There are no greater impediments to increasing the number of women in Parliament than the unnecessary and unthinking continuation of rules, practices and habits established when election to the House of Commons was a privilege open only to men.
Some of those procedures, such as holding votes as late as 10pm and requiring MPs to be present in both Westminster and their constituency each week, have their merits as well as their drawbacks and it may take some time for them to evolve into family-friendly working policies. Others, however, are much simpler to update, and should be overturned immediately.
The suggestion that MPs be allowed to breastfeed their babies in Parliament is a straightforward, progressive measure that could encourage all women – whether they are likely to start a family or not – to begin to consider politics, and moreover Westminster, as a place for them. With only 191 women in the Commons today, most of them without young children, the move requires no sudden change of culture, seating plan, or anything else. But it would nevertheless send a clear signal that Parliament welcomes women and understands that they can represent their constituents effectively while nevertheless meeting the other, personal demands upon them – an important shift in tone.
The Conservative MP Sir Simon Burns has opposed the move to allow female MPs to breastfeed for fear that it would expose Britain’s temple of democracy to ridicule by the tabloid press. He must have missed the outpouring of support for the Italian MEP Licia Ronzulli, who brought her daughter to the European Parliament each time she attended for her first three years. This newspaper believes that the far greater risk of ridicule comes from perpetuating a parliamentary system which has, so far, welcomed fewer female MPs as a percentage of its lower chamber than Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Mexico, Senegal, Turkmenistan and Afghanistan.
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