Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons Fifth Report



1. A number of Members have made representations to us, in writing or in the course of the debate on the establishment of the Modernisation Committee, about the House's voting system. Some suggested that it was slow and inconvenient, and that a better way of recording the views of the House ought to be found, whilst others wanted the present system to be retained. We agreed that the modernisation of our voting system was something we ought to consider, and accordingly we have investigated the possibility of replacing the present voting system, by which Members' names are recorded manually by division clerks and Members are counted by tellers as they leave the lobbies, by some form of electronic system.

2. The purpose of this consultation paper is to give all Members of the House the opportunity to give us their views on several issues related to voting methods, and in particular to express their preferences in relation to the present system and the various electronic options. Members are invited to complete the response forms which have been circulated and return them to the Clerks of the Committee not later than Wednesday 20 May. When we have assessed the responses received we will consider whether to put forward recommendations to the House.

3. Our specialist adviser, Professor R J Hynds of Imperial College, will be available to explain the various electronic options and answer Members' questions about them between 4.00 pm and 6.00 pm on Wednesday 6 May, and again on Tuesday 12 May, in Committee Room 21.

Current system

4. The current system is well known to Members and there is no need for us to describe it in detail.

5. Its main advantages appear to be these:

    —  It is simple and straightforward.

    —  It has a high degree of accuracy.[1] There may be slight discrepancies between the names recorded by the clerks and the numbers counted by the tellers, or one Member may be recorded as having voted instead of another with a similar name; and occasionally the tellers report inaccurately the numbers who have voted.

    —  It is proof against fraud. It is unlikely that a Member could vote in the place of another without being detected; and extremely unlikely that a non-Member could vote in place of a Member.

    —  It offers Members a valued opportunity to meet their colleagues. (In varying degrees this is also true of the electronic systems which are discussed below.)

    —  It requires no additional expenditure.

6. On the other hand, it has certain disadvantages:

    —  It is time-consuming. Divisions regularly take 12-15 minutes to complete.

    —  The lobbies are often congested, and many Members may have to queue for several minutes before recording their vote. These inconveniences are particularly severe when a large number of Members wish to vote in the same lobby.

    —  There is no opportunity for Members to record an abstention. Only Ayes and Noes can be recorded; the names of Members who are present in the Chamber but do not vote are unrecorded, just as if they were absent from the House.

    —  Members who vote in the wrong lobby have no opportunity to correct their mistake. They can vote in the other lobby and thus cancel their original, erroneous vote; but they cannot cast an effective vote.

    —  There is a slight delay after each division before names of the Members who have voted are made available.

Possible modifications of the current system

7. Some of the perceived disadvantages of the current system could be rectified without the need for radical change. For example, information technology may offer a better method by which clerks could mark names — for example, through use of screen displays of Members' names and marking by use of light pens or a computer mouse.

8. There are two possible changes in particular on which we would welcome the views of Members. Each would be a significant change of practice but could be accomplished without replacing the current system of voting.

9. One is the recording of abstentions. If Members so wished we would investigate the possibility of creating some kind of "third lobby" adjacent to the Chamber, in the form of one or more division desks at which Members who were present, but did not wish to vote for or against the question before the House, could record an abstention.

10. The other would be to change the times at which divisions took place. The House might decide that as a general rule any question on which Members wished to divide should, instead of being put at the conclusion of the debate, be held over to a specified time, so that votes could be taken one after another at a convenient time, so far as possible. This is not as simple as it may look; but we would investigate the feasibility of moving in this direction if Members so wished.

Electronic systems

11. With the assistance of our specialist adviser, we have identified four possible electronic systems, using—

12. Some electronic systems would in theory allow Members to vote without having to leave their rooms, or even to vote from their homes or constituency offices. However, we believe that the House would not wish to make such a radical departure from existing practice, so in all the options we put forward for consideration it is envisaged that voting will take place either in the existing division lobbies or in the immediate vicinity of the Chamber. This will ensure that, whatever method of voting is adopted, divisions will continue to be occasions when Members are brought together and backbenchers can meet leading figures in their party.

13. All the electronic systems could provide an instant print-out of the numbers of Members voting 'Aye' and 'No', with the names of those who had voted on either side. Division clerks would not be required to perform their present duties, but would continue to be available to assist Members who were unable for whatever reason to use the electronic equipment unaided. Nor would Members be required to act as tellers, but in certain circumstances there might be a need for voting to be observed by scrutineers from either side.

14. We give a rough estimate of the amount of time a division might take using each of the electronic systems. It should be borne in mind that at present Standing Order No. 38 requires that at least eight minutes must elapse between the calling of the division and the locking of the doors. That means that a division will take a minimum of eight minutes whatever method of voting is used.

Electronic systems using separate 'Aye' and 'No' lobbies

15. Two of the electronic systems we have identified would retain the 'Aye' and 'No' lobbies for their present purpose, and would therefore have the effect of bringing Members together in much the same way as the present voting system. The principal difference between them is the means by which Members would identify themselves for the purpose of voting. One system relies on a 'smart card', the other on fingerprint recognition.

16. If the smart card system were adopted, each Member would have his or her own identification card, similar to the current House of Commons security pass but containing a small micro-processor chip with a unique identification. About eight card readers, the size of a small box, would be installed in each of the division lobbies. Members would vote by passing their card in front of one of the card readers. In any division, it would not be possible to vote more than once with the same card in the same lobby.

17. The fingerprint recognition system works by taking an impression of several fingerprints from each Member (several are recorded in case of injury), then processing the image to identify its characteristics according to a particular processing algorithm. These characteristics are then stored in the computer with the Member's name. About eight fingerprint readers, the size of a small box, would be installed in each of the division lobbies. Members would vote by pressing one of their (recorded) fingers against the fingerprint reader; the computer would process the image to produce the fingerprint characteristics, then compare it with its stored database of characteristics to identify the Member and record the vote.

