Stella Creasy’s complaint that as an MP she will be unable to take maternity leave is just the latest piece of evidence of Parliament’s dysfunctional nature. The Labour MP has tried – in vain – to get extra funding from the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority so she can appoint someone to cover her work while she is off. The pay and expenses regulator says MPs do not officially take maternity leave, and there is no formal system for covering for them when they are off with their baby.
This might be excused as a bizarre anachronism from the times when there were no women in parliament were it not for the fact that Ipsa was only established a decade ago after the expenses scandal. It is absurd that the presence in the Commons of women who might feasibly have children wasn’t considered then, and even more so that it’s still not recognised now.
But Creasy’s piece in the Guardian also points to a problem that all MPs face that goes far beyond their internal funding. She writes movingly about previous miscarriages, and how she attended protests and meetings while in pain and bleeding so that her constituents were not affected by her fertility battle. She may have found that throwing herself into work was a good way of dealing with the personal pain, but she may also have felt she had little choice to carry on as usual, because MPs are not expected to take any time off for anything.
Because they have no formal maternity leave, MPs who give birth feel a great deal of pressure to return as quickly as possible. Not only does their casework start to pile up – which is why Creasy wanted funding for extra cover – but their constituents still expect them to be attending meetings and votes and so on. Take more than a handful of months, and you start to get questions about whether you are still focused on the job. Of course, many women face this kind of pressure in the normal workplace, too, but not only should Parliament be setting an example to the country that is supposed to abide by the laws it creates, but also MPs do not have any formal rights to produce when questioned by impatient constituents.
Even proxy voting, which means you do not need to choose between travelling across the country with a newborn or missing an important vote, has added to the pressure that some female MPs feel: one remarked to me recently that she was horrified by the idea that she could instruct a colleague to vote on her behalf while she was in labour, as it meant that her mind was never her own, even when in the delivery suite.
All MPs suffer this pressure to one degree or another. They get into trouble if they’re not in the House of Commons Chamber for every single debate, regardless of whether it will make the blindest bit of difference. They get into trouble for failing to attend every single local event held by every single local pressure group (just ask any MP what the response is from their local WASPI group, for instance, when they can’t attend another adjournment debate on the state pension or go to another constituency meeting on the topic). At party conferences, I often see members badgering MPs about why they haven’t said yes to this invitation from the Labour Friends of Moaners or that dinner held by Conservatives for Grumbling. It could possibly be that the MP in question doesn’t care about that cause, but it’s generally more likely that they simply do not have any more time, and have already been fully booked.
Well, you might say, these fools chose to be MPs. We don’t need to feel sorry for them, surely? But even if you take a fully unsympathetic approach to our elected representatives, spare a thought for all of us who have to live by their policies. The expectations that we hold for MPs are so ridiculous that only dysfunctional types can really fulfil them without going mad. And that’s neither good for the way Parliament represents Britain, nor for MPs’ abilities to devote their time to scrutinise the laws that affect their constituents. We shouldn’t expect MPs not to have personal lives which involve the normal mess of miscarriage, time off, time with babies and even a bit of relaxation that the rest of us have come to expect for ourselves. When we do, we make it harder for them to serve us well.