LONDON (NYTIMES) – Moments after Ms Stella Creasy, a Labour lawmaker, left a parliamentary debate Tuesday (Nov 23), she received an official complaint by email.
“We have been made aware that you were accompanied by your baby in Westminster Hall earlier today,” wrote the private secretary to the chair of Ways and Means, whose duties include overseeing sittings in Westminster Hall.
The letter referred to rule No. 42 in the Rules of Behaviour and Courtesies, which prohibits lawmakers from bringing their children into parliamentary chambers.
Ms Creasy posted a copy of the email on Twitter, leading to an outcry. Several lawmakers urged Parliament to change its rules to make it easier for female lawmakers to do their jobs.
By Wednesday morning, the speaker of the House of Commons, Mr Lindsay Hoyle, said that the House of Commons Procedure Committee would review the rules.
“It is extremely important that parents of babies and young children are able to participate fully in the work of this House,” he said. “That is why, to give one example, we have a nursery.”
Some female lawmakers, however, said the episode was just another example of the difficulties that women in Parliament face.
In Westminster, where it is not uncommon for debates to descend into shouting, booing and other forms of verbal mudslinging, why was there so much fuss about a sleeping infant?
In the “mother of all Parliaments,” as Westminster is called, mothers should be neither seen nor heard, Ms Creasy wrote on Twitter.
“Apparently Parliament has written a rule which means I can’t take my well behaved, 3-month old, sleeping baby when I speak in chamber,” she wrote, referring to her son, Pip. “(Still no rule on wearing masks btw).”
Ms Creasy, who gave a speech Tuesday about the need for more regulation of buy-now-pay-later credit programmes, said she had brought her son and 2-year-old daughter to Parliament before and had never had an issue.
About one-third of British lawmakers are women. But female lawmakers in Britain and in legislative bodies around the world have long faced barriers, including lack of paid maternity leave.
They have also been exposed to high rates of vitriol and abuse, online and in person. In 2019, 19 female members of Britain’s Parliament said that they had decided not to seek re-election. Some said abuse factored into that decision.
Ms Alex Davies-Jones, a Labour lawmaker, said in an interview that she met with Mr Hoyle, the speaker, when she joined Parliament in 2019, and that he reassured her that she could breastfeed her new baby in the chambers if needed. Debates can last six hours or more, putting new mothers who are breastfeeding in a difficult spot, she said.
“This seems like a bit of going back on the progress we did make,” Ms Davies-Jones said. Parliament, she said, “should be a leading light in terms of equality and representation” – and for setting an example for what companies should do.
Mr Hoyle said in Parliament that he had heard a range of views from lawmakers with babies.
“This House has to be able to function professionally and without disturbance,” he said. “However, sometimes there may be occasions when the chair can exercise discretion assuming business is not disturbed.”
In 2018, US Senator Tammy Duckworth became the first lawmaker to bring an infant onto the Senate floor when she arrived with her daughter Maile, then 10 days old, in tow to vote against the confirmation of a new Nasa administrator.
Maile’s arrival came after several months of behind-the-scenes negotiations in the Senate, which had previously barred children from the floor. Senators voted unanimously that they could bring infants who are up to 1 year old into the chamber.
“But what if there are 10 babies on the floor of the Senate?” Mr Orrin Hatch, then a Republican senator from Utah, asked at the time, according to The Associated Press. Senator Amy Klobuchar replied, “That would be wonderful and a delight.”
Mr Andrew Bridgen, a Conservative member of Britain’s Parliament, said Wednesday that the rules in Parliament should be followed.
“The chamber can be rather rowdy,” he said, “and I’m not convinced that it’s a suitable environment for babes in arms, to be honest.”