The tough life of a British woman MP – Zimbabwe better in terms of representation


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Is there anything that Zimbabwe is better than Britain? Yes, there is. Zimbabwe is better than Britain in terms of women representation in Parliament, according to Melanie Onn, the Shadow deputy leader of the House of Commons.

Only 29 percent of the British Members of Parliament are women compared to 34 percent in Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe’s representation was only 19 percent but was boosted to 34 percent by the introduction of a quota for women legislators which accommodates 60 women MPs elected on proportional representation.

But that is not all.  Britain’s women legislators are still living under Victorian conditions.

“The system is geared towards the traditional view that parliamentarians are men with a wife at home to look after the children,” Onn said.

One study showed that only 28 percent of male MPs had no children, but the figure for women stood at 45 percent “which suggests that women view the life of an MP as incompatible with caring for a child”.

“A number of excellent points have been made by colleagues today about how Parliament is failing to be family-friendly,” On said.

“If, as Alison Thewliss said, councils can make accommodation to allow new mums to bring their babies into the chamber and, as has been mentioned, the European Parliament allows elected Members to breastfeed babies during debates, is it not time for this place to open itself up to a 21st-century way of working, rather than hide behind Victorian values?

“Hon. Members said that the tabloid media might seek to undermine breastfeeding parents in this place. If breastfeeding continues to be viewed as the exception rather than the rule and does not become commonplace then, yes, it is open to ridicule.”

Full contribution:

Melanie Onn Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons-It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hamilton. I congratulate my hon. Friend Jess Phillips on securing this important debate and thank her for her excellent contribution.

Last night, I left the House at about 10.40 pm, after votes. I understand that that is decidedly early for this place, but it is even earlier than the leaving times of the Doorkeepers, the catering staff, librarians and all the other staff on the parliamentary estate who work around the operations of the political business of the day.

The reality is that, when parliamentary life is so unpredictable, neither staff nor MPs can easily plan their real lives outside this place. The concept of family-friendliness is often seen in narrow terms—that it is the women MPs who have children who want a system to suit them.

Mrs Miller said we should have a people-friendly Parliament. We should have a system that suits as many people as possible and that suits their lives as much as possible, and that includes the staff who work here as much as the MPs, the men as much as the women, and those with family caring responsibilities other than children.

Making parliament more family friendly is a crucial step towards achieving equal representation for women in politics, which, unfortunately, we are far from achieving. In 2015, only 29% of Members of Parliament are female.

The UK is doing worse on female representation than Uganda, Zimbabwe and many of our European neighbours. The good news is that we have increased the number of female MPs since the election in May, and we have now overtaken Afghanistan—just.

Equally important to this debate is the motherhood gap in the House of Commons. That is to say, female MPs are significantly less likely than our male colleagues to have children. My hon. Friend Jo Cox transposed the figures a little, but the studies conducted during the previous Parliament showed that although only 28% of male MPs had no children, the figure for women was much higher—45%—which suggests that women view the life of an MP as incompatible with caring for a child.

The system is geared towards the traditional view that parliamentarians are men with a wife at home to look after the children. There is no consideration of modern families that do not fit that outdated concept. The same goes for staff in this place. Are single parents, new parents and carers less likely to consider working on the parliamentary estate as a career when the system is so unpredictable? I do not know; perhaps the Minister does.

The Government have worked hard to present themselves as a modern, representative, “UK now” Government, but failing to take seriously such inherent issues in the system, which present themselves again and again, leaves our great Parliament looking more stuck in the dark ages than the gothic arches under which we sit.

This matters, because a House of Commons that is truly representative of the population of the United Kingdom will be more attuned to the needs of the public. For example, it was following a surge in the number of women MPs entering Parliament 20 years ago that the gender pay gap started to be properly measured and began to close.

Similarly, some of the issues that most desperately need addressing today are those that parents are acutely conscious of, such as the need for affordable childcare and the need to ensure that the housing market works for our children’s generation.

I thank all hon. Members who spoke today—particularly those who shared their personal experiences of how difficult the House can be for Members with children. I know that there is only a small sample of Members here today, but in a survey conducted by Mumsnet, which another colleague spoke about earlier, two thirds of MPs said that their job has a negative impact on their family life.

One MP surveyed said:

“I have a two-year-old daughter and no-one cares if I don’t see her.”

Another senior MP said:

“I never saw my children grow up and I’ll regret this to the day I die.”

I think that is a terrible indictment of a modern working environment.

A number of excellent points have been made by colleagues today about how Parliament is failing to be family-friendly. If, as Alison Thewliss said, councils can make accommodation to allow new mums to bring their babies into the chamber and, as has been mentioned, the European Parliament allows elected Members to breastfeed babies during debates, is it not time for this place to open itself up to a 21st-century way of working, rather than hide behind Victorian values?

Hon. Members said that the tabloid media might seek to undermine breastfeeding parents in this place. If breastfeeding continues to be viewed as the exception rather than the rule and does not become commonplace then, yes, it is open to ridicule.

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Charles Rukuni
The Insider is a political and business bulletin about Zimbabwe, edited by Charles Rukuni. Founded in 1990, it was a printed 12-page subscription only newsletter until 2003 when Zimbabwe's hyper-inflation made it impossible to continue printing.

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