the Leader of the House on her work and on getting to this stage; she is a genuine advocate. Those of us who have worked hard on this issue—the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and those of us who have recently been pregnant or are currently pregnant—know from our meetings with the Leader of the House that she has been seriously helping to drive this initiative within Government, I am sure to her frustration at times, because she is committed to this issue. However, it is shameful that last week the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn was put in the invidious position of having to make a choice—weighing up the potential health risks to her baby against whether her constituents could have their voice heard on the biggest issue of our time. Nobody should be put in such a position.

I would also say, for the record, that I think that it is disgusting that some have suggested that the hon. Lady was just trying to make a point. She was put in an impossible position and she made a choice. The judgment that comes from all corners of parents making choices like that, and all sorts of others, is out of order. We should respect the choice that she made.

Yes, the hon. Lady was offered a pair—that is what some people have said: “She was offered a pair.” but it is the Government’s fault that pairing is entirely discredited as a mechanism to enable pregnant MPs and new parents to discharge their responsibilities. I was nursing my two-week-old baby in July when I found out that the person I was paired with had voted anyway. He had not voted all day; he had voted in just the two Divisions that happened to be very close—one that the Government lost and one that they won. So forgive me if I am a bit sceptical about the assurances that we were given that that was a genuine mistake, because the result of the Chief Whip’s behaviour—as it then turned out, others had been asked to break their pairs too—was to cheat my constituents out of their voice on one of the biggest issues of our time: Brexit. So some Members of the Government—not the Leader of the House—have been dragged kicking and screaming to this position.

I also think we should put on record thanks to Esther Webber of The Times, whose article suggesting that it was the Chief Whip who was blocking this issue is, I suspect, not entirely unrelated to the date at which this announcement has been brought forward today, in response to this urgent question.

However, I ask the Leader of the House, why the delay? It has been nearly a year—five babies born; three more on the way. Does she appreciate the appalling message that that sends out about maternity rights? Fifty-four thousand women a year lose their jobs because of pregnancy and maternity discrimination, and the Government’s response has been completely inadequate. The charade that we have seen in this House just underlines that message.

The baby son of the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn is five days old. We in law do not allow new mothers to work for two weeks after their baby is born, which is why I am delighted that the Leader of the House says that the House will discuss this issue on Monday. May I ask her some practical questions? Will the motion have time allocated to it, so that it is not possible for a single voice to shout “Object!” and stop the debate happening? What discussions has she had with the Speaker’s Office to make sure that all the preparatory work is done, and that a scheme is in place, so that if the House approves the motion on Monday, the scheme can be in place on Tuesday?

Of course, that does not get round the issue of the voice of the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn being heard on Monday for that vote. Perhaps the Leader of the House might like to suggest a pair for the hon. Lady on Monday evening—I do not know what the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) is doing then, but somebody like him may well appreciate having the night off.

We have waited long enough for this change. Modernising the House of Commons is a slow and laborious process—frankly, it is often quite like childbirth—so let us get on with it. I hope that on Monday night I will walk through the Lobby with the Mother of the House, the Leader of the House and many modernising MPs from all parties to get this done.

What was brilliant about this debate was the obvious solidarity amongst women across the House who, whatever party they are in, have to endure similar sexist crap.

There was kindness and mutual respect. Harriet Harman was quick to praise Andrea Leadsom for getting this through, pointing out that she, when she was Leader of the House, had not managed to overcome the dinosaurs.

Let’s just hope that the House does the sensible thing and backs the change on Monday.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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