Despite how often the discussion of babies in parliament crops up on a surface level (and how many babies crop up in parliament) worldwide, it is still something that causes something of a ruckus. Last year, Larissa Waters, a Greens MP in Australia, made history as she became the first person to address the chamber while feeding her 14-week-old baby – something that is still banned in the House of Commons chamber and committees (though it is allowed in other areas of the Palace of Westminster). Just last month, Madeleine Henfling, a member of the German Green party, was forced to leave parliament during a vote because she brought her baby, though her participation would have taken just a few minutes.
Now, British MPs are joining the global conversation. Liberal Democrat deputy leader Jo Swinson has become the first MP to take her baby into a Commons debate, and she hopes that, by doing so, this will spark a change in parliament.
She appeared in the chamber with 11-week-old Gabriel on Thursday, during a discussion about proxy voting – ironically, a system that allows MPs on maternity leave or suffering from illness to have their say without making the trip to Westminster.
She did not have her son with her when she spoke early on in the debate, but left the chamber to go and feed him. When he fell asleep on her in a baby carrier, before she had returned to the chamber for the closing speeches of the debate, she had two options: “Wake him up and hand him to somebody else for 20 minutes, or go in and sit down, do no harm, and he stayed asleep for most of it.”
Madeleine Henfling, a member of the German Green party, was forced to leave parliament during a vote because she brought her baby
"I think it's a step forward for modernising parliament and for sending a message that it really needs to be possible for parents to be able to combine their responsibilities for their children with their working lives, and all too often that is made too difficult,” she told BBC Good Morning Scotland. "That won't always mean taking your child to work, but in the case of very small babies, for people who are working at that stage then that can be just one of the ways in which workplaces can modernise and there could be flexibility in order to make it possible."
The East Dunbartonshire MP has been campaigning for proxy voting, which allows MPs to cast votes on behalf of absent colleagues. Currently those on maternity leave are "paired" with an MP from the opposing party, meaning neither would take part in Commons voting. But, earlier this year, Tory chairman Brandon Lewis broke the pair in a crunch vote on Brexit, which the government only narrowly survived. Instead of missing the vote to counter the fact Swinson could not attend, her Tory pair voted for the government.
Proxy voting is a change that could come to parliament sooner than expected. Commons leader Andrea Leadsom has said that she is backing calls to introduce the system in an article for The Times yesterday. “Everyone should be able to spend time with their newborn babies – even, dare I say it, MPs,” she wrote.
“That’s why when the Commons debates the issue of parental leave today I will commit to introducing a system of proxy voting to allow this to happen.”
She added: “I believe passionately that every child deserves to be given the best possible start in life. MPs’ children deserve the same as everybody else so resolving this issue is a priority for me."