At the end of every day in the Commons, the speaker stands from his chair and puts the motion “That this House do now adjourn”. It happens every night and on almost every occasion, the only people left in the chamber are a government whip, a solitary backbencher and a lone minister. The reason is that by some quirk of parliamentary history, the motion to adjourn the House is debated and that debate takes as its subject whatever the remaining backbencher – who has previously booked the debate with the speaker – wishes.
More often than not, they are anodyne: a matter of local interest to the Member of Parliament or a small detail of regulation that they wish to see corrected. Hardly ever is there anyone in the public gallery to watch this tiny crowd and the minister in reply can be relied upon to say very little of significance.
The adjournment debate on Monday last was different. As the previous votes had gone on somewhat we started late – at about ten to eleven – but despite the hour there were two dozen colleagues sitting round Will Quince, the new MP for Colchester and the proposer of the motion. Called to stand by the Speaker, Will calmly told how he and his wife had lost a baby a year ago. He explained how the whole traumatic, terrible experience was made bearable by the extraordinary care his family received at Colchester Hospital, where there is a dedicated bereavement suite for mothers giving birth to stillborn babies. Situated away from the main maternity wing, these rooms enable the parents time and silence to grieve, untroubled by noises of newborn crying and newly-joyful families that would be around them were they to be on the usual maternity wing.
Will then explained how this was not a universal experience for parents going through the hell of stillbirth. Nearly half of maternity units in the country do not have a bereavement suite as they do at Colchester. His request from the government was simple: could the care he, his wife and his little baby received be extended to all parents in their sad situation.
After Will had sat down, our colleague Antoinette Sandbach told her story. Bravely, so bravely, she recounted how her little baby had stopped breathing in his cot, how they had rushed to hospital but she had forgotten her ‘phone so was unable to ring anyone, her memory for numbers scrambled by the horror she was enduring. Her baby dead, the hospital first talked to her about the police, not about the help she so desperately needed. She explained how counselling was lacking for so many women like her and how “the system” was not set up to deal with these mercifully rare but unthinkably awful experiences.
Sitting behind the despatch box, I had prepared for me a speech in reply. But like everyone else in the House, my throat was tight with emotion and my hand shook as I tried to write notes on what I wanted to say in response. So when I stood, I put my speech aside, reflected on what my courageous colleagues had said, and pledged to do all I could to correct the faults they had identified.
I sat down and Speaker Bercow closed the day with the quietest murmur of “order, order” I have ever heard from that chair, and we all left the chamber in quiet respect. My first instruction on arriving at the department the next day was to set the wheels in motion to put things right. In so many ways, this was a debate with a difference, that will, in turn, make a difference.