Today (23 September) MPs will be asked to decide whether to make proxy voting for parental absence permanent feature. They will also be asked if they agree to extend arrangements (first agreed in June) for proxy voting for MPs unable to travel to Westminster because of the pandemic until 3 November 2020.

Pilot arrangements, including a temporary Standing Order and a proxy voting scheme (signed by the leaders of the three main parties) were introduced in January 2019, initially for 12 months. These arrangements were extended as a result of the 2019 General Election and then the pandemic.

This Insight looks at how the pilot proxy voting scheme worked and the Procedure Committee recommendations for it to be made permanent.

Why was proxy voting introduced?

In a Backbench Business debate, led by Harriet Harman MP on 1 February 2018, MPs supported calls for proxy voting arrangements for maternity, paternity and adoption leave.

At the time, MPs who needed time with a new child had to make informal arrangements with their whips. Harriet Harman said MPs who did not vote were often criticised on social media and in the press, but a proxy vote would ensure their views were recorded.

How did it work?

The Procedure Committee published proposals for a pilot scheme in its May 2018 report on Proxy voting and parental absence. These proposals were endorsed by the Commons. 

Eligibility was confirmed by showing the Speaker either a certificate of pregnancy or a ‘matching certificate’ from a registered adoption agency.

Proxy voting lasted for six months “for the biological mother of a baby, or for the primary or single adopter of a baby or child,” or 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 Speaker certified that an MP was eligible, and details of the time period and the MP who was to vote on their behalf were published

in the Votes and Proceedings (a formal record of Commons business). An MP with a proxy vote could nominate any other MP to exercise that vote. The nominated MP informed the Clerk recording votes and the appropriate Teller as they passed through the division lobby. The MP’s name was recorded as normal.

Under the pandemic arrangements, MPs who informed the Speaker they were “unable to attend at Westminster for medical or public health reasons related to the pandemic,” were certified as eligible for a proxy vote.

Has the pilot scheme ‘worked’?

Tulip Siddiq MP was granted the first proxy vote on 28 January 2019. In total 12 women and 16 men have used proxy voting for parental absence. On the first day proxy votes were available for the pandemic, 135 certificates were issued. 

On 10 September 2020, the Procedure Committee published its mandated review of the pilot arrangements. It considered both the arrangements for parental leave and those relating to the pandemic. 

The committee found that experience of the scheme was “broadly positive”; no “issues of principle or major flaws” were identified and it was accepted across the House. It said that proxy voting for parental absence appeared to have been “more transparent than the use of pairing.”

In evidence to the committee, the Clerk of the House of Commons said: “the system of proxy voting in the Lobbies has worked well.” Both the Clerk and MPs who had used the scheme suggested some amendments to the way it operated. MPs who used proxy votes supported its permanent adoption. 

Does the Procedure Committee propose any changes?

The committee recommended that MPs should no longer be required to produce a certificate of pregnancy or a matching certificate to qualify for a proxy vote.

It also recommended that the Deputy Speakers as well as the Speaker should be able to authorise proxy votes. Although proxy votes must be confirmed before the beginning of a sitting day, it should be possible to get a certificate on a non-sitting day.

The committee said that eligibility for a proxy vote should begin four weeks before a due date and end six months after either due date or date of birth (depending on which came later). Fathers, partners or second adopters should be eligible for their two weeks of proxy voting any time in the first six months after the birth or adoption.

MPs currently can’t use proxy votes when voting for an early parliamentary general election under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. The Procedure Committee recommended this restriction should be lifted. It also recommended that proxies should be allowed in the election of all committee chairs when elected by the whole House of Commons.

What about widening proxy voting?

During debates on proxy voting, some MPs pressed for the scheme to allow proxy votes on health, caring or compassionate grounds. The committee said this might require disclosing private, personal or family information. It will consider this once proxy voting is no longer required as a result of the pandemic.

Further reading

For further information on the background to, introduction of, extension to and review of the proxy voting pilot scheme, see Proxy voting in divisions in the House. 

About the author: Richard Kelly specialises in parliamentary procedure at the House of Commons Library.

Image: House of Commons Chamber 1 by UK Parliament. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 / image cropped.