Babies in Parliament

Stuff reports:

A screaming baby in the debating chamber late at night has prompted to discuss how to become a more family-friendly workplace.

Labour MP says she was forced to attend a debate with her 5-month-old daughter on Friday, as far as she understood it, “simply to make up numbers”.

If she was forced to attend a debate, that was a decision made by the Labour Party Whips. MPs do not need to be in the debating chamber to vote.

The debate, on Crown minerals, stretched until midnight. However, Mahuta said when her daughter started crying before it ended, she was faced with little choice but to leave – missing the vote. The Hauraki-Waikato MP said it was “silly” that she found herself having to be there at that hour in the first place, breaking her baby’s routine.

“This is specific to my responsibility as a breastfeeding mother,” Mahuta said. “This is practically silly, if I’m just being in the building to make up numbers at that time of night.”

Parliament requires that 75 per cent of MPs are in the complex while the House is sitting.

No it does not. There is no requirement for any number of MPs to be in the complex while the House is sitting. The requirement is that a party can only cast for up to 25% of its MPs. But a party can choose to vote with fewer than its normal number of votes. Labour did this on Saturday when they were casting (I think) 19 votes. They have 33 MPs so are allowed nine MPs away so to be voting with 19 means 23 of their 33 MPs were away from Parliament.

The point is that it is up to a party how it manages who is at Parliament, and whether or not they vote with their full numbers. Obviously the Government has less flexibility as they can not afford to be votes down.

The Herald reports:

Parliament’s Speaker is considering a rule change for MPs with babies after Labour MP Nanaia Mahuta was required to be in Parliament with her 5-month-old baby until midnight last week because Labour needed her there so it could cast its full tally of votes during urgency.

Parties need at least 75 per cent of their MPs in Parliament to cast all of their votes, and Ms Mahuta’s usual care arrangements did not extend to Friday so she took her baby daughter with her, including going to the Debating Chamber at one point, but left when the baby started crying.

Again this is an issue for the Labour Party Whips. They required Manuta to be in the parliamentary buildings and even if they needed her there for her vote, there is no standing order that required her to actually be in the debating chamber – unless the whips rostered her on for house duty.

She has asked the Speaker to consider new rules for nursing mothers, saying they should not have to be at Parliament later than 9pm without affecting the party’s voting numbers or taking leave off other MPs.

I am not convinced this is an issue for . The whips have flexibility to allow 25% of MPs to be absent. The Labour Whips could have done one of three things:

  1. Not required Mahuta to be there, and required another Labour MP to be there so they keep their 33 votes
  2. Not required Mahuta to be there and casted 32 votes instead of 33
  3. Asked the Government for a pair (yes you can still effectively do that) and have both a National and Labour MP leave the precincts so both parties are a vote down, keeping the relative balance

Standing orders should allow an MP who is caring for an infant to bring the baby into the House, as has happened in the European Parliament. But I don’t see why standing orders need to exempt mothers from being there after 9 pm when the whips already have more than enough flexibility to avoid this. Mahuta’s issue should be with the Labour Whips.

Take a comparison. If an MP is seriously ill, or worse, standing orders don’t give them an exemption from being at Parliament for he purpose of proxy votes. Instead the whips just allocate them one of the 25% quota. The entire reason we have the allowance for 255 not to be present is to avoid having to have standing orders try and be prescriptive as to why an MP can or can not be away from Parliament.

Even the PM doesn’t get a special leave pass to be away from Parliament when doing official duties around the country. He or she has to be one of the 25%.

She also believed it was time Parliament developed more formal, wider guidelines for mothers of young children, including rules on taking a baby into the House.

Speaker David Carter said he would talk to the business committee about allowing mothers of young babies to be away on occasion without affecting their party’s leave quota.

I’m all for mothers being able to take a baby into the House. I think the precedent is that they can, but this is not explicit.

But I see no reason to start defining explicit categories of people who can be away from the parliamentary precinct, as it defeats the entire rationale of giving each party flexibility to decide for itself.

The question should be why the Labour Whips required Mahuta to be present late on a Friday night.

Labour whip Chris Hipkins said the party would support a change to give nursing mothers leave on top of the usual allocation.

Every effort had been made to give Ms Mahuta as much leave as possible, but sometimes that was impossible because other MPs also had commitments outside Parliament.

As I blogged above, Labour could simply vote with less than their full entitlement – as they did on Saturday. Or they could ask the Government for a pair.

Also as I blogged above, the requirement is to be in the grounds of Parliament, not to be in the debating chamber. Any requirement for Mahuta to be in the chamber was a requirement by Labour Whips, not by Standing Orders. The only people who have to be in the House are a presiding officer, a Minister and a whip for any party with more than five MPs.

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