As coronavirus worsened in the UK back in March, Parliament implemented measures to enable MPs to utilise video technology in order to participate in scrutiny remotely. This, alongside a vast diminishing of the capacity in Parliament, meant that home working became the new normal for MPs.
Now that the UK is at the tail end of the virus and lockdown restrictions are gradually being eased, the Leader of the Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, has been particularly keen to resume normal proceedings in Parliament again. This is all in spite of the two-metre blockade between politicians, thereby diminishing MPs’ ability to continue their work from home. Whilst the Commons Speaker has since confirmed that those who are self-isolating or have care commitments can still contribute to parliamentary proceedings from home, this shuts out a vast proportion of politicians who would benefit from an increased flexibility to work from home as it’s been proven to reduce stress.
Crucially, flexible working would allow more women to enter Parliament, lower parliamentary expenditure as there would be less travel to London, and, produce a Parliament that better reflects our society as a whole. With diversity still being such a rife issue in Parliament – women MPs still only make up 34% of the chamber – the only way to combat this is to better accommodate their needs, and if this makes working from home for half the week then so be it.
If lockdown has proven anything it is that the seemingly impossible is possible. Parliament needs to adapt some of its history and customs so that it better reflects working life in the 21st century. Of course, if possible, it would better to have political decisions, such as voting, taking place in person, but the technological capacity is there if flexible working would be deemed as a better option for some MPs. This would mean that politicians wouldn’t have to worry about getting a proxy voter or dropping commitments in order to show up to a vote, enabling politicians to have better autonomy and flexibility.
The UK must adopt a similar flexible approach to work as the likes of Finland and New Zealand if it is to catch up with modern society. Work should no longer be viewed as a ‘one method suits all’ approach.
Back in 2019, MP Stella Creasey said: “Britain still has a long way to go to ensure that fertility isn’t a barrier to equality.” She also criticised the MPs’ standards authority’s lack of her support for her maternity leave, which they suggested wasn’t ‘right’. As Creasey points out, she isn’t alone in this issue and many women MPs are sadly forced to choose between placing their careers first or taking time out to have a family.
In order to improve and modernise parliamentary conduct and root out corruption, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) was set up in 2009. Yet its values still don’t seem to reflect a need to support women in the working world.
If flexible working was implemented for MPs in the long term, this would allow politicians of both sexes to adjust their work around other family commitments, rather than being confined to parliamentary working hours in London.
Being based remotely for much of the week would also enable MPs to connect with their constituents more and understand their true political needs so that they can conduct advice sessions and offer individuals more support in an effective manner. Many MPs are only parachuted into constituencies when part of a grand political strategy; yet if they had more time to work remotely, this may cause them to dedicate more time to their electorate. This will improve accountability, if nothing else.
A financial perspective illustrates further benefits from remote working. As MPs are so often criticised for their high salaries in comparison to most British workers, working from home would likely reduce costs and diminish the need for as many staff, thereby reducing the economic burden on taxpayers. Furthermore, as many wouldn’t be based in London for the majority of the time, this could reduce any expenses they’d be able to claim on a second home in the capital.
Does this mean that MPs should stop working from Parliament altogether? No.
Ultimately, it is flexibility that is key and how long each MP spends in Parliament should depend on how much they want to, as well as what other family or work commitments they have. Effectively enabling a “hybrid” parliament for the future would cater for the best needs of the majority. Women should feel supported to pursue both a career and have a family, rather than having to decide between the two.
This can’t happen until Parliament adapts its current approach to allow politicians to work from home more and take substantial maternity leave when necessary.