Boothroyd's exit revives calls for breast-feeding in Commons

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Breast-feeding is back on the Parliamentary agenda. The Speaker of the House of Commons, Betty Boothroyd, angered some MPs when she imposed a ban on breast-feeding babies in working areas of the House but her imminent retirement and the campaign to elect a new Speaker have reopened the debate.

Breast-feeding is back on the Parliamentary agenda. The Speaker of the House of Commons, Betty Boothroyd, angered some MPs when she imposed a ban on breast-feeding babies in working areas of the House but her imminent retirement and the campaign to elect a new Speaker have reopened the debate.

A candidate with a strong modernising agenda will appeal to Blairite MPs, particularly women. Two of these, Julia Drown, whose request to feed her child sparked the row, and Julie Morgan, have written to all the potential candidates for the Speaker's role asking their position on the issue.

Only one contender has come out firmly in favour. Alan Beith, the Liberal Democrats' deputy leader, said he believed there was "no justification in the ban". He has previously headed a local campaign to encourage breast-feeding in shops and other businesses and said: "I felt the House of Commons should set an example."

There is also support for the principle of combining breast-feeding with an MP's daily work from Labour's John McWilliam, a deputy Speaker.

He has promised to bring an end to late-night sittings in the Commons, tailor the Parliamentary calendar to coincide with school holidays, and set aside special rooms, with live links to committee proceedings, where women with babies can breast-feed and still keep up with debates. He said: "Costs would be minimal and the positive publicity would be a boost for the breast-feeding movement."

Gwyneth Dunwoody, the 69-year-old Labour MP for Crewe, is seen as a strong contender for the Speaker's post and is understood to have the backing of some prominent Conservatives. But while supporting breast-feeding in principle (and pointing out that she nursed her three children and all her 10 grandchildren were breast-fed) she said she was "yet to be convinced" that standing and select committees would provide the "calm, relaxing and comfortable" environment needed for successful breast-feeding. She was also concerned about young children being televised.

Both Conservative front-runners, Sir George Young and Sir Patrick Cormack, neither of whom have officially declared, came down in favour of Miss Boothroyd's original ruling. Sir Patrick said he "would not take any steps to reverse the ruling" but invited the women MPs to take part in a debate on the issue. Sir George said he had discussed the issue with his wife and, while supporting breast-feeding, had come down on Miss Boothroyd's side. However, there was a need for suitable facilities close to the Commons chamber and the committee rooms.

The MPs are still awaiting replies from Labour's Michael Martin, Conservative Sir Alan Haselhurst, and Liberal Democrat Menzies Campbell.

The two women, who have already won the support of 116 MPs for an Early Day Motion calling for breast-feeding to be permitted in the Commons, are determined to press to make this an issue in the contest. Ms Drown said: "I hope that whoever the new Speaker is will take a more relaxed attitude to breast-feeding and let MPs get on with their work whilst doing what is best for their children.

"I don't think a Speaker or anyone else should make judgements about where it is appropriate for people to feed their children. That is for mothers to decide.

"I am delighted that at least one of the candidates is forward-thinking and welcoming enough to young parents that they would be keen to reverse Madam Speaker's ruling."

Mrs Morgan added: "Women in particular will want to vote for the Speaker who was most likely to be keen to reform the House of Commons to make it more welcoming and better for people with children."

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