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.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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29 Comments

  • “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.”

    Dingdingding

    Been arguing this for years. Aside from the points in this post, it would speed things up enormously in all votes.

  • Well, the points of reforming how we actually vote is certainly something that needs looking into, as would be having some sort of daycare in Westminster.

    However, taking babies to the votes. Sorry Jo, I respect you a lot, but that is just stupid. These are votes determining the future of our country, if you cannot arrange care for your child while you work, like everyone else, then that is a problem not just for your child, but for everyone in this country.

    Babies are nosy, smelly and will cause disruption. Not great if we have MPs concentrating on speeches that will determine our future.

    Furthermore, Westminster’s House of Commons and voting lobby is simply not a kid friendly place. It is nosey disruptive and at times has an outright unpleasant atmosphere.

    I suspect my comments will be unpopular here, but I am very strongly against this.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 9th Jan '14 - 12:16pm

    “Babies are nosy, smelly and will cause disruption”

    Nosy? I suspect you mean noisy, but not necessarily, and a lot less so than the rabble that is the House of Commons. How disruptive can it be to take a baby through a voting lobby? It’s no more disruptive than the person going through on their own.

    Note also that if an MP comes in for particular votes but isn’t actually back at work, they aren’t likely to be able to get childcare – when you start it you can’t just have it by the hour, you have to book the same slots week in week out and pay accordingly. And, also childcare tends to go from 9-6, and isn’t really available outside those times.

  • James Spackman 9th Jan '14 - 12:20pm

    Alternatively MPs could waste less of their – and our – time by deciding to vote on fewer insubstantial matters. Sarah Teather’s recent analysis is highly relevant here.

    Frankly, although Parliament is a representative body, the inconvenience to MPs is less of a concern than the real barriers put in the way of many more ordinary members of society.

    I disagree that the comparison between a sword and a baby passing through a voting lobby is a fair one or indeed apt – swords aren’t people and won’t ever have voting rights!

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 9th Jan '14 - 1:20pm

    James, I don’t think anyone is suggesting that the baby should have a vote.

    There is no reason on earth that anyone could legitimately have to take a sword through the lobby. You do sometimes need to be there after childcare shuts with a baby, though.

  • While I’ve got sympathy with Jo, this is just the tip of the iceberg and it’s hard to support a change on this small aspect without dealing with the root of the problem.

    It seems to me the two real issues are:
    1) Maternity Leave for MPs , with a replacement MP appointed by party / mother.
    2) Having to physically be present to vote on a debate you haven’t paid any attention to.

    1) is covered well above. 2) is one of the daftest things about parliament., For those who haven’t seen it in practice, sirens blaze when a division is called. Just like a fire alarm. MPs have pride of place in the lifts to get to the lobbies. Like a stampede of rhinos when coming from the far side of the parliamentary estate. If they are in the middle of a meeting with constituents / interest groups, they have to be left on their own so the MP can vote. MPs with flats within 10 minutes of Westminster are quids in; they can go home between evening votes. This takes up a daft amount of an MP’s time. What other organisation would treat its decision makers in this way? I wasn’t aware that the Scottish parliament had push-button voting, but if it has and it’s worked, we’d be better campaigning to do this in London.

  • ” It’s no more disruptive than the person going through on their own.”

    Two people are generally more disruptive than one; especially if one of them does not understand the situation they are in and are driven by their own innate needs.Also, unless you are saying that MPs are prone to being sick, crying or needing nappy changes at the most inconvenient of times, I think your comment:

    “a lot less so than the rabble that is the House of Commons.”

    Is at best hyperbolic.

    Also, this argument that childcare is not available outside of 9-6 is just, well, wrong. I know how busy a hardworking MP is and I am one of the biggest advocates for making their working lives more sustainable (especially for female MPs); however, the fact is that anyone who chooses a hectic profession has to prepare their life accordingly and accept that sometimes you are in a job that is just going to leave you in that position. I know many people who will find themselves taken from their families at a moments notice due to their work. These people arrange their lives accordingly.

    MPs working conditions are in many ways extremely unworkable and should be made more sociable. However, taking babies into the voting chamber is just as unworkable and is not the answer to solution.

  • Agree with other posters, the issue is child care arrangements and the extent to which an individual has prepared.
    Stating the obvious, a having baby is not unexpected and hence making suitable plans is not that difficult – although I agree for first time parents-to-be it is very difficult to comprehend just how much a baby will change your life.

    MP’s are not a special case, they have a staffed constituency office and for those who are members of a political party they also have both a local party and a Westminster party to call upon – in addition to family and friends and the professionals. Personally, I’m a little surprised that Jo hasn’t got a ‘professional’ carer to provide support whilst she is at Westminster because if the job demands that she must attend whilst on maternity leave and/or outside normal hours then it is a legitimate expense.

  • jenny barnes 9th Jan '14 - 3:48pm

    Why does everyone expect the woman to do all the looking after of a baby? Don’t they have fathers, too? Why don’t fathers ever need to take their babies through the voting lobby? This is just another symptom of sexism.

