The individual who represents us in Parliament is a figure with immense importance. Designed to be your voice in the House of Commons, they are the person with the power to vote on your behalf, lobby for a certain policy and take part in local campaigns. All of us should aspire for a great MP. Indeed, to want to become an MP should be a worthy career choice, such is the value of being in Parliament. Part of the role’s brilliance is its inherent exclusivity: only members of Parliament can have the final say in voting on whether game changing legislation is allowed to pass and ultimately become law.
Yet despite its immense privilege, MPs are, ultimately, just like us. Speaking about a disconnect between politicians and the electorate is a popular, but lazy, political trope. Though some MPs may be lazy, the majority are far more in touch with the public than most voters and, dare I say it, journalists. Receiving hundreds of emails every week, they continually travel to their constituency to meet all kinds of communities. Their role is hybrid: half of the week spent in Westminster, the other half in their constituency working hard.
However, in recent government maternity cover plans, MPs were not included...
MPs can also have just as much going on in their personal lives as the general public. Family drama, children at school, elderly parents to care for, marriages to attend. Part of this is also present when MPs experience the joy of having children and starting a family. Naturally wanting to take time away from Westminster and constituency work, this means voters can lack a representative in Parliament. Normally in a profession, where a teacher, doctor, lawyer, say, goes on parental leave, there is cover provided. For voters in Parliament, that is not the case.
What parental leave are MPs currently entitled to? Legally, all women are entitled to a year’s maternity leave, taking two weeks’ leave after the birth of their baby and are entitled to be paid for six weeks at 90% of their average earnings and 33 weeks at £151 per week. While fathers can take two weeks of paternity leave at £151 a week, couples can share their parental leave up to 50 weeks. However, in recent government maternity cover plans, MPs were not included, with new legislation only ensuring ministers did not have to resign.
Backbenchers can take parental leave, but do not have all their job responsibilities covered. Meanwhile, more senior ministers have previously had to resign. The Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper, for example, when a minister in the New Labour government, said there was an immense lack of clarity about maternity leave rules during her time in office. New rules now mean cabinet ministers can take six months leave on full ministerial pay while the salary costs of their temporary replacements are covered. Stella Creasy, the Labour and Co-operative MP for Walthamstow, has been at the forefront of trying to ensure MPs are allowed adequate time off to be with their new born child and that appropriate cover is provided.
Previously, Creasy appointed a locum MP - Kizzy Gardiner - to act as her cover for constituency work while she was on maternity leave with her first child. The process was immensely bureaucratic, requiring widespread lobbying from Creasy with the parliamentary authorities. Despite Gardiner’s work being the face of the MP and keeping Creasy’s campaigns on the road, Gardiner could not vote or speak in Parliament, being unelected. Though a fellow MP can conduct Creasy’s votes by proxy, it is simply not the same.
When an MP announces they are taking parental leave, as they should be allowed to do, their constituency party should decide on a set of candidates that could act as the temporary replacement.
Indeed, recent controversy was sparked when Creasy took her second child into the House of Commons chamber for a debate. Creasy was reprimanded for bringing in her three month old child; despite the fact the baby was not disruptive, this was regarded as ‘unprofessional’ in the parliamentary chamber. Though the rules on this are to be reviewed, Stella Creasy was spot on that, in order to represent her constituents adequately, someone needs to be able to speak in the parliamentary chamber. If a locum MP cannot do this - MPs have an exclusive, elite role for a reason - then a solution must be found which allows both MPs to have time off and constituents to be represented.
I therefore believe part of the answer to this conundrum is to elect locum MPs. When an MP announces they are taking parental leave, as they should be allowed to do, their constituency party should decide on a set of candidates that could act as the temporary replacement. These candidates would be put to voters in a by-election, with the winner enjoying voting and speaking rights in Parliament during that period. To ensure the constituency was not receiving double the amount of representation it enjoyed, the main MP would not be able to attend or vote during their agreed period away. Following the end of their parental leave, the locum MP would be mandated to resign.
Of course, this idea is not perfect. Voters going into a polling station to see a choice between four or five Labour candidates might suggest this is hardly representative of a democracy. But what it recognises is that the concept of the personal vote is, at best, deeply minimal. Voters, by and large, vote for a party or a Prime Minister. It just happens to be the candidate next to that particular logo who has the honour of being elected. By ensuring the locum MP was from the same party, it would mean the previous election stood as legitimate.
Similarly, this would deny flexibility towards the main MP. They might want to dip in and out of Parliament as and when they choose during their parental leave, spending time at home and some working. However, this system would provide more certainty and stability to voters, ensuring there was never a time when local electorates went without representation in Parliament simply because their MP was rightly having time away to look after their new children.
Pairing and allowing MPs to proxy vote is a system that does not take account for the full needs of MPs.
Rather, while the turnout in such a by-election might be low, with a boycott from other parties, it reflects how local turnout is, sadly, low whenever a by-election occurs. That should, however, not stop the democratic process of Parliament taking effect and voters feeling representation exists. Such a system could also apply for MPs that were chronically ill or needed to step back from their duties to a sudden illness. It is all about balancing the right of an MP to take time away while also ensuring local and national representation remains paramount.
Parliament is an inherently old building with old fashioned institutions. Designed centuries ago, some of its traditions can feel just as archaic as the beautiful architecture. However, with changing work patterns and responsibilities in who cares for new children, it’s time for Parliament and the rules facing MPs to come into the 21st century, too. Pairing and allowing MPs to proxy vote is a system that does not take account for the full needs of MPs. While electing a temporary locum MP has its flaws, it would ensure that Parliament is more democratic and the needs facing voters and MPs - over old traditions - are of the highest concern.