No room for children in the House

While the majority of new MPs have declared their support for improved childcare, the Commons itself has nothing to offer them. By Fran Abrams
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Indy Lifestyle Online
DO YOU remember those irritating notices people used to put up in offices, saying: "You don't have to be mad to work here, but it helps"? Well, the House of Commons creche debate is a bit like that.

Most MPs agree they would definitely have to be mad to bring their children to parliament each day. But many of them would happily drape Big Ben with banners demanding the right to do so.

For the second time in four years, the House of Commons is about to commission a survey to gauge the demand for childcare facilities in Westminster. Yesterday 200 MPs tabled a Commons motion welcoming the move and pressing for Parliament to set an enlightened example to other employers. After all, they point out, they are not the only people working there.

Ask them to discuss the issue, though, and a complex picture emerges. In fact, new Labour seems to be suffering from something of a neurosis about it.

Most new MPs in the House are genuinely and strongly committed to the idea of improving childcare in Britain, and they think the House of Commons should lead the way. But many Labour women shrink from discussing it because they fear they are about to feature in yet another headline about "Blair's Babes".

And that reticence still remains, especially among women MPs of child- bearing age. For whatever reason, neither Ruth Kelly nor Claire Curtis- Thomas, both of whom have had babies since last May, returned The Independent's calls on the issue of childcare. Nor did Debra Shipley or Jacqui Smith, both of whom have been reported to be expecting at the moment.

Just after the election, when Female Fever in the House was at its height, to ask whether the House of Commons should have a creche was to provoke irritation. "Who would want to bring a child into central London?" would come the reply. "You media types can't seem to get it into your heads that most MPs live at the other end of the country."

Now, though, a large number of MPs hope there will be a serious discussion about childcare. And with the launch of The Independent's campaign, calling on the Chancellor to make childcare more affordable for all women through next month's Budget, the issue has become particularly topical.

Before the election, childcare for those working at Westminster was to some extent a stick with which to beat the Conservative government. In 1994 a surveycommissioned from Research Services Limited found that there was a demand for childcare among Parliament's 3,500 or so staff, though less so from MPs.

A cursory search for accommodation turned nothing up, and so the idea was quietly dropped, although the episode did lead to some staff with children under five being offered pounds 6 per day childcare vouchers. Then someone spotted that there was a rifle range in the House, and a media furore ensued. The fact that the rifle range was in a cellar and therefore totally unsuitable for housing children was ignored, as was the fact that no one had decided precisely what sort of facilities were needed.

Since the election, the atmosphere seems to have changed. Research Services has been asked to update its work, and MPs are taking a new line.

Caroline Flint, Labour MP for Don Valley, gathered signatures for yesterday's motion. While she would not want childcare at Westminster for her three children, aged nine, 11 and 12, she said, others might.

"It isn't about MPs saying, 'What's in it for me?' It's about saying Parliament should set an example by listening to staff and trying to meet their needs," she said.

Ms Flint, who set up a day nursery at Lambeth Council before becoming an MP and who is a former chairwoman of Working for Childcare, recognises that there is work to be done. But she feels there is a point of principle to be made.

"We are saying that Parliament can take a lead and show other employers what possibly can be done," she said.

Different MPs have different needs and different views on the subject, of course. Tom Brake, the Liberal Democrat MP for Carshalton and Wallington, travels to work on the train each day with his seven-month-old daughter, Julia, and would be delighted if he could move her from her private nursery to a parliamentary creche. His partner works nearby and takes Julia home when she finishes work.

"We would definitely switch," Mr Brake said. "It would be great to have the flexibility of having someone on site if there was an emergency, or just to be able to drop in and check she's okay."

He has tabled his own Commons motion, which suggests the Government could act straight away by taking a few places in nurseries run by civil service departments such as the Department of Trade and Industry.

Such facilities would be useless to MPs like Lynne Jones, Labour MP for Selly Oak. When she arrived in 1992, her younger son was two and might have been a candidate for a nursery, she says, but now he is eight and his requirements are different. Most of the time, he and his 15-year-old brother are at school in Birmingham, but this week is half term and they are spending time with their mother in London.

"I've just taken them to the Planetarium," she said. "It's a nice opportunity to spend time with them, and it's a break for them too. But this is the first year I've been able to do this, and they are old enough now to entertain themselves for half the day."

What she would have welcomed a year or so ago would have been a drop- in facility, or some sort of holiday scheme. And indeed, it seems that such a programme may now be on the cards at Westminster. The European Parliament, which provides both nurseries and holiday play schemes, has been advising the House of Commons about what might be needed.

Of course, they are light years ahead on the continent. There are nurseries in Luxembourg, Strasbourg and Brussels, open until 8pm, and in school holidays children in Brussels and Luxembourg are taken out of town by bus to play sports and take part in other activities.

Sarah Whittall, the European Parliament's liaison officer for childcare, has been advising House of Commons officials. But she says the nurseries it runs are mainly for staff. "We do have a few members who bring their children, but with the lifestyle they have, it isn't terribly suitable. Moving a child to a different country once a month isn't a good idea," she explained.

The problem of MPs' working habits is not quite as acute at Westminster but there are still many late nights.

"There was a debate as to whether we should keep the creche open late, but really you would have to keep it open all night. For the child it would be totally ridiculous to take them home at midnight," Ms Whittall said.

While Spanish and Italian kids seem to thrive on being up late at night, British parents like to see their offspring tucked up by about 7pm, so the idea of a late-night nursery would probably not find favour here.

Even a day nursery is bound to run up against problems, in particular because there is still nowhere to put it. The grandiose architecture of Parliament may be suited to political conniving and lofty debate, but most MPs agree it is hardly a place for children - though some point out that burgers on the menu and the odd nappy-changing facility would not go amiss.

A tie-up with a civil service department or with St Thomas' Hospital, across the river, has been mooted, although those organisations can fill their nursery spaces easily without any help. A nursery in the new MPs' office block which is about to be built next door to Parliament has also been suggested, though a Commons' spokeswoman said yesterday that the plans were too advanced to be changed.

With 120 women in the House and many more MPs under 40 than before the election, the movement for change is growing. Meanwhile, though, some MPs are still struggling to come to terms with modern attitudes to parenthood. Ashok Kumar, the Labour member for Middlesbrough South and Cleveland East, signed a motion last year calling for childcare in the Commons. So what did he think should be done about it?

"I think that's for the women to put forward," he said. "It's mostly women who deal with these issues, and we have to think what's convenient for them." Perhaps Tony Blair should go back to basics and start off with a few awareness-raising sessions.