Cross-party call for proxy voting: it’s time to move into the 21st Century
No new parent should have to choose between abandoning their baby, or leaving their constituents without a voice. The right for MPs to vote by proxy is a straightforward change whose time has come, write Harriet Harman, Maria Miller and Hannah Bardell
Seeing an eight months pregnant Jo Swinson carefully navigate her way through the division lobby last week has given added impetus to cross party calls for MPs to be able to vote by proxy when they are having a baby or adopting a child.
Our democracy is based on a vote for each constituency – cast by the MP chosen by the voters in that constituency. You can’t vote if you are in labour. And you shouldn’t have to vote just before or only weeks after you’ve had a new addition to the family with all of the change and challenge that brings.
This wasn’t an issue in decades gone by when there were few women sitting in the House of Commons. Now there are more women on both sides of the House the informal arrangements of the past are no longer appropriate and a more certain and predictable system needs to be sorted out.
No constituency should lose its vote just because the MP they’ve chosen has a new child.
This is an issue for all parents who are elected Members of Parliament not only mums. In days gone by, it was not regarded as necessary for both parents to be present at the birth, let alone partner in the care of a newborn.
But attitudes have changed, including those in the House. SNP MPs Stephen Gethins and Neil Gray both became fathers for the second time recently, Stephen in the middle of the 2017 election and Neil in 2016, and both have spoken of the profound impact on their family life and time with their newborns, partners and family. The same concern from new fathers was expressed by Labour MP James Frith and Conservative Tom Tugendhat in the Chamber.
It’s not right that any new parent should have to abandon their child when the baby is but a few hours old, or stay home and fail to cast the vote to which their constituency is entitled.
Of course, there is the pairing system. But it’s anomalous that we pass laws and urge other workers to use their rights to maternity and paternity leave, yet we ourselves simply rely on the discretion of the whips’ office for permission to be absent.
A standalone right to a proxy vote, not linked to seeking permission from the whips, would allow the constituency vote to be recorded and allow the parent to be, by right, where they need to be – with their new child. And no-one would be under the impression that their MP wasn’t in Parliament because they couldn’t be bothered to vote.
To be clear, no one would be forced to vote by proxy. Any MP who didn’t want to appoint a proxy could, of course, continue to vote or they could ask for a pair in the traditional way.
In this Parliament there are many more important votes ahead and there are more babies on the way. Cat Smith will shortly be having her first child, then Laura Pidcock and Holly Lynch.
The House has agreed that there should be a system of proxy voting; the Procedure Committee has taken extensive evidence and produced an excellent report on how that would work in practice.
It’s time for the House of Commons to modernise its ways, to start to move into the 21st century. MPs have a chance to do this by speaking in support of proxy voting for new parents in the debate on Thursday 5th July initiated by the Leader of the House, Andrea Leadsom.
Harriet Harman is Labour MP for Camberwell and Peckham, Maria Miller is Conservative MP for Basingstoke and Hannah Bardell is SNP MP for Livingston