A tweet from a male MP – the scan of his partner’s pregnancy. A tweet about a male MP – his partner posting a picture of their daughter screaming as he speaks in the first #babyleave debate. The debacle of Brandon Lewis MP following his whip’s instruction and breaking his pair with the liberal democrat MP, Jo Swinson, who was absent from the House caring for her newborn baby. And a delayed vote scheduled for October for the House to decide on whether it will permit proxy voting for those on baby leave.
Why does all this matter? It matters first because it signals the way in which new father MPs are talking about their parenthood as parliamentarians. Post-1997 it was MPs’ motherhood that was new, and since then more and more women MPs are becoming mothers. Male MPs are emphasising that fatherhood happens alongside their parliamentary work.
It matters also in respect of how the Parliament as a place of work is set up and undertakes its business. At present the Commons fails the new parent MP in too many ways. Significantly there is no formal system of maternity or paternity leave. Members are at the mercy of their whips. Whilst they are reassured that all will be okay, MPs are routinely ‘asked’ to come back to vote when their babies are only a few days old, and when permitted to be at home, their constituencies are effectively unrepresented. During the House of Commons debate on baby leave Ilford South MP Mike Gapes reported that “In 1993, when I informed the Chief Whip that my wife was going into hospital and that I intended to be at the birth, I was told, “That’s alright, as long as you’re here on Monday night to vote on Maastricht matters.”
The incompatibility of undertaking parental caring responsibilities and being an MP was highlighted in 2013, when, with the support of the Speaker and the Diversity and Inclusion Unit we conducted the first ever survey of MPs’ parental status. We found a striking motherhood gap. In 2013 the headline difference between men and women MPs’ parental status was quite staggering:
- 45% of women MPs compared to 28% of men MPs had no children
Our findings drew attention to the under-representation of mothers in the UK House of Commons – an additional dimension to the ongoing under-representation of women. Today, women MPs remain only one-third of the Commons. Back in 2013 we called for the House to speed up implementation of The Good Parliament Report to make the House more attractive to women who wanted to be mothers.
In 2017 we repeated the parenthood survey, with the support of Mr Speaker and with the new Commons Reference Group on Representation and Inclusion.
By 2017 the gender gap had narrowed, albeit not disappeared:
- 39% of women MPs compared to 30% of men MPs have no children
The change over time constitutes a decline from a 17 to a 9-percentage point difference.
In the 2013 data the difference between men and women had varied substantially by cohort and was most stark among MPs who first entered the House before 1997:
- Of MPs elected between 1959 and 1996 25% of men and 39% of women had no children
- Of MPs elected between 1997 and 2001 13% of men and 42% of women had no children
Even in 2013 the gap was considerably narrower among new entrants:
- Of MPs elected between 2010 and 2012 42% of men and 47% of women had no children
We had been wary of drawing any strong conclusions that the motherhood gap was disappearing, as we could not know the proportion of these new MPs who would later go on to have children, and whether this would vary by sex. Today, we now know that among the more recent entrants (from 2010 onwards) the difference between men and women’s parental status has indeed disappeared:
- Of MPs elected between 2010 and 2015, 32% of men and 34% of women have no children
- Of MPs elected in 2017 43% of men and 39% of women have no children
Neither of these post-2010 differences between men and women MPs’ parental status are statistically significant.
Our findings also showed that:
- According to our figures 435 MPs (67%) have children
- 30% men MPs and 39% of women have no children
- On average men MPs have 2.4 children and women MPs have 2.0 children (excluding MPs without children from the calculation)
- We have the date of birth of the eldest child for 154 MPs, of these 128 had children when they first entered Parliament
- We identified 26 MPs whose first child was born after they entered Parliament
- The average age of the MP’s eldest child when they first entered Parliament was: 15 years old for women and 11 years old for men (among the group of MPs for whom we have data about their eldest child’s date of birth)
- The average age of first child bearing was 32 for both men and women MPs (where we have data on age of child)
A higher proportion of fathers than mothers are in the 2017 Commons: 70% of male MPs are fathers compared to 62% of female MPs are mothers. But this is a legacy of historic difference which is not manifest among more recent cohorts. The greater proportion of mothers overall, driven by younger cohorts of women, means that Parliament has witnessed a step change in its composition.
It is possible that some of the diversity sensitive reforms introduced over the last few years are making a difference, by showing how parents can combine family life and the work of an MP. The nursery was established in 2010; babies and children are now permitted in the lobbies. But with more parliamentary babies on the way, and to catch up with best practice outside Parliament, Parliament really redouble its efforts to be accommodating to the new parent MP. It must act immediately at the very least to adopt baby leave, but more radically still it should also consider MPs’ jobshare.