Women in Parliament Need More Than Just Proxy Voting
On Tuesday 22nd January, Andrea Leadsom MP tabled a much anticipated motion on proxy voting in the House of Commons for new parents. Leadsom’s decision to table the motion then, after a period of inaction on the subject, was no doubt spurred by Tulip Siddiq MP’s high-profile decision to delay her caesarean operation on 15th January in order to cast her vote on Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal.
Siddiq said she delayed her caesarean because she could not trust the pairing system – where two opposing MPs agree not to vote (since their votes would cancel each other out anyway) – after Conservative chair Brandon Lewis broke his agreement with Liberal Democrat Deputy Leader Jo Swinson, who was then on maternity leave, in July 2018.
The motion, which was debated on Monday 28th January 2019, provides for a one-year pilot scheme enabling proxy voting for new parents. It is a historic opportunity. Since it follows the recommendations of Parliament’s Procedures Committee, the motion will allow new mothers and primary adopters a 6-month period during which they can vote by proxy. Biological fathers, partners of the biological mother, or secondary adopters will get a 2-week period.
Monday’s motion was passed unanimously. This puts the United Kingdom (UK) well ahead of the United States, Australian and Canadian Senates, whose rules do not allow for proxy voting on legislative bills. The rules of the United States’ other legislative chamber, the House of Representatives, explicitly prohibit proxy voting. However, the UK is (as ever) well behind New Zealand, whose Parliament enabled proxy voting in 1996 (which might be expected of the first country in the world to give women the right to vote).
So the motion passed, and new parents are now able to vote while tending to their babies outside of Parliament (at least during the year-long pilot scheme). But what about when new parents want to be present in Parliament yet also catering to their babies? The rules on this are not so clear. While a a rule change in 2017 means that children up to 5 may be present during voting in the House of Commons, there appears to be no equivalent rule allowing children to be present while their parents take part in debates. Jo Swinson MP appears to have challenged that custom when she brought her son Gabriel into the House of Commons for part of the September 2018 debate on proxy voting, but there still appears to be no formal rule permitting this.
Equally, on the matter of breastfeeding, the House of Commons seems to still abide by a ruling issued in 2000 by the then-speaker of the UK House of Commons Betty Boothroyd stating that breastfeeding and bottle-feeding babies was not permitted in the House because it is not “conducive to the efficient conduct of public business”. She also stated that the House did not have the “necessary calm environment” required for breastfeeding. In 2002, then speaker Michael Martin refused to overturn the ruling and UK charity Full Fact reports that the House of Commons still observes it. While the rule change allowing children into the Chamber goes some way towards lifting the previous ban, a stronger signal that breastfeeding is OK is needed.
Over in the U.S., Senator Tammy Duckworth – the first to give birth while in office – introduced a successful motion in April 2018 to allow Senators to bring children less than 1 year old onto the Senate floor with them. Duckworth has subsequently made history by casting a vote on the Senate floor while cradling her baby. However, Senator Amy Klobuchar, the Senior Democrat on the Senate Rules Committee who helped effect the change, has stated that Duckworth has no intention to breastfeed her baby on the Senate floor.
What to make of all this? A U.S. democratic system that fails to provide proxy voting for anyone (except on legislative committees). A UK system that - in 2019 - is allowing a one-year pilot scheme of proxy voting for new parents. But the UK’s system yet is unclear on when and if babies and children can be taken into the House of Commons. Both the U.S. and the UK have no precedent of breastfeeding in their legislative chambers, with the UK appearing to follow a ruling that is hostile to the idea.
These unwieldy, patchwork procedures in both countries reflect a broader failure to embrace and incorporate women’s bodies into the political sphere. Women are being forced to choose between fulfilling their democratic duties and tending to the needs of their very young children. Men also suffer in this crossfire, since they appear unable to bring their babies with them while debating motions in Parliament, for example.
Both UK Parliament and US Congress are old institutions. But their function is to represent today’s populations. In 2019, the outdated and unworkable procedures for new parents, which particularly affect women, can no longer stand.