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26 April 2018

Ruth Davidson is having a baby – but MPs still can’t take parental leave

Royal baby! Political baby! Babies everywhere!

By Dulcie Lee

In an unexpected bit of good news today, Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson has announced that she’s pregnant. She and her wife are “excited” to be expecting their first child in October after Davidson underwent IVF.

She tweeted a picture of her wife and her dog, with the caption: “Our little family of three is becoming four….” (Awww!)

The MSP for Edinburgh Central said she expects to return to the Scottish Parliament in the spring of next year, and the party’s deputy leader, Jackson Carlaw, will stand in while she’s on maternity leave.

It’s undeniably great to see a political leader unapologetically announce their pregnancy, and it is happening more – New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern started the trend in January.

But, as always, there are some depressing realities that come hand-in-hand with such progress. One notable one: MPs still can’t take parental leave.

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This is because they aren’t considered employees, so arrangements regarding maternity, paternity, parental, adoption, and caring leave for MPs and MSPs are informal and operate at the party level.

And while MPs can now take children under the age of five through the division lobbies – cue adorable picture of an MP taking their baby to a vote – if you can’t physically be in parliament because of your parental responsibilities, you cannot vote.

Unsurprisingly, forcing MPs to choose between their baby and the future of the country isn’t exactly a brown bread vs white type of decision.

MPs have long been campaigning for better parental rights for MPs – Harriet Harman has persistently raised the issue and last year called on Parliament to move on from the “Rees-Mogg model” of fatherhood (a nod to his admission that he’s never changed a nappy – even though he has had countless opportunities with any of his six children).

In a promising move, the Commons voted in February in favour of allowing MPs who have recently had a baby or adopted a child to be allowed to vote by proxy. (But unfortunately, as it was tabled as a backbench business debate it doesn’t actually tie anyone to doing anything.)

During the debate, several MPs recounted moving stories of their experiences being a parent and an MP. Labour’s Tulip Siddiq said that she was in hospital for nine days after a 40-hour long labour and an emergency C-section, after which she and her baby caught an infection.

“Even in those nine days while I was in the hospital bed I had to handle emails and sign things off from my office simply because there was no one else to do it and I could not nominate someone to take care of crucial matters,” she said. “I was getting emails saying, “Why didn’t you turned up for this vote?” even during the six weeks that I had taken off following my emergency C-section.”

Horrendous anecdotes like this are not uncommon. There is a long way to go before Parliament becomes a healthy place to be a parent.