Proxy voting in the House of Commons: how could it work in practice?

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In February, the House of Commons passed by acclamation a motion to permit a system of voting by proxy for Members of Parliament who have recently adopted or given birth to a child. Ahead of the Procedure Committee’s report on the matter, former Clerk of Committees Andrew Kennon offers his view on how a system of proxy voting might work, and some of the problems its designers will have to consider.

On 1 February 2018 the House of Commons debated and passed this motion moved by Harriet Harman MP:

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 (emphasis added).

The Procedure Committee has conducted a short inquiry into this matter and is expected to report in May. 

Close votes

This would be less of an issue if the government had a clear majority. Normally, pairing arrangements between the whips of the main parties accommodate absences due to illness, family responsibilities, or other duties. Such understandings cannot always bear the pressure of really close votes in a hung parliament.

On such occasions, the reputation of the House is not enhanced by mothers of very small babies having to carry them through the division lobbies. Nor was it improved by very sick Members being brought by ambulance onto the precincts so their vote could be counted by being ‘nodding through’ the lobby by a whip. I remember it well from my early days as a clerk in the late 1970s.

Certainty

The salutary warning about defending the integrity of votes in the House comes from the hung parliament in July 1974. Harold Lever, then a government minister, told the House that he had been inappropriately nodded through at several votes in a previous sitting, since he had not in fact been on the precincts. As a result, two apparently tied votes on Amendments on the Report stage of the Trade Union and Labour Relations Bill, which the Chair had in accordance with precedent used their casting vote to defeat, were in fact carried. The Bill had to be called back from the Lords, read a third time with those two amendments inserted, and sent back to the Lords. 

It is easy to imagine the row which would occur if there was uncertainty about the House’s decision in a key vote on legislation concerning Brexit – let’s not mention the Fixed Term Parliaments Act!

Changed membership

In current circumstances, a critical vote could turn on whether a small handful of Members were able to attend in person. There are currently 208 female MPs, just under one-third of the membership. This compares with 27 in the 1974-79 parliament and 60 in the 1992-97 parliament – the last two occasions when the government of the day was not confident of its majority and close votes were likely. So, there are good reasons why this issue has been raised now.

But is there some immutable principle that a vote in the House can only be cast by a Member in person? Is this somehow linked to single-member constituencies?

Dangerous precedents?

There are lots of obvious reasons why this proposal will be resisted in some quarters:

  • It would be unfair to those who are absent on account of illness for it not to be extended to them also;
  • Members with other family caring responsibilities should also be eligible;
  • Members away on other parliamentary business should also be allowed to vote by proxy;
  • Problems could arise if the proxy wanted to vote differently from the absent Member;
  • If absentee votes were exercised by proxy by party whips, this would strengthen party control at the expense of backbenchers and the representation of the interests of individual constituencies.

The motion passed on 1 February is for entitled ‘baby leave for MPs’ and so includes paternity and adoption leave as well as maternity leave. Certainly, if an experiment is to be conducted, it might be simpler to confine it to the smaller and more easily defined category of Members who have given birth or adopted a baby in the last six months before appointing a proxy.

Trying it out

One workable solution might comprise:

  • An experiment for two years;
  • The absent MP to designate one specific colleague as their proxy for a set period of months;
  • Notice of the proxy should be registered with the parliamentary authorities and made public;
  • A minimum notice period of a week before the proxy was first used would prevent last-minute rushes and confusion;
  • Any change of proxy should be subject to the same notice requirements;
  • There should be no presumption that the proxy vote would be used on every occasion there was a vote in the House;
  • The designated proxy should not be a party whip;
  • Any discussion of how the proxy vote should be exercised on a particular occasion would be a matter between the absent Member and the designated proxy – but both would expect to be subject to some media, constituency and party scrutiny afterwards;
  • The voting lists in Hansard should make clear that the absent Member had voted by proxy and give the name of the proxy on each occasion.

The worst case scenario is that the House of Commons moves inexorably to a system in which Members absent for any reason can vote by proxy and that proxy is exercised on their behalf by their party whips. One of the concerns I have had about electronic voting using something like an Oyster card is the alleged story of party whips in the European Parliament dashing about during voting sessions, registering votes for their absent colleagues. This example from Italy demonstrates how it can be done. 

Conclusion

Personally I do not think such a proxy voting system breaches any immutable constitutional principle. The safeguards suggested above should ensure certainty, transparency and accountability. The risk of a dangerous precedent is outweighed, to my mind, by the advantage of the House recognising the demographic changes in its membership – and showing that its practices can adapt to be more welcoming to female MPs. I know that my erstwhile clerkly colleagues will ensure that whatever system the House chooses will work as well as it can.

For more information on the Commons debate on proxy voting, see Monitor 68.

About the author

Andrew Kennon spent nearly 40 years working in the House of Commons, the last five as Clerk of Committees. He is a trustee of the Constitution Society and an honorary professor at King’s College London.

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