Requiring MPs to vote in person during coronavirus places the institution of parliament at risk. It’s time to bring remote divisions back and to plan for continued restrictions

Today, the House of Commons will decide whether or not MPs should be allowed to continue to vote by proxy. Karen Bradley, Chair of the Commons Procedure Commmittee, sets out her views on how voting should take place, calling on MPs to support her amendment, which would require the government to bring alternative proposals for conducting divisions to the House for debate and decision. Those proposals, she argues, ought to include the reinstatement of remote divisions. 

Shortly after the Commons summer recess the Procedure Committee published the report of its review of pilot arrangements for proxy voting in the House.

Our work fell into two distinct sections – an evaluation of the pilot of proxy voting for baby leave, and consideration of the use of proxies to manage absences arising as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Consensus on the first was easily found; the second raises more challenging issues. Today the House will take a decision on each.

Proxy voting for parental absence: a successful pilot

In the first, we evaluated how proxy voting for parental absence had worked in practice. This initiative, started by Harriet Harman, Maria Miller and others and brought to the Commons by Andrea Leadsom as Leader of the House, has been piloted over the last 20 months. It has been so successful that many have not realised that it is still in the pilot stage. 

Pairing arrangements for colleagues on parental absence did not work badly, in the main, but they deprived new mothers in the House of the opportunity to record their votes on key issues. In the 2017 parliament, when voting records were scrutinised as never before and voting behaviour increasingly analysed and presented to the public via algorithm, this put those MPs at a huge disadvantage. Breaches of pairing arrangements, however inadvertent, did the House’s reputation no good. 

The proxy voting system, worked up in detail by the Procedure Committee under my predecessor as Chair, Charles Walker, has been implemented with barely a hitch, and has benefited some 40 MPs—including three women first elected in December 2019. It has the unanimous support of my Committee and looks likely to be made permanent when it is put to the House today.

The scheme does not satisfy everyone. Some would like it to include a facility for shared parental leave, so that, for instance, a new father can be absent from votes for longer than the two weeks provided for in the pilot. Others would like proxy voting to be available to MPs absent because of serious illness or because of caring responsibilities. Both these proposals deserve further consideration, and if they can be shown to have substantial support in the House, the Committee has said it will look at how each might be implemented.

Proxy voting during the pandemic: a flawed quick fix

At the same time, the House will consider whether to continue the temporary use of proxy voting for absences ‘for public health reasons owing to the pandemic’. The Procedure Committee examined this system too. By contrast with the parental absence pilot, it was introduced, without discussion and with scant prior notice, as a quick procedural fix to a political problem of the government’s own making, and its operation has been problematic.

Pandemic proxy voting was announced by the Prime Minister as an aside at Prime Minister’s Questions on 3 June, to allow several dozen MPs of all parties, prevented from attending the House because of pandemic restrictions, to record their votes in divisions. It was authorised by the House in its final form on 10 June.

To facilitate pandemic proxies, the House authorities had to scale up an existing system designed for use by a much smaller pool of people in very different circumstances. The parental absence proxy system was developed for use by a small number of MPs who were absent from the House for evident and easily verifiable reasons. It was designed for use in conjunction with existing systems used to capture the names of MPs voting through the division lobbies. Onto this system was added a requirement to enable over 20% of the House’s voting membership to nominate proxies to vote on their behalf in divisions when they certified themselves as absent for ‘medical or other reasons connected to the pandemic’. 

That criterion has been sufficiently vague to enable colleagues to vote while absent from the House in order, for instance, to follow NHS guidance on shielding. Some, unable to secure childcare when schools were shut or needing to provide care for elderly relatives, found the availability of proxy voting invaluable when trying to juggle parliamentary and family responsibilities during the pandemic. More recently, the system has allowed MPs suddenly required to self-isolate following a track and trace phone call to cast their votes on the Commons stages of high-profile legislation such as the UK Internal Market Bill.

In each division since this temporary system was introduced, some 80% of the proxy votes have been cast on behalf of absent MPs by just three individuals: the designated whips of the three largest parties. Given the number of proxies in operation, bloc voting of this type by whip makes the division process more manageable. There are mitigations against bloc voting. An MP wishing not to toe the line on individual votes does not have to entrust a proxy vote to a whip. On occasion a whip has honourably cast a proxy vote against the party line in accordance with a colleague’s wishes. But in general, a system where a party manager can cast upwards of 40 proxy votes in a division is not in keeping with the House’s practice and tends to concentrate more influence in the hands of business managers.

