The current restrictions help neither the public nor MPs
Parliament is – and is meant to be – a tough arena. MPs and ministers take critically-important decisions and need to be accountable for them. Ideas and arguments need to tested and pitted against one another. Failures (and perceived failures) will be pounced on, often ruthlessly. Unfortunate ministers and shadow ministers who make the wrong mistake at the wrong time find themselves at the centre of a political storm often out of all proportion to the event itself, and often resulting in an unjust resignation – a storm made all the more intense these days by social media and 24-hour news reporting.
As such, it was clearly a high-risk decision from Labour to nominate Jared O’Mara for a very winnable seat – and one that was only ever going to end in disaster once he didn’t receive the proper support his autism necessitated to transition into, and survive in, such an environment. Clearly, he has to take his own share of responsibility for his failings but they are not his alone.
One question that the Commons should be asking itself is what more can be done to support MPs who are suffering from mental health disorders (indeed, what more can be done to help them acknowledge that they are suffering from these disorders in the first place)? Even more than many other jobs, the incentives are to keep their heads down and get on with it.
Instead, parliament should looks to extend the scheme it introduced last year, when it voted without opposition to allow MPs who are new parents to nominate a colleague to cast proxy votes on their behalf, meaning that they can more meaningfully take maternity or paternity leave without having to worry too much about the effect that doing so would have on the government’s majority.
Some might argue that MPs occupy an unusual position that’s not comparable to normal jobs; that they are elected by their public and have not only a mandate but also a duty to represent their constituents. As such, giving their vote to a colleague abdicates that responsibility and undermines democracy.
There is a little in that argument but surely the stronger point is that parliament should ideally represent the country at large. Two very under-represented groups are women and the under-35s and making Westminster more family-friendly might address some of the structural reasons that produce those imbalances.
However, if parliament is going to consider the principle that someone who wasn’t elected to represent a given constituency can cast votes on behalf of the MP who was, why limit it just to sitting MPs? After all, much of an MP’s job is done outside the voting lobbies – receiving and responding to constituency mail; tabling questions, amendments, EDMs and so on; speaking in the Chamber; serving on Select and other Committees. These jobs still need doing just as much when the MP is on leave. Some of those roles could be filled by either the MP’s office acting on an understanding of what the member would want, and for the larger parties, many points that a given MP might make could likely be made by a colleague but that needn’t be true for smaller parties, for example.
More relevantly, given the O’Mara situation, why limit the proxy system to just parental leave? Why not introduce it for MPs on long-term sick (which also would mean that they’d be less stressed about letting constituents down by their absence)? It’s far from unknown for MPs to function at far below the normal capacity due to illness, particularly where it’s a terminal one but also when the MP might be recovering from a serious accident, illness or other medical event. In these cases, their constituents still need and deserve representation.
Some might argue that MPs in such positions should resign and let someone who can do the work take over but that ignores both a basic humanity and also practical politics. MPs are unlikely to resign where they think their party might lose the seat – especially when the numbers in parliament are poised as the currently are. Also, where the MP recovers, or expects to, it’s both unrealistic and unreasonable to expect him or her to resign.
It’s not unreasonable, however, for the voters to expect their voice to be heard in Westminster. How to square the circle? I’d suggest that it ought to be possible for an MP to nominate a substitute to act as a proxy, with full powers and for up to 12 months between elections, and with the nominated substitute subject to a confirmatory vote in the Commons. During that time, the MP on leave would be barred from acting in any formal capacity as the MP to avoid conflicts.
The limited introduction of parental leave is a good baby step in the right direction but the principle could, and should, go a lot further.