The Good Parliament report – Westminster Hall debate – 2nd November 2016

Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP): It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs Moon. I am delighted to be able to speak in this debate. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) for calling it. I welcome the work of Professor Childs and everyone else who participated in “The Good Parliament” report. I wish to touch on a few recommendations around the way the House operates and the impact that that has on democracy more widely. I want to stress that the report is not about us as MPs, but about democracy and giving people access to Parliament. It is about Parliament showing leadership and about demonstrating that, by deeds not words, we are as representative as we possibly can be.

It will come as no surprise to my hon. Friends that, as chair of the all-party group on infant feeding and inequalities, I want first to mention the issue of breastfeeding. It is a vital public health issue that, despite the efforts of many committed people, does not get the prominence that it should. In the UK, we have the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world. This is not about the choices of individual mothers, but about society’s attitudes. I would talk at length on the matter if I were not short of time, but I recommend people read Dr Amy Brown’s book, “Breastfeeding Uncovered”, which highlights a lot of the issues.

There has been a lot of talk about breastfeeding in the response to “The Good Parliament” report, but it is a tiny aspect of the report. It is clear that even in the House there are various opinions on breastfeeding in Parliament. The hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) called it exhibitionism; certain journalists were surprised when I tweeted a picture of myself breastfeeding; and some people said that if women could not breastfeed while driving a tank, they should not be allowed to do it in Parliament. Those are ridiculous arguments. “The Good Parliament” report recognises that

“permitting entry to infants would have symbolic benefits—showcasing the Commons as a role-model parent-friendly institution.”

That is where we wish to be as a Parliament. I think we could all agree on that. In showing that leadership, it would also encourage businesses across the country to consider their own practices.

Yesterday, a friend who works at SNP headquarters in Edinburgh posted a photo of the breast pumps belonging to her and her colleague, both of whom have been supported by the SNP to express milk at work. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North said, we both breastfed our babies in council meetings. Councillor Fay Sinclair is doing so in Fife. It is happening in Australia, Iceland and Scotland, and in the European Parliament. There is no reason why we in the mother of Parliaments should not embrace it, too.

I mentioned at the start that “The Good Parliament” report is not just about us, but about how Parliament does its business. The way we do our business excludes women from the life of this building, and that has a negative impact on our decision making. I attended an interesting event yesterday that was organised by Sense About Science. It was called “Evidence matters”, which of course it does, but which evidence and are we getting it from the right source? I am deeply concerned that the evidence we receive as a Parliament is not good enough because it excludes the views and experiences of women.​

Dr Marc Geddes has produced interesting research on witnesses at Select Committees, from which it is clear that they are very much male, pale and stale. Out of the 3,228 witnesses who gave evidence to the 1,241 Select Committee sessions in Session 2013-14, only 792 were women. That is just shy of 25%. No Committee came close to calling an equal number of women and men to give evidence, and for some Committees—Defence, Energy and Climate Change, and Communities and Local Government—more than 80% of witnesses called were men. For the Treasury Committee, it was more than 90%.

I do not believe that there are only men with expertise in these areas, and we need to understand why this imbalance exists. Dr Geddes’ research also highlighted that 67% of witnesses are coming from London and the south of England, even when Government witnesses are excluded. “The Good Parliament” report suggests we consider gender thresholds, but I believe Select Committees must also look at when they meet so that people can get to them. We should look at building into the parliamentary timetable a more considered way for when Committees meet. Committees need to recognise it is difficult for people to get here, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North mentioned. For Committees that meet in the morning, such as the Treasury Committee, it is really hard for people to get here to give evidence.

A 10 am meeting means an early flight or train or an overnight stay, rearranging the school run and making arrangements for childcare. Late-night meetings might end up the same way. We should consider building a system that takes into account the needs of people, rather than the needs of London-based Committees. I would encourage Select Committees to get out and travel outside London. The best meeting of the Communities and Local Government Committee was when we took public evidence on devolution in Manchester and actually heard from people in Manchester. It was useful to be able to hold to account other witnesses who came late in the day because we had heard evidence first hand.

I want to briefly mention the crèche issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North mentioned. Joeli Brearley from Pregnant Then Screwed came to listen to a debate in this room and had to sit at the back juggling a wee one and popping in and out because there was no crèche provision for her.