Rachel Reeves MP, Maternity Return Journey
Rachel Reeves MP, Maternity Return Journey
They asked “Where is Rachel Reeves?”
The first woman took her seat as an MP in 1919. Her name was Nancy Astor. But it wasn’t until 1976 that the first woman had a baby while serving as an MP – Hélène Hayman. Eight days after having her baby, she was back in Parliament for crucial votes, with pairing having been suspended (the parliamentary process that matches MPs on opposing sides who aren’t able to vote on a particular day).
In 1982, Harriet Harman was elected as an MP whilst heavily pregnant; she too was back at work within weeks.
In 2013 I had my first baby, and in 2015 my second. It was the first time a woman in the Shadow Cabinet (or indeed the Cabinet) had had a baby, and so I had a busy workload and a lot of pressure. Five months after my first baby was born, I came back to work, and although balancing the two was a challenge, I loved my job and had a supportive husband and family. I travelled regularly between Leeds and London, and both of my children are good travellers who love Leeds and London.
But even though things seem a lot better now than they were for Harriet and Hélène, more needs to be done if we want to encourage more women to become MPs and make life more manageable for them.
When I was on maternity leave with my first child, the campaigning group 38 Degrees contacted my constituents telling them I had abstained on a crucial vote – but I had been paired (so my absence was cancelled by a Conservative who refrained from voting) and my baby was just a few weeks old. They asked my constituents on their email list: “Where was Rachel Reeves?” One of my constituents contacted them saying I was on maternity leave and 38 Degrees promptly apologised. But it shows the need to change the procedures in Parliament so that MPs don’t look like they just aren’t turning up.
My colleague, Lucy Powell (Labour MP for Manchester Central since 2012) was labelled by a tabloid newspaper as the “second laziest MP in Westminster” after she was elected in a by-election and had her second child shortly afterwards. Lucy is anything but lazy, but the newspaper again forgot to check the facts.
In 2015 Labour were just ahead in the opinion polls and the general election was weeks away. As Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary I did an interview where I said the first thing I would do if Labour won would be to bring forward legislation to abolish the hated bedroom tax. I said I would do this before my second child was born (he was due about six weeks after polling day).
The Conservative MP for Romford since 2001, Andrew Rosindell, told the Daily Mail that as an expectant mum I shouldn’t be appointed to the cabinet if Labour won the election. I have never been totally clear what his precise objection was, but presumably he was worried that I wouldn’t be able to cope with two things at once, or because maternity cover wasn’t compatible with the job. Men who become fathers while being MPs or Ministers are never told they can’t do the two. Blair, Brown and Cameron all had children born while they were Prime Minister. I don’t remember anyone ever saying that they should step back from the frontbench because screaming children and changing nappies would render them incapable of political leadership.
We need a system of ‘baby leave’ for MPs to replace the unreliable system of pairing. The current system doesn’t always work and leaves you at the mercy of your party’s and the Government’s whips, and also affects your voting record.
The need for a formal system of baby leave was made clear by the appalling treatment of Jo Swinson during the Brexit votes in July 2018. With her baby less than a month old, Swinson had been paired with Conservative party chairman Brandon Lewis (Conservative MP for Great Yarmouth since 2010). But he was instructed at the last minute to vote by the Chief Whip, Julian Smith (Conservative MP for Skipton and Ripon since 2010) – a decision that left Swinson, unknown to her or her party, without a pair. The Government got an extra vote in a knife edge division.
With a system of proxy voting Swinson could have a colleague vote on her behalf for her period of maternity leave. This is a reform that is badly needed, especially as the country increasingly elects younger MPs and more women.
209 of 650 MPs are now women; 100 years ago, there were none. Forty years ago, when I was born, there were only 19. So we’ve seen a huge change. But more needs to be done to get women into Parliament and to support parents in all jobs to be able to balance work and a happy family life too.