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Proxy voting in divisions in the House

Published Thursday, September 6, 2018

On 13 September 2018, there will be a general debate on proxy voting in divisions in the House of Commons.

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In July, Andrea Leadsom, the Leader of the House of Commons, announced that “there will be a debate on proxy voting in the second week of September”. It was subsequently widely reported that the ministers were drawing up a motion to allow Members on maternity or paternity leave to vote by proxy in divisions of the House. On 6 September, Ms Leadsom announced that a general debate on proxy voting would take place on Thursday 13 September. A subsequent debate on a substantive motion would follow as soon as practicably possible.

A debate on the principle of proxy voting in divisions in the House of Commons had been scheduled to take place on 5 July 2018. However, the debate did not take place as statements had taken almost all the time allocated for the debate.

The debate was to have taken place before the Government responded to the Procedure Committee’s report on Proxy voting and parental absence, which was published on 15 May 2018. Andrea Leadsom said that the debate would allow the constitutional issues of proxy voting to be discussed before she gave a considered response to the Procedure Committee.

The Procedure Committee’s inquiry followed a debate on baby leave on 1 February 2018, which supported calls for formalised arrangements for maternity, paternity and adoption leave for new parents in the House.

The Good Parliament (July 2016) previously had called for more formal arrangements. The Speaker’s Conference (on Parliamentary Representation) (January 2010) called on political parties to set out their policies on maternity, paternity and caring leave for Members; and invited the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority to consider formal arrangements for maternity, paternity and caring leave for Members.

Procedure Committee proposals

The Procedure Committee brought forward proposals for a non-compulsory scheme for proxy voting that would require some changes to Standing Orders. It recommended that “proxy voting ought to be available to new mothers, new fathers and adoptive parents”. The scheme should operate under the authority of the Speaker, who would certify the appointment of a proxy.

It recommended that:

  • Eligibility would be confirmed by producing either a certificate of pregnancy or a ‘matching certificate’ from a registered adoption agency to the Speaker.
  • The dispensation to vote by proxy would be:
    • “Six months for the biological mother of a baby, or for the primary or single adopter of a baby or child;
    • “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”.

The Committee said that the new system would have to operate in a transparent way.

The Committee also considered whether a proxy should be exercised in all divisions or whether there should be restrictions. It proposed that subject to certain limitations a proxy could be exercised in almost all divisions and deferred divisions in the House, although it said that the House might impose further restrictions. It recommended that proxy votes should not be used in votes for an early general election under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 or in determining whether fewer than 40 Members had participated in a division.

Andrea Leadsom’s response to the Procedure Committee

Andrea Leadsom wrote to Charles Walker, the Chair of the Procedure Committee, on 12 July 2018. She thanked the Committee for its report and expressed her disappointment that the 5 July debate did not go ahead.

She stated that “The integrity of the voting system in the House of Commons must be above reproach”.

Andrea Leadsom noted that because it had been given the specific objective of devising a proxy voting system for parental leave, the Committee had not considered alternative approaches – such as formalised pairing. She also raised the question of extending proxy voting to those suffering long-term illness or bereavement. She queried whether any discretion in a proxy voting system would be appropriate.

She stressed the importance of considering these issues to ensure that the House was aware of “all the implications of any potential changes”.

The Committee published Andrea Leadsom’s letter on 18 July.

Pairing

An alternative to proxy voting is to continue the practice of pairing – two Members from opposite sides agree to be absent at the same time so that the majority in a division is not affected – either as currently, on an informal basis (overseen by whips), or in a more formalised way.

Pairing was brought into the spotlight recently when Brandon Lewis apologised to Jo Swinson for breaking their pair in a vote at Report Stage of the Trade Bill 2017-19, on 17 July 2018.

Ms Swinson had been paired, following the recent birth of her second son. She would have qualified for a proxy vote if the Procedure Committee’s recommendations had been implemented.

 

Commons Briefing papers CBP-8359

Author: Richard Kelly

Topics: Members of Parliament, Parliament, Parliamentary procedure

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