Friday, January 10, 2014

Should MPs be allowed to take their babies into the voting lobby?

There's been a bit of controversy over the issue of breastfeeding in the House of Commons and taking babies into the voting lobby sparked by comments by Jo Swinson, who gave birth to her son Andrew on 22 December. The argument goes that you can take a sword into the Commons voting lobby, but not a baby. On face value, it sounds like yet another way in which Westminster needs to be dragged into the 21st century.
Jo said to the Guardian:
"I think it's been lovely the way people have been really supportive in parliament of my pregnancy," she said. "[But] I think some of the structures of the institutions of the House of Commons probably don't make it as easy as it could be, in particular that you don't get maternity cover. As a minister, I get cover for my work … but nobody else will be being the MP for East Dunbartonshire."
Swinson said her staff would do a fantastic job of looking after her constituents but other countries allow a replacement MP to stand in.
I don't think it's impossible or insurmountable but I don't think there's any job that's particularly easy to have a baby when you're in it," she said. "There's always going to be a lot of challenges and there's plenty of people who have jobs with even more difficult challenges, like people who are self-employed and running a business."
She condemned the "bizarre" ban on walking through the House of Commons voting lobby while holding a baby. "I hardly think it would be too much of a disruption," she said. "You can take a sword through there but you can't a baby.
There has been a change that women who are breastfeeding can be nodded through. But I think when you are perfectly capable of walking through the lobby holding a small baby, I think there would be a better way of just allowing that. But parliament moves but slowly.
Channel 4's Cathy Newman, writing in the Telegraph, criticised Jo, saying:
Don't get me wrong, I'm all for mums being encouraged to breastfeed, though too many are made to feel terribly guilty if they can't make it work. I'm afraid, though, that it doesn't greatly advance the feminist cause to allow MPs to cart their bawling babies through the lobby. The Commons is a workplace unlike any other, but a workplace nevertheless. And how many new mums in other walks of life can bring their babies to work day in day out?
To be fair to Cathy, she does eventually get round to talking about the fact that no cover is provided and the hours are long, but I think her conclusion is flawed. If you've just had a baby and there's a vote that affects your constituency, you kind of have to be there. The same applies at Council level. I know of one councillor who had to turn up to vote when her baby was days old to get the budget through. So if you go to Westminster for the day, for that vote, you don't have childcare, you don't have a nursery place. You either have to take someone with you to look after the baby, or you can't vote. How much simpler would it be to walk in from your flat, leave the pram at the entrance of the voting lobby and carry the baby through. It disrupts nobody. And for those who worry about prams taking up too much space, well, the House of Lords has room for lots of mobility scooters. They've managed to adapt themselves to the needs of their members. The Commons should follow suit.
We should be looking at ways of making it easier for mothers, parents to participate in Parliament and take down any barriers that present themselves. There have been several attempts to change things over the years. In 2000, a ruling was made that no baby could be breastfed in a committee room because standing orders said that only committee members could consume refreshments. At that stage there was nowhere else where babies could be breastfed in Parliament and that led to the establishment of breastfeeding rooms.
To my eternal disappointment, David Steel, when he was Presiding Officer at the Scottish Parliament, refused to allow breastfeeding in the Chamber. Voting is a far less archaic process there. Members press a button at their desks. They don't have to spend 15 minutes of their life per vote in a queue.  Maybe one way round this is to actually get rid of the voting lobby itself.
Jenny Willott, in a recent AD LIB interview, talked about having to leave her baby in the arms of a Conservative MP, Edward Timpson, while she went to vote. Timpson isn't a random stranger, Jenny went to school with him, but even so, it's hardly ideal. When a vote is called in the Commons, the division bell rings. Members then have 8 minutes to get themselves from wherever they are on the parliamentary estate to the voting lobbies which are then locked. They may have to do this many times, at 20 minutes at least a time, at unsocial hours and sometimes unpredictably so. In Holyrood, you have Decision Time on all matters at the end of the day's business at 5pm. It's quite simple and takes a matter of minutes to get through it all.
Having said that, I have absolutely no problem with babes-in-arms being breastfed in the chamber itself. What better sign of a modern, inclusive Parliament could there be? It allows mum to participate in the proceedings and baby to be fed and nobody else is affected. It's a win all round.  I've loved the pictures of Italian MEP Lucia Ronzulli with her daughter in the chamber of the European Parliament. She gets some stick for it, but she's a pioneer. It would be great if this was a much more commonplace sight.
Nick Clegg and Jo have championed a very flexible and liberal approach to shared parental leave. I think it's also worth encouraging employers to be much more accommodating to their employees in terms of breastfeeding and childcare. We have this idea that when parents return to work their children are put into nursery, or have a childminder or nanny. For some it might work better if the caregiver brings the baby in at certain times to be fed. It's much quicker and more efficient than using a pump. That wouldn't work for everybody in every job, but it should be an option for those for whom it would work. Employers generally should be encouraged to be flexible and to try to meet their employees' individual needs. They get more out of them that way.
The work of an MP, though, is not like most jobs. Mothers in traditional employment get up to a year at home with their baby without having to think about the place. Self employed mothers can often organise their work around their babies. This is not the case for someone who has to represent their constituents. It's about time Parliament stopped being so unsufferably traditional and stuffy and set a positive example which could then permeate through the rest of society.

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