An MP has called for the Westminster parliament to adopt a more family-friendly approach after she was censured by Commons authorities for bringing her children to a committee hearing.
Kirsty Blackman, one of the cohort of first-time SNP MPs elected in May 2015, usually leaves her two young children with her husband in Scotland while she travels to London for the Commons working week.
But last week the family faced a childcare crisis because parliament’s summer recess follows English school holidays, while Scottish schools break up at the beginning of July. Blackman was left with no choice but to bring two-year-old Rebecca and five-year-old Harris to her place of work.
The MP for Aberdeen North received a caution from clerks for breaching rules when she took her children to a Scottish affairs select committee meeting last Tuesday, where they sat at the back of the room drawing pictures and playing with an iPad.
Blackman said: “This worked really well until Rebecca started falling asleep. She had been up until nearly 11pm the night before because the Trident vote was late at night. I couldn’t really leave her sleeping slumped in her chair so I picked her up and took her back to my seat.”
Although she had eight years of experience of working in politics as a local councillor prior to her election, she admits she was not prepared for the peculiarities of the Commons. “I hadn’t expected the recess dates to be so ridiculous. And most people don’t realise that parliamentary business is only set a week out, which means we cannot easily plan our travel to take account of vital votes.”
She also points out the lack of flexible childcare on site: her children can’t attend parliament’s nursery because they are not based in London full time, but there is no creche for more ad-hoc arrangements.
Blackman said: “Parliament needs to be accessible for people who are not just male, white, middle-class and middle-aged.”
Colleagues from across the chamber have since voiced similar concerns. “I was very supportive of Kirsty Blackman when I read about what happened,” said Labour’s Jonathan Reynolds, taking a break from watching Boogie Beebies with his younger children at home in Stalybridge.
“Of course there are lots of jobs which people find difficult to combine with childcare, but there are some specifics things about being an MP – living between two places, having to stay late at night, not knowing when votes will happen – that make it hard,” said Reynolds, whose two youngest children attend nursery.
He said the situation for parents has definitely improved since he first became an MP in 2010. “I carried my youngest son through the division lobby last year, but when my eldest daughter was born I had to hand her to colleagues and dash through without her,” he said. “It’s not something I do every day but there are those situations when the unexpected happens, when you need the place you work in to be supportive.”
Blackman was not the only Scottish MP to experience childcare challenges last week. Her colleague Alison Thewliss, MP for Glasgow Central, brought her two-year-old daughter Kirsty to the Commons along with a handful of other SNP MPs whose arrangements had been similarly unbalanced by the different recess times.
“We all mucked in together but it was difficult for very young children to have Mum or Dad disappear to vote. It’s certainly not something you could do regularly,” said Thewliss, who added the situation was especially tough for northern English and Scottish MPs who have family networks further away and nobody to call on for emergency childcare in London.
“We’re living in different times, and it’s not the case that you come down to the Commons and don’t see you family for six months. I think that change would be very much welcomed, and if we want to attract and keep people with young families in politics then those considerations have to be made,” said Thewliss.
Likewise, Gavin Newlands, SNP MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire North and father of two, argues that the Commons “still operates likes a private members’ club”, while “considerations of family and childcare are very low priority.”
Sarah Childs is professor of politics and gender at the University of Bristol and author of the recent Good Parliament report, commissioned by the speaker John Bercow himself, which includes a series of recommendations on making the Commons more female and family-friendly.
Childs argues that, although there have been some significant changes in recent decades, most of them were driven by committed individuals. “The House as an institution has a collective responsibility,” she says.
She also believes that there is a growing momentum for change, particularly driven by younger members, the likes of Blackman’s peers. “In addition to some Conservative women on the backbenches, and Labour women who have always spoken out, there are SNP women looking to Holyrood and seeing things done differently, as well as younger male MPs wanting change.”
The Good Parliament report will now be examined by the Commons Reference Group on Representation and Inclusion, also convened by Bercow.
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