Danielle Rowley: Holyrood should set family friendly example to keep women in politics

Gail Ross is the member for Caithness, Sutherland and Ross. Picture: Andrew Cowan/Scottish ParliamentGail Ross is the member for Caithness, Sutherland and Ross. Picture: Andrew Cowan/Scottish Parliament
Gail Ross is the member for Caithness, Sutherland and Ross. Picture: Andrew Cowan/Scottish Parliament
You’re probably bored of discussing the various ways in which women are often excluded from politics. Quite honestly, so am I.

Yet here we are. Last week another woman announced she will be stepping down from frontline politics – this time it was SNP MSP Gail Ross.

I’ve just spent two and a half years in draconian Westminster, and worked hard to reform it. But hearing Gail’s criticisms, it seems Holyrood isn’t really any more “family friendly”.

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Of course, much progress has been made. There is great work happening across Scotland to encourage women to stand for political office, such as parties’ own training programmes and the Scotland’s Women Stands project. I do hope we will see the impact of this work reflected in the Scottish election next year.

However, while we can agree that it’s important work to ensure women feel inspired, supported and able to stand, I’m afraid it isn’t enough.

There is an alarming rate of women stepping back. Whether from Holyrood, Westminster or other leadership positions, it should be a rallying cry for us to do more to ensure that once a woman gets the job, she is supported to stay in the job. Gender balance is no good if women are still burdened with the age old problem of juggling family commitments with work – as well as the added pressure and abuse that politics brings.

When I was elected to Westminster, I found the weekly commute tough. I may not have had children, but I did have elderly relatives that I was responsible for and there were occasions when I had to choose between being by their side, or being at a vote. This choice is something that parliamentarians shouldn’t have to face, and what’s more, it can be easily avoided. Would this have been easier if I were in Holyrood instead? Well for me, yes – because I live a few miles from the capital. We might think of London as some distant land, and people would often remark about my nightmare commute. But for an MSP from outside the central belt, is Holyrood any easier to get to? Gail Ross said it could take her up to nine hours to get home. Holyrood doesn’t sit as late as Westminster, but for a Highlands MSP that matters little.

After much criticism of heavily pregnant MPs coming in to vote, and an MP being rushed from hospital and pushed through the lobbies in a wheelchair, Westminster finally moved to allow proxy voting in some circumstances. This is a step in the right direction, and something Holyrood should move to, but proxy voting is just the tip of the iceberg.

We need formalised maternity leave, and cover for when MSPs become ill as a minimum. But the Scottish Parliament was supposed to be about ambition and equality – so I know it can do more to support its parliamentarians.

With digital voting capabilities, video calling, and distance working apps, MSPs in remote parts of Scotland could fully engage in Parliament without having to be there every day.

If we can pay for our shopping with a fingerprint, video call friends in Australia, and safely share personal data, why can’t our MSPs have the ability to work from their constituencies when needed? Not only would this be better for parents, but it would increase the time MSPs get to spend in their local areas. One of the hardest things I found as an MP was not being able to attend local events or meetings on weekdays, because I was stuck trudging through the lobbies of Westminster for hours on end.

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Representation matters, and it’s about much more than being “family friendly”. Lived experience from parents, carers, those with disabilities, and from all corners and communities of Scotland is essential to our policy making.

A more inclusive Parliament would bring a wealth of experience and views, so it must modernise to ensure everyone can take part.

The Scottish Parliament not only needs to be a welcoming place to work, but should set an example and be a beacon of best practice for other workplaces. If we want a forward-looking and progressive country, we must have a modern and inclusive Parliament.

Danielle Rowley was Scottish Labour Party MP for Midlothian from 2017 to 2019