WHEN the Scottish Parliament was set up two decades ago, its ambition to do things differently for members and their families was greeted with suspicion by some. The “out to lunch bunch” screamed one tabloid, as it painted a picture of MSPs, wining and dining every day, enjoying cushy Fridays off and extended summer holidays.

Times, thankfully, have changed and Holyrood has been held up over the years as an example of how to do politics differently. It was much lauded for having the first creche in the world for both visitors and MSPs. Voting time takes place at 5pm, instead of the Westminster habit dragging long into the night. Breastfeeding and babies are allowed in the chamber.

So far, so family-friendly. But tell that to Aileen Campbell and Gail Ross, who both recently announced they will be stepping down at the Holyrood elections in 2021, unable to find a balance between life as an MSP and raising a family.

The National: Aileen Campbell

Ross talked of 12-hour days, extensive travel and days away from home. “It can start at 8am and then there are events at night,” she said. “It is just solid all the way through and then constituency work at home. There is little time for your family.”

Campbell made history as the first Holyrood minister to go on maternity leave. In an interview five years ago, she said she felt comfortable enough to breastfeed her young son around parliament.

But even then she also spoke of still having constituency duties while on maternity leave. Announcing her departure last week she said: “There is no getting away from the fact that the job – while immensely rewarding – is demanding in terms of pressure and time.”

A far cry from the image of MSPs taking it easy over a bottle of wine. The reality is that Holyrood still places huge demands on time and energy, with politics often stretching into the night.

Campbell and Ross are two out of seven SNP MSPs standing down in 2021. They are in their late 30s and early 40s and have decades of working life ahead of them. In contrast the rest – all men – are around retirement age.

When such small numbers are involved, it could of course be argued it is impossible to draw any definitive conclusions. But with the ongoing battle to even attract women – particularly young women – into politics in the first place, it’s an issue which can’t be just waved aside, exposing the glaring reality of how unprepared parliaments are to deal with the realities of politicians with family lives.

And it’s not just an issue for Holyrood or Westminster. When it comes to parliaments around the world, there are few which can be held up as shining examples of how it should be done. The global percentage of women member of parliaments is just a lowly 24.9%, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

Perhaps we can look at New Zealand. A video of the speaker of the house, Trevor Mallard, bottle feeding an MP’s baby went viral last year. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern gave birth to her daughter Neve in 2018 while in office, only the second world leader to do so.

There were casualties along the way, however. Four years earlier, New Zealand Green MP Holly Walker had stepped down after serving just one term, later revealing the stress of juggling a first baby with her parliamentary career had driven her to self-injury.

READ MORE: Aileen Campbell is seventh SNP MSP stepping down from Holyrood

Other countries undoubtedly have a long way to go. Last year Kenyan MP Zuleikha Hassan was ejected from parliament after bringing her five-month-old daughter into the chamber due to an emergency at home.

Here in the UK, professors Rosie Campbell and Sarah Childs carried out research in 2012 showing how Westminster is failing new parent MPs – and mothers in particular. In 2012, they found 45% of women MPs had no children – compared to 28% of men.

The good news is since 2010 that parental gap has disappeared, coinciding with changes such as the establishment of a nursery and babies and children being allowed in the lobbies. In 2018 former Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson made history by becoming the first MP to bring a baby into a Commons debate.

Whether this trend will continue remains to be seen, but what it does suggest is practical changes can make a difference.

When Ross announced her departure, she said she had asked Holyrood’s Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee to look at whether MSPs could take part in meetings via video or to vote remotely.

The committee has now confirmed it will consult with MSPs over whether new procedures for proxy voting should be brought in, with convener Bill Kidd acknowledging the need to help members “manage the competing pressures of their roles ... with their lives outside politics”.

The House of Commons is currently piloting proxy voting for new parents and those who have recently adopted. These procedures having been used by more than 20 MPs since they were first introduced in January 2019.

Meanwhile the National Assembly of Wales permits proxy voting for members who are absent because of childbirth, who have just become adoptive or surrogate parents, and those who have suffered either a miscarriage or stillbirth.

It’s a start. But far more radical action could be taken. What about the possibility of job-sharing for MPs? It’s a common practice in many other areas of public and private sector work – so why not for politicians?

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It’s an idea that has been mooted before, but often dismissed or met with outright hostility. Take the reaction of Tory MP Sir Roger Gale, who described it as “sheer lunacy and completely impractical” when Labour’s John McDonnell attempted to change the law to permit job-sharing in 2012.

He said becoming a member of parliament was a vocation, involving many hours of work and a “huge sacrifice” on the part of people’s families. If you can’t do that, he argued, then you just simply shouldn’t stand for parliament.

Do we really want our elected representatives to be only those that have the will – and the opportunities – to be spending most of their time in a political bubble? It’s not just about mothers and fathers. Others might be caring for an elderly relative, for example. Disability campaigners have been particularly supportive of job-sharing, pointing out the idea is a way of helping some who may not be able to work full-time have more opportunity to enter parliament.

The idea of a part-time MP or MSP is one both the public and politicians will undoubtedly need some persuading over, with inevitable questions over how it would work when it comes to voting, for example.

Yet research looking into the practicalities of such an arrangement for Westminster has been carried out, with the Fawcett Society concluding it could be workable through arrangements such as having prospective job-sharers look for someone with similar political values and attitudes, and having single vote between them rather than a “half vote”.

Job-sharing is something which the Welsh Assembly is seriously considering. Now would be a good time for Holyrood to at least look at also exploring the idea. Long established institutions can be notoriously resistant to change.

But even the most long held of traditions have not always been as set in stone as they might seem.

The House of Commons at one time regularly sat on Saturdays. The reason for the demise of these weekend sittings is recorded as being because Sir Robert Walpole wanted to go hunting for at least one day a week.

Surely it shouldn’t be so hard for our modern-day parliaments to make sure they actually reflect the society they have been set up to serve?