Georgia L Gilholy is a Young Voices UK contributor.
For those outside the Westminster bubble aware of Stella Creasy, it is probably due to her knack for sparking debate.
The Labour member for Walthamstow recently claimed that a woman can be born with male genitalia. In 2019, she successfully campaigned for the removal of a campaign billboard for “harassment”. The ad displayed a foetus and the words “Stop Stella” – a reference to her campaign for abortion access in Northern Ireland.
Last November, Creasy made headlines after she was refused entry to a Commons debate due to her being accompanied by her months-old son Pip, sparking a review into whether such rules should stay in place.
Despite her adeptness for attracting attention to the issue (no doubt a helpful quality for any politician) her demand that babies be allowed in the chamber has been flatly rejected by the cross-party Procedure Committee.
The committee said that there had been some “confusion” over whether the practice was permitted given that several members, including Creasy, had brought their babies into the Chamber since 2018.
In a report released on Thursday, the committee recommended that “current” and “long-standing… rules remain and Members should not bring babies into the House of Commons Chamber or Westminster Hall proceedings.”
Professor Sarah Childs, who gave extensive evidence to the committee’s report, argued that permitting MPs to bring young children into the chamber would function as a “measure to reduce the gender and motherhood gaps at Westminster”.
Firstly, it is odd to suspect that allowing or even encouraging women to bring their babies into the Commons, where intense and often rowdy debates take place, would attract more to stand for election. I suspect that most current or would-be mothers would not consider bringing their baby into such a hectic professional environment, nor would they be more likely to consider running for an MP should they be permitted to.
In fact, a YouGov poll released last year found that neither men nor women approve of Creasy’s campaign, with 48 per cent of women and 50 per cent of men opposing plans to allow babies in the Commons, versus just 36 and 35 per cent in favour.
Yet it is Creasy who took to the pages of the Guardian yesterday to lambast Westminster for being “out of touch” following the committee’s decision.
Implicit in Childs’ argument is the assumption that more women are needed in Parliament. The unique experience of mothers and the brilliance of many women is of course something that enriches our existence on a day-to-day basis.
However, vague demands for more women to participate in party politics suggest that there are malicious hurdles barring more of us from involvement. In fact, all-female shortlists and the influence of many prominent female politicians suggest otherwise.
Of course, sexism exists, but patronising women who might prefer other lifestyles than running for elected office, myself included, do not serve to remedy but exaggerate it.
As Alicia Kearns, a Conservative MP, outlined in the wake of the Creasy controversy, no one would tolerate a barrister rocking up to court babe in arms (not least their defendant). Why should constituents greenlight an MP to argue on behalf of their interests when their ability to gear their full attention to proceedings is more likely to be compromised?
While the superb behaviour of the babies who have entered the Commons over the past few years is perhaps a testament to the parenting of Creasy and her colleagues, if the practice had been given the committee’s stamp of approval, it would leave the already rowdy Chamber open to yet more distractions.
Even the most demure of infants can be distracting by their very presence. Young humans require almost constant care, and can we seriously expect an MP listening or speaking while caring for a baby to pay proper attention to either task?
While Rachael Maskell, Creasy’s Labour colleague, has argued that babies be allowed in the chamber because “parliament can sit at times when families are normally together” and “a baby or a child has a right to a life, in line with Article 8 of the Human Rights Act”, this is to stretch the definition of human rights far beyond their reasonable limit.
No regular workplace would be accused of human rights violations for barring babies from meeting rooms. Why should Parliament be any different?
Indeed, the campaign to permit babies in the Commons reeks of privilege and misplaced rage. While MPs with children require compromises to facilitate their family lives – the expansion of proxy and paired voting being a sensible example of this – there are limits.
MPs may not receive a traditional maternity leave, but then being an MP is not exactly a bog standard job. But this does not mean MPs have no maternity entitlements. MPs are guaranteed six months of proxy voting following a birth, full pay, a budget hike for any cover staff required, and remain allowed to enter Parliament whenever they wish.
Creasy’s complaints about Parliament’s supposed lack of “family-friendly policies” also somewhat takes the biscuit when one remembers that MPs, unlike the vast majority of voters, have on-site creche care, the pricey set-up of which was taxpayer-subsided. Parliament even has a “family room” where staff can breastfeed within mere steps of the Commons chamber.
MPs also take home a hefty salary of £84,144 per annum, plus expenses, far above that needed to scrape together money for childcare.
Thus there is little need for MP parents to supervise their children when they are required to attend a debate, and therefore any decision to bring along a baby to the green benches is more than likely a political point.
Parliament is chocked full of facilities that most working mothers could only dream of, and to protest at rules intended to maintain the boundaries between work and family in this unique setting is not going to rally masses of everyday Brits behind your cause.