  • I’m with Jennie. Why drag an MP who hasn’t paid any attention to the debate away from potentially important work to queue up ? No sense at all.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 9th Jan '14 - 6:39pm

    Jenny, that’s why I said MPs rather than female MPs, because, especially with shared parental leave, this could just as easily affect men. It just so happens that it’s Jo who’s mentioned it in conjunction with breastfeeding. As Helen says, only mothers can do that and it’s important to accommodate all choices. Having the baby close by makes it easier for a breastfeeding female MP to do her job.

    Helen, I don’t think a woman who wants to take her baby through the voting lobby is any more or less professional than one who puts her baby in a nursery. It’s up to them, but Parliament should get over itself and set an example of the many ways of making working and parenting work in the 21st century.

  • @Jenny & Helen
    I suspect that because predominantly women bring up babies and children, it is women who will be the first to encounter the lack of consideration and facilities for babies and children. However, in saying that, I always complained to the manager of venue’s where I had to change nappies, if their only baby changing facilities were located in the ‘Ladies’.

    As for “Why don’t fathers ever need to take their babies through the voting lobby?” – I ask, unless the circumstances were exceptional, what mother would willingly let their child’s father take their baby to work? we shouldn’t forget that until very recently maternity leave was for women and so in theory the problem shouldn’t arise. With more flexible maternity/paternity leave arrangements becoming possible it will be interesting to watch what happens in the coming years.

  • Eddie Sammon 9th Jan '14 - 6:59pm

    Bringing babies through the voting lobby would be fine. I don’t think it would be right to have them sitting in on debates, but no one is suggesting that.

  • Eddie Sammon 9th Jan '14 - 7:34pm

    Oh, I’ve just read the suggestion for breastfeeding in the chamber. My “liberal” tendencies run out when it comes to having babies in the chamber during debates. I think if crying babies start disrupting people in the workplace then it will do more harm than good for women’s representation. People will cry for the clock to be turned back. Voting is different because it is short and often late at night.

    I hope I’m clear, leaning towards yes to babies during votes, but no for debates.

  • I might have more sympathy for your view, Eddie, if Members of Parliament conducted themselves with decorum in the chamber and listened respectfully to the views of the Honourable Members opposite. As it is, some of the time (not all, I grant you) they might as well be in a kindergarten anyway.

  • This may be regarded as a point of detail, but I don’t think babies can suckle and bawl at the same time. All the nursing babies I’ve ever seen have been quite calm and placid.

  • Tony Dawson 9th Jan '14 - 10:20pm

    I used to have respect for Cathy Newman until she came out with this. 🙁

  • Eddie Sammon 9th Jan '14 - 11:24pm

    Ha ha, that is true Tony, maybe we can calm them down with the threat of babies sitting next to them. It could be the speaker’s nuclear option.

  • What David-1 said

  • There is actually a maternity cover option in the same way as for people employed elsewhere.

    Elsewhere the employer chooses someone for cover and then gives the job back to the original holder when the time comes. MPs are employed by the general public, who can choose a replacement in a by-election. The only problem is, that they wouldn’t necessarily feel obliged to give the job back to the original person in 2015. 🙂 Like expenses, this is another good example of the general public as a collective employer of MPs, not willing to give the same conditions as they expect private employers to give.

  • Astonishing that this is an issue in 2014. My son, who is now 36, was when a baby fed by his mother when she was a Councillor in Kingston Guildhall. For those who cannot do the arithmetic that was in tha 1970s.
    How much longer do we have to wait for parliamentarians to move into the last century, let alone this century.

    Helen Tedcastle is right about the Scottish Parliament. But then it was designed to be a democratic institution. The Palace of Westminster was built to be some sort of royal theme park to satisfy the whims of the husband of Queen Victoria . It is a completely ridiculous building (or set of buildings) not much good for anything other than showing round tourists who do not have any interest in democracy – a bit like Prince Albert I suppose.

  • nigel quinton 11th Jan '14 - 6:35pm

    The Houses of Parliament should be closed and become a tourist attraction and a new parliament designed, along the same lines as the Scottish Parliament, although hopefully without the budget overruns, ie circular chamber, regular hours, push button voting. The new parliament would be situated in the centre of the country, would have far fewer MPs and would have an elected upper chamber. Every time I read an article highlighting the ridiculous archaic mores of Westminster I despair of how little our time in coalition has achieved to change any of this nonsense.

    By the way, did anyone here read Rory Stewart’s piece in last Saturday’s Guardian (http://tinyurl.com/ntbwgzj) alerting us to the fact that our democracy is broken and needs a radical overhaul? Someone should sign him up to the party! Might make a good LibDem leader…

  • What is your idea of “the centre of the country,” Nigel? At last report, the demographic centre of the UK was somewhere in the triangle between Derby, Leicester, and Birmingham, with a tendency to move south over time; it may eventually reach Coventry. I have to ask if moving the national, or at least the legislative capital to Birmingham is something you’re very comfortable with.

  • nigel quinton 12th Jan '14 - 3:58pm

    David, I would be fine with anywhere that started to take the pressure off the South East and to seat our government closer to the real world, which London certainly isn’t.

  • As an alternative to London, one of the islands’ regional centres that already has experience hosting a legislative body and government offices would probably be best. There are Edinburgh, Belfast, and Cardiff of course, but I think I prefer Douglas.

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