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MP Neil Gray insists no job is too important to miss paternity leave. And his job has been bigger than most recently.
Neil Gray is the answer to any questions about whether a dad is too important at his workplace to take paternity leave.
He’s an MP. And they’ve had quite a lot on this autumn.
But Neil was at home in his Airdrie and Shotts constituency dealing with the arrival of twin girls.
“I’m proud I had that time at home, even at a time our greatest constitutional crisis. And I’d do it again,” he says. “It’s not OK for fathers to face pressure to be back at work regardless of the fact my job is stopping Boris Johnson and stopping Brexit.”
Neil’s an SNP member facing his third election in five years.
He admits he was initially keen to keep quiet about his absence from the Commons for the last few months. “I feared there’d be that judgment, that feeling that I should be back at work.”
But a friend pointed out that as a lawmaker he’s a certain influence and profile so he decided to speak up because there’s no shame in paternity leave. And to call for more time off for MPs, and everyone else.
Neil’s one of a handful of MPs to have used new rules of proxy voting. That means he can stay at home and a colleague casts his votes for him, for two weeks. But those rules only came in this year.
Neil’s grateful for the fortnight off. Particularly with two other children aged five and three as well as the twins.
“I don’t know how MPs did it in the past, before things like FaceTime, before we had a more flexible parliamentary week.
“I have a role as a parliamentarian in Westminster, a role as a constituency MP and a role as a father and family man. Covering myself across all three is hard, it’s a constant juggle.
“It’s hard on mothers and fathers. And it should be hard on fathers. We have a responsibility at home we need to take more seriously than we have in the past.
“I’m glad society is moving to a place where there is greater expectation on fathers at home. But society has not caught up on the structural support needed to help fathers.”
Neil wants male MPs to get four weeks of ‘paternity leave’ when they can use proxy voting. (The weird employment status of MPs mean they don’t get any actual statutory paternity or maternity leave.) “SNP policy is to double paternity leave to four weeks. I’d like to see that in the House of Commons. We’re here to make the law we should set an example of good workplace practice.”
Of course if four weeks is good enough for MPs they might see fit to use their power to change the law for everyone. “I hope the law does change for everybody,” adds Neil.
There’s currently a government consultation ongoing looking at boosting paternity leave.
Neil now has to face a five week election campaign. That means he’ll be at home rather than in London. But he’ll inevitably be busy campaigning.
The autumn turmoil has sort of played into his hands. The prorogation that was then called off occurred just days after the twins arrived on September 7. And his chief whip Patrick Grady – in charge of organising his party’s MPs in London – made sure Neil only had to come to London once for a key vote before he returned to work properly last week.
“The prorogation personally suited me, but professionally it was a disaster and not what we wanted!
“I was in daily, sometimes hourly contact, with the chief whip and Ian Blackford the SNP leader at Westminster about potential business in the Commons and about what was going on in the law courts. I was grateful they gave me the space to be with my family – not just the twins but supporting my wife and my other children. But in terms of my ability to switch off and concentrate on being a father it wasn’t ideal.”
There’s an obvious retort to the problems Neil raises. If he doesn’t want to have to deal with the unique and acute issues that come from being an MP and a dad then don’t stand for election next month. “If parliament is to be reflective of society how can you have a parliament devoid of mothers and fathers?” he responds. “Society is built on the family unit and that has to be reflected in the lawmaking process for the majority of people who are mothers and fathers.”
Neil’s not got a big majority. We’ll have to wait and see if he’s returned at the general election and how many working dads join him in parliament come December 13.
The more there are and the more that understand and raise issues like paternity leave and the juggle of work and home life the better it’ll be for making changes and making life better for everyone.