Whilst out talking to members yesterday, a couple of times the thorny question of 'work-life balance' came up - how does an MP with children representing a constituency far from London, find the quality time to spend with their family? The answer is: with difficulty. I would be lying if it wasn't something that my wife and I have thought about and discussed many times. Typically (and I accept that this pattern might vary considerably depending on distance and family arrangements) what happens is that MPs who live an unreasonable travel time from the House of Commons get digs in London and stay there from Sunday night to Thursday lunchtime and travel back to their constituencies at some point on that day, ready to spend the whole day on Friday and in some instances on Saturday as well, holding surgeries, attending meetings, media engagements, etc. So, roughly speaking, that leaves Thursday evening, Friday evening, Saturday afternoon and Sunday daytime for them to spend time with their families. If the MP has very young children who are likely to be in bed in the evening, they will only see them possibly very briefly on Saturday morning, Saturday afternoon, and on Sunday daytime before they head off back to London in the evening to start it all over again. So is it any wonder that MPs tend to be male (so that all the childcare responsibilities are taken care of by wives or partners), middle-upper class (so that they can afford help and support with the children) or older 'empty-nesters' (the kids are old enough to take care of themselves). I'm lucky. My circumstances are such that If I were given the honour to be the Liberal Democrat Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for the Bath constituency, and then go on to get elected to Parliament, both my wife and I can both purse our passions (mine - helping, supporting and representing the people of Bath; hers - writing books). That still doesn't get around the issue of the limited quality family time. If selected and elected, the time I will have to spend with my family will be limited.
I'm not however writing this piece for people to feel sorry for MPs - far from it. In fact the way I see it is that MPs are no different from those who work in a whole range of professions and businesses that require workers to spend large amounts of time away from their families. As someone whose father was in the military, I remember there were times when he was gone for weeks at a time. People who work in the oil industry, fishermen/women, diplomats, international business people, even some shift workers, often have very little quality family time. They just cut their cloth accordingly and do the best they can under the circumstances, and I'm afraid to say, that is exactly what MPs have to do too. What this does highlight though is the need, where possible, for organisations, businesses and governments to embrace flexible working arrangements. Is it absolutely necessary for staff to turn up just before the time on their contract and leave just after it or can they work around the school run? Is it really imperative that staff be in the office or can they work from home a few days a week? Does each job have to be carried out by one person or can job sharing become much more prevalent? The Lib Dems have led the way in family friendly initiatives such as shared parental leave, 15 hours free childcare and free school meals for infants. Clearly there is still much work still to be done both in Parliament and in the business community to ensure that family commitments do not become a barrier to entry. By limiting the number of MPs with young children, Parliament is fishing in a very narrow stretch of water for its ideas, insight and perspective. It's no wonder that MPs share a very similar background and do not reflect the country as a whole. Parliament is poorer because of it and it’s about time more was done to open it up to allow a much broader range of people and ideas to come through.