Female MPs campaigning for House of Commons breastfeeding ban to be lifted met with criticism

Working mum and child

Female MPs gunning for the breastfeeding ban in the House of Commons to be lifted have been met by criticism from Sir Simon Burns, a former health minister who claims allowing breastfeeding in the Chamber would invite “ridicule” from the tabloid press.

‘There is an appropriate time and place in which breastfeeding should take place and I’m just giving a word of caution…’

Currently female MPs can breastfeed in private offices and family rooms, but not the Chamber.

During a Westminster debate discussing potential ways to make the House of Commons more family-friendly the Chelmsford Conservative MP Burns said: “There is an appropriate time and place in which breastfeeding should take place and I’m just giving a word of caution that one does not want this issue to degenerate into an opportunity where the merits of the case are undermined because we are ridiculed by what is being proposed.”

He said he agreed with the former Speaker Baroness Boothroyd, who believes breastfeeding in the House of Commons should be allowed when supermarket checkout staff have the same rule. Therese Coffey told MPs also agreed that the “Betty Boothroyd test… still stands”.

“We may talk about it being the 21st Century, but this is a workplace and it is not something that people enjoy wider than that. I do not believe that there is a big view in the House to make the shift at this time,” she said.

However, Shadow Commons deputy leader Melanie Onn questioned: “Is it not time for this place to open itself up to a 21st-Century way of working, rather than hide behind Victorian values?” she asked.

She also suggested that parliamentary recesses coincide with school holidays so MPs could see more of their children.

Alison Thewliss, the SNP MP for Glasgow Central, told MPs the “appropriate time and place” to feed a baby was “when it is hungry”.

“I have breastfed at Hampden Park in the middle of a football crowd, at bus stops and anywhere else my baby has been hungry. As a Glasgow city councillor, I breastfed my child in meetings, including committee meetings, and nobody had a problem with that.”

Jess Phillips, Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley, called for several changes in government to encourage more females to consider a career in politics. In addition to the breastfeeding debate she also called for proper parental leave and permits for parliamentarians to bring their pre-school children through the voting lobbies.

“This place is not representative at the moment. This is simply a fact. All of the people today speaking who have caring responsibilities – be that children, elderly relatives or partners –have made that perfectly clear. When I leave this place I want to see 50-50 representation,” Phillips said.

In an interview with WeAreTheCity Jo Swinson, former Women’s Equalities Minister drew attention to a report released in July which claims 54,000 women are forced out of jobs within the UK because of maternity and pregnancy. According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission women lose their jobs because of illegal discrimination.

The survey of 3,200 women found that 11% of the women surveyed said they had been dismissed, or made compulsorily redundant where others in the workplace were not or they had been treated poorly and felt they had to leave their jobs.

While she was on maternity leave Swinson did not get a replacement. Instead her office staff looked after her constituents in East Dunbartonshire and Lib Dem colleague Jenny Willott performed her ministerial duties.

When she returned to work Swinson campaigned to change the rule that no one other than an MP could pass through the voting lobby, to make it easier for parents who worked late in Parliament to be present for votes. Previously no one other than an MP was allowed through the voting lobby, but a special exception had been made for David Blunkett’s guide dog, Sadie.

After the rule was changed Hames and Swinson’s baby was the first to be carried through the voting lobby of the Commons. Her husband was the first to carry the baby through for a vote to highlight that male MPs are parents too and that many struggle with juggling a work/life balance as much as female MPs: “It was a fairly small change, but it did make a difference,” she said.

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