“One man’s view has dominated what political engagement looks like for the 649 of us MPs in the pandemic,” Stella Creasy tells The Independent as her 16-month-old daughter Hettie potters around in the background.
The Labour MP for Walthamstow is referring to Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the House of Commons, who is in charge of organising government business in parliament.
In Ms Creasy’s view, Mr Rees-Mogg deems the role of an MP to chiefly be centred around giving speeches among the pea green leather seats of the House of Commons.
“Until we’re able to challenge some of those outdated concepts that is what democratic engagement looks like, we will always have a politics which is dominated by men who have nannies,” Ms Creasy adds, “and who have independent means and think it is all about giving a rather nifty speech and making a rather funny joke. That isn’t going to be the diverse democracy that we all want and need.”
Ms Creasy said that while the move to introduce remote working practices for MPs during the pandemic has been profoundly beneficial, parliament still has a long way to go.
The politician called for the virtual working measures, which were rolled out in the wake of the coronavirus crisis but are due to expire at the end of March, to be extended.
Ms Creasy is not alone. Tulip Siddiq, the shadow minister for children and early years, and Karen Bradley, a Conservative MP, who chairs the committee which examined and recommended the remote working changes, are also both juggling their roles as MPs with childcare. Both politicians told The Independent they want virtual working practices to continue.
The calls are echoed by gender equality campaigner, Helen Pankhurst, who has spearheaded a campaign to “Modernise Parliament” and keep the new working conditions in place, which has garnered the support of politicians, activists, and organisations.
Ms Pankhurst, the convenor of Centenary Action Group and granddaughter of Suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst, argues the measures will enable more women and people from diverse backgrounds as well as those with disabilities and health conditions to embark on a political career and no longer be so starkly underrepresented in Westminster.
But Ms Creasy notes remote working practices have not been devoid of issues – warning “alienating offline” issues have been “translated online” with lengthy debates stretching into the night but just via Zoom rather than in person.
She warns the “underlying culture” of parliament needs to be tackled as she explains it can be more difficult for MPs who are not able to spend time “hanging around” in Westminster bars in the evening as they miss out on legislation ideas.
“It is not by accident that most of the women involved in politics and public life at the moment have either had their children or have decided they don’t want children or for whatever personal reasons don’t have children,” Ms Creasy says.
The politician, who previously threatened to launch legal proceedings against the government if they do not extend current maternity leave plans to all MPs, alleged she has suffered maternity discrimination.
Ms Creasy, who is currently pregnant, adds: “My experience over the last 16 months has been absolutely of both outright discrimination and unconscious bias. The idea that now I’ve had a baby, I’m less committed to political causes and concerns and less capable of political leadership.
“People have questioned whether I would be capable of taking on any leadership roles like running a committee, being able to lead a delegation on the basis that I have a child. Some of it is from other women. I know very clearly what I’m capable of and how I would manage my daughter, otherwise I wouldn’t put myself forward for things. I’m due to have my second baby in the Autumn – goodness knows what they’ll think has happened to my commitment to changing the world then.”
Ms Creasy, the first ever MP to be granted locum maternity leave cover, noted there was a “glorious moment” earlier on in the pandemic before online voting was scrapped when she was able to cast her parliamentary vote and put her daughter to bed from the same room.
She called for more meetings, events and debates to take place online and for MPs to be able to cast votes remotely – adding the “idea we have to all walk through a lobby doesn’t make any sense”.
Ms Creasy said being an MP who lives far away from Westminster as her peers do is a “discombobulated existence”, as she noted it takes six or seven hours to get to London from Cornwall constituencies.
“If you’re not good with your own family, how can you be good at fighting for other peoples,” she concluded.
In Covid’s first wave, the House of Commons Library discovered female MPs were significantly more likely than their male counterparts to use virtual participation. Campaigners say the majority of female MPs utilised the measures – like proxy voting – chiefly because of caring duties.
While government figures show women make up the majority of informal carers in the UK, multiple studies have found women have taken on the burden of homeschooling, childcare and household chores during the pandemic regardless of whether they were working or not.
A survey conducted by YouGov found almost seven of ten people in the UK want MPs to be able to participate remotely if they so wish.
Ms Siddiq, who is the Labour MP for Hampstead and Kilburn, said it was “really challenging” juggling homeschooling her four-year-old with being an MP – adding she did not have the “patience” of teachers.
The mother-of-two said: “The kids did go a bit mad. They were climbing the walls. They were a bit bored. The hardest bit is trying to explain to a two and four year old that they can’t come into a room when you are questioning Matt Hancock or you’re on ITV.
“My husband had to barricade them into another room. It was really terrifying – you’re questioning the PM or Matt Hancock and this little face bops up to you. It is hard emotionally trying to establish boundaries. Little kids don’t understand stuff like that. They don’t understand who Matt Hancock is. They don’t care.”
Ms Siddiq, who was forced to postpone her caesarean two years ago to cast a parliamentary vote in person, said MPs have been just as effective at “holding the government to account” during the public health crisis.
“For me, I’ve never worked so hard in my life. I really felt democracy still functioned. Parliament has been dragged kicking and screaming into the new millennium. It is one of the very faint silver linings of this situation,” she added.
Nevertheless, parliament remains a world away from wider society, with its demographic highly different to that of the wider population. Women account for around a third of MPs and local councillors, while only five out of 23 cabinet ministers are women, and just 12 of the total of 220 female MPs are black.
Ellie Reeves, Shadow Solicitor General, said: “At present, we organise our diaries week to week by finding out the next week’s agenda in the business statement on a Thursday morning. If we have late votes on a Monday, it gives members with caring or childcare responsibilities only one and a half working days to secure arrangements.”
While Ms Bradley, Conservative MP for Staffordshire Moorlands, said a report by the Procedure Committee, which she chairs, calls for virtual participation measures to be extended until June.
She said they heard a great deal of evidence from women MPs virtual working practices “enabled” them to juggle being an MP with caring responsibilities in the pandemic.
The mother-of-two said “like everybody” she had found homeschooling “hard work” but added that she had enjoyed having “more regular hours” with her children.
Ms Pankhurst, who led the campaign to “Modernise Parliament”, added: “It’s hard to believe that while the rest of the country is embracing new ways of working through screens, mobiles and laptops parliament is considering turning its back on the technological innovations ushered in during the pandemic.
“Recently Tracey Crouch, MP for Chatham and Aylesford, was excluded in the debate on breast cancer, precisely because she was at home shielding due to having breast cancer herself. This is not something we should ever have to witness in a 21st so-called democracy – she should have been allowed to contribute from the security of her own front room.”
She noted they are not calling for virtual proceedings to totally replace “in-person parliamentary business” but argued the measures should not simply be eradicated as the nation “desperately needs a more diverse and responsive parliament”.