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Refusal to give MP maternity cover is a missed opportunity for more equitable parliament

MP Stella Creasy holds her baby in the House of Commons
The image of women MPs holding their children in Parliament shows we need more gender-sensitive institutions. PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Parliaments and other legislative bodies are responsible for creating equality legislation – but does this apply to their own members? This is the question that British MP Stella Creasy is asking with her personal fight for maternity rights and parental leave.

Creasy ischallenging the decision of the UK’s Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) to not allow her to appoint maternity cover for the duration of her pregnancy. In doing so, she is fighting a battle not just for herself and her colleagues, but for changing gender roles and expectations in the workforce nationwide.

This is an important case on two levels. First, it starts a discussion about the ongoing impact of motherhood, maternity leave and childcare on paid employment and career opportunities.

Second, it helps us understand why representation matters in formal politics. The way political institutions accommodate MPs with caring responsibilities says something about the economic and political priorities of the country.

The formal and informal practices intended to support MPs during periods of maternity leave have been under scrutiny since 2018, when Jo Swinson’s pairing in a key Brexit vote was broken while she was on maternity leave.

It is difficult to forget the image of Tulip Siddiq, 37 weeks pregnant, in the House of Commons for another Brexit vote , having been denied a proxy vote by the same IPSA. Creasy has herself already challenged parliamentary norms when she appointed a “locum MP” to cover her maternity leave in 2019.

Progress appeared to be made in the last 18 months when Parliament formalised “proxy voting” for members on parental leave, and subsequently approved the Ministerial and Maternal Allowances Bill that updated preexisting legislation from the 1970s. These are significant changes to the working practices of the House of Commons that acknowledge the importance of inclusion and representation within political institutions.

When it comes to political representation, these changes reflect a shift in perception about the role of women – especially those with caring responsibilities – in politics.

Global challenge

The cases among the UK’s women MPs remind us of the need to strive for more equitable parliaments.

The Inter-Parliamentary Union, a global organisation of national parliaments, defines gender-sensitive parliaments as “institutions that are founded on gender equality, where women and men have an equal right to participate without discrimination or recrimination”.

The organisation adopted a Plan of Action in 2012, which stipulates that parliamentarians have access to maternity and parental leave. Additionally, the plan calls for flexibility for parliamentarians who are breastfeeding, to encourage reconciliation of work and family life. Sadly, progress in implementing these principles globally remains fairly slow.

Seeing women attending parliamentary sittings with their children is a powerful image that normalises the participation of mothers in politics. “Multitasking” has symbolic power demonstrating that mothers belong in parliament. However, it also highlights the challenges faced by women parliamentarians the world over. Progress in this area would be more women in politics, but fewer who are forced to multitask.

MP Jo Swinson in the House of Commons with an infant in a chest carrier
Jo Swinson MP also brought her baby to the House of Commons. PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

This is not a challenge faced by male MPs with caring responsibilities. Whereas female MPs seem forced to juggle work and family life, including bringing children in parliament, male MPs are afforded the space to focus on their parliamentary duties.

The European Parliament’s 2016 analysis of maternity leave provisions highlights a high level of variability between EU member states.

Many national assemblies lack a detailed framework for maternity and parental leave, though increasingly this is recognised as a “valid reason” for MPs absences. Where provisions are made for maternity leave, the focus is on pay. Few provide the option of a temporary cover for MPs who are absent. In this respect the UK is not unique.

Institutions over individuals

National assemblies are struggling to formulate processes that address the gender bias at the heart of parliamentary processes and procedures. By shifting the focus of our analysis on the institution, rather than the individual MPs, we can start to assess how political institutions actively exclude individuals and groups. This matters because it makes the institutions less representative and inclusive.

IPSA’s decision to turn down Creasy’s request for a “locum MP” is a missed opportunity to modernise the world of politics. What matters here should not be the individual choice of MPs to take maternity leave, but the way political institutions facilitate the inclusion of different groups, including parents with caring responsibilities.

It is Parliament that is responsible to ensure its members are treated equally and have equal opportunities to participate in the life and work of the institution. It is therefore incumbent upon Parliament to assess its practices and change those where necessary. In so doing, representative bodies, such as the House of Commons, will play an important role in modelling the opportunities open to employers by actively opening a space for equality and inclusion.

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