Commons men's club challenged by 'Blair's babes'

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 May, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 May, 2000, 12:00am

WHILE PRIME MINISTER Tony Blair and his family celebrate the arrival of a new baby in Downing Street, family considerations are causing far more concern down the road in the mother of parliaments. The House of Parliament's convoluted legislative procedures entail lengthy debates dragging on into the early hours of the morning, which almost certainly breach normal working regulations in most other areas of employment.

While, in the past, there have been attempts to modernise the process, the male-dominated House of Commons has up to now been content to while away the hours after midnight sitting in one of Parliament's eight bars waiting to be called to vote.

But with an unprecedented number of women legislators who won seats in the last election, pressure is on the Government to introduce a more sympathetic work schedule to allow MPs to spend more time with their families. A growing rebellion among the 101 female Labour MPs - known as 'Blair's babes' - has developed against what many see as unnecessarily long working hours and the absence of child care and other facilities.

Oona King, considered by many to be a rising star within the Labour Party, has become one of the most strident critics against the antiquated working conditions. She is among those campaigning to bring in proper working hours in Parliament, together with facilities to help working mothers participate in the political life of the country.

Parliament has several recreational facilities dating back to the 19th century, including a rifle range for members to let off steam. But the building has a shortage of women's lavatories.

'If you create an environment where only those with no regard for their family and their relationships can survive, then you shouldn't be surprised if those same politicians do not push hard enough for radical legislation to tackle the pressures British people face at work,' Ms King said.

The problems were highlighted last week when Labour MP Tess Kingham, a mother of three, announced she would be standing down from Parliament at the next election because she was sick and tired of working in what amounted to a gentleman's club.

'The practices and culture of parliament are suited to a 19th century institution when well-heeled men did a day job then popped along to the Commons to do a bit of politics and enjoy the restaurants and bars. The job of an MP in the 21st century is totally different,' Ms Kingham said.

Earlier this month the Speaker of the House of Commons, Betty Boothroyd, said she was prepared to order at least some changes to start making the Palace of Westminster more family-friendly. Ms Boothroyd said she would order high baby chairs to be provided in some of the plush parliamentary dining rooms.

But some women MPs believe they need to tough it out to prove to their constituents and male MPs that they are equally capable of handling the long work schedule. Julie Kirkbride, a former political journalist and now a Conservative MP expecting her first baby later this year, believes those who protest about the conditions are being indulgent.

'We chose to be mothers and to be MPs - we knew beforehand how the House works,' Ms Kirkbride said. 'Of course I accept there will be times when I will be torn between my baby and my parliamentary duties - but the job of being an MP is not the only sphere in which mothers work anti-social hours. Parliament is a special place, the forum of the nation, where laws are created, and I am not persuaded it should be obliged to change to suit a minority.' Simon Macklin is the Post's London correspondent FO01: