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The mother of all parliaments: how family friendly is Holyrood really?

Aileen Campbell, Ruth Davidson, Gail Ross and Jenny Marra - Image credit: Holyrood

The mother of all parliaments: how family friendly is Holyrood really?

Before the election, Holyrood asked four female MSPs who had cited family as their reason for not seeking re-election about the issues facing parents in the Scottish Parliament

“I felt huge amounts of guilt. Guilt and anxiety were probably the two overriding emotions,” said SNP MSP Gail Ross of her experience of being away from her son every week due to her work as an MSP.

Ross described having to adopt a persona, “Gail the politician”, and “totally disassociate” from being a mum while she was away, which made it hard to assimilate back into family life at home.

Combining any job with parenthood can be a pull of conflicting priorities, and even more so this year, but being an MSP is more than a full-time job, with many spending at least part of the week away from home and the work taking up evenings and weekends as well as office hours.

Despite Holyrood’s claim to be a family-friendly parliament, four female MSPs cited family as their reason for not seeking re-election this year.

Holyrood asked what it had been like dealing with these pressures and whether anything can be done differently to make it work better.

“To answer the guilt question, I think all mothers feel torn between their work and they want a career, and so many of us have worked hard to get to that position as well,” said Labour MSP Jenny Marra.

“I think I was maybe in an advantageous situation because I had done a parliament. I was single at the time and I just made it my life.”

This changed when she had two children and realised she just couldn’t devote as much time to her work as she had in the past. But her decision to not seek re-election was also influenced by the situation of her party.

“I mean, we’re in third place and I would very much like for Scotland to have a Labour government, but if we’re going to do that, we need politicians who are able to give 150 per cent, and at the moment, that’s not me.

“It needs somebody that can run at it, whose family’s in a different position, perhaps.”

“Guilt? Yes, guilt all the time,” said former Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson.

“Guilt that I’m not spending enough time with my child, guilt that I’m not spending enough time with my job, guilt that I wasn’t doing as much as party leader as I was doing before. Yeah, all of that.

“And also, it wasn’t just that I didn’t have the time, I didn’t feel I was as good at it anymore.

“And that was one of the reasons I stood down as leader, actually, because if you’re not doing it to the level you thought you once were ... that contributed a huge part to me going.”

“It is tough. It’s tough in any job, I guess, trying to combine work and life and bring up a young family,” said communities secretary and SNP MSP Aileen Campbell.

“So, in any job, it’s always difficult and families up and down the country are facing those juggles daily.

“I suppose, though, being an MSP and being a minister as well, it’s not a nine-to-five job, it demands – rightly demands – that you put in a lot of hours ... it requires a lot of effort and dedication and commitment.

“So it does mean that you can’t do everything that you might want to do in your children’s life.”

Campbell was hoping that her decision to stand down “to strike a better balance” would be viewed positively as right for her and her family, but it is noticeable that the four MSPs who mentioned children as the reason they were not seeking re-election were all women.

So are there gender differences? Do women feel more guilty about being away from their children or less able to compartmentalise their home and work lives?

“I don’t think it’s a feeling,” stated Marra, “I just think it’s a reality: women do the majority of the caring, they’re generally primary carers – not 100 per cent of the time, but the vast majority of women are primary carers and do a lot of the mental thinking ... the husbands get their shirts and they walk out the door.

“And that’s the reality in the Labour group as well. I love my Labour male colleagues, but that’s what they do.

“And actually, leaving to get to Edinburgh is a completely different kettle of fish for... well, it is for me. I imagine it probably is for Gail as well, when she’s coming away Monday to Friday.”

“Yes,” Ross confirmed. “I’ve found myself getting up at half six in the morning and frantically texting my husband and saying, ‘Remember, he’s got to take his new book to school with him today’ or, you know, ‘Did you remember to do this last night because I totally forgot to remind you.’

“[Although] I do have to give my husband a lot of credit because he has carried the can, and as hard as it has been for me, it has been hard for him being on his own with Max during the week as well.”

Davidson said that a couple of her male colleagues in the Tory group got “very, very spiky [about the suggestion] that this is just a mums’ thing”.

“I think I would give credit to some of our group for being hands-on dads,” she said, “but I don’t think they have the same societal pressure to assess their workload and what they do for a living in comparison to the home responsibilities.”

For her, being in a same-sex relationship, there are not the same gender-based expectations and they have “quite a 50/50 house” based on what they are good at, but the challenge for Davidson and her partner, Jen, is not having any family around to share the load, meaning they get almost no time alone together.

Campbell, however, took a different view. “I’m not sure if there are differences,” she said.

“I mean, I was kind of struck by that when I did a similar podcast with Jenny Marra and I noticed some of the commentary on social media from other male politicians saying, ‘Oh, it’s not just women that are having to kind of strike that balance’, and maybe it’s just something that’s not been as explicitly explored amongst men and maybe that tells a story in itself, that it’s not been probed as much.”

