Proxy voting and parental absence Contents

2Is proxy voting required for ‘baby leave’?

Present arrangements for absence from divisions in the House

9.A formal means of voting by proxy in divisions when away from the House is not at present recognised by the House of Commons in any of its proceedings. Votes—whether in the lobbies adjacent to the Chamber, in select or general committees, or by written ballots—must be given in person. By arrangement between the parties, votes in divisions in the Chamber may be given on behalf of a Member if he or she is present on the precincts but physically unable to reach the lobbies.

10.Following the decision of the House on 1 February that it is desirable for a system of proxy voting to be introduced, we examine how such a system of voting by proxy can be introduced, so as to implement the House’s resolution.

Participation in divisions

11.Members who accept a party whip are requested by their whips to attend and vote in accordance with instructions. They are free not to attend, and not to follow instructions, although such decisions may have consequences. Members under a party whip who are unable to be present in the House for a division therefore generally obtain leave from their whips to be absent.

12.It is worth noting that absences from divisions are a fact of Parliamentary life. No recorded division in the House has ever secured the participation of 100 per cent of the Members eligible to vote.8

‘Pairing’

13.Agreed absences between the Government and Opposition parties are often arranged though ‘pairing’ of Members, which takes two forms:

Such ‘pairing’ operates on the basis of reciprocal absence from votes which does not affect the overall balance of voting strength on either side. Absences of ‘paired’ Members from voting are not recorded.

14.We understand that ‘pairing’ can be used by whips to allow for absences from Westminster in a range of circumstances: for instance, in case of prolonged hospital treatment for serious illness; to allow for care of a child or other family member; in recognition of distressing personal circumstances; to allow for a select committee visit away from Westminster; to allow Members to participate in the UK’s delegations to international parliamentary assemblies; or to allow for absences on Ministerial business.

15.Not all parties participate in pairing arrangements: the Scottish National Party does not pair, and makes alternative arrangements to authorise its members to be absent.9 Pairing arrangements are not available to independent Members.

‘Nodding through’

16.At present, in exceptional circumstances, such as serious illness which makes it impractical for a Member to pass through the lobbies in person, an informal arrangement known as ‘nodding through’ is operated between party whips. Where a Member is recognised as being present on the precincts but unable to enter the lobbies a Whip will, by agreement, give the Member’s name to division clerks in a lobby. The Member concerned will be ‘nodded through’ that lobby by the tellers as if he or she were casting a vote in person. The use of this informal means of voting by proxy is not recorded, and no mark is made on the division list to indicate that the member concerned was ‘nodded through’: to all intents and purposes the Member was present in the lobby.10

Provision for proxy voting in other Parliaments

17.Two chambers which operate on the Westminster model make provision for voting by proxy: the Australian House of Representatives and the New Zealand House of Representatives. Both Houses make specific allowances for mothers with young infants.

18.The Clerk of the Australian House of Representatives told us that “significant use” has been made of proxy voting provisions in the House, which are solely available to mothers nursing infants. All proxy votes are cast by the Chief Whip of the relevant party.11

19.The New Zealand House of Representatives operates a system where whips cast proxy votes in the Chamber en bloc on manifesto business. In casting the block vote for a party, a whip warrants that 75% or more of the members of the party group included in the vote are present on the estate. No more than 25% of the total cast may represent Members who are away from the estate. The casting of block votes reflects the multi-member constituency proportional representation electoral system in operation in New Zealand: it can be claimed with justification that Members are elected to Parliament on the basis of a vote for a party and not a personal vote. Under this system, Members on maternity absence are automatically deemed to be on the estate: their votes are therefore not scored against the maximum 25 per cent of group members absent from the estate but represented by a proxy vote.12

20.We note that the basis for the New Zealand system, where proportional representation operates, is substantively different from the UK’s electoral system. In the UK’s first-past-the-post system, a candidate is elected to represent a constituency, and not simply as a party delegate.

Maternity and paternity absences under existing arrangements

21.In the House of Commons, the pairing arrangements described in paragraphs 13 to 16 above are typically used to ensure that a party’s voting strength is not affected by the absence of a Member who is an expectant or a nursing mother. Pairing is similarly used where new fathers take a period of absence following the birth of a child.

Are the existing arrangements adequate?

22.Some have put to us the view that these existing pairing arrangements work well for maternity and paternity absences and require no change.

23.In particular we have heard about the flexibility of the pairing system and how its balancing of relative party strengths enables Members to be excused from attendance in divisions, sometimes at short notice. To make arrangements for a new mother to vote by proxy for a period of time, it was argued, would be to deprive another Member of an opportunity to be paired or ‘slipped’ from a vote.

24.‘Pairing’ and ‘slipping’ operate informally and in an opaque way. There are instances where this is desirable. A Member will on occasion, and for perfectly legitimate reasons, not wish a temporary absence from the House to be a matter of public knowledge or comment: for instance, when medical treatment is being received or when a Member is caring for a relative. In these circumstances we recognise that whips are able to facilitate absences discreetly. It was put to us that absences for maternity and paternity are entirely capable of being catered for under these arrangements.

