What is a free vote?

A free vote in Parliament is one in which MPs or members of the Lords are not put under any pressure as to which way to vote by their Party Whips.

The majority of Government business in Parliament is whipped. The primary role of the Whips Office is to get the Government’s business through Parliament and to secure a  a majority for the Government in votes on its legislative and policy programme.

Are free votes officially recorded?

No. There is no definitive list of free votes, and they are often held without any formal announcement. In response to a request in 2013 for a list of Government Bills subject to a free vote, the Leader of the House responded: “Whipping is a matter for individual parties and not a matter that the Government can comment on.” [HC Deb 15 Jan 2013 c685W]

This list attempts to identify divisions in the House of Commons where all the main parties have allowed their MPs a free vote. Occasions, such as the vote on Heathrow expansion in June 2018, where individual parties have allowed their members a free vote are not recorded.

It is sometimes difficult to distinguish definitively between whipped and genuinely free votes. The weekly whip sent to Members of Parliament is a confidential document and it is therefore not possible to identify whether every vote is whipped or not. However, Parties often let it be known when they are giving Members a free vote. Free votes reported in this note have been identified from ministerial comments or were reported as such in the media.

Further reading

Commons Library Briefing Paper, The Whips Office, October 2008. Provides a brief history of the origins and role of the Government and Opposition Whips in the management of parliamentary business, and an overview of their current functions and duties.

Common Library Briefing Paper, Government Chief Whips and Deputy Whips since 1945

Institute for Government

The Institute for Government has published an Explainer on the whipping system and free votes. This includes details of types of whips: one, two and three line whips.

Parliament: facts and figures

This series of publications contains data on various subjects relating to Parliament and Government. Topics include legislation, MPs, select committees, debates, divisions and Parliamentary procedure.

Feedback

Please send any comments or corrections to the Parliament & Constitution Centre. Suggestions for new lists welcomed.


Related posts