This week I lead a debate calling for Parliament to become a more modern, family-friendly and accessible workplace. Having worked as an employment rights lawyer for many years, specialising in maternity discrimination and family-friendly working before being elected to Parliament, after my election in 2017 I was surprised to find many components of Westminster life that are far from being either modern, family friendly or accessible.
Whilst opinion on this issue varies amongst MPs, there is a considerable appetite to improve the way Westminster operates and remove the barriers that may otherwise prevent some people standing for Parliament. If MPs are to be truly representative of those they seek to serve, then it is so important that people feel able to put themselves forward for Parliament regardless of their background, caring responsibilities or family life commitments.
Much has been achieved in recent years, including the creation of an on-site nursery and changes to sitting hours, but progress is often slow. Even the simple introduction of proxy voting for those Members on parental leave has taken until 2019 to implement in the House of Commons.
In the two years since my election, I always find the House of Commons to be at its most inefficient and inaccessible when we have multiple votes at the end of the day. When the division bell rings, 650 MPs head to the narrow division lobbies where they queue up to give their name to the teller. With each division taking up to 20 minutes, multiple votes can see 650 MPs left walking around in circles through the voting lobbies for hours on end often late at night. This simply isn’t an efficient use of MP’s time which could be more productively spent working on other matters or spending time with their families.
Given the importance of Parliamentary votes, I believe the act of attending the division lobby to be counted is important, but just as clerks have moved from paper to iPads for counting votes we similarly could move to use simple and straightforward technology that allows for multiple votes to be registered at the same time. I know that some colleagues have at times struggled with the cramped and claustrophobic conditions in the division lobbies so instead we could have a series of electronic booths lined up in the lobby which would be simpler, more efficient and accessible to more people.
A constant criticism of modern governance is its inability to keep up with the pace of technological and societal change so starting with reform of our voting system would be an easy and quick step in the right direction.
I think it is also important to look at the certainty of the Parliamentary week. We live in extraordinary political times but there must be ways we can improve the system to promote a degree of routine and certainty. At present, most people in Parliament organise their diaries week to week by finding out the following week’s agenda during the Business Statement on a Thursday morning. If we have late votes on the next Monday evening, that only gives those with caring or childcare responsibilities one and a half working days to secure alternative arrangements.
We should strive to have a clearer Parliamentary timetable set further in advance, with allocated windows for voting or the deferring of votes when sittings run later than planned. All of these would give, not only Members but also clerks, house staff and security personnel a better understanding of their working patterns – all of which are conducive to a more modern, family-friendly and accessible workplace.
There is no magic, single change that will instantly remedy all of Parliament’s outdated practices or bring the institution into line with other modern, accessible workplaces. But by taking small progressive steps – as seen with the introduction of proxy voting – we can ensure our Parliament grows to be as open as possible to those who work within it and those who may wish to follow.