Last week, a cross-party review determined that MPs should not be allowed to bring babies into the House of Commons chamber during debates. Stella Creasy – the Labour MP for Walthamstow, who prompted the review – wrote in the Guardian that this decision shows how “out of touch” Westminster remains.
I get where Creasy is coming from on this, not least because I’ve taken my own toddler into Westminster a few times since he was born (though never into the House of Commons chamber) and have found it to be an awkward experience. Once, for instance, when he was five months old, a childcare crisis meant that I had no choice but to bring him along to a meeting in Portcullis House, only to find that we had to take a stupidly circuitous route to get the pram upstairs: out of the building, around the corner, through the post room, and up in the goods lift. Parliament is really not used to babies.
Like Creasy, I wasn’t able to take proper maternity leave, partly because I co-run a tiny campaign with one other woman and we both had babies within a week of one another (not very clever of us!), meaning there were a few times when the choice was either to bring the baby to an important event or not to attend at all, since maternity cover was simply not an option. MPs are in a similarly sticky spot. Creasy has been campaigning for maternity and paternity cover for MPs, but has been hampered by the fact that she and her colleagues are very much not fungible workers: the people of Walthamstow have elected Creasy, and no one else, to act as their representative in parliament. They cannot be fobbed off with an unelected replacement, given the immense power that MPs are bestowed with.
Given this unique problem, and given the odd hours demanded of parliamentarians, I agree with Creasy that MPs ought to be allowed to sometimes bring their young children with them into the chamber. And the cross-party review has recommended a “degree of de facto discretion” that should permit this. But I’m chary of the idea that bringing babies to work should be commonplace, for the same reason that I’m chary of the concept of milk-pumping rooms in offices. The vast majority of mothers shouldn’t need these allowances, because they shouldn’t be forced to go to work when their children are still tiny. It was only after experiencing breastfeeding myself that I realised what a sham the milk-pumping room really was. I hadn’t realised before that by the time they turn 12 months old, babies no longer need breast milk during typical working hours: these rooms exist only for workers who are not taking (or not being given) their full maternity leave entitlement.
Fortunately, in this country (if not elsewhere), the vast majority of women are able to take proper maternity leave: 84.7 per cent of British workers are employees, meaning that they should be entitled to a full year, and a slim minority of self-employed mothers also take at least six months.
That’s as it should be. For all but a handful of workers (probably including, regrettably, MPs) getting back to the office as quickly as possible after giving birth should be looked at with the same alarm as someone limping into work the day after serious surgery – it may very occasionally be necessary, but it should never be normalised.
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