18. Both these systems use reliable technology and are relatively inexpensive. Taking account both of the cost of the system and of installation costs, either of these systems might cost roughly £45,000-£65,000.

19. It might take 10-12 minutes to complete a division using either of these methods, since Members would still have to pass through one or other lobby in order to vote. However, congestion might well be less, since an individual Member would be able to vote and leave the lobby more quickly than at present. This still leaves open the question of providing for recorded abstentions or for the correction (as opposed to the cancellation) of votes cast in error.

20. The main drawback to the smart card system is that it would be possible for Members to vote using other Members' cards as well as their own. Such misuse could be discouraged in two ways. First, a screen could be installed over each card reader which would display, whenever a card was used, the name of the Member to whom it had been issued; any discrepancy between the name on the screen and the Member using the card would be apparent to Members who were watching. Secondly, the House could decide that some severe punishment should be imposed on any Member who was caught voting with another Member's card. We believe this would provide a powerful deterrent to fraud.

21. The fingerprint recognition system would make it impossible to vote by proxy, and would relieve Members of the necessity to carry a card in order to vote. However, it would require all Members of the House to have their fingerprints recorded for inclusion in the database. Although it should be emphasised that it is the characteristics of the fingerprint rather than the fingerprints themselves which are stored in the computer, some Members might find the recording of their fingerprints objectionable in principle.

Electronic systems which do not require the use of separate division lobbies

22. The other two electronic systems we have identified would not require the use of separate 'Aye' and 'No' lobbies. The lobbies would still be used for voting, but Members would be able to vote 'Aye' or 'No' - or to record an abstention - in either lobby. We appreciate that any system which did not entail the physical separation of Members would cause anxieties among the Whips, who would want to ensure that Members of their party received appropriate guidance as to how to cast their vote. Accordingly Government Members might find it convenient to vote in the present 'Aye' lobby (which is situated immediately behind the Government benches), whether they were voting 'Aye' or 'No' on the question before the House, whilst the Opposition parties used the present 'No' lobby. It would be technically possible for voting to take place in other locations besides the lobbies, but as we explained in paragraph 12 any such location would be in the immediate vicinity of the Chamber.

23. One option would allow Members to vote 'Aye', 'No' or 'abstain' by selecting the appropriate option on a touch screen. This would require the installation in the division lobbies, and possibly elsewhere near the Chamber, of a dozen touch screen kiosks, each consisting of a display screen (of the kind used with a personal computer) and some associated equipment. Depending on the method of identification chosen, either a smart card reader or a fingerprint reader would be included in the kiosk to identify the Member voting. The software would be designed to allow a Member to cancel a vote he or she had cast in error and to cast a fresh vote.

24. This system would also enable a number of votes to take place in quick succession. In one visit to a touch screen kiosk a Member could vote 'Aye' on motion no. 1, 'No' on motion no.2, 'abstain' on motion no.3, and so on. The full results of the voting on all the motions the system had been programmed to deal with would be available at the conclusion of the voting session. This system could accordingly be used to best effect when a significant number of divisions took place in succession (and no division was contingent on the outcome of an earlier division), e.g. at the conclusion of the debate on the Budget, when the question is put forthwith on large numbers of ways and means motions.

25. However, if only one question was to be decided, it would take at least as long to decide it by this system as by the current voting system. Touch screens would be more expensive than the lobby-based systems discussed earlier - roughly £75,000-£90,000. They would be more complicated for Members to use than the lobby-based systems, and would pose particular problems for partially sighted Members. Depending on the recognition system chosen, the objections which might be raised against smart cards or fingerprint readers would also apply to touch screens.

26. The balance of the argument would be affected if the House were to decide that as far as possible votes were to be held consecutively at a pre-arranged time rather than at the conclusion of the debate from which they arose. This possibility is discussed in paragraph 10.

27. A different method of voting which does not require separate 'Aye' and 'No' lobbies is that which uses infra-red cordless handsets. On arriving in the Chamber to vote, Members would

The detectors would be switched on at the start of a division, and off at the end, by the Clerk at the Table on the instructions of the Chair. A Member would be able to cancel a vote he or she had cast in error and to cast a fresh vote, provided of course he or she did so before the detectors were switched off.

28. The advantage of this method of voting is that, once the handsets had been issued to Members, divisions could be completed very quickly, since large numbers of votes could be recorded simultaneously on the remote detectors. In cases where a division occurred at an expected time, or immediately after another division, Members who were already in the Chamber and had collected their handsets would have finished voting long before the expiration of the eight minutes laid down in the Standing Orders. If the rules governing the timing of divisions were changed, considerable savings of time could be achieved through this method of voting. If the House thought it appropriate, we would consider the possibility of significantly reducing the time allowed before the locking of the doors in cases where Members were already (or could reasonably be expected to be) in the Chamber, and the possibility of requiring voting to be completed within a short time after the doors were locked.

29. Although the various component parts of this system exist, further development work is still required. If Members were interested in exploring this option further, we would recommend to the House that the necessary funds should be made available. This would be about £40,000.

30. This system would be significantly more expensive than any of the others we have examined. It is impossible to be precise at this stage, but the total cost could well be of the order of £300,000-£400,000.

31. If this system were adopted Members would have to have their fingerprints recorded. The possible objections to this are discussed in paragraph 21 above. Members would also have to carry smart cards with them.

In the current Session (to 21 April) there have been 250 divisions. On three occasions the numbers of Members voting have been reported inaccurately by the tellers; on four occasions Members have been omitted from the division lists; on five occasions Members have been wrongly identified; and on one occasion a Member has been wrongly shown as having voted. Back

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