Why MPs need a creche course in representation

The Irish parliament is about to set up childcare facilities on its own premises. What chance of the House of Commons following suit, asks Mary Braid
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Constitutional and electoral reform is a favourite subject for opposition MPs to chew over at the moment - only last week Tony Blair unveiled ambitious plans to shake up the Commons, devolve power away from Westminster and remove the rights of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords. Yet while these heady schemes excite furious debate among members, the day-to-day anomalies of life in the House remain: arcane methods, unsociable working hours, and the lack of any facilities likely to encourage parents of young children to enter Parliament.

At the same time that Mr Blair was delivering his reforming lecture last week, the Irish parliament - often presumed to be old-fashioned, patriarchal and conservative - was preparing an announcement that showed Britain a progressive set of heels. After years of campaigning, the Irish parliament's Women's Rights Committee - the only national government body of its kind in Europe - finally convinced male colleagues and officials that a creche should be set up on the premises. The plans have been drawn up, work is about to start and Irish TDs (MPs) have been promised that from this summer they can take their kids to work.

At Westminster, lengthy lobbying for the same facility has got nowhere. The British parliament can find room for a shooting gallery but still cannot turn up a corner for a creche. Apparently the last location offered was a trifle unsuitable - it did not have any windows.

So how has Ireland managed to achieve what Britain has singularly failed to? On the face of it, there is no obvious strength in Irish numbers. The proportion of women in the Dail is almost as pitiful as our own - 12 per cent compared to 9 per cent in the House of Commons. But British women's level of participation in national politics has stayed at its lamentable level for a long time; Ireland's 12 per cent marks a recent revolution.

Before the 1992 election there were a dozen women TDs in the Dail - 14 was the all-time record. The 1992 polls surprised everyone - 20 women TDs were returned. According to Mary Cummins, women's affairs correspondent for the Irish Times, the creche is a concrete example of the changes women are bringing since their ranks were suddenly swollen. "You can see it in the bars which were traditionally a male preserve and in the language that is used in the Senate. Everything is much more PC now."

Moreover, she argues, the creche is also a reflection of the influence of the larger number of younger men returned to parliament at the same time. Most have wives who work and see the practical sense in having a creche.

Marian McGennis, Fianna Fail's equality officer and a member of the Women's Rights Committee, says the committee won the creche through sheer tenacity. It just refused to accept the old arguments that there was no room for one, particularly when a gym was among the improvements being considered in a pounds 10m refurbishment of parliament.

The committee also refused to undertake studies to prove that female TDs would use it enough to make it viable. Ms McGennis actually expects female staff, not politicians, to use it most although Mary Wallace, the committee's chair, who recently gave birth to her first baby, says that some female TDs have had to leave newborns at home in rural constituencies because there were no nursery facilities in parliament.

For Ms McGennis the creche is, above all, about setting a good example. "How can you push the country's employers to set up creches when the parliament does not have one of its own?" she asks. And she points to the chicken- and-egg problem in measuring the level of need among female MPs. If a creche is not there, she argues, then women with young children simply will not come forward.

Tessa Jowell, Labour's spokeswoman on women's issues, says that the news of the Irish creche is heartening. It supports Labour's theory that sheer weight of female numbers - despite the curtailing of Labour's all-female shortlists - after the next election will force a change. In a few weeks' time, Labour will unveil its plans for the proposed women's ministry. So - once again - detail will have to wait. But establishing a creche would be a small step in a huge programme of women's business which will include increasing the representation of women in politics and looking at policy affecting women in other government departments.

Those devising the proposed ministry's blueprint might look at two features of the Irish system. Almost half the members of the 17-strong Women's Rights Committee are men. "That ensures it doesn't become a ghetto," says Ms McGennis. In addition, formidable all-party support has been built among female TDs for women's issues.

Ms McGennis regards the creche as a small step for womankind. "The Women's Rights Committee is the only one of 17 in the house to have a female chair," she points out. "It would say much more if a woman chaired one of the others."

And while Ireland is changing, formidable conservative forces are still at work. Gay Byrne, the country's number one chat-show host, invited some new women TDs on to his programme. One caller divided the nation. While the women were gadding about on Gay's show, just who was watching their kids at that time of night, he asked. It is a sign of how far Irish women have to go, argues Ms Cummins, that all those present felt obliged to give him an answer.

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