25.There is evidently some support in the House for the status quo. However, none of these arguments was put to the House during the debate on the principle held on 1 February. There will be a further debate at the point the proposals we make in this report are put to the House.

Paired absences and voting records

26.One general criticism made of the current informal systems of ‘pairing’ and nodding through is their overall lack of transparency. Harriet Harman pointed out that: “the trouble is that, even when an MP is paired, people outside the House do not understand pairing. They just see that their MP has not voted”.13 In the debate on 1 February Luciana Berger told the House that:

The website TheyWorkForYou.com currently registers the fact that I have voted in just 16.51% of votes in the past year. I have, though, been in Parliament, but have just gone home to look after my child at the end of the day.14

In the same debate Rachel Reeves stated:

When my first child was born almost five years ago, one of the campaigning organisations that email constituents about votes emailed my constituents to say that I had not bothered to turn up to a vote.15

27.The lack of transparency in current pairing arrangements means that female Members absent from divisions through maternity, but otherwise active as Members of Parliament, have been subject to unfair and unjust criticism.

28.One of the major re-users of division data, the organisation mySociety (which operates the TheyWorkForYou website), told us that a system of proxy voting for maternity absence could “bring consistency to the voting activity of MPs during significant life events such as becoming a parent, and minimise confusion in the public perception around members’ leaves of absence.”.16

29.We have heard that whips of all parties seek to facilitate parental absence from divisions through pairing. Harriet Harman told us that she considered it inappropriate to have to request absence from divisions in this way, even if requests were routinely granted:

… [W]e do not want to just have people asking for a request: we want the constituents’ voices to be heard in every division and not be lost just because the MP is having a baby.17

The Commons Reference Group on Representation and Inclusion similarly criticised the existing informal arrangements: they considered that “the status quo, whereby MPs are required to seek permission to take leave […] infantilizes MPs, and leaves them beholden to the Whips.”.18

Childcare facilities available in the House

30.The House of Commons Nursery in 1 Parliament Street offers day care facilities for infants from the age of 3 months between 8am and 6pm, and will provide a service to look after children after 6pm on sitting days if booked in advance.19 The House Service has also begun a pilot with a provider of backup childcare services which can arrange one-off and emergency childcare provision for Members.20

31.Nevertheless, the House does not provide childcare arrangements to support Members who are nursing mothers very late at night, when divisions may be expected. Luciana Berger recounted an occasion attending the House for a whipped vote with her infant:

In September, I was in the Tea Room with my baby until after 10 o’clock at night. I can see Members bobbing their heads—arguably, that was not the right place for her at that time of night. As a breastfeeding mum, on all those occasions my baby came into the House with me.21

Arrangements to cater for maternity absence

32.Maternity (through birth or infant adoption) and paternity are life events for which new mothers and new fathers are legally entitled to claim adjustments from employers (in the form of leave) for a defined period. The House decided in principle on 1 February that in these clearly defined and foreseeable circumstances it is the responsibility of the House to provide a system which allows the absent Member to cast a proxy vote, rather than the matter being addressed by private arrangement between parties.

33.The Fawcett Society told us that “Parliament continues to struggle to get women in as MPs, and the lack of baby leave is a part of that overall un-modernised environment that makes it less welcoming to women.”.22 Representation of women in the House has consistently failed to reflect the gender balance in the population. The environment described earlier in this report, in which Members may not be able to see their families while at Westminster during the week, where divisions may take place unpredictably and late at night, and where partial understanding of how a Member discharges his or her responsibilities may give rise to unjust criticism, has deterred women from standing for election to Parliament and from pursuing political careers. More mothers and prospective mothers are now entering politics, and the House is becoming more representative as a result. The Commons Reference Group argued that a guarantee of a recorded proxy vote would send “a strong symbolic message” to those of childbearing age that support is available to those combining the work of a Member with early parental responsibility, and to party selection panels that being represented by a Member of child-bearing age would not risk diminishing the voice of the constituency in the House.23 On 1 February the House accepted these arguments and decided that it was desirable to address this potential barrier to participation.24

Members’ experience of maternity absence

34.Jo Swinson MP explained to us the practical issues faced by a Member in the later stages of pregnancy and in the first months after birth. Airlines will not accept women on flights in the later stages of a pregnancy.25 This presents challenges for Members who typically travel by air between their constituencies and Westminster: the alternatives of road, rail or ferry transport are more time-consuming or in some cases unavailable in practice. Even though a new mother might be absent from Westminster in the period after a birth, she does not take leave from her role as a Member: constituency engagements and casework continue. Ms Swinson explained that while she was able to take six months’ leave from her role as a Minister after the birth of her first child, her first constituency engagement after the birth took place after six weeks.26

35.Ms Swinson observed that the challenges of combining parenthood with membership of the House had the potential to deter a significant section of the population from standing for election:

[E]xperience in my own party has found that it is more likely for women to be elected either before they have children or when their children are much more significantly grown up. That points to a particular pattern of challenge of doing the job of Member of Parliament with small children, particularly but not exclusively if you have a constituency that is some distance from Parliament.27

While she pointed out that there were other challenging occupations with demands which were difficult to reconcile with family life, she argued that this was no reason not to address the particular difficulties which membership of the House presented to those with young families:

The key should always be to try to minimise those difficulties, not to just shrug and say, “Well, tough, that is the way it is”. We should always try to make it more possible to combine family life with work.28

The difficulty for Members arises out of the substantial distance between the constituency home and Westminster, and certain of the demands arising from the sitting patterns and activities of the House, which makes it less easy for new mothers to participate in some of the activities expected of a Member.

