Can Westminster ever be family friendly?

By Louise Thompson

Over the last couple of weeks we have seen announcements from Conservative MPs Lorraine Fulbrook and  Laura Sandys  that they will stand down from Parliament at the 2015 General Election due to family commitments and responsibilities. This comes on the back of Louise Mensch’s resignation last year, telling the press that she could no longer juggle her political career and family life.  Conservative Home reported today that up to a quarter of the 2010 intake of Conservative MPs could stand down at the next election. It is not just in the Conservative party that we are seeing the difficulties faced by women MPs. Kitty Ussher cited working hours which did not fit in with her children as the reason behind her decision to stand down in 2009, as did Ruth Kelly in 2008. Nor does it apply exclusively to women MPs, as demonstrated by the resignation of Labour MP Tom Harris as Shadow DEFRA minister earlier this year. In his words “I know where my priorities lie; the task of juggling front bench responsibilities and being a husband and father to a young family located 400 miles away is simply beyond me”.

These MPs are not taking these decisions lightly, having invested considerable financial resources and commitments of time into campaigning for their seats, often over a period of several years prior to the General Election. Sandys and Mensch were both selected by the party in the autumn of 2006, spending over three years campaigning before winning their seats at the 2010 General Election.  So what is contributing to their decision?

Parliament’s working hours must surely come top of the list. Despite the ‘family friendly’ reforms implemented over the last few years, an MP can still find themselves sitting on a committee at 8.30 in the morning and staying until after 9pm for a debate or vote. Last Monday for instance the House did not adjourn until 10.27pm. With the introduction of timetabling and programming, MPs perhaps have a better idea of how long a committee sitting will last and late or all-night sittings are generally a thing of the past (though not completely ruled out as the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning bill committee demonstrated in 2009, sitting from 1pm until 4.30am before resuming once more at 8.15am the same morning).  Family friendly hours themselves are little benefit to the majority of MPs during the week; even with a 5pm finish most would be hard pressed to make it back to their constituencies and to return for 9am the next morning. The opening of the House of Commons nursery in 1 Parliament Street in 2010 was a welcome step in this direction and a sign that Parliament was catching up with other national parliaments in the services it provides to MPs with families.

There was one particularly heart-warming moment in a 2007 bill committee when MPs of all parties took it in turns to look after the minister’s young child when her childcare had failed at the last minute. It is unlikely that we will see anything in Westminster very soon that is comparable to Italian MEP Licia Ronzuilli who has taken her daughter into the chamber with her since she was a young baby. But is there a happy medium between these two extremes?

One possible answer is enabling job sharing among MPs. John McDonnell’s Private Member’s Bill on this issue last year attracted cross party support, though inevitably it failed to make any progress through the House, whilst an Early Day Motion tabled by Liberal Democrat MP Mark Williams was supported by only 24 MPs.  Such a proposal presents a number of constitutional and procedural problems, but more importantly, with the MPs’ expenses scandal still fresh in people’s minds, is there public appetite for such a system? An e-petition on the issue launched earlier this year attracted just 703 signatures (contrast this with the 50,000 who have signed up to an e-petition to freeze MPs’ salaries). There is no easy answer. What is clear is that under the current system Parliament is failing to retain (or to attract) a group of individuals who have huge amounts of experience and expertise to bring to bear on some of the most pressing issues facing society.