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By Baroness Smith of Llanfaes
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MPs Struggle To Secure Childcare Places At Parliament Nursery

MPs have struggled to secure childcare places at parliament's nursery (Alamy)

6 min read

A Conservative MP has said Parliament remains a “very outdated workplace” for parents with young children and that “special consideration” should be made for MPs to ensure their children can access onsite childcare.

Theo Clarke, the MP for Stafford, said she is talking with Speaker of the House Sir Lindsay Hoyle and Leader of the Commons Penny Mordaunt about the need to improve maternity provisions and family-friendly policies across Parliament, after she could not get a place for her own daughter in the onsite nursery.

Limited access to childcare is a problem that is currently being seen sector-wide across the UK, with childcare places in England having fallen by nearly 40,000 since 2010, according to Labour Party research in March this year.

In Parliament, the issue of a lack of nursery places is likely to only get worse if Labour, which is currently way ahead of the Tories in the polls, wins the next general election. A significant proportion of Labour prospective parliamentary candidates are women in their 30s with young children or expect to have children in the near future. One candidate told The House magazine that if elected, "one of the very first things they’re going to do as MPs is hit send on a pre-prepared application for the parliamentary creche".

With new MPs after the election set to want the services of the parliamentary creche than the current cohort of MPs, calls for provisions to be expanded and improved are likely to intensify. 

Clarke has spoken on numerous occasions about issues facing new parents, particularly relating to childbirth, after experiencing a traumatic birth herself in 2022. Last week, the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on birth trauma – co-chaired by Clarke – published a harrowing report that has called for an overhaul of the UK's maternity and postnatal care after hearing evidence from more than 1,300 women.

Speaking to PoliticsHome ahead of the report’s publication, Clarke said that being among a “very, very small number” of those serving as an MP during pregnancy and motherhood meant she could highlight these issues which are often underrepresented in Parliament, but that Parliament itself made it difficult for young mothers such as her to do their jobs while also raising a baby.

“I was very surprised that as an MP I actually couldn't get my daughter into the nursery,” she said, referring to the childcare provisions on the parliamentary estate.

“I was told [the nursery was] full and MPs are not in front of the queue and you won't be able to bring her and that does have an impact. It means you can't breastfeed your daughter. You can't take her through the voting lobby with you when you've got to be within several minutes walk of the division bell. 

“I didn't think there was good reasoning… It is a fact that being a Member of Parliament has a very unique set of circumstances: we are not in the same situation as a normal member of the government, as a civil servant or a contractor working in government departments, because of the incredibly antisocial and late night sitting hours that we have. 

“If you have a six-month-old baby, that you're trying to breastfeed and trying to feed every three hours, it's certainly not sustainable for you to be separated from your baby. You need to have them with you in Parliament and that's certainly the argument that I will be making to the Speaker and then to the House staff.”

She believed there were “really practical things” that can be done to encourage more parents of young children to stand for Parliament.

“Parliament is a very outdated workplace… As someone who used to work in the Department for Business and Trade, where we obviously set the policies which businesses have to follow, I think it is not acceptable that Parliament is not a friendly-family workplace in the same way that we expect British businesses to be,” Clarke continued. 

“Something we don't talk about enough is the toll that being a politician takes on having a young family.”

Theo Clarke giving a speech in Parliament
Theo Clarke won Parliamentary Speech of the Year at the 2023 Spectator Parliamentarian of the Year Awards for her personal account of birth trauma (Alamy)

Clarke is not the only MP who has recently experienced accessing onsite childcare. PoliticsHome understands that Science, Innovation and Technology Secretary Michelle Donelan has also had a difficult time finding childcare since giving birth last summer, having also been refused a Parliament nursery place for her son. 

Clarke said she had met with other MPs who have had similar problems, including Labour MP Stella Creasy, who has been a long-time campaigner for better provisions for parents in Parliament. 

“I think it's important that the Speaker and the Leader of the House are reaching out to MPs like myself and Stella, who have had direct experience, to say ‘we want to encourage women to stand for public office, we want young mums to feel that they can't be elected’,” Clarke said.

“What are the extra provisions that you need in place to ensure that you feel it is a family-friendly environment? I'm certainly happy to have those cross-party conversations and to make that argument directly to Parliament.”

Some improvements have been made in recent years. In 2019, the House of Commons unanimously voted to implement a trial of proxy voting for MPs on parental leave. MPs are now entitled to parental proxy voting, with the mother, father, partner of the person giving birth, or adoptive parent, being entitled to this provision for a maximum of one month before the due date or adoption date and a maximum of six months after the due date or adoption date. 

However, as MPs hold office by being directly elected by the public, they are not eligible for any statutory maternity or paternity leave. 

A House of Commons spokesperson said: “In line with services offered by many employers, the House of Commons offers a nursery service which provides accessible childcare for MPs, staff and others who work on the Parliamentary estate. 

“Originally founded to provide a more family-friendly-offer to MPs and their families, some areas of the service are now oversubscribed. In response to this, the House has recently implemented an updated tiering system, which will ensure MPs are prioritised for on-site nursery facilities. Where places are not available within the estate, the operator is able to offer alternative options at other nearby nurseries in the Westminster area where there is available capacity."

The new tiering system has been implemented since Clarke first complained to the Speaker, too late for her to secure a place for her own child.

A Nursery User Group has also been set up in Parliament to discuss issues and potential resolutions directly with a representative body of users, including MPs.

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