MP mothers give up on creche

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The campaign for a creche inside the House of Commons is being abandoned.

In spite of the return of a record 120 women MPs at the General Election in May - many of them the mothers of young children - the provision of a nursery or day-care facility is no longer a top priority.

It is not, however, that Blair's Babes have been brainwashed into accepting the rules of the oldest gentleman's club in Britain. Nor has anyone vetoed the idea.

It is women MPs themselves who are now arguing that an on-site creche would not be helpful.

"You have got to remember that the vast majority of MPs live outside London," said newly-elected Rochdale MP Lorna Fitzsimons, chairwoman of the Labour Women's Group and a former pro-creche campaigner. "So their children would not be around that much anyway."

Joan Ruddock, Minister for Women, agreed: "Although quite a few new women MPs do have young children, there is a question about how well a creche would actually be used."

A family room has now replaced it on her ministerial wish-list. "What we really need are more family visiting facilities." There is already one family room available to MPs, but she feels it is not suitable.

"There is generally a very unfriendly atmosphere for anyone who wants to meet up with their children or their partner."

Not only must Ms Ruddock work inside the Commons, she is also the politician charged with improving working conditions for every woman in Britain.

Family-friendly office hours and increased childcare provision are two of her key political objectives, she says, yet no workplace offers more of a challenge to this ethos than the Palace of Westminster itself.

There have been some changes to the House: there is a new ladies' loo and the barber's is now a unisex hairdresser. But there are calls for more fundamental changes to the shape of parliamentary business itself.

"A lot of the new intake are men, but they would welcome these changes too," says Ms Fitzsimons. "It's about making the place a bit more family- friendly."

The reforming Leader of the House and mother-of-two, Ann Taylor, is currently inviting members to comment on changes to the parliamentary year, week and day. She is due to report some time next summer.

Baroness Miller, a founding member of the campaigning Three Hundred Group, which was formed in 1980 to increase the number of women in Parliament, suspects there is really no way to artificially feminise Westminster.

"I know it does look very different on the Labour side," she says sceptically from her position as a Conservative whip in the House of Lords. "But the idea of all-women selection lists really was patronising in the extreme. A lot of women may have come in through that system with a false expectation."

The decisions Ms Taylor takes in the next few months will potentially improve life for all MPs.

Ms Fitzsimons is prepared to fight for her colleagues' right to know in advance where they will have to be and when.

"The most crucial thing is predictability, so that MPs know when they can spend some time with the kids," she says.

"Everybody realises they are going to have to do late nights, but it would be much more useful if the recesses could be timed with school holidays."