17.In its resolution of February 2018 the House asserted that it would be “to the benefit of parliamentary democracy” if a system of proxy voting were established to facilitate the absence of new parents from attendance in the House for a defined period.
18.The specific and most evident benefits claimed for proxy voting for this purpose have been the promotion of inclusivity and gender equality in the House. The most comprehensive recent study of gender equality in the House identified “a sizeable ‘motherhood gap’”: fewer women MPs have children relative to male MPs, to women in comparable professions, and to women more widely in society. Among the study’s proposals on inclusiveness and gender equality in the House was a recommendation aimed at making express provision for the needs of Members who are new parents. Because Members are office-holders and not employees, they are not eligible for the benefits of parental leave which Parliament has established in statute for those in employment. The case made for a modification to the House’s procedure and practice to facilitate greater representation of new mothers in the House went unchallenged in the debate of 1 February 2018 and appears to have been broadly accepted across the House.
19.The pilot has been popular and well used. 30 Members have claimed eligibility for proxy votes for parental absence to date: 12 expectant mothers and 18 new fathers. Among these are three women elected to the House for the first time in December 2019. Ministers, and Members who have gone on to become Ministers, have used the scheme, demonstrating that parental absence is not a barrier to achieving or continuing in Ministerial office.
20.Those who supported the introduction of proxy voting for this purpose claim that it has enabled Members who are new parents to fulfil their role more effectively during parental absence, without having to seek approval from party managers through pairing arrangements. Harriet Harman told us:
Proxy voting has helped MPs do the job that they were elected, and want, to do, and that their constituents want them to do. It has enabled them to vote when otherwise they would not be able to vote. It has helped family life as well, but it has also helped MPs to do their job, so it is a double benefit.
21.Darren Jones told us that he had identified a change in “how this place appeals to the type of people we want to put themselves forward to be Members of Parliament”. He suggested that the introduction of a proxy voting facility under certain circumstances would now attract those who might otherwise have been concerned that their votes on crucial issues would go unrecorded:
I can tell you that before proxy voting there was a pressure, whether you were a mum or a dad—but more importantly for women MPs—that you wanted to be here to vote. Certainly in the last Parliament, when every single vote was so close and constituents were so interested in the outcome of every vote, you wanted to be able to be part of that and to explain it and show that your constituents were being adequately represented.
22.This House is not the first chamber on the Westminster model to adopt proxy voting for parental absence: our predecessors received evidence on how these matters are facilitated in the Australian and the New Zealand House of Representatives. Nevertheless, the pilot scheme adopted by the House has attracted interest in other Chambers. Harriet Harman told us that on a recent visit to Ottawa she had been struck by the interest among members of the Canadian House of Commons in the model of proxy voting adopted here:
They have got a very young, diverse Parliament, and they are trying to work out how they deal with MPs having babies, especially with an enormous land size—sometimes it takes a day and a half to get from the Northwest Territories over to Ottawa. […] I shared copies of our Standing Orders and the Procedure Committee report, and they all fell upon them.
23.From the formal evidence we have received, and in less formal discussions with relevant authorities in the House, we have formed the view that the experience of the pilot has been broadly positive. No issues of principle or major flaws have been raised during our inquiry or in the evidence taken by our predecessors. The Leader of the House has indicated that he supports the permanent establishment of a system of proxy voting for parental absence.
24.The system adopted for the pilot was generally well understood: we make proposals for certain technical improvements in its operation below. When the pilot was introduced in January 2019 the House was exceptionally finely balanced. The system was in operation for the many highly contested decisions taken by the House during 2019, including one high-profile division in which the then Speaker was required to use his casting vote. Its use was accepted by all sides and on the rare occasion that an issue arose from the exercise of a proxy vote, it was settled swiftly by agreement between the parties. The use of proxy voting as a means of accommodating parental absence appears to us to have been more transparent than the use of pairing, which, for instance, gave rise to highly acrimonious discussions following a closely-contested division in July 2018.
25.Our overall evaluation is that the system of proxy voting for parental absence has benefitted the House and the broader objectives of parliamentary democracy, by making the House a more inclusive place for new mothers and fathers. We recommend that provision for proxy voting for parental absence be made in the standing orders of the House, subject to the recommendations made in this report.
26.The terms of the pilot scheme for proxy voting for parental absence require pregnant Members to produce, as evidence of eligibility, a certificate of pregnancy from a registered practitioner, midwife or health visitor. Members intending to adopt are required to produce a ‘matching certificate’ from a registered adoption agency. The requirement in the pilot was proposed by our predecessors on the basis of a recommendation from the then Speaker’s Reference Group on Representation and Inclusion.
27.We heard that this requirement was overly bureaucratic. Luciana Berger found it “quite entertaining that I had to present my NHS maternity card, because it was very obvious that I was pregnant”:
[W]e trust Members of the House on many things, so if they look like they are pregnant we could take them at their word and they should not have to present the evidence […].
The Leader of the House, Rt Hon Jacob Rees-Mogg MP, thought the requirement to show certification “ onerous bordering on the impertinent”. He indicated that the Government would “look sympathetically” on a recommendation to remove any requirement for the production of pregnancy certificates.
28.The requirement to produce certificates of pregnancy or adoption to demonstrate eligibility for a proxy vote has proved onerous. The experience of the pilot demonstrates that the requirement is unnecessary. It is difficult to think of a situation where a Member would consider it feasible or advantageous to misinform the Speaker and the House about impending parenthood in order to secure a proxy vote.
