This week is half-term. Parliament is sitting as normal. The week after next, once children have gone back to school, parliament goes into recess (our version of half term). You wouldn’t have thought coordinating the dates the House of Commons with school terms would be too difficult, but the fact they aren’t shows how much consideration is given to being a “family-friendly” parliament.
My first experience of this came three weeks after being elected to parliament this year, when I made my first speech in the House of Commons. I wrote to the Speaker of the House beforehand to request that he call me to speak relatively early in the debate, as my son was travelling from the constituency and back in a day, so he’d be tired and, as is common with eight year olds, he’s not great at sitting still for lengthy periods of time anyway. There was no confirmation about this –so I and my family had to wait. In some ways I was fortunate – some colleagues invited their families to watch but didn’t get the chance to speak at all. Eventually after about three hours I made my speech – and raced out of the chamber to say goodbye to my son, as his granddad took him back to Kings Cross. He was not impressed. He told me he’d rather have been at school. So it must have been bad!
Since then, I’ve discovered that working in Westminster also means having to arrive early or to stay late at very short notice, and there is very little thought is given to people’s particular circumstances. I’m not looking for any kind of sympathy – honestly I’m not. I know MPs never deserve it. But this really does matter.
During the last Parliament there was a worrying trend of women standing down, and 2 in 3 MPs say that their job has a negative impact on their family life. One MP surveyed by Mumsnet complained they “have a 2 year-old daughter and no-one cares if I don’t see her.” Another more senior MP said “I never saw my children grow up and I’ll regret this to the day I die.” It’s not just an issue for parents. Parliament is ill prepared for disabled people too. Most doors on the estate are heavy and can’t fit a mobility scooter through them, for example. I have never been asked if I had any special needs that might need to be accommodated, or reasonable adjustments that might need to be made. Our democracy is worse off if parents, women, and disabled people don’t think the life of an MP is for them.
A House of Commons which is truly representative of the population of Britain will in general be more attuned to the needs of the public. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the issue of equal pay only began to be acted upon properly once a significant number of female MPs entered parliament. The issues which have been neglected for too long, by successive governments, are exactly those which parents will be directly conscious of: the need for affordable childcare, or a housing market which works for our children’s generation.
This isn’t just about MPs. While there are 650 Members of Parliament, over 2,000 staff are employed by the House of Commons alone. The unpredictable hours, difficulties with parliament sitting during school term times, and childcare issues matter just as much to them. We should be leading by example and showing what a modern working environment can be. It’s hypocritical for politicians to lecture business about flexible working and childcare provision, if we can’t get it right ourselves.
However, it was revealed this week that black and minority ethnic workers are four times more likely to occupy the worst paid jobs in parliament – while every single senior staff member in the House of Lords is white. This should not be the case in any 21st century workplace, let alone the Houses of Parliament.
There have been improvements. The introduction of “family-friendly” hours has made a difference for some; the House of Commons published a strategy this year to improve the representation of BME staff in senior positions; and one of the bars was converted into a nursery. Even so, when parliament sits past its scheduled time, the nursery doesn’t extend its hours. Hardly ideal if you have to be in the chamber to vote, or you’re working a shift.
I asked the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons last week what her plans were to make parliament a more family-friendly place to work. She told me that decisions were made in the last parliament, and a committee of MPs had decided not to recommend any further changes. I think there needs to be an annual review of the changing needs of MPs and parliamentary staff. There is a lot more to be done to make parliament a modern working environment.