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12 November 2015

Breastfeeding in the House of Commons is just one part of a family-friendly Parliament

Better scheduling around school holidays, maternity and paternity cover, and leave to care for elderly parents should all be available to those who work in a modern, representative legislature.

By Jo Swinson

Well that settles it, then. According to Sir Simon Burns, breastfeeding in the House of Commons would “risk tabloid ridicule”, so it clearly should not even be considered. Though in the same debate he said he didn’t agree that the “overwhelming majority” of MPs were white males. In fact 436 of the 650 MPs are white men, which at 67 per cent looks like an overwhelming majority to me, especially when you consider white men make up just 42 per cent of the UK population.

The debate was on the family-friendliness of the House of Commons, which is something of an oxymoron for a workplace that requires most of its members to work in two locations hundreds of miles apart each week.

Yet efforts to improve the working arrangements to enable a wide range of people to take on the role of Member of Parliament are important. Of course the usual business case for diversity applies as in any organisation – attracting the best talent, avoiding groupthink, and building better-performing teams. But in addition to this, the body that is at the heart of our democracy, that makes our laws and holds the government to account, needs to be representative of our population to have credibility and legitimacy.

Lots of positive suggestions were put forward in the debate, including better scheduling of Parliamentary recesses to coincide with school holidays, more predictability of debates and votes, a drop-in crèche facility to complement the nursery, introducing maternity cover for MPs and compassionate carers’ leave for staff facing family emergencies. Rightly, the debate included family responsibilities beyond parenting, whether for elderly relatives or for partners who become ill. Professor Sarah Childs, the respected expert on gender and politics from Bristol University, is currently preparing recommendations for reform of Parliament to make it more accessible to people from under-represented groups, so it was a timely discussion.

Predictably, coverage of the wide-ranging debate focused largely on breastfeeding, as newspapers do love the chance to write about boobs, which was perhaps Sir Simon’s underlying point. But to shy away from discussing the practicalities of new mothers returning to work because of media sensationalism or misplaced embarrassment about women’s bodies is what would actually be worthy of ridicule.

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It is an important issue for any employer to consider, but Parliament even more so. The lack of any maternity or parental leave cover means that MP parents are often back at work sooner than they would be in other jobs. Previous governments with small majorities have hauled in seriously-ill MPs on hospital trolleys in order to vote, so the idea of parents of very young babies being required to vote is (sadly) not far-fetched.

Personally, I never wanted to breastfeed in the House of Commons chamber. As a minister I tended to be in the Chamber to answer questions or take a Bill through its legislative stages, which I would not have found straightforward while feeding a baby, accomplished though I am at multitasking. Nor does breastfeeding live on TV really appeal to me.

But surely best practice should be to consider what will work for any individual woman who is returning to work from maternity leave? Her requirements will vary depending on how old the baby is, whether she is exclusively breastfeeding, or expressing milk for bottle feeds, or using formula, or a combination of these. The Speaker of the House of Commons should have the discretion to make whatever adjustments are reasonable to support MPs to do their job, rather than have a blanket ban on certain options.

Some women might find that feeding in the Chamber, or during a Bill Committee session, would be the least fuss way to make it work. Others might welcome a relaxation of the rule that you have to sit through the entirety of a debate you want to speak in – which at five or six hours might be impractical with a tiny, hungry baby. Being able to watch on TV from their office while feeding and then joining the debate later might be another practical solution. As Minister for Employment Relations, I commissioned ACAS to produce guidance for employers on how simple adjustments can help breastfeeding mums returning to work – sometimes it can be as simple as an extra break to express milk, and the ability to use a fridge at work to store it. There is also an excellent leaflet for employers from Maternity Action on the subject. Small changes can make a big difference, and Parliament should not be exempt.

For me, the change John Bercow embraced as Speaker of the House of Commons to enable my husband or me to walk through the division lobby to vote while carrying our son, was really helpful for the many votes that happened when the Commons nursery had closed. I’m delighted that so many other MPs have now made use of this – and you know what, the sky hasn’t fallen in.

More changes are needed in Parliament, and in workplaces across the country, to ensure we do not lose out on talented people just because they become parents, or have family responsibilities. The business case for diversity is clear, now organisations have to change to reap the benefits.

Jo Swinson was Liberal Democrat MP for East Dunbartonshire 2005-15 and Minister for Employment Relations 2012-15. She is now chair of Maternity Action

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