Is Parliament fit for the 21st century?

Row over ‘pairing’ raises bigger questions over reform in the House of Commons

Big Ben under repair
(Image credit: Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

MPs have called for an overhaul of how Parliament votes, after the Conservatives were accused of a breach of trust during Tuesday’s crunch Brexit vote.

Under a formal arrangement known as ‘pairing’, Tory Chairman Brandon Lewis had agreed not to vote to cancel out the absence of Lib Dem deputy leader Jo Swinson, who was at home with her three-week-old baby.

It was later revealed that he had taken part in two knife-edge votes on Theresa May’s Brexit trade plans, which the Government won by a majority of six, prompting a furious response from Swinson and outrage from opposition MPs and even some in the Conservative party.

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Lib Dem chief whip Alistair Carmichael said there had been a “very serious breach of the convention”, but he went on to describe pairing as “a 19th-century practice for providing cover under 21st-century employment law, and that is no longer good enough”.

The row shed fresh light on the way MPs work. “Parliament is built on a million arcane, bizarre procedures and agreements,” says Josiah Mortimer in Left Foot Forward. “On their own, they're pretty laughable, but together they form something that kind of works. Until it doesn't.”

Harriet Harman was among senior politicians calling for formal parental leave for MPs and a system of proxy voting in their absence.

“With more babies coming, this change is overdue,” she told the prime minister. And she’s right, says Mortimer: “it’s hard for the PM to lecture businesses on gender pay gaps and inequality if our own Parliament disenfranchises new mothers”.

Labour’s shadow leader of the Commons, Valerie Vaz, said such a system could even be introduced immediately, with the votes of MPs absent on parental leave marked with a “P”, or even a baby emoji.

“It is time that we ensured this is a modern workplace with modern employment practices,” she said.

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Democratic sickness

It is not the first time the Conservatives have been accused of using an opposition MP’s pregnancy or illness for political ends.

Last month, two ill Labour MPs were made to turn up to the Commons in wheelchairs for a crunch Commons vote after Tory whips allegedly stopped them being “nodded through” to a more easily accessible and comfortable part of the Palace of Westminster.

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Naz Shah, who was released from hospital and wheeled through the division lobbies clutching a sick bucket for the vote, later wrote in The Guardian that no other MPs should suffer such a degrading voting experience, which she said was “reflective of a system that remains male-dominated, and a legacy of class politics”.

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