Maternity leave for MPs needs reform
This week, Labour MP for Walthamstow Stella Creasy has threatened legal action against the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA), the body responsible for paying MPs and staff, over their refusal to provide her with funding for a locum to cover her maternity leave.
This decision is particularly surprising, as IPSA previously granted this request for Creasy’s first maternity leave, enabling her to hire Kizzy Gardiner as the UK’s first locum MP. Gardiner’s role was an expansion from that of a traditional office manager, with responsibility for carrying on Creasy’s campaigns in the constituency and nationally. However, she could not speak or vote in the House of Commons, and Creasy delegated her voting rights to fellow Labour MP Peter Kyle for the period of her maternity leave.
This time around, IPSA has said that Creasy’s request is “misconceived” and argued that the core parts of an MP’s role cannot legally or constitutionally be undertake by somebody else. It instead offers funding for an additional senior staff member to cover MPs’ absences, but this will not cover the range of activities that Gardiner, as the first locum MP, provided, from meeting MPs to discuss constituency cases with a common interest to lobbying ministers on constituency issues.
As a constituent and Labour Party member in Creasy’s Walthamstow constituency, I saw first-hand how the previous locum arrangement worked during my MP’s first maternity leave. Constituency queries continued to be answered effectively, campaigns continued and I felt more than adequately represented during the time that my MP was technically off – although we all know that MPs never truly switch off from the day-job.
Fundamentally, IPSA’s decision makes it much more difficult for parliamentarians to take maternity leave. Government has just legislated to allow ministers to take maternity leave following the announcement of Attorney General Suella Braverman MP’s plans to take maternity leave. The Ministerial and other Maternity Allowances Act 2021 grants ministers six months’ maternity leave on full pay, significantly more than the statutory arrangements that millions of women are entitled to. However, support for backbench and opposition MPs lags behind significantly. Female parliamentarians from across parties have complained of significant backlash to their pregnancies and any proposed maternity leave from constituents, making it more challenging to take any time off, particularly in marginal constituencies. The locum MP arrangement was intended to satisfy constituents’ concerns around breaks in coverage by recreating the majority of the role that an MP does, so its rejection brings MPs back to the status quo.
Arrangements for parents in the House of Commons are slowly changing, with the introduction of proxy votes due in part to public outrage over the experience of Labour’s Tulip Siddiq MP, who had to turn up to Parliament nine months pregnant and in a wheelchair, cancelling her caesarean section in order to represent her constituents in a key vote on Theresa May’s Brexit deal. Male MPs have begun to take up paternity leave, with Conservative MP Bim Afolami able to use proxy voting and take two weeks to be with his family after the birth of his third child in 2019. At the time, Afolami said “being a female MP with young children is harder than being a male MP with children”.
It’s clear that the system needs to change. Becoming an MP is challenging enough, without the added pressures of juggling one’s responsibilities to one’s new baby with those to one’s constituents. Without change, the voices of women of child-bearing age in Parliament will continue to be limited, with significant negative impacts on equality and on the effectiveness of public policy. Research has indicated that female candidates without children are rated substantially lower than male candidate without children by voters, but at the same time, voters prefer male candidates with young children to female candidates with young children – showing that whether women are mothers are not, they’re judged by the electorate less favourably than men.
It’s a well-established truth that more women in politics and public life is vital to ensuring public policy that works for both men and women, from healthcare and education to taxation and employment policy. Furthermore, research during the pandemic demonstrated that countries with female leaders had significantly better responses to COVID-19 and better outcomes from it. We need more female politicians in the UK, and supporting women who are or want to become mothers better is crucial to delivering this.