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15 January 2019

Tulip Siddiq’s delayed caesarean shows why parliament needs proxy voting now

The MP, who is 37 weeks pregnant, should not have to go through the voting lobby in a wheelchair.

By Helen Lewis

I can’t believe I have to say this in the year of our lord 2019, but Tulip Siddiq should not have to delay her caesarean in order to vote in today’s Brexit debate. Just bring in proxy voting for pregnant women and new parents already.

Yesterday, the Labour MP said that doctors had advised her, after a difficult first pregnancy, to have her second baby by planned caesarean at 37 weeks. That involves taking steroids to develop the baby’s lungs, which Siddiq did at the weekend. However, she asked doctors to delay the operation from today to Thursday so that she could vote in tonight’s debate on Theresa May’s proposed Brexit deal. Yes, because our parliament is stuck in the nineteenth century – not even the twentieth – the only way to vote is by physically walking through the division lobby. (As it happens, Siddiq would have to be wheeled through by her husband, but the point is that she would be physically present.)

There are conventions that allow sick or dying MPs to be “paired” with a member of the opposition, who also agrees not to vote. The two then cancel each other out. Pairing also happens regularly during less important votes.

However, the system – which broke down in the 1970s, as chronicled in James Graham’s play This House – failed last summer, when Tory chairman Brandon Lewis voted in a debate on Brexit despite agreeing to be a pair for the Lib Dem deputy leader Jo Swinson, who was on maternity leave. There is now little trust that pairing agreements will be honoured. 

Luckily, there is an alternative. The Tories’ Maria Miller and Labour’s Harriet Harman have secured broad cross-party agreement for proxy voting for new parents, where a nominated representative can vote in place of the MP. That allows their constituents to see a full voting record. And, also, would in no way cause the sky to fall in. The previous conniptions about carrying babies through the lobby petered out once it became clear that the tellers could reliably distinguish between a newborn baby and Michael Gove. 

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The Speaker, John Bercow, has endorsed the suggestion that Siddiq should be allowed a proxy vote tonight. But really, there’s no need to make an exception. Just bring in proxy voting for pregnant women and new parents already. Parliament was built by men, for men. When its rules were drawn up, the possibility of a pregnant MP was not considered. That does not mean we can’t change the rules now, though. It is literally the year of our lord 2019.

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