Inside Parliament: All-male select committee is: Woman MP gives 'facts of life' to inquiry on working mothers - Tory's persistence on airport attacks gets its reward

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The all-male Commons Employment Select Committee was told a blunt truth yesterday - its inquiry into the issue of working mothers might be better informed if the members had to get up at 6am each day, dress a two- year-old and get him or her to a nursery before heading for the Palace of Westminster.

Such is the lot of Diane Abbott, single mother and Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, who gave evidence to the committee yesterday, along with two other mothers, Angela Knight, Conservative MP for Erewash, and Harriet Harman, a shadow Treasury minister.

Ms Harman said that women were now nearly half the workforce, and in the South-east and North-west outnumbered men at work. But, to protests from Mrs Knight, she said the Government was 'stumbling' in the face of this social and economic revolution. 'A labour market which is half women needs a well-developed childcare programme. That does not exist here. For most working mothers, childcare is a headache. British children are Europe's poor relations when it comes to childcare.' Ms Harman argued for state provision of nurseries and ending the 'second- class status' of part-time work, while Mrs Knight advocated tax relief for private child care.

The absence of any women on the committee, which is supposed to shadow the department responsibile for women's issues, was painfully apparent. Several MPs seemed chiefly concerned with the local difficulty of changing Commons sitting hours. Sebastian Coe, Conservative MP for Falmouth and Camborne, earnestly asked what additional qualities they had brought to the House as mothers. Ms Harman said Parliament should be representative - only 59 of the 647 MPs are women.

Ms Abbott thought she brought three distinct qualities. 'First, I can manage with very little sleep. Secondly, I am very flexible. You have to be flexible with children who one morning will only eat Weetabix and the next morning won't touch Weetabix. And third . . . I can put up with a lot of childish babble.'

Enter Harry Greenway, Conservative MP for Ealing North, with the only attempt to stir deeper waters. Weren't working mothers 'trying to square an impossible circle'? Mrs Knight agreed. 'We choose to have children and we therefore have to make some sacrifices . . . in order to ensure your children are all right and you bring them up properly.'

Mr Greenway's suggestion that women MPs wanted the best of both worlds was too much for Ms Abbott. 'Even you Mr Greenway, august and distinguished Member of Parliament, might be an even better MP if the way our life is structured enabled you to spend more time with your family,' she said.

After days of fruitless effort trying to get a Government statement on the IRA mortar attacks on Heathrow, Terry Dicks, the Conservative MP whose constituency includes much of the airport, made his point at Question Time. He asked John Major to 'tell the IRA there is no place for them at the peace table' and urged him to 'institute a shoot-to- kill policy' in Northern Ireland to enable the security forces to 'eliminate all the IRA terrorists'.

The Prime Minister said the attacks demonstrated the 'callous disregard' the IRA had for the safety of the public and for their own words, and said they 'cannot bomb their way back to the negotiating table'. But he added: 'I am not sure the particular measure Mr Dicks proposes is one that I can endorse.'

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