36.On 1 February the House determined that the present system of pairing does not properly cater for the specific circumstance where a Member, while otherwise able to undertake the functions of a Member of Parliament, has to be absent from divisions for a defined period of time by reason of maternity or paternity (whether by birth or adoption). It resolved that this is an issue to be addressed through procedural change, rather than by private arrangements between Members. Many consider that it is not appropriate for absences on such grounds to be dependent on a positive response to a request for a pair, no matter how accommodating the whips are prepared to be to such requests.

37.The introduction of a formalised means of registering the votes of women, absent by reason of maternity, would remove some of the barriers which discourage women from considering a career as a Member of Parliament: it is argued that that introducing these provisions would be a step forward for the House of Commons.

38.Members are office-holders and cannot take leave from the responsibilities of their offices in the same way as those in paid employment can take statutory maternity leave. The House has resolved to adjust its procedures and practices so as to provide that presence in the House to vote is not necessary for a defined period, and absence in consequence of birth or adoption is not dependent on securing leave. If the House is to enable such an adjustment, we recommend that its scope should be broadly equivalent to statutory provision for maternity and paternity leave.

Should proxy voting be available to others?

39.During the debate on 1 February, and in discussions with us, Members raised the issue of the availability of proxy voting in other circumstances where Members are unavoidably absent from the House or required to be absent on parliamentary or Ministerial business.29 However, the House did not decide on 1 February to extend its requirement beyond parental absence, and so the Committee did not pursue these representations.

40.For a proxy voting system to operate transparently, the House must formally give Members leave to be absent from divisions. Publishing this information could place Members in a position where they may be pressured to disclose private personal or family information. We do not think that this is an acceptable position.

41.We note that where proxy voting procedures have been made available to Members in the Australian House of Representatives, those provisions to vote by proxy have not been extended to circumstances beyond mothers nursing infants.30

42.In order to implement the decision in principle which it took on 1 February, the House will have to establish proxy voting arrangements to allow Members absent from the House by reason of maternity, paternity or adoption, to cast a vote in a division by proxy for a defined period.


8 In this Parliament to date the divisions with the largest number of participating Members (622) took place on 28 June 2017 (Opposition amendment to Humble Address in response to the Queen’s Speech, 309 ayes, 323 noes) and 29 June 2017 (Main Question on Humble Address, 323 ayes, 309 noes). 17 of the House’s 650 Members were unable or ineligible to vote: the Speaker; the three Deputy Speakers elected on 28 June; the two temporary Deputy Speakers appointed on 21 June pending the election of Deputy Speakers, and who were in the Chair during the Queen’s Speech debate; the four tellers in the division, and the seven Members who had not taken their seats. The largest number of Members participating in any division in the House was recorded on 11 August 1892, when a Liberal amendment to the motion on the Queen’s Speech proposed by the Salisbury administration was carried by 350 votes to 310. Of a House of 670 seats, five Members (the Speaker and four tellers) were ineligible to vote, two seats were vacant and three Members were absent.

9 Q133 (Pete Wishart)

10 House of Commons Service (PVG 0001) para 6. The Clerk of the House noted that ‘nodding through’ arrangements were not infallible: misunderstandings had been known to occur. On one occasion in July 1974, during a period of minority government, two Opposition amendments to a Bill on Report were defeated on tied votes when the Speaker used his casting vote in accordance with precedent. It was discovered that a Minister had been ‘nodded through’ to vote against the amendments when he was in fact not on the precincts, and consequently the amendments ought to have been carried. The Bill had to be recalled from the Lords and the anomaly corrected. HC Deb, 16 July 1974, cols 248-265 [Commons Chamber].

13 HC Deb, 1 February 2018, col 1018 [Commons Chamber]

14 HC Deb, 1 February 2018, col 1017 [Commons Chamber]

15 HC Deb, 1 February 2018, col 1018 [Commons Chamber]

16 mySociety (PVG 0004), para 1

17 Q2

19 Details of nursery opening hours and facilities are published on the Parliament website at https://www.parliament.uk/about/working/nursery/ (accessed 8 May 2018).

20 The pilot arrangement with www.myfamilycare.co.uk began in October 2017 and will run until December 2018.

21 HC Deb, 1 February 2018, col 1028 [Commons Chamber]

22 Fawcett Society (PVG 0008), para 4

24 HC Deb, 1 February 2018, col 1049 [Commons Chamber]

25 Q116: airline policies vary on the latest point in a pregnancy that a woman is permitted to board a flight.

26 Q119

27 Q114

28 Ibid.

29 For instance Q15 (Harriet Harman); see also HC Deb, 1 February 2018, col 1022 [Commons Chamber]




Published: 15 May 2018