What the ban on children in Parliament tells us about women in the workplace
The image of the MP for Walthamstow, Stella Creasy, taking her Parliamentary oath in 2019 with her month-old daughter strapped to her chest was an enduring and heart-warming one.
However, earlier this week, Creasy received an email from Parliament informing her that, according to newly-updated guidelines, she and other Members would now be prohibited from entering the Chamber when accompanied by a child.
Creasy posted the email on social media and received support from various quarters, together with the expected bile. Some critics pointed out that members of the armed services, nurses or lorry drivers wouldn’t have the privilege of bringing their offspring to work; why was she any different? Others noted that, on her salary, she could obviously afford to pay for childcare.
Notwithstanding the irony that the House of Commons is often described as a playground with its booing and braying, the rule change sends a firm message: government is not a place for mothers, at least not ones who are open about it.
Why we need more babies in Parliament
Creasy is an interesting case because, although she’s entitled to paid maternity leave, she has been denied maternity cover. Instead, her staff are expected to ‘escalate matters to the MP as necessary’, leaving her in a state of technically-but-not-practically-on-maternity-leave, obliged (and keen) to continue representing her constituents.
By not offering Creasy a locum and leaving her in a kind of post-natal professional limbo, the suggestion is that, if an MP happens to become pregnant, they should just step down, being, as they surely are, unable to complete the duties of an elected representative. With relatively few pregnant male MPs in the Commons, this is an expectation that has thus far only applied to women. To take the subtext further, women should only be allowed into Parliament in the first place if they behave like men, and men don’t have babies, at least not visible ones.
Despite what the right-wing media might have us believe, Creasy isn’t an outlier. Around the world, babies in Parliament aren’t uncommon (and provide a delightful Google image search on a grey November day). Jo Swinson was the first British MP to bring her baby into the Chamber in 2018; Australian Senator, Larissa Waters breastfed her baby during a debate; and New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern’s daughter, Neve, accompanied her onto the floor of the UN in New York.
It’s unclear whether Creasy would have taken her baby into Parliament had she had the benefit of maternity cover. The answer might well be yes, and with good reason. Babies deserve to be in Parliament. Parliament isn’t a haulage firm or a hospital; MPs aren’t lorry drivers or nurses. Parliament is the seat of democracy, the place where we’re supposed to hold our leaders to account, and where the future prospects of all children are determined. Their presence is a reminder of the very purpose of the state. Banning children from the House of Commons is a convenient way of ignoring them and their needs.
It’s not coincidental that child poverty in the UK has risen significantly since 2010 as a direct result of Conservative and coalition government policies. An estimated 30 per cent of children in Britain now live below the poverty line, a trend that is expected to continue. During the same period, council spending on early years services has been slashed by as much as 60 per cent, with between five hundred and a thousand Sure Start centres being closed.
Of course, some people would just prefer not to have to deal with babies at all. As one of Creasy’s critics pointed out, ‘you might think your baby is wonderful, but the rest of us are far less starry-eyed about the issue’. And this might be a reasonable point, except that babies aren’t a hobby some people choose to participate in. They are the economy’s future workforce. Workers don’t spawn spontaneously to fill vacancies, they need to be nurtured and educated, and their futures protected.
At present, they are raised for free (or at least at a highly-discounted rate) primarily by women.
The motherhood penalty
The criticism directed at Creasy didn’t come only from anonymous keyboard warriors. Conservative MP for Blackpool South, Scott Benton tweeted, ‘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?’
This is a great straw man. Indeed, parents on low salaries do juggle their parenting and professional responsibilities. But the issue isn’t: why does Stella Creasy get special treatment? It’s: why are parents expected to juggle at all?
When we talk of a gender pay gap, what we often mean is a motherhood pay penalty. According to a recent study, ‘the median loss of women’s earnings is around 45 per cent relative to what they would have earned if they had remained childless’. While the value of the motherhood pay penalty varies widely by industry, level of education and the age at which a woman had her first child, across the board, women are worse off when they have children compared to men.
At the same time, childcare costs in the UK are among the highest in the world. A week’s full-time nursery school for a child under two in the UK costs, on average, £263. Childcare accounts for 80 per cent of women’s full-time median incomes, compared with the EU average of just over 30 per cent. This is a clear disincentive for (in particular) women to continue in the workforce after having children.
To add insult to injury, the Covid-19 pandemic has had a devastating effect on mothers’ engagement with paid work. Already heavily responsible for caring for children and elderly relatives, the burdens of home-schooling and remote working have left women more precariously positioned than ever. According to a report by McKinsey, in the U.S., a quarter of working mothers were considering reducing their hours or quitting the workforce completely. For women with small children, a third were grappling with that decision.
Stella Creasy isn’t the first mother to be made to feel unwelcome in her workplace. Women are invariably subject to lower pay and reduced opportunities as a result of becoming parents.
Ultimately, nobody should be in a position where they feel they are unable to raise a child and play a part in the workforce; not Stella Creasy, not a nurse and not a lorry driver.
The criticism levelled at Creasy that she is, in some way, taking advantage by bringing her baby into the Commons is exactly the reason she should be doing so. It serves as an important, if visually-jarring, reminder that when we drive women out of decision-making, everyone suffers, especially families.
Weigh in! Should the ban on children in the Chamber be overturned? What has been your experience of working while parenting? How can we make work life more conducive to family life?