|Wendy Chamberlain was elected in 2019 as the first female parliamentarian in North-East Fife. Her first six months in the job have been made both harder, and easier, by COVID-19.|
|By Wendy Chamberlain MP for North-East Fife|
|Parliament doesn’t have the reputation for being the most accessible place to work. |
My first few months as an MP involved a 5-hour-plus door-to-door trip down to London on a Monday – followed by a 10pm finish that night. I then had three relentless days in Parliament, with hours spent in the Chamber waiting to speak (under ‘normal proceedings’ you have to stay seated if you want to have your say). Then on Thursday, it was back on the train from King’s Cross up to Fife for a full set of constituency activities on Friday and Saturday.
I’m not complaining necessarily, I knew that this was the deal when I signed up to be a candidate. I’m very lucky that I am in the position to be able to spend three nights away from home every week.
My husband is semi-retired and has been the ‘default’ parent for some time. My children are in their teens. But for so many people who might want to represent their communities – those who are carers; those who have disabilities – the practical realities of the working week of an MP present a huge barrier. And, in turn, a barrier to greater diversity among our parliamentarians.
But for a few short weeks in April, that all changed. I went from spending ten hours a week on the train, to carrying out all of my duties as an MP over Zoom.
Almost overnight, what had previously been unthinkable was now reality. MPs could debate and discuss bills over video conference; they could vote remotely. We had a virtual Parliament that worked for everyone.
MPs could carry out all the functions of representing their constituents from their own homes. This was a huge step forward towards opening up Parliament to every prospective candidate.
I’m sorry to say the virtual Parliament is no longer fully in place. I’m back on the trains twice a week. But I am optimistic. After continually raising the issue in Parliament, a number of concessions have been secured.
Some provisions remain: most notably, the ability to proxy vote if you have a care commitment which prevents you from travelling to Parliament. This is huge: the first time a proxy vote was ever allowed was for MP Tulip Siddiq when she was heavily pregnant during the Brexit votes in January 2019. At that time proxy voting was seen as a pilot scheme for new parents.
At the heart of this change is something which had never happened before in Parliament: an acknowledgement that a very large number of MPs are carers. I think this is hugely significant. There is no reason why the proxy voting system can’t move forward like this, and I’ll be continuing to press for that.
I also think we should be going much further. We can’t merely pay lip-service to diversity and inclusivity in Parliament without taking concrete action. I think that anyone who wants to participate and vote virtually should be able to – whether there is a pandemic on or not.