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article imageBabies in the House: British MPs seek family reforms

By Alice RITCHIE (AFP)     Jan 31, 2018 in World

As Prime Minister Theresa May's minority government pushes crucial Brexit legislation through parliament, British MPs cannot afford to miss a vote -- even if it means taking their babies with them.

Darren Jones found himself caring for his newborn daughter Ophelia when he was called to vote this month against a law that would repeal Britain's membership of the European Union.

He took her past the green benches of the House of Commons chamber, and through the so-called division lobbies where MPs cast their votes.

"She slept through the whole thing," the opposition Labour lawmaker told AFP, adding: "Sadly her vote didn't count."

When MPs were called last year to authorise the government to start the Brexit process, Conservative MP Chloe Smith broke her maternity leave to vote with her baby Alastair.

"Whichever way you look at it, this was a bit of history and it'll be a privilege to be able to tell our son he was there," she said afterwards.

She was hesitant about bringing him into the chamber, but Speaker John Bercow said: "Don't be sheepish about it, the little baby is welcome to come in! There's no problem."

Many believe MPs should not have to bring their babies in for late-night votes
Many believe MPs should not have to bring their babies in for late-night votes
Justin TALLIS, AFP/File

However, there are many who believe these MPs should not have to bring their babies in for late-night votes, and are pushing for a change in the rules.

- Accused of hiding baby -

MPs from across the political divide have joined forces to call a Commons debate Thursday on allowing new parents to vote by proxy -- asking another MP to vote for them.

"It's quite a small change but would have a big impact, and bring the House of Commons up to date," former Labour minister Harriet Harman told AFP.

She had three children in the 1980s while serving as an MP -- and the atmosphere was very different.

"I was accused of smuggling my baby through the division lobbies under my coat," she said, saying she received a "horrible, hostile" reaction.

She was doing no such thing -- "I was still fat from just having had my baby. I shouldn't have been voting at all."

The announcement earlier this month by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern that she was pregnant shows how much times have changed.

But she still promised to be "available" even while taking time off after having the baby.

New Zealand is among a number of countries, including Germany and in Scandinavia, that offers paid parental leave.

Swedish MEP Jytte Guteland votes at the European Parliament in Strasbourg in March 2017
Swedish MEP Jytte Guteland votes at the European Parliament in Strasbourg in March 2017
FREDERICK FLORIN, AFP/File

This is not yet available in Britain, although Harman is pressing for the change.

There are now more than 200 women in the 650-seat Commons, and 17 have had babies since 2010, with at least two others currently pregnant.

Men also want to play a more active role in their children's lives, and the motion does not discriminate between mothers and fathers. It also includes adoptions.

- Accused of laziness -

The whips, who enforce party discipline, often allow MPs to miss votes and debates due to ill-health and for family reasons, but the system is informal and in tight votes, can be limited.

It is also private, and some MPs with young children have been criticised for being "lazy" by their political opponents after missing votes or debates.

Italian MEP Licia Ronzulli advocated in 2010 in favour of extended maternity leave
Italian MEP Licia Ronzulli advocated in 2010 in favour of extended maternity leave
FREDERICK FLORIN, AFP/File

Proxy voting would allow them to publicly register their position on an issue -- particularly important when, with May's fragile Conservative government, every vote is on a knife-edge.

"When we have such a balanced parliament it means that MPs have to be here to register their views, and indeed want to be here," Maria Miller, chair of parliament's women and equalities committee, told AFP.

In Spain, lawmakers can cast votes electronically for reasons of parental absence or serious sickness.

There have long been calls for electronic voting in Britain, where Commons votes are already recorded on iPads, although there is little sign of reform.

This week's motion on "baby leave" is not binding but if passed, would indicate to the parliamentary authorities an appetite for change.

The speaker has already revised sitting hours to make them a little more family-friendly, and opened a late-night creche nearby on the site of a popular former bar.

"The place needs to work around people having families. You want people who are having families to be part of the debate," said Jones.

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