On 28 January 2019, the House agreed a Temporary Standing Order in order to pilot the use of proxy voting in divisions of the House for parental absence (baby leave). The pilot scheme was originally scheduled to operate for a year but was extended to 18 months, in January 2020. In June 2020, its scope was extended to allow proxy votes for medical or public health reasons relating to the coronavirus pandemic.

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Proxy voting pilot scheme

On 28 January 2019, the House 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 may “also 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. The pilot arrangements have effect until 28 July 2020.

Early in June 2020, 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.

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.

The temporary Standing Order reflects proposals made by the Procedure Committee in May 2018. It confirms that proxy voting will be available in all public and private business of the House, except votes on a motion for an early parliamentary general election under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, neither will proxy votes be accepted in counting the quorum of the House or towards the numbers in favour of a closure motion.

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

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

The decision on 16 January 2020, to extend the pilot scheme, also extended to 18 months the time the Procedure Committee has to conduct its review.

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

Debates on proxy voting

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”.

The general debate on the principle of proxy voting in divisions in the House of Commons had been scheduled to take place on 5 July 2018. However, the debate did not take place as statements had taken almost all the time allocated for the debate.

The debate was to have taken place before the Government responded to the Procedure Committee’s report on Proxy voting and parental absence, which was published on 15 May 2018. Andrea Leadsom said that the debate would allow the constitutional issues of proxy voting to be discussed before she gave a considered response to the Procedure Committee.

The Procedure Committee’s inquiry followed a debate on baby leave on 1 February 2018, which supported calls for formalised arrangements for maternity, paternity and adoption leave for new parents in the House.

The Good Parliament (July 2016) previously had called for more formal arrangements. The Speaker’s Conference (on Parliamentary Representation) (January 2010) called on political parties to set out their policies on maternity, paternity and caring leave for Members; and invited the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority to consider formal arrangements for maternity, paternity and caring leave for Members.

Procedure Committee proposals

The Procedure Committee brought forward proposals for a non-compulsory scheme for proxy voting that would require some changes to Standing Orders. It recommended that “proxy voting ought to be available to new mothers, new fathers and adoptive parents”. The scheme should operate under the authority of the Speaker, who would certify the appointment of a proxy.

It recommended that:

  • Eligibility would be confirmed by producing either a certificate of pregnancy or a ‘matching certificate’ from a registered adoption agency to the Speaker.
  • The dispensation to vote by proxy would be:
    • “Six months for the biological mother of a baby, or for the primary or single adopter of a baby or child;
    • “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 Committee said that the new system would have to operate in a transparent way.

The Committee also considered whether a proxy should be exercised in all divisions or whether there should be restrictions. It proposed that subject to certain limitations a proxy could be exercised in almost all divisions and deferred divisions in the House, although it said that the House might impose further restrictions. It recommended that proxy votes should not be used in votes for an early general election under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 or in determining whether fewer than 40 Members had participated in a division.

Andrea Leadsom’s response to the Procedure Committee

Andrea Leadsom wrote to Charles Walker, the Chair of the Procedure Committee, on 12 July 2018 (published 18 July). She thanked the Committee for its report and expressed her disappointment that the 5 July debate did not go ahead.

She stated that “The integrity of the voting system in the House of Commons must be above reproach”.

Andrea Leadsom noted that because it had been given the specific objective of devising a proxy voting system for parental leave, the Committee had not considered alternative approaches – such as formalised pairing. She also raised the question of extending proxy voting to those suffering long-term illness or bereavement. She queried whether any discretion in a proxy voting system would be appropriate.

She stressed the importance of considering these issues to ensure that the House was aware of “all the implications of any potential changes”.

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.

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.

  • Commons Research Briefing CBP-8359
  • Author: Richard Kelly
  • Topics: Parliament

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