Commons Speaker candidates clash over breastfeeding in the chamber

Candidates looking to replace John Bercow as the next speaker of the House of Commons have clashed over whether women should or should not be allowed to breastfeed in the chamber.

Deputy Speaker Dame Eleanor Laing said “it is not necessary” to breastfeed in the House during sittings, while Conservative MP Shailesh Vara, among others, said he believed it should be the women’s choice.

Prospective candidates were asked by journalists at the Speaker’s hustings event whether, if they were to be elected, they would allow a female MP to breastfeed in the Commons.

Dame Eleanor said: “Breastfeeding in the chamber is not necessary.

Prime Minister’s Questions
The Commons during PMQs (House of Commons/PA)

“Been there, done that – we didn’t have maternity leave when I had a baby when I was already a member of Parliament and if I managed to bring up a healthy child without breastfeeding in the chamber then it can’t be all that difficult.”

Dame Eleanor noted that breastfeeding in committees is “different” due to the length of time sittings can last for.

She added: “That’s different. There are times there when that might be appropriate.

“But let’s just draw the line, it’s not necessary in the chamber.”

Fellow candidate and Conservative MP Sir Henry Bellingham said that he would not allow breastfeeding in either the Commons or committee rooms unless it was “an absolute emergency”.

Sir Henry said: “Not in the chamber and not in committees unless it’s an absolute emergency and I think that it would be through the individual going to the Speaker or the chair.

Harriet Harman and son
File pic of Harriet Harman with her son Harry (PA)

“There has been some flexibility here, but as a rule I would say no.”

Conservative MP Sir Edward Leigh added: “I agree with Eleanor.”

Mother of the House and one hopeful candidate Harriet Harman was one of the first MPs to breastfeed her child in the Commons.

Ms Harman said: “Most women would not want to breastfeed in the chamber or in a select committee, but if they feel they needed to I think they should be allowed to.”

She added that breastfeeding is a public health issue which MPs could raise awareness of if they had the choice of being able to breastfeed in the chamber.

Ms Harman said: “Also, breastfeeding is a very important public health issue, and if people see members of Parliament breastfeeding then it reinforces the message that it is a good idea.”

Also arguing against Dame Eleanor, Conservative MP Shailesh Vara said: “My view is that if a women wishes to breastfeed then it is her right to do so.

Commons Boothroyd retirement
Betty Boothroyd, marking her retirement as speaker of the House of Commons (PA)

“We can’t on the one hand bang on about equality for everyone and then actually say on that front we won’t give equality to women and the need to breastfeed.”

Deputy Speaker Lindsay Hoyle concurred: “I think it’s the choice of the women to make and I think it’s for them to decide what’s appropriate in the chamber.”

In 2000, the then-speaker of the House of Commons Betty Boothroyd ruled that breastfeeding was not allowed in the main chamber of the House of Commons.

In 2016, Professor Sarah Childs launched the Good Parliament Report at the request of the current Speaker Mr Bercow.

Brexit
Outgoing Speaker John Bercow (House of Commons/PA)

The report did not specifically mention breastfeeding in the chamber, but one of its recommendations was to allow children into the Chamber and committees.

Mr Bercow, who has been in place since June 22 2009, will step down as both Speaker of the Commons and an MP this month.

The election of the next Speaker of the House of Commons will take place on November 4.

Mr Bercow will take the chair for a final time on October 31.

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