The other leave vote ….

7 Jan

Amid our current political turmoil, a vote concerning leave has largely escaped major attention.  With collective energy absorbed in the consequences of the vote to Leave the EU, a cross-party delegation of MPs will shortly be meeting with the Speaker to urge him to introduce a system of ‘baby leave’.  This will enable pregnant women MPs, and new mothers and fathers, to vote in parliament by proxy.  Following a debate last February, plans for proxy voting – which would allow new parents to nominate a colleague to vote on their behalf – were approved, but have since failed to be implemented.  In spite of high-profile support for the measures, including from ‘mother of the House’, Harriet Harman, and the Leader of the House, Andrea Leadsom, progress has ground to a halt.


This may not seem like the most pressing issue to stressed politicos contemplating Brexit, but the baby leave system (or current lack of it) could come into sharper relief in the tense months ahead, as there are currently 4 pregnant MPs, and they will wish for their voices to be heard in the crucial votes deciding Britain’s future, which will dominate this parliamentary session and beyond.  Moreover, for those with concerns that leaving the EU may diminish workers’ rights to entitlements including maternity and parental leave, it sends a bad signal to see our political representatives lagging behind much of the rest of the workforce, with no official leave system, at such a critical time in politics.  In this context, it is not surprising that the women’s caucus in parliament is advocating that the system be subject to a trial,  beginning as soon as 1st February, when a short number of weeks remain before the exit date for leaving the EU, on 29th March.


Quite apart from Brexit, it is striking that the British parliament has moved so slowly on this issue.  In the February debate on baby leave, Tulip Siddiq pointed out that Swedish, Danish and Slovenian representatives in parliament are entitled to up to 12 months of parental leave, as are those in Finland, Estonia and Latvia.  In other countries such as Belgium, Portugal, Croatia and the Netherlands, the maternity leave system is not formal, but members can be replaced by a political colleague while taking leave. In Israel, there is 12 weeks of parental leave available to both mothers and fathers.  The Czech Republic has also recently introduced a system of parental leave for parliamentarians, and Iceland, a world-leader in gender-equal parental leave, also allows proxy voting.  In Australia, proxy voting is available to nursing mothers.  So the international precedent is there. Britain shares a lack of formal leave system with the European Parliament, and a video of the Swedish MEP Jytte Guteland, bringing her baby into that chamber to vote, went viral.  She has spoken in favour of making parliaments more family-friendly, which is a significant element in global initiatives to make parliaments and political life more open to women and more gender-sensitive.


Back in Britain, the lack of proxy voting also raises the question of regional inequalities.  If the only way to vote is to bring your baby with you to Westminster, it is clearly more difficult if you commute from constituencies in, for example, the far North or West of England or Scotland. At a time when it is vital that all the UK’s voices are heard, the other leave vote matters.




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