A Better, But Not as Yet, Good Parliament: The UK House of Commons 2016-2018

Sarah Childs, Professor of Politics and Gender, Birkbeck College University of London and Distinguished Visiting Researcher, University of Auckland, discusses progress on implementing the recommendations of her report The Good Parliament two years on from its publication.

The Good Parliament report is two years old. A ‘shopping bag’ of recommendations, it offers a blueprint for a diversity sensitive House of Commons. Together, the 43 recommendations address the representativeness of MPs and the insensitivities of the established parliamentary infrastructure and culture. The recommendations were not ranked in the report. Deciding which should be implemented was to be part of the Commons accepting its institutional responsibility for becoming a diversity sensitive parliament. Crucially, at the time of the report’s publication Mr Speaker agreed to set up and chair the Commons Reference Group on Representation and Inclusion. This new group of MPs, from across the parties and male and female, would take forward The Good Parliament’s agenda.

With the Reference Group meeting monthly when the House sits, I became confident that The Good Parliament had a better than usual chance of effecting change. And over the last two years the Reference Group can claim some success. Its work has been recognised by the House of Commons Commission, and its influence is reaching across the political and administrative sides of the House. Many of the recommendations implemented to-date have symbolic importance over and above meeting the needs or concerns of MPs targeted by a specific reform.

The dress code no longer requires men to wear ties in the Chamber – the requirement is non-gendered ‘business dress’; children are permitted into the division lobbies when parent MPs vote; creche provision, for ad hoc childcare, is being trialled; and the misogynist ’10-year dead’ rule for artwork has been abolished. Paintings of women MPs will now adorn the Palace’s walls considerably earlier than would otherwise have been the case. The re-design of the parliamentary pass – a suggestion once met with jocular laughter – should reduce the occasions when an MP’s presence in the lift or on the Terrace is queried for not seemingly ‘looking like’ what an MP is supposed to look like.

More substantively – and directly linked to parliamentary scrutiny – the Women and Equalities Committee, established only in 2015 and only as a temporary departmental select committee, was made permanent in 2017. Very recently, the newly established European Statutory Instruments Committee has a gender balanced membership by design, following an intervention from the Reference Group. Finally, the diversity of select committee witnesses is now something that officials routinely track, supporting efforts to ensure that Committees do not just rely on the same old rolodex of witnesses, that too often produce an over-representation of middle-aged, white men.

As Parliament rose for the summer in the centenary year of women’s suffrage, the House of Commons was mired in an explicitly gendered controversy: the collapse of the ‘pairing’ arrangement for Jo Swinson MP, whose baby was just a week or so old. Notwithstanding his apologies, the fact that the senior Conservative MP Brandon Lewis broke his pair, demonstrated precisely why The Good Parliament report recommended a ‘House statement on maternity and paternity leave’. This reform would end the reliance on the informal and opaque practice of pairing, which was always dependent upon the willingness of the Whips to grant leave and was always at the mercy of the pair behaving appropriately.

The Commons Reference Group had already taken up this recommendation as one of its priorities before the recent debacle. Working with the ‘Mother of the House’, the Rt Hon. Harriet Harman MP, a motion was laid before the House and duly passed. The Procedure Committee, chaired by Charles Walker MP, undertook an inquiry and then reported, outlining the means to implement proxy voting for what had by now become known as ‘babyleave’. A debate on the report scheduled for the 5th July did not take place due to ‘important and unforeseeable circumstances’. The Leader of the House has since announced that babyleave will be debated this autumn.

The pairing episode, whilst unfortunate for the Members involved, might nonetheless prove rather useful in progressing the diversity sensitive reform agenda at Westminster. Alongside images of sick MPs being brought into the Chamber to vote, it highlights just how out of date some of the House’s rules are and reveals the limitations of informal parliamentary practices that critics suggest render new formal rules unnecessary. In her letter to the Chair of the Procedure Committee, the Leader of the House, Andrea Leadsom, stated: ‘The integrity of the voting system in the House of Commons must be above reproach’. I would suggest that proxy voting for babyleave has to now happen to meet such a standard.

Babyleave also ‘outed’ the parliamentary dinosaurs; those actively engaged in resistance to diversity sensitive reforms.  In so doing, it underlined the importance of the Commons Reference Group and is a reminder that its work will not be finished anytime soon. It calls attention too, to Mr Speaker’s leadership, the willingness of the Group’s MPs to devote time and personal resources to its work, as well as the officials who support the Group’s activities. Without this level of commitment across the House, the prospects for a ‘Good Parliament’ would be uncertain at best. I am very pleased to report that the Group will be meeting again once the Commons returns in September.

Notes

Sarah Childs is Professor of Politics and Gender, Birkbeck College University of London and Distinguished Visiting Researcher, University of Auckland. Follow her on Twitter: @profsarahchilds 

This blog was written while Prof Childs was a Distinguished Visitor at the Public Policy Institute, University of Auckland, July-August 2018. She would like to thank Professor Jennifer Curtin for the invitation, and to the Public Policy Institute for supporting her lecture as part of the Rt Hon Trevor Mallard’s, Speaker of the New Zealand Parliament, Lecture Series.

Read Prof Childs’ August 2016 blog on the publication of The Good Parliament Report: The Good Parliament: it is about more than breastfeeding and trans-toilets

 

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