Labour MP Stella Creasy has been calling for better maternity rights for MPs. She is not the first MP to call for better maternity rights; last year Lib Dem MP (and current leadership contender) Jo Swinson called for proxy voting to be introduced for MPs on maternity leave – the current system is for an MP to be assigned a ‘pair’ to also abstain from the vote who would otherwise vote for the other side, which has broken down in the past due to ruthless politics or human error. Parliament approved a year long trial of proxy-votes in January, in which a nominated MP is allowed to vote on behalf of the MP on maternity leave. Creasy’s calls, however, are focussed on the other side of the coin – casework accounts for the majority of an MPs time, and as things stand there is no process to ensure that it gets done when an MP is on maternity leave.
As things stand, an MP on maternity leave is not afforded any additional funding by parliament for maternity cover. This means that there is usually no budget for them to bring in an extra specialist to cover as much of their duties as possible during their maternity leave, and instead the slack must be picked up by current staff or by their local party.
Indeed, it seems that the way local parties have helped cover an MP’s duty while they’re on maternity leave may have helped hide this issue for a considerable time. It is relatively common for local councillors from the MP’s party to step up and do additional casework when an MP is unable to for a long period of time. This requires people to do a lot of work for no pay, and is of a lower quality than a specialist.
Tory MP Kemi Badenoch, who is currently pregnant, has a different view. Writing in the Times, she said that she has more autonomy and choice as an MP than in any previous job and said "I would find it hard to claim to a constituent on the minimum wage that I have a bad deal”. She also called Creasy’s calls "hugely disappointing", and said that they were "diverting attention away from those we should be helping".
This seems to highlight a cultural divide in the Commons. In a simplistic way, in many ways MPs act as a business owner would, but in many other ways they act as a manager in a business. They have a lot more control than any employee over their maternity leave, but they do not have the support that anyone else that takes a set salary should expect.
An MP can be seen as working as though they are self-employed, with complete control over their own affairs and no real oversight over their behaviour or work. For example, there are MPs like Jered O’Mara who happily get paid but have rarely attended parliament or do case work. But most MPs on either side (including Kemi Badenoch) act more as a manager than an owner; they are assigned an office in parliament, and have a clear job description. MPs draw money in expenses, rather than through a lump sum, for their staff and are expected to do work to a job description with a mandate that is renewed as an employment contract might be.
Perhaps there is a wider question here. Perhaps we should be asking if we should be doing more to ensure that business owners have basic maternity rights, and should be legislating some kind of scheme to ensure that they do. But when an MP largely acts like an employee, and we would like to see more skilled women attempt to enter parliament, Stella Creasy is right.