So why shouldn’t MPs breastfeed in the House of Commons?

There was a very sensible debate on the family friendliness or otherwise of the House of Commons earlier this week. The press seems to have latched on (sorry) to the issue of whether women MPs should be allowed to breastfeed their babies in the Commons chamber itself, although the debate was much more wide ranging – and we’ll have more about those other aspects later.

The debate was brought by Jess Phillips ,the MP for Birmingham Yardley who recently took such a battering on Twitter for daring to suggest that Parliament might have more important priorities than have a special debate for International Men’s Day. The irony of her being the only woman on the Committee that decides Commons business was not lost on many people.

At any debate on these issues, you get the odd Tory turning up whose only purpose seems to be to make themselves look ridiculous and to basically troll the proceedings. On this occasion it was Sir Simon Burns, the MP for Chelmsford. Early in the proceedings he suggested that the House of Commons did not have an overwhelming majority of white men when asked by fellow Conservative Maria Miller:

I would not agree that an overwhelming majority are. I certainly think that a significant minority are female and non-white, and not all white male MPs are middle class.

6.7 out of 10 white male MPs looks like an overwhelming majority to me. There are some men who are generally not the greatest fans of equality or feminism who can see a couple of women in a room speak a couple of times in a meeting and feel threatened by that. I even heard the story (from several sources who saw it) of one parliamentary candidate in this party who saw an opposition leaflet with two women on it and turned exasperatedly to a room full of young male staffers saying: “This is what we’re up against, lads.”

It was his comments about breastfeeding, that allowing it in the Commons would subject Parliament to “public ridicule” that captured the media attention. I was struck, though, by reading in various places on the internet, a strong reaction against, expressed in pretty intolerant and unpleasant terms, by young male Liberal Democrats with no understanding  of the practicalities involved. They just assumed that the House of Commons would be full of screaming babies. In fact, it’s well nigh impossible for a baby to cry and feed at the same time. If the baby is close to its mum, the chances are that he or she is not going to cry at all, as that’s a pretty late cue.

The young men were utterly opposed to babies being fed in a “workplace.” Certainly it’s the case that not all workplaces are suitable or safe to allow breastfeeding to happen, but to allow it in the Commons would be a shining example of what’s possible when it is suitable and safe. It works in Council chambers up and down the country and in the European Parliament, so there really is no excuse. The world of work puts way too many unnecessary barriers in the way of mothers and ends up losing many of its most talented employees as a result. I remember a friend of mine having no end of bother trying to get her professional organisation to allow her to achieve her qualifications in a more flexible way to accommodate her family responsibilities. There was no reason other than churlish bureaucracy to refuse her request.

Jo Swinson, in an article for the New Statesman, wrote that while she wouldn’t have chosen to breastfeed in the Chamber, there should be arrangements for those for whom it would work:

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.

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

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17 Comments

  • Solidarity in advance for what the comments thread to this is going to look like, Caron
    *hug*

  • Malcolm Todd 13th Nov '15 - 11:32am

    Likewise. I don’t think I can bear to look in again to find out; but best of luck.

  • I think compulsory nappy changing duties for the dinosaurs.

  • Actually that may be just the problem with the dinosaurs – they’re not mammals. Could explain a lot of their issues really (small brains, lack of compassion, yada – yada).

  • ‘So why shouldn’t-MP’s breastfeed in the House of Commons”

    Because the presents of babies may raise the average IQ of the chamber…

    Because if before /after feeding the baby starts wailing people may not be able to tell them apart from some of the elected members…

    Oh, as a serious question. There is no reason not to allow it.

    However some of Jo’s other comments are more important suggestions, the procedures for speaking are ridiculous and a woman breast feeding should hardly be expected to bounce up and down all the time. It needs a wholesale reform of the procedures (plus a relocation and more modern style chamber but that is for another day…).

    In fact most of those are not breast feeding specific, it would be far more productive if all members could enter a queue and work at their desks if they have something to get done rather than try and sit working on their smart phones, the world has moved on so should the commons.

  • Peter Davies 13th Nov '15 - 12:21pm

    And when we have won the right of our MPs to breast-feed, how about getting one elected who is capable of it?

