Being a Member of Parliament is not ideal job if you want a normal family life. It often involves late nights, being away from home and living in London during the week. And on weekends there are the fun but endless list of fetes, openings, knocking on doors and visits. However, lest I whinge too much, I am very excited at the prospect of shortly going on paternity leave to support my wife, who will be having our third baby.
If we think back over the past 100 years or so, female MPs have had the short end of the stick. Us men are, finally, taking more responsibility for our children and families and joining our female colleagues in performing the 21st-century juggling act of being busy working parents. That’s why the trial approved last month for proxy voting is so welcome. The changes long pushed for by female leaders in the House such as Harriet Harman, Jo Swinson and Andrea Leadsom not only mean that new mothers can take time away from Westminster to have children: they also means that fathers such as myself can take paternity leave. When, at some point very soon, my wife gives birth, I will become the first father in British Parliamentary history to ever be able to vote by proxy. My good friend Gillian Keegan, the MP for Chichester, will be able to vote on my behalf.
Already a great deal of what MPs do day to day can be done electronically or remotely, so that for the most part will not change. However, our core function of voting in the lobbies has essentially remained the same since the eighteenth century.
Now, I’m a conservative, both big C and small c: there is real value in the way that we vote in House of Commons. First, physically voting in the lobbies – next to the House of Commons chamber – means that you regularly attend debates and listen to what is going on, even if you are not speaking. Secondly, and most importantly regardless of the status we have in our parties or in the government, voting in the lobbies allows us to speak to our colleagues – right up to the prime minister – on an informal basis and lobby them on issues and causes that matter.
I am not one of those people who believe we should scrap our current way of voting. It means that any backbencher from any party can stand shoulder to shoulder senior ministers and lobby them on issues that matter to them. At a time when we need MPs to work together more collaboratively, electronic voting in MPs offices – as you find in some countries – would be inconsistent with both.
Last year for example, I – with several other colleagues – was walking through the voting lobby with the Chancellor. We were imploring him to assist our struggling high streets and tax online retailers more. Several formal and informal meetings later, at the budget statement a few months later the Chancellor announced the Future High Streets Fund and the Digital Services Tax, clamping down on the low tax bills paid by Big Tech. This level of access to the highest level of government is unheard of for junior legislators in most countries. Walking through the voting lobby several times a week is one of the few times anyone can press government ministers on an equal footing. I don’t believe we should lose that.
As MPs we can all too often get caught up in the quirks of Westminster, waiting until 1am to speak in debates, wading through the crumbling Palace to get anywhere and admittedly taking 15 minutes to vote on anything. But MPs are increasingly realising that parliament needs to keep updating its rules to keep up to date with modern world. We are now trialling proxy voting for a year, but it needs to be put onto a proper permanent footing so that all new parents can benefit.
Bim Afolami is the Conservative MP for Hitchen & Harpenden.