Voices: Parliament is stuck in the dark ages when it comes to maternity rights – no wonder there aren’t more women MPs

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MP Stella Creasy was told off for bringing her 13-week-old son into a Commons debate this week (AFP/Getty)
MP Stella Creasy was told off for bringing her 13-week-old son into a Commons debate this week (AFP/Getty)

Stella Creasy has always been a rebel with a cause. In more than a decade as an MP, she’s campaigned on everything from regulating payday loan companies to abortion rights for women in Northern Ireland – and now it’s personal: maternity rights for female politicians.

Having become the first MP to appoint a locum to manage her constituency work after the birth of her first daughter, she got a ticking off from the parliamentary authorities for bringing her 13-week-old son into a Commons debate this week.

A comically po-faced letter from the archaically-named “chairman of ways and means” at the House of Commons drew her attention to paragraph 42 of the “rules of behaviour and courtesies in the House of Commons”. The offending clause states that “you should not take your seat in the chamber when accompanied by a child”.

Creasy instantly launched into full-on campaign-mode, posting the letter on Twitter and responding: “Mothers in the mother of all parliament [sic] are not to be seen or heard it seems.”

Many MPs and ministers are supportive and the speaker has promised a review of the rules. But the Conservative MP for Blackpool South, Scott Benton, harrumphed: “Parents who get paid a fraction of what you do pay for childcare and juggle responsibilities so they can go to work. What makes you so special?”

What makes her special is she has a platform to raise the difficulties many new mums face balancing work and life. And although she gets on her opponents’ nerves, her great skill is getting people to sit up and take notice. We’re talking about maternity leave and childcare now. We weren’t a couple of days ago and the speaker is now reviewing the rules.

While it’s true that a vote earlier this year awarded ministers formal paid maternity leave – after the attorney general Suella Braverman faced having to resign in order to take time off with her new baby – backbench MPs don’t get the same benefits. Creasy and others are now (belatedly) entitled to hire a locum to do constituency work, but not to replace them in debates – a crucial part of the job.

What’s more, Benton’s argument that poorly-paid constituents juggle responsibilities so they can work is undoubtedly true. But shouldn’t he therefore join Creasy and other MPs in the battle for better, affordable childcare and maternity rights for all parents? Maybe he will.

Some have asked why Creasy didn’t use the Commons nursery. But she’s still breastfeeding her baby, who’s barely three months old.

Ultimately, how parents manage their leave is a personal choice. Personally, there’s no way I’d have brought myself or my two babies into the office when they were sleeping, crying, pooing and vomiting – on repeat. When mine were three months old, I couldn’t even wrestle them into the sling. So congrats to Creasy for working that out.

But doesn’t it speak volumes that, for her pains, she’s received from some quarters not praise but vitriol? No wonder women think twice about standing for parliament.

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As Creasy tells me: “My lack of maternity cover leads to this scenario. That no one has considered any of this, and there’s such hostility to doing so, is why mums are cut out of UK political life.”

Gone are the days when women hoping to become MPs were asked at selection meetings what their husbands would do for sex in their absence. Gone too the era when Harriet Harman – now the mother of the house – was reported to the serjeant at arms, accused of taking her baby under her jacket through the voting lobby. In fact she still hadn’t shed her pregnancy weight.

But the attitudes of some of Creasy’s parliamentary colleagues still appear to be stuck in the dark ages.

When MPs voted to give ministers full maternity leave in February, Caroline Nokes, the Conservative chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, remarked: “What a mess that it is well into the 21st century before we have had to face this situation. And why oh why did it cross nobody’s mind that we might need to address this prior to it having the urgency it now does?”

It sounds as if Creasy’s latest campaign to extend the same benefits to backbenchers may fall on fertile ground.

Cathy Newman presents ‘Channel 4 News’, weekdays, at 7pm

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