  • John Marriott

    “Not every woman can or wants to breast feed”

    Shhhhhhhhhhh! We’ll get over run by the breast feeding crazies (particularly from MumsNet) who attack those women who chose not to, you can’t go around telling the truth…

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 13th Nov '15 - 12:36pm

    @Psi: Actually, I see no reason why babies shouldn’t be fed by breast or bottle in the House of Commons chamber by whichever parent MP is looking after them at the time.

    You would no doubt identify me as a “breastfeeding crazy” as I spent several years running breastfeeding support groups. At none of these groups did anyone, or would I have ever tolerated any woman’s choices. However, many women desperately want to breastfeed and run into problems and can’t access the support to solve them. I think that there should be significant resources put into breastfeeding support for those women because it’ll benefit us all later in reduced health care and better life chances.

  • Caron

    I suspect (but don’t know) I wouldn’t place you in that category, you don’t show the tone of most of the online crazies.

    As well as the significant numbers who want to and need support there are also those who want support with bottle feeding and are made to feel like they failed by support workers. This is nothing to the extreme unpleasantness some women face when asking about bottle feeding assistance in new mothers online forums. The rate of take up when someone starts a support group on face book, in a local area, is very telling. All this when new mums are very vulnerable and something like 98% will eventually use a bottle (even if for expressed/top up).

    If I were to compare your descriptions of your support group to the experience of others I don’t know anyone who had problems with access to breastfeeding support but when it came to bottles there was very little support but plenty of judgement and criticism. Then again I don’t know anyone who has had a baby in the highlands so perhaps there are fewer crazies, but I suspect you simply haven’t noticed them.

    Anyway I may be out of posts for today, with the flood protection, so any response will probably need to be tomorrow (but perhaps more on topic).

  • I suppose somebody has to be the first baddie so it may as well be me. I’ve absolutely nothing against breast feeding babies in public, it’s completely natural and I would support anyone that wished to do so. I just don’t think children should be in the workplace. I want my MP, Doctor, Nurse, Teacher, Milkman, Gardener, Builder etc concentrating on their job not on their baby. It’s fine as a one off, but I doubt many people would get employed if they said at their job interview by the way I have to bring my baby to work with me. I’d give any employee all the help I could, but I don’t want to see babies routinely in my work place.

  • I could have saved myself many thousands of pounds if I’d been able to take my children to work with me when they were young and sit them by my desk. Alas, like most people I expect, I wasn’t allowed.

    So I think this is the wrong question to ask. If MPs should be allowed to take their children in to the chamber with them, then of course there would be absolutely no reason why a mother who did so should not be allowed to breastfeed at the same time. But should children be allowed in there in the first place?

    Slightly off-topic, but I echo Psi’s comments. My wife was desperate to breastfeed but found she was unable to. It felt like there was zero support, but a huge amount of pressure on her to do that which she as unable to do. This caused a huge amount of stress and despair at a time when she could have done without it.

  • Graham Martin-Royle 13th Nov '15 - 5:15pm

    I’m surprised that this even needs being raised, if a mother wishes to breast feed her baby then she breast feeds it. End of.

    And yes, there are those who for whatever reason cannot breast feed (apparently I was bottle fed because my mother couldn’t breast feed me), if they need to bottle feed their child then they should be allowed to get on with it. Yeesh!

  • @Graham
    “I’m surprised that this even needs being raised, if a mother wishes to breast feed her baby then she breast feeds it. End of.”

    In her own private time, yes. Being at work is not the same at all. How many employees are allowed to mind their children at the same time they are supposed to be working?

    I don’t think this debate should be about breastfeeding at all. Women should be able to breastfeed anywhere where they can bottle-feed, and vice versa. I haven’t been able to find an up-to-date copy of the rules, but when this issue first came up in the early ’00s, apparently the rules applied equally to all kinds of feeding, which is as it should be.

  • I am young(ish), male and fully supportive! I think for the reasons Jo mentioned it’s unlikely anyone would want to, but they ought to be able to if they wish and it enables them to continue doing their job.

  • malc 13th Nov ’15 – 2:51pm………………I suppose somebody has to be the first baddie so it may as well be me. I’ve absolutely nothing against breast feeding babies in public, it’s completely natural and I would support anyone that wished to do so. I just don’t think children should be in the workplace………….

    I agree! Babies need feeding but are also ‘fractious’….If a child becomes fractious a mother would have to leave the chamber. It’s bad enough that the HoC is disrupted by ‘adults acting like children’; things will only get worse if we accept ‘children acting like children’….

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