Voting by proxy

On 23 September 2020, the House agreed to make permanent arrangements for proxy voting, for MPs who are away from Westminster because of childbirth or care of an infant or newly adopted child or where there have been complications relating to childbirth. The decision followed a review, by the Procedure Committee, of a pilot scheme it had developed.

The Proxy Voting Scheme has been published on the parliamentary website. It allows a proxy vote to be cast in any division in the House or in any legislative grand committee, except for the purposes of counting a quorum or for allowing the closure. Proxy votes can also be exercised in secret ballots for electing a Speaker, Deputy Speaker, select committee chair or chair of the Backbench Business Committee.

Proxy votes can only be cast if the Speaker has issued a certificate confirming that the MP is eligible.

Proxy votes are indicated in division lists published by the House.

On the same day the House also agreed that the proxy votes should be available for medical or public health reasons related to the pandemic. Thereby extending temporary arrangements that had been in place since June 2020, until 3 November 2020.

On 22 October 2020, the House further extended these temporary arrangements until 30 March 2021.

Background

On 1 February 2018, the House had agreed that MPs “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”.

Following this decision, the Procedure Committee developed a scheme for proxy voting, publishing its report, Proxy voting and parental absence, on 15 May 2018.

On 13 September 2018, the House held a general debate on proxy voting. At the outset of the debate, Andrea Leadsom said that she “wanted the fullest opportunity to consider all the implications” before bringing forward a substantive motion. At the end of the debate, she concluded that she was “minded to accept the majority of the recommendations of the Procedure Committee’s report, which provides a good basis for a pilot scheme”. She confirmed that she intended “to bring forward a substantive motion as soon as possible”.

Proxy voting pilot scheme

On 28 January 2019, the House debated the Procedure Committee’s report and agreed to implement a one-year pilot scheme to allow new parents and those adopting children to have a proxy vote in divisions in the House. Additionally, as a result of an amendment, the Speaker was also able to “make provision for the exercise of a proxy vote for Members who have suffered a miscarriage”. The pilot scheme came into effect on 29 January 2019, and the first proxy vote was cast later that day.

On 16 January 2020, the House extended the pilot scheme by six months (to 28 July 2020).

Early in June 2020, the scope of the pilot scheme was extended to allow Members “unable to attend at Westminster for medical or public health reasons related to the [coronavirus] pandemic” to vote by proxy (see below for more details).

On 20 July 2020, the duration of the pilot scheme was extended to 20 months.

Before the debate, on 28 January 2019, the pilot scheme was made available (excluding miscarriage, as in the original motions before the amendment was agreed). The Speaker confirmed that if the provisions relating to miscarriage were adopted, they would be incorporated as soon as possible but would not delay the implementation of the scheme that had already been made available.

After the House’s decision, the Speaker certified the first proxy vote for Tulip Siddiq.

Review of the pilot scheme

The Procedure Committee was directed to review the pilot arrangements within 12 months of the scheme coming into effect.

The decisions on 16 January and 20 July 2020, to extend the pilot scheme, also extended the time the Procedure Committee has to conduct its review.

In the 2017 Parliament, the Committee began a review but had not completed it at dissolution.

On 4 March 2020, at its first meeting in the 2019 Parliament, the new Procedure Committee revived the review.

The Procedure Committee’s review of the pilot arrangements was published on 10 September 2020. The Committee considered both the arrangements for parental leave and those relating to the pandemic.

Recommendations of the review

The Procedure Committee recommended that the proxy voting for parental absence scheme should be made permanent, with some technical modifications (allowing proxy votes to be counted in motions under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 and for the election of all committee chairs). It found that experience of the scheme had been “broadly positive”; no issues of principle or major flaws were identified; and that its use was accepted across the House. It also observed that “The use of proxy voting as a means of accommodating parental absence appears to us to have been more transparent than the use of pairing”.

The Committee recommended that it should no longer be a requirement to produce a certificate of pregnancy or a matching certificate to qualify for a proxy vote. But certification for eligibility could be undertaken by any of the Deputy Speakers as well as the Speaker.

The Committee committed to examining whether there should be other grounds for qualifying for a proxy vote once arrangements for proxy voting for public health reasons had ended.

It also recommended that eligibility for a proxy vote should begin four weeks before due date and end six months after the later of the due date or date of birth. Fathers or second adopters should be eligible for the two weeks of proxy voting in the first six months.

On the arrangements for proxy voting due to the pandemic, the Committee called for arrangements for self-certifying for proxy voting and participating in virtual proceedings to be aligned. It recommended that the arrangements should continue “for as long as public health guidance or statutory provisions in any part of the UK has the effect of restricting the ability of Members to travel to Westminster”.

The Committee expressed concern that the “present infrastructure supporting the pass-reader division system is barely adequate, especially in respect of proxy voting”. It called for an alternative to be found.

It considered that the remote voting system using while Members could participate remotely in both scrutiny and substantive business was more effective. It recommended that remote voting be reinstated.

Extending the proxy arrangements during the coronavirus pandemic

Arrangements were made for MPs to vote remotely during May. But from the beginning of June, the Government encouraged all Members to participate in proceedings in the House. Initially no provisions were made for MPs who were shielding, isolating or caring for someone else as a result of the coronavirus pandemic to participate in proceedings from 2 June. On 2 June 2020, the House agreed that Members had to be on the Parliamentary estate to participate in divisions.

Disquiet was expressed about these provisions and the Leader of the House said that he had not ruled out extending proxy voting to those who were shielding.

On 4 June 2020, the House agreed to a Government proposal that proxy voting should be available to Members who were “at high risk from coronavirus for reasons that they are either ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’ or ‘clinically vulnerable’”.

Members had expressed concern that this did not go far enough and an Emergency Debate, granted on 4 June, was held on 8 June 2020.

On 10 June, the House altered the eligibility for proxy votes to those Members who were “unable to attend at Westminster for medical or public health reasons related to the pandemic”.

A total of 135 pandemic-related certificates were reported in the Votes and Proceedings on 11 June 2020.

On 16 June 2020, the Speaker made a short statement on the new division procedure and proxy voting on health grounds because of the pandemic. On proxy voting, he said:

I remind colleagues that the expanded proxy voting scheme applies to Members who are unable to attend Westminster for medical or public health reasons relating to the pandemic. If an hon. Member applies for a proxy vote, this means that they have given me and the House a commitment that they are not able to attend Westminster. It is therefore important that colleagues with proxies do not take part in any physical proceedings or come on to the Estate while they have a proxy vote in operation.

The arrangements for proxy voting during the pandemic initially piggy-backed on the pilot scheme, meaning they would expire on 28 July 2020. In line with the extension of the pilot scheme, this expiry date was extended to 28 September 2020.

When the proxy voting scheme was made permanent, on 23 September, arrangements for the pandemic were extended to 3 November 2020. On 22 October 2020, they were further extended to 31 March 2021.

On 3 November 2020, the House made further changes to the temporary arrangements during pandemic. Consequently, Members with a proxy vote are able to be in the precincts of the House but they must not participate in divisions or deferred divisions; proxy votes cannot be cast in elections for the Speaker or committee chairs; and proxy votes can be counted in determining a quorum.

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 in the summer of 2018 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.


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