Campbell noted that her husband had put his own career ambitions on hold and takes most of the day-to-day caring responsibilities and she was “very aware that if he wasn’t doing that, I couldn’t do my job either.”

But is there more that could be done to make the Scottish Parliament more compatible with family life?

Campbell was hopeful that the technology that’s been used over the last year can enable a better balance to be struck around the competing demands on parliamentarians that have a young family, but Ross was frustrated that the technology was brought in after it had previously been refused.

She said that before announcing she was standing down, she contacted the Standards Committee about the possibility of more use of video conferencing or a way to do remote voting but was “completely stonewalled”.

She said: “And I just thought, you know what, if there’s absolutely no chance of this happening, then that’s my mind absolutely made up and I made the announcement, and then about four weeks later, we were in lockdown and we were forced into that way of working.

“So I mean, it just shows you what can be done when you absolutely have to do it.

“But I think it’s a poor show that they were unwilling to do it for the wellbeing of their elected members and then they were forced into doing it because of a health pandemic. I think that is really, really poor.”

There is also the issue of voting times changing at the last minute, which provokes a lot of anger.

Davidson chipped in: “The thing that gets me about this whole family-friendly parliament bullshit – and it is that – is the fact that you can plan, like women, men, parents are perfectly able to plan if they’re given the information, but even before the lockdown happened, the amount of times where we were supposed to have a vote at five and then it moved to half past, 6pm or whatever, that kills you.

“It kills the people that are travelling because it mucks up their travel plans. It kills the people who have got to pick up a child, or that have got an after-school club or have got a childminder working to a certain time.”

Davidson said she spoke to the presiding officer, Ken Macintosh – himself a father of six – a number of times about this issue and was “absolutely stonewalled”.

And Marra noted that even a short delay can make a big difference.

“You know, 15 minutes doesn’t seem like a long time, but when Adam was a baby, it was the difference between me getting a train that got me home in time to breastfeed him before he went to sleep and not getting home in time to do that.

“So for every working parent, these timings are critical. It’s the pickup from the childminder and your relationship with that person, and how much latitude they’ll give you and all of these things.

“That’s not taken into consideration in the bureau.”

Both Marra and Davidson were keen that voting times be looked at.

Marra pointed out that in Ireland, the parliament only votes once a week, so they could parcel them all up into one session.

They could have the votes at lunchtime, after FMQs, rather than at the end of the day.

Davidson noted that there doesn’t need to be three days of afternoon sittings with votes at five every day and that that wasn’t how it used to be.

The other thing that hadn’t been mentioned, Davidson said, “because nobody bloody uses it”, is the parliament’s creche, which is designed for people doing a tour of the parliament or who have come in to be committee witnesses, rather than for the approximately 1,800 people that work on site.

“I’m not saying you have to have a nursery on site, but if you’re going to claim to be the most family-friendly parliament in the world, you want more than a glorified, well, it’s not even glorified, [it’s] like a creche,” she said.

“This idea that we’re somehow ahead of London is just nonsense,” Marra added.

“Westminster has a full-time nursery. We’ve got MP colleagues who take their children to London with them and are on site with them as they are working, but in a superb nursery.

“And they’ve also got proxy voting on maternity [leave], which the Scottish Parliament just blankly said no to when I went on maternity leave last year, a month before lockdown.

“No, you cannot have a proxy vote. So all of the people I represent lost out on my vote because I was taking my right to a maternity time.”

Davidson added: “The answer that you get on that when you ask about [proxy voting], because I asked about it when I went on mat leave, is we’ll just pair you so that the actual provision will be the same.

“But then suddenly you go on, like, TheyWorkForYou or whatever, and you’ve got this big gap and it looks like you’ve only turned up for three-quarters of the time that parliament’s been sitting.

“And it’s like, ‘No, I had a kid. I had a child and I took the legally mandated time off.’

“And, you know, I would have loved to have taken longer, but you guilt yourself back into what you need to do.”

This isn’t just an issue for a few MSPs, either. It is a question for the whole parliament and feeds into the process of increasing the number of female MSPs and having a democracy that is really representative of the whole of society.

“I don’t think any of us are saying that for women right across the country, juggling motherhood and work isn’t a stretch,” said Marra.

“It is a challenge for everyone. I think why it’s important for parliament to have this discussion is it’s critical that parliament has female representatives in it.

“And it’s critical that we have female representatives who have experience of these issues, of childcare, of family, and are able to make a contribution... these are issues that we have to address or the risk is that you have a male-dominated parliament. I don’t think that’s in anyone’s interest.”

Read the most recent article written by Jenni Davidson - The Holyrood baby: More likely to live in poverty now than the day she was born


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