Estimated reading time: 4 minutes
12 February 2019
What is the issue?
On 22 January 2019 Liberal Democrat MP, Jo Swinson, asked an Urgent Question in the House of Commons:
To ask the Leader of the House of Commons if she will make a statement on the obstacles to introducing proxy voting in Parliament.
During her reply the Leader of the House, the Rt. Hon. Andrea Leadsom MP was able to announce that she had tabled a substantive motion on proxy leave in the case of maternity, paternity and adoption which would be voted on by the House of Commons on Monday 28 January 2019.
She explained that the motion will largely follow the recommendations set out in the House of Commons Procedure Committee’s fifth report of the Session. It will facilitate baby leave for Members of Parliament and implement the House’s decision to agree to proxy voting in instances of baby leave.
The motion for approving the proxy scheme was approved on the evening of 28 January 2019. The motion directed the Speaker to prepare a pilot scheme. He told the House that it had been prepared and had “been signed by myself, the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the parliamentary leader of the Scottish National party.” It was published that evening and had effect from Tuesday 29 January 2019. He concluded:
I also confirm that I expect my first certificate of eligibility to be published in the Votes and Proceedings for today, enabling a proxy vote to be cast tomorrow.
How will it work?
The Shadow Leader of the House, Valerie Vaz MP, set out how the scheme will work in her speech during the debate on the motion. To get a proxy, Members can either provide a certificate of pregnancy or a matching certificate to the Speaker. The maximum duration of a vote by proxy is six months for the biological mother of a baby, or for the primary or single adopter of a baby or child, and two weeks for the biological father of a baby, the partner of the person giving birth, or the second adopter of a baby or child. Eligible Members will need to specify in writing to the Speaker, the dates on which the absence shall begin and end within these maximum durations and name the Member who has agreed to carry her or his proxy vote. The Speaker will issue a certificate and cause it to be entered in Votes and Proceedings. Members can change who their proxy is, end their period of proxy voting earlier or cast a vote in person by providing a written notice the Speaker, as soon as possible, or, at the very latest, by the end of the previous sitting day.
Members casting a proxy vote in a Division will inform the Division Clerk at the appropriate desk and the Tellers at the doors of the Lobby. Members can cast their vote in one Lobby and the proxy in the other and may cast a proxy without casting their own vote at all. The result of Divisions in Hansard, both online and in its printed edition, will note votes cast by proxy, including the Member who cast the proxy vote.
The pilot scheme will be reviewed after one year.
The Procedures Committee Report
On 1 February 2018 the House of Commons adopted the following resolution:
That this House believes that it would be to the benefit of the functioning of parliamentary democracy that honourable Members who have had a baby or adopted a child should for a period of time be entitled, but not required, to discharge their responsibilities to vote in this House by proxy.
On the same day, the Procedures Committee announced an inquiry into proxy voting and parental leave to examine:
- whether a formal system of voting by proxy is required to implement the House’s resolution, and
- if so, how such a system should operate.
The Committee published its report (“the Report”) on 15 May 2018. The Report outlined the current arrangements:
- Pairing: If members cannot get to Parliament to vote, they can enter an informal agreement known as “pairing”. This means that an MP from the opposing side of the absent politician agrees not to vote so the numbers are cancelled out.
- Nodding through: Another method is known as “nodding through”. This means someone’s vote can be counted even if they cannot pass through one of the lobbies – as long as they are somewhere on the parliamentary estate. It is traditionally used for people who are too unwell to walk. In the past MPs have voted by being in the back of an ambulance which was driven in and out of the gates.
The Report recommended that the scope of any proxy scheme should be broadly equivalent to statutory provision for maternity and paternity leave.
In regard to the operation of a proxy voting scheme the Report recommended that proxy voting ought to be adopted.
Recent events were prompted by a couple of controversial incidents surrounding crucial Brexit votes. In July 2018, Liberal Democrat MP, Jo Swinson, was on maternity leave having given birth three weeks earlier. She was paired with Brandon Lewis MP but it transpired that he had voted on two occasions. It was raised with the Leader of the House by Alisdair Carmichael, the Liberal Democrat Whip:
As the Leader of the House has said, as my party’s Chief Whip, I was given an undertaking yesterday by the Government pairing Whip that the right hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) would be absent from the Lobbies in accordance with the normal terms. I was therefore very concerned to learn that, although the right hon. Gentleman had not voted in the earlier Divisions or, indeed, even at the 6 pm Division, he had taken part in the Divisions at 6.15 and 6.30 pm. Obviously, this is a very serious breach of the convention. Within the usual channels, we rely on these agreements being honoured. The Government Chief Whip has apologised to me directly, and I of course accept that apology. It remains less than clear to me exactly how this came to pass, but I can pursue that directly with the Government Chief Whip outside the Chamber.
The Leader of the House apologised and said “I am assured by the Chief Whip that the breaking of the pair yesterday was done entirely in error and will not be repeated”.
More recently, during the House of Commons vote on the Brexit deal on 15 January 2019, the MP, Tulip Siddiq, delayed her caesarean section to vote. She went through the lobby in a wheelchair. Two weeks later, having given birth, she was the first MP to have a proxy vote
Article by Alys Thomas, Senedd Research, National Assembly for Wales