Like other legislatures, the House of Commons changed the way it conducts business in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

This Insight shows that female MPs were more likely than male MPs to use two new ways of working, based on analysis between April and November.

This involved virtual participation during ‘hybrid proceedings’, where some MPs are in the Chamber with others online, and proxy voting, when an MP nominates another to vote on their behalf.

Using ‘call lists’ to see who took part and how

The Commons first agreed to allow MPs to participate remotely in hybrid proceedings on 21 April. The table below shows the different phases of operation for this, including which types of business were included and who was eligible to participate remotely.

Hybrid participation in the House of Commons: phases of operation

Period Hybrid Business Eligible for remote participation
Phase 1: 21 April Urgent and Oral Questions, Ministerial Statements All MPs
Phase 2: 22 April – 20 May Urgent and Oral Questions, Ministerial Statements, some substantive business (e.g. legislation) All MPs
Phase 3: 2 June – 5 June None None
Phase 4: 8 June – 30 Nov Urgent and Oral Questions, Ministerial Statements MPs who cannot attend Westminster for medical or public health reasons. MPs self-certify as eligible for each sitting day and can only participate virtually on those days
Source: House of Commons Library, The coronavirus timeline: measures taken by the House of Commons
*As of the date of publication, phase 4b is still in continuation.

Call lists published before debates show which MPs will speak or ask a question and (where relevant) whether they will do so online or in person. Call lists include entries for MPs who didn’t get to speak because time ran out or for other reasons. The same MP might appear on more than one call list and might switch between different modes of speaking.

By looking at the lists we can see which MPs were more likely to participate virtually.

Who took part online and in-person?

The call lists for 21 April to 30 November (excluding in Westminster Hall) show that women participated online more than men during hybrid proceedings. This suggests they might have found it more difficult to attend in person.

When remote participation was not allowed, however (during phases 3 and 4b), women did not participate less than men. 38% of call list entries in phase 3 and 35% in phase 4b were for women, even though they make up only 34% of MPs. For comparison, 66% of MPs are men and 62% of call list entries in phase 3 and 65% in phase 4b were for men.

The table below shows the proportion of call list entries by gender and whether they were for virtual or physical participation. To show change over time, it includes the four phases described above.

The first two are combined because phase one only lasted one day. Phase four is separated into hybrid proceedings (4a) and physical proceedings (4b).

Virtual and physical participation among female and male MPs

Phase Female participation Male participation
Online Chamber Online Chamber
1 and 2 (hybrid) 87% 13% 80% 20%
3 (physical) 232 384
4a (hybrid) 27% 73% 23% 77%
4b (physical) 1,372 2,509
Note: figures for physical phases show the number of call list entries by gender. Data for 10 November is not available.
Source: call lists, published on the UK Parliament website (e.g. for 9 December)

This analysis should be treated with some caution: there are other variables that influence the composition of call lists. Government Ministers tend to speak more than backbench MPs, and there are more male MPs in the current cabinet.

MPs in governing parties might speak more than those in opposition parties, and proportionally as well as numerically, there are more female MPs in the Labour Party than in the Conservative Party.

Proxy voting by gender

From 8 June until 3 November, MPs unable to attend Westminster due to medical or public health reasons were able to use proxy votes.

MPs self-certified as eligible for proxy voting and could not vote in person on these days. Proxy voting during this period probably gives a better indication of the impact of the pandemic on MPs’ ability to attend Westminster. This is because normally more MPs vote than take part in proceedings.

After 3 November, proxy voting became available to MPs present in Westminster (to manage queuing), so data is not included for this period.

Proxy voting was already allowed for MPs who are about to, or recently had a baby, or had a miscarriage. During this period, one MP (not included in this analysis) used a proxy under these arrangements.

A list of MPs eligible to vote by proxy the next day was published in Votes and Proceedings and Hansard. The charts below show the gender breakdown for proxy voting between 11 June and 3 November.

Chart shows proportion of MPs using a proxy between 11 June to 3 November by Gender (46% men, 48% women)
Note: data for 11 June to 22 July taken from Votes and Proceedings, counting each sitting day. Data from 1 September to 3 November taken from Hansard, counting only days with divisions.

Women certified as eligible for a proxy vote for an average of 21 days, compared with 23 days for male proxy voters. This is not a particularly useful representation of the data, however, because the distribution is skewed.

A relatively high number of proxy voters certified for a small number of days (94 MPs on 1-6 days) and another large group certified on all possible days (51 MPs on 47 days). As the chart below shows, there were very few MPs who certified on 21 days (one MP) or 23 days (seven MPs).

A chart to show frequency distribution of proxy votes per MP by gender.
Note: data for 11 June to 22 July taken from Votes and Proceedings, counting each sitting day. Data from 1 September to 3 November taken from Hansard, counting only days with divisions.

Women made up 39% of MPs who used a proxy vote on one to five days and 28% of those who used it on all sitting days; compared with 61% and 73%, respectively, for men.

This suggests that female MPs were more likely to use the option of proxy voting but certified as eligible for fewer days. In other words, women tended to use more proxies for shorter periods.

Why are female MPs more likely to take part online?

Female MPs were more likely to participate remotely in hybrid proceedings, and to certify as eligible to use a proxy vote at least once. There are various reasons why female MPs might find it harder to attend Parliament than male MPs, including taking on a larger share of caring responsibilities, in line with trends observed in the wider population.

Further reading

The coronavirus timeline: Measures taken by the House of Commons, House of Commons Library.

MPs in Parliament: Breakdown of activities by gender and party, House of Commons Library.

About the author: Elise Uberoi specialises in data on elections and parliament at the House of Commons Library.

Image by ©UK Parliament / Jessica Taylor under CC BY-NC 2.0 (cropped)