As the Procedure Committee noted in its report, these arrangements have multiple potential points of failure. The Committee had contemplated recommending a limited facility proxy voting for coronavirus absences, but only to supplement traditional lobby divisions, and solely to cater for the small number of MPs who might still be obliged to shield for health reasons as the country exited the worst of the pandemic. What is in operation at present is the reverse: a system of mass proxy voting bolted on to a temporary lobby voting system, the fourth voting system used by the House in this parliament so far, amending a system which had been in operation for almost 190 years

Lobby voting during a pandemic: accident-prone and unsafe

The present lobby voting system was developed to allow physical divisions to take place without clerks present to record the names of MPs voting. Instead, colleagues record their name by tapping their security pass on one of a pair of readers set up in each lobby, and the tellers count each MP leaving the division lobby. Absent MPs do not have to surrender their passes to their proxies: instead, the proxy will announce to the tellers the number of additional votes being cast and will then email the proxied names to the clerks. The pass reader data is not available in a form capable of feeding directly into the existing system for publication of division data—so after each division two datasets (pass reader votes and proxy names) have to be entered into the system manually before the division lists can be published online, a painstaking process which delays publication by over an hour in each case. The system is not immune to failure: a loose connection recently took one of the four readers out of action, and last Wednesday another error caused all four of them to fail, requiring divisions to be held in the chamber once more. 

Improvements to the system are promised. It looks increasingly likely that card readers designed for the purpose will in time be proposed as a replacement for the labour-intensive system where a clerk records an MP’s name on a tablet or sheet of paper. 

No technical improvement can easily improve the unsafe conditions in which divisions are taking place at present. MPs form queues to vote and stride through the lobbies, stopping only to tap on a card reader. The time taken to vote in divisions under this system has steadily dropped, and the doors to the lobbies are now locked after a mere 12 minutes. 

But speed comes at the expense of safety, and no-one who has queued up to vote in a division recently can possibly claim that social distancing is being scrupulously observed. While senior ministers can shoot through at the front of the queue, their backbench colleagues have to maintain single file social distancing as best they can, in a moving line of several hundred yards meandering up the great staircase from Westminster Hall. Once they have passed the tellers into the space behind the Speaker’s Chair, they must try to disperse safely. 

Of all the House’s practices, this appears to be the one during which transmission of the virus is most likely to happen. The authorities in both Houses have done sterling work in establishing a COVID-safe working environment for all users of the parliamentary estate. But that status has been achieved through hard work and a rigorous focus on preventing transmission as far as possible. A cluster of cases, spread via the division queue, would put this status at risk and jeopardise support for the House’s core functions. In this context, maintaining a simulacrum of the House’s division procedures for the sake of a physical presence on the parliamentary estate hardly seems worth the risk.

The alternative: a temporary return to remote voting, and a reassessment of virtual participation

In procedural matters I am a traditionalist. I think that the House is a place where elected representatives should come together to meet and talk face to face: across the chamber, in meeting rooms, in the corridors and elsewhere. So it is with some surprise that I find myself arguing for the temporary reintroduction of remote divisions and the greater use of technology.

I do not think that we can kid ourselves that the limited return to a physical meeting of the House is any substitute for the real thing, when association between MPs, both inside and outside the chamber, is so restricted. 

Instead, we need a change of course, and a strategy to maximise the procedural possibilities of virtual participation, particularly as the public heath restrictions on the use of the chamber look set to continue for some time and new restrictions on travel may reduce the number of colleagues at Westminster. 

Proxy voting for pandemic reasons was a quick fix which has led to a manifestly unsatisfactory system. That system ought to continue for no longer than is absolutely necessary, and I am pleased to see that it cannot continue past 3 November without the approval of the House. 

But in my view the system of physical divisions is unsafe and unsatisfactory. It should be scrapped and remote divisions reintroduced until the lobbies are safe to use again. That is why I have tabled an amendment to the government’s motion tomorrow. If agreed to, it will require the government to bring alternative proposals for conducting divisions to the House for debate and decision. Those proposals ought to include the reinstatement of remote divisions. Since this is first and foremost a House matter, no party should be imposing a whip on this issue, formally or informally. I therefore hope colleagues will use the opportunity to make their views clear to the government.

This is an issue on which colleagues are divided. When the Committee discussed its report a fortnight ago, we had to agree to disagree, and for the first time in this parliament we divided on a paragraph in a report. The majority of those who voted recognised the many shortcomings of the current system and favoured an immediate return to remote divisions. Even those who disagreed, favouring a continuation of the current physical system, recognised that remote voting would have to be considered again if lockdown conditions returned and all but essential travel was prohibited. 

In the light of recent announcements, that prospect looks ever more likely. So today the House must take the opportunity to demand voting arrangements which are safer and more inclusive.

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About the author

Rt Hon. Karen Bradley MP is Conservative Member of Parliament for Staffordshire Moorlands and Chair of the House of Commons Procedure Committee.