Any parent of a newborn knows it’s hard to stay awake, let alone focus on anything else. Maternity leave matters – it’s good for our health, our children and our economy.
It is a peculiarity of our legislature that as an MP, I don’t have any employment rights – we might make laws, but we don’t impose these particular ones on ourselves. Consequently, I found myself high on morphine speaking to ministers about Afghanistan, having just given birth to my second child, to ensure my constituents’ concerns could be heard. Although it is illegal to require a woman to work in the first two weeks after childbirth, no maternity cover meant that, with three murders, heavy flooding and a cost-of-living crisis, it was simply not possible to switch off my email or my phone.
Parliament denied me maternity cover on the basis that democracy demands no one else can substitute for me. With little support from the authorities or indeed my own political party, I have worked as best I can while managing the needs of my now 13-week-old son. That’s why I was baffled to be told I could not take him into parliament with me. While my son slept blissfully, calmed by the excitement only discussion of financial regulation can generate, his presence at a debate clearly vexed some in an institution that had previously seemed relaxed about such matters. It now transpires the newly revised Commons rule book specifies children cannot go into the chambers – thus parliament has, to date, put more effort into writing rules about this than second jobs.
Some argue it is a privilege to take your kids to the office and it is out of touch to suggest this should be acceptable, whatever the effect of being denied this flexibility. Others recognise this as making an already difficult combination of caring commitments near impossible. Whether the provision of maternity cover, or rules about where children can go – with some MPs berated for taking toddlers into the tea room between votes – these “courtesies and customs” have evolved, rather than been designed to meet modern times. It’s a chicken-and-egg situation – few mothers of young children get elected, meaning there is little need to reconsider these rules in the first place.
Challenging this is not about me – frankly it is too late to recoup the precious early weeks with my son. Those who suffer the most are the residents of my Walthamstow constituency – denied a voice in parliament by antiquated rules, met by a tired and frazzled mum in their constituency. So, too, the brilliant women who decide either to delay their political careers or abandon them so that our politics misses a source of talent while we accept this status quo.
Were I to have employment rights I could invoke my legal right not to be discriminated against while breastfeeding, and to have appropriate maternity cover, meaning I could take maternity leave. Yet such rights are no guarantee employers will uphold them. During the pandemic many mothers, especially those on low incomes and from minority community backgrounds, were the first to be furloughed or made redundant and are now struggling to find childcare as providers have gone out of business.
It is welcome that the Speaker has asked the procedures committee to investigate, but it is not clear yet how long that will take or indeed what its remit will be. Meanwhile, political parties are gearing up to select candidates for the next general election – offering the opportunity to ensure more mothers have a seat at the decision-making table. Together with the charity Pregnant then Screwed, we have set up the This Mum Votes project to champion policies to help parents in all workplaces – including paid parental leave and universal childcare – and to fund mothers to stand for office to argue for them.
It doesn’t have to be like this. Whether in New Zealand, Canada or in Europe, parliaments around the world have shown a family-friendly legislature is possible. There are thousands of mothers out there who have something valuable to add to our politics, and they want to run. For now they see the mother of all parliaments discouraging mothers and rightly wonder if they will be welcome.
• Stella Creasy is the Labour MP for Walthamstow