The LCD monitor on the wall read “Prayers are over. Lord Speaker on the wool sack.”
This is typical of the archaic, old-fashioned environment of the Houses of Parliament. I’ve visited the Palace of Westminster numerous times and while a splendid building, it must make for a dreadful working environment.
There are dingy corridors, poorly lit hallways, steep stairs, no lifts and the occasional bit of artwork to remind you of an unsavoury part of Britain’s history. It is cavernous and whenever I visit I half expect a bored volunteer in a Knight’s Templar costume to try and sell me a souvenir brochure.
Far from undergoing a multi-billion pound refurbishment, I’d like to see the Palace converted into a first-rate museum and provide our beleaguered MPs and peers with proper parliamentary facilities fit for a 21st Century democracy at a fraction of the price (but I’ll leave that thought hanging).
Just the other day, however, something thoroughly modern happened in one of the Palace’s oak-panelled Committee Rooms (yes, something more contemporary than an LCD monitor). There was a meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Fatherhood (APPGF), a group chaired by former Labour cabinet minister David Lammy MP.
From memory, this was the third APPGF meeting I’ve attended, but this was very different from the others. Firstly, the room was packed and a number of well-known gender-rights figures were among the delegates including former Loaded editor Martin Daubney and fatherhood and family campaigner Duncan Fisher, not to mention representatives from the Fawcett Society and Barnardos.
Secondly, joining Lammy to address the group was Labour MP Maria Miller, high-profile chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee. It didn’t end there.
Conservative MPs Tim Loughton and Steve Double sat alongside Labour MPs Stella Creasey and Jess Philips. Openly feminist female Labour MPs, and some very significant ones at that, were sitting down with male counterparts from the Conservative party.
The aim of the meeting was to discuss two main issues. First, The Women and Equalities Select Committee’s Inquiry into Fathers and the Workplace and the recently published Modern Families Index published by the charity Working Families (which I have written about at length here).
There was 90 minutes of lively discussion. Tim Loughton spoke of the need to consider the mental health of fathers. This, he said, doesn’t receive the attention it deserves and unchecked leads to greater incidents of domestic violence and other social problems.
Steve Double said most discussion about improving the workplace environment for men and women revolved around large city intuitions. He stated there was a need to change the culture on the shop floor, factories and in lower-paid occuptations.
Double also revealed that he broke new ground as an employee of Barclays Bank. In 1990, following the birth of one of his children, Double was the first man to take an extended period of leave from the bank to look after family and home.
Stella Creasey said more had to be done to make it acceptable for men to do childcare. She also said that with Brexit and restricted migration from the European Union on the horizon, employers would need access to all the labour they could get their hands on. One way to achieve this would be increasing female participation in the workforce and this could only be made possible if gender roles were more felxible.
Philips revealed her husband was the main carer of her kids and that working-class men were often more involved with their kids than middle class guys and this needed addressing.
She also called for greater state intervention to change working culture. This, Philips said, would lead to cultural change in the workplace and home.
There was some disagreement but discussion was enormously positive and the panel all seemed to agree on one thing: there had to be widespread cultural change in the working environment. It needed to change so that men could be more active fathers. This, in turn, would free up women to be more economically active and benefit children and families by encouraging active, involved fatherhood.
One attendee asked if we had “reached a tipping point?” Had we got to a point where the men’s rights and feminist agendas had merged?
It would be easy to get carried away in the heat of an enormously positive meeting and say this seemed to be the case. I would be reluctant to say we’ve got to the tipping point, but it is no small feat that the chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee was in the room discussing men’s issues.
Lammy ended the meeting up saying it was great to see Labour and Conservative MPs showing an interest in fatherhood issues. He also said he hoped to see father-friendly commitments appearing in both party’s manifestos.
I would simply conclude by saying the fact such a meeting took place was highly significant. You would never get complete agreement between such diverse individuals and groups but at least they were willing to come together and talk about men’s issues and feminist issues and recognise they are complex and inter-woven.
On a completely unrelated note, this meeting took place a week after the terrorist assault that led to PC Keith Palmer’s death, almost to the minute. Although slightly quieter than normal, it was good to see Parliament working normally.
Yes, there were many tributes to those that had died both in the Palace grounds and on Westminster Bridge. Parliamentary business continued and the tourists were still out in large numbers. It was good to see people calmly carrying on with their lives, respectful to what had happened, but undeterred.