Parliament is still the family’s enemy

by John Woodcock

My new year’s resolution is to be a good dad to my two-year-old daughter.

Readers of a zingy political website understandably might ask why this should be of any interest to them. Bear with me.

The resolution, and my decision to share it, is driven by an issue I had not properly considered before becoming a Member of Parliament: namely, the difficult relationship between family life and elected politics in Britain.

It is not that I think I have been a rubbish dad so far, though the explosion of fury from my daughter when she is denied a second slice of chocolate cake would make any parent doubt himself.

But since being elected last May it has been unexpectedly difficult to balance the schedule of Parliamentary life with giving the time and energy that a loving little girl deserves and a partner sharing parenting duties should have the right to expect. The life of an MP is not an obvious case study for the good parenting handbook: shuttling up and down the country every week; late votes and meetings that can snatch away even the promise of a call back home before bedtime; events and campaigning that you want to get stuck into when you are back home in your constituency rather than spend the weekend at the zoo.

Talking to colleagues in the Commons tearoom, and to ex-MPs, I have been struck by how many people spend or spent a lot of their time worrying about the adverse impact their career was having on their family. I have also been impressed by the ingenuity of the routines many put in place to give their children as regular an upbringing as possible.

Please understand that I am not for a moment complaining. I am bowled over by the privilege of standing up in the House of Commons on behalf of the area I love, and getting to have a real say each day on issues that affect the lives of millions of people. I want to give my all representing the people of Barrow and Furness for as long as they want to have me.

I am also acutely aware that the dislocation that MPs experience is small beer compared to that endured by many who work away from home for long spells, particularly of course the sacrifice made by members of our armed forces who leave their families to put themselves in harm’s way for months at a time.

Yet, for all that, the impact that politics has on the families of politicians is something in which we should take an interest.

There are undoubtedly people who have chosen to stand down from Parliament because they thought the balancing act was taking a toll on their loved ones which they were not prepared to accept. There are surely others who have not been prepared to put themselves forward in the first place because of the disruption it would cause their family.

Up to a point, we can shrug and say that people who aren’t prepared to make sacrifices to enter parliament should not be there.

But only up to a point. If there is one group which we should want to be representative of our diverse population, it is the people who make laws on our behalf in a representative democracy.

That is not to pretend there is an easy solution to the problem. People have long been concerned about how to make Parliament more family-friendly, and none of the things suggested as improvements would be a magic bullet. In fact, some may not be bullets at all.

Replacing late night sittings in the Commons with more 7pm finishes might be desirable on general productivity grounds, but it would not help parents of young children get back in time to put their children to bed. In fact, MPs with children who live within striking distance of Westminster would lose the opportunity they currently have to go home on some evenings and then return for a 10pm vote.

Recent restrictions to rules on reimbursing travel costs make it harder for families to stay together between constituency and London home, as has been pointed out by the prime minister and many others. Relaxing those restrictions within reason would obviously help, but nothing can change the basic fact that it is a challenge to set up a stable home life when your week is split between two locations.

So while we should recognise that there is no quick fix, we should be open about the strain Parliament places on families and be prepared to say that we should keep searching for ways to make the system better.

In particular, it would be good if more fathers spoke out. We tend to leave women MPs to wave the banner for a more family-friendly system. That is unlikely to impress my daughter once she is old enough to start being resentful that for half the week she has to turn on the Parliament channel to get a glimpse of her dad.

John Woodcock is Labour and Cooperative MP for Barrow and Furness and a shadow transport minister.

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3 Responses to “Parliament is still the family’s enemy”

  1. Ian Silvera says:

    Interesting article Mr.Woodcock, it’s intriguing to see the ‘family-side’ of a member of parliament.

  2. AnneJGP says:

    Very interesting, John, thank you.

    You remark on the need for our representatives to be representative. It also seems to me that the life-style an MP is obliged to follow needs to be made more widely known. For example, as well as the travel, there seems to be a lot of visiting and entertaining involved.

    During the aftermath of the Expenses scandal, it occurred to me that no ordinary person has a clue what sort of necessary financial obligations are involved in being a PPC or an MP.

    Since MPs are paid well above average salary, many people were left scratching their heads over what an MP’s salary was for if all these other things were “on expenses”. Even so, MPs were still talking about their overdrafts. It would have been really helpful to have a sort of generic MP’s outline annual budget to show us what’s involved.

    Putting that financial aspect together with your article on family life, perhaps some TV company could be inspired to give us a mini-series on the life of an MP – not party-political, just informative.

  3. Nick says:

    An idea put foreword by Andy Burnham in the leadership campaign was to allow MP’s to vote remotely. He also, proposed starting parliament at an earlier hourin order that it would Finnish earlier. These ideas would certainly help MP’s see more of there families in the evening.

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