Can MPs breastfeed in the House of Commons?
15th Dec 2017
Women aren’t allowed to breastfeed babies in the House of Commons.
Breastfeeding is not allowed in the House of Commons chamber and committees, though it is allowed in other areas of the Palace of Westminster.
“There’s still a problem with breastfeeding in public, including, I believe, in the House of Commons. I believe that women aren’t allowed to feed babies in the House of Commons. I may be wrong, but if that's the case, that's ridiculous.”
BBC Question Time audience member, 14 December 2017
“That's not true... I don't know about the chamber, I have to say, because I haven’t actually seen anybody doing it in my seven years that I’ve been there. But obviously in the building and everything else but I think it probably has been done and I hope it wouldn't be a problem if it were to be done.”
Nicky Morgan MP, 14 December 2017
In 2000, the then-Speaker of the House of Commons ruled that breastfeeding wasn’t allowed in the main Chamber of the House of Commons, as well as in committee meetings. The House of Commons has told us that it still observes this ruling.
It also told us anyone may breastfeed anywhere else in the building, and that there are breastfeeding and baby changing facilities available for Members.
Rules on breastfeeding were clarified in 2000
In 2000, the rules on breastfeeding in the House of Commons Chamber were set out after Julia Drown MP asked for clarification about whether she could breastfeed during a committee meeting.
A letter issued on behalf of the then-Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, said breastfeeding was not allowed in the Chamber or committee rooms due to existing rules prohibiting “bringing refreshment into the [committee] room and the presence of persons other than members of the committee and specified officers”.
The Speaker later added that “I do not believe that the feeding of babies in either the Chamber or Committee is conducive to the efficient conduct of public business. Nor do I think that the necessary calm environment in which to feed babies can be provided in such circumstances.” She also noted that there were three lady members’ lounges, a families room and MPs own offices where breastfeeding was allowed.
The House of Commons told us it still observes the Speaker’s ruling that the children of MPs are not allowed to be brought into the chamber. However, they emphasised that, outside of this, anyone may breastfeed anywhere in the building, and will be helped to find a room if they wish to do so in privacy.
This rule has been challenged
In November 2001, a committee of MPs recommended “that the House should give a lead to the country in promoting breastfeeding by allowing mothers to feed their babies wherever it is appropriate to them in the Palace of Westminster and associated buildings.”
After undertaking consultations, in March 2002 the then-Speaker Michael Martin “decided to make no change to the current regulations under which breast-feeding is not permitted in the Chamber, in Committees or in the public galleries.”
Helene Hayman was reportedly the first MP to breastfeed in parliament in 1976, although this seems to have been outside of the Chamber. Harriet Harman also breastfed her daughter in the Commons in 1982, and took her into the division lobby (which is not the Chamber) to vote. So neither of these seemed to have happened in the Chamber itself.
A 2016 report has called for changes
In 2016, Professor Sarah Childs launched the Good Parliament Report, at the request of the Speaker, John Bercow.
One of the report’s recommendations was to allow children into the Chamber and committees. It says that “This move would enable all Members to fully participate in House business. Members may well sit in the Chamber and in committees for a number of hours either listening to a debate or waiting to speak. In addition to allowing Members to carry out their representative functions, permitting entry to infants would have symbolic benefits – showcasing the Commons as a role-model parent-friendly institution.”
The report doesn’t formally recommend that breastfeeding in the Chamber and committees should be allowed, but it does recommend that children be allowed into these areas and that “According to a senior Commons clerk the issue of infant feeding is really a question of whether to permit babies into the Chamber and committees.” Professor Sarah Childs also told us that infant feeding in the Chamber was something included in the report for consideration as part of a wider review of parliamentary rules.
The report also recommends that “The provision of proper facilities for infant feeding near the Chamber and across the Parliamentary Estate should also be made”.
The current Speaker set up a committee of MPs to review the report and its recommendations. In March 2017, the group endorsed “allowing children up to the age of five in the Division Lobbies and into and through the Chamber whilst a vote was underway.” The House of Commons told us that no final decision had been taken on this issue.
Update 15 December 2017
We've received more information from the House of Commons on its breastfeeding guidelines, and updated the piece to reflect this.
This fact check is part of a roundup of BBC Question Time. Read the roundup.