How does a centuries-old institution stay relevant in the modern world? A new report has offered bold recommendations to transform the UK Parliament into a representative instution fit for the twenty-first century:
1. Lift a ban on breastfeeding
2. Relax the dress code
3. Install gender neutral toilets
The Good Parliament Report, commissioned by the Speaker of the House John Bercow, has found that whilst the UK welcomes the appointment of a new female Prime Minister, Westminster remains disproportionately white, male, and elite.
The author, Professor Sarah Childs of Bristol University, sets out 43 recommendations that aim to transform who sits in the House of Commons, improve the effectiveness of MP’s performance and improve the declining public perception of politics in general.
At the launch of the report, Professor Childs said that "as we welcome the second female prime minister, we must not forget that Parliament itself remains far from diverse and inclusive. Change will not happen on its own.” Expressing the need for urgent reform, Professor Childs added: “Parliament needs to accept its responsibility to ensure a diverse composition of MPs and that present members are able to equally participate. Established ways of working need to be questioned."
The 2015 UK general election saw a record number of female MPs elected to the House of Commons. But this is still only 191 MPs out of a possible 650. Although Parliament is becoming more diverse with each election, it still remains largely unrepresentative. Established rules can stop some MPs from taking part in democratic processes such as debates and committees, limiting the range of voices able to fully partcipate in public life. In January this year, when MP Tulip Siddiq left a parliamentary debate for a short break and a snack when she was seven months pregnant, during her pregnancy ,she was accused of "bringing down the whole of womankind" by "playing the pregnancy card." And current rules do not allow breastfeeding in the parliamentary chamber, because children are not allowed entry. The report suggests that this rule should be reviewed as “permitting entry to infants would have symbolic benefits,” as it would show the House of Commons to be a “role-model parent-friendly institution.”
In light of the report, Speaker John Bercow has set up the Commons Reference Group to review the recommendations and make appropriate changes as a way of making UK parliamentary democracy more accessible and representative. Speaking at the launch, Bercow said that he is “delighted to launch Sarah’s report, along with my parliamentary colleagues, which is the result of a great deal of work and extensive consultation with members and staff.” He added that “not everyone will agree with every recommendation or suggested outcome, but I am confident that my colleagues on the Commons Reference Group will scrutinise its contents very closely with a view to taking on board a good number of its suggestions.”
The report also examines further reforms to make Parliament more inclusive, like gender neutral toilets. Failure to do so could limit the range of people that feel able to visit and work in Parliament.
Diversity is not only a good thing for democracy, it’s vital to its survival. A lot Westminster's old, antiquated rules were made a century ago when Parliament was — on the whole — filled with white, elite men. And although a lot of the recommendations in this report seem like a radical departure from the norm, more does need to be done to ensure we have a vibrant and accessible democracy.
Society has moved in on in the last 100 years, maybe it’s time for Parliament to do the same.