On 28 January 2019 the House approved pilot arrangements for proxy voting for parental absence and directed the Procedure Committee to review the pilot within 12 months. Owing first to the dissolution and early general election in late 2019, and then to the effect on the House’s proceedings of the coronavirus pandemic in the spring and summer of 2020, the House extended the pilot and consequently the time given to the Committee to complete its review. The pilot—which had its scope expanded significantly in June 2020 to include proxy voting for absences due to the pandemic—now expires on 28 September 2020. We report here on our review of both aspects of the pilot.
We find that proxy voting for parental absence has been “to the benefit of parliamentary democracy”, to quote the aspiration from the February 2018 resolution of the House which first endorsed the principle.
The implementation of proxy voting, through a scheme agreed by the Speaker and the leaders of the three largest parties in the House, has enabled Members who are new parents to carry out the duty of representing their constituents, by having their votes on decisions of the House recorded. At the same time those members have been facilitated to participate fully in the earliest months of their children’s lives, similar to the way that legislation provides new parents to take paid leave from employment.
In adopting the pilot, the House has also taken a step towards closing its ‘motherhood gap’: the number of new mothers in the House is increasing. We hope the availability of proxy voting has encouraged women who might have considered that a parliamentary career was incompatible with starting or continuing a family to think again and put themselves forward for election.
Throughout our evaluation we heard no arguments against the principles of proxy voting for parental absence, and encountered no fatal flaws in the scheme.
We recommend that the House make permanent arrangements for proxy voting for parental absence, taking into account some technical modifications to the pilot which we consider would improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the scheme.
In early June the Government proposed, hurriedly and without consultation, to introduce proxy voting on a more substantial scale in order to allow Members who were obliged for coronavirus reasons to stay away from Westminster to have their votes recorded in divisions. This measure was introduced in place of the system for remote digital voting in divisions. Authority for that system lapsed at the start of the Whitsun recess in late May, when the Government declined to bring forward a proposal to renew it, and the House voted against its reintroduction when it returned in early June.
Proxy voting under the pilot arrangements is currently available to all Members unable to attend Westminster “for medical or public health reasons related to the pandemic”. Members who consider that they fall into this category can secure a proxy vote by writing to the Speaker to certify their eligibility. A Member who has certified an inability to attend Westminster, either for the purposes of voting by proxy or for the purposes of virtual participation in debate, is not eligible to participate physically in any proceeding on any day on which the certificate is in effect. There is evidence that these conditions are not fully understood, and we encourage Members to familiarise themselves with the obligations resulting from self-certification.
Coronavirus restrictions on individuals appear likely to be in effect for some time to come, in the form of official guidance to individuals on measures to protect their health, restrictions on activities outside the home and restrictions on travel outside certain areas. The current provision for proxy voting for pandemic reasons will expire on 28 September. We recommend that a proxy voting facility for Members subject to coronavirus restrictions should continue, though very careful consideration ought to be given to the design of eligibility criteria.
Overall, the arrangements which have had to be put in place for physical divisions under the pandemic are less than satisfactory. The pass reader system for recording names involves substantial manual work following each division to provide division data suitable for publication. The arrangements for recording proxy votes in each division have multiple potential points of failure. Physical distancing measures cannot be properly enforced, potentially increasing the risk of virus transmission.
We consider that the arrangements ought to be reviewed and replaced as soon as a more reliable alternative acceptable to the House can be found. If they are to continue, the IT system supporting the arrangements will require significant development work to ensure that it can properly support the House’s existing systems for recording votes cast, including proxy votes, and for publishing the outcome of divisions.
The system of remote digital voting which was in use in May 2020 was a more effective way of handling divisions in the House under the current exceptional conditions. It ought to be reinstated to replace the current temporary system. In any event, if lockdown conditions are reimposed in a way which prevents substantial numbers of Members from travelling to Westminster, the House ought to consider reverting to remote voting.
Several Members consider that proxy voting ought to be available in other circumstances where Members are obliged to be absent from the House: for instance, where a colleague is seriously ill or has significant caring responsibilities. Others are opposed, arguing that introducing proxy voting for reasons other than parental absence would lead to the disclosure of private or personal information about the circumstances of a Member’s absence.
The sudden, albeit temporary, introduction of a very broad category of eligibility for proxy votes has complicated the situation. Our consistent position has been that procedural changes made to accommodate coronavirus restrictions ought to cease before any decisions are taken about introducing such changes on a permanent basis.
Once the proxy voting facility for coronavirus reasons has been ended, we will consider whether eligibility for proxy voting ought to be extended on a permanent basis, if it can be demonstrated that there is enough support in the House for the proposal to be given further consideration.
Published: 10 September 2020