29.We recommend that any permanent scheme providing for proxy voting for parental absence should not have as a condition of eligibility a requirement to produce a certificate of pregnancy or a matching certificate. Members who meet the eligibility criteria for the scheme ought to be required to self-certify.
30.The temporary order governing the operation of proxy voting during the pilot specifies that a proxy vote cast is only valid if the Speaker has issued a certificate confirming eligibility. In practice the requirement that the Speaker must issue a certificate before the rise of the House in order for a proxy vote to be valid on the following sitting day has caused difficulties in administering the pilot in respect of proxy votes for parental absence: the substantial increase in applications for the grant and variation of proxy votes for coronavirus reasons has exacerbated these difficulties, particularly when the Speaker is not immediately available to endorse certificates.
31.Such difficulties could be alleviated by authorising any Deputy Speaker to sign a certificate. Deputy Speakers regularly carry out several functions assigned to the Speaker, and when the Speaker is absent from the Chamber a Deputy Speaker invariably presides (and is therefore available to undertake this function). Each Deputy Speaker ought to be authorised to consider applications to grant or vary the terms of a proxy vote and to certify eligibility under the authority of the Speaker.
33.Several colleagues are known to support the extension of proxy voting to allow Members absent from Westminster because of serious illness or caring responsibilities to cast votes in divisions by proxy. Others have argued against such an expansion, contending that it would oblige absent Members to disclose the circumstances of their absence.
34.The matter was extensively considered by our predecessors when examining how proxy voting could be implemented. The report of that Committee in May 2018 concluded that
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.
35.The introduction, without prior consultation, of a temporary facility for proxy voting for public health reasons during the coronavirus restrictions is considered in greater detail later in this report. The facility has introduced substantial additional complexity to the issue. Coronavirus restrictions introduced a unique and unforeseeable set of circumstances which warranted exceptional flexibility.
36.Any proposal for a permanent proxy voting scheme to facilitate absences for illness and caring responsibilities will need very careful consideration. The Committee has consistently maintained that all adaptations to procedure and practice necessitated by coronavirus restrictions should be made on a strictly temporary basis: proposals for the permanent introduction of any such adaptations ought to be considered in full only after the use of all temporary adaptations has ceased.
37.Once the present temporary arrangements for proxy voting for public health reasons has ended, the Committee will examine whether, and how, eligibility for proxy voting might be extended to other categories of absent Member, should it be demonstrated that the support in the House for such measures merits such an inquiry.
38.During the pilot scheme, applications for the grant or variation of a proxy vote have had to be made one sitting day before they are due to take effect: a proxy vote, or a change in the operation of a proxy vote, cannot take effect until the relevant Speaker’s certificate has been published in the Votes and Proceedings for the day that notice has been given. This requirement provides certainty as to the arrangements in effect for voting throughout any sitting day.
39.We received a number of representations arguing that the requirement for a sitting day’s notice caused unreasonable difficulties. Luciana Berger told our predecessors that expectant mothers “cannot plan for unforeseen circumstances”:
I put forward the dates when I expected to have my baby […] but it turned out that I had to be absent sooner than expected, so I missed out on one or two votes. They were not knife-edge votes, but they could have been. There have to be circumstances where there can be immediate notification to the Speaker to ensure that votes can be registered.
40.We heard suggestions that there should be provisions to give notice on the same day. We do not think this is practicable. It is essential that at the start of each sitting day the details of Members eligible to exercise proxy votes during that sitting, and the Members carrying each proxy, are clear to all parties and set down in a published document. It cannot be guaranteed that changes made during a sitting will be adequately communicated in every event. Any breakdown in communication risks causing significant confusion during a division and runs the risk of reducing confidence in the outcome of a division.
41.While changes to proxy votes ought not to be facilitated during a sitting, present arrangements have imposed significant constraints on notification which ought to be alleviated. The requirement to provide notification of any changes by the end of the sitting day before they are to take effect significantly disadvantages Members who find that they have to change their arrangements for the following sitting week on a non-sitting Friday, for instance because their nominated proxy is not available to cast votes in the House the following Monday. It causes particular issues during recesses, when decisions on voting arrangements on the first day back have to be taken before the House rises for the recess, and on days during recesses when the House may be recalled.
42.We recommend that in any permanent arrangement for proxy voting for parental absence the notification requirements are changed to provide that a certificate relating to a proxy vote which is issued on a day on which the House does not sit shall have effect as if it had been published in the Votes and Proceedings for the previous sitting day, and shall be published in the Votes and Proceedings for the next sitting day.
43.The proxy voting scheme in operation during the pilot specifies the maximum duration for parental absence as six months for the biological mother of a baby, or for the primary or single adopter of a baby or child, and two weeks for the biological father of a baby, the partner of the person giving birth or the second adopter of a baby of child. The scheme also provides that “Any period of absence taken by a mother or primary adopter shall start at or before the due date or adoption date […]”.
44.In order to maximise the time spent with their newborn, Members have generally applied for eligibility for a proxy vote to start on the due date. We heard that the stipulation in the scheme caused undue difficulties, since experiences of pregnancy in the days and weeks leading up to the due date will inevitably vary. Pregnancies are not predictable, as Tulip Siddiq MP indicated:
When I was making quite a song and dance [about the implementation of proxy voting proposals], I had some sneering comments from people saying, “I worked right until I gave birth and then went home. I did my day at the office and then I went home and had the baby.” I said, “If I could do that, I would,” but medically I was not in a good position at that moment.
45.We recognise that no two pregnancies are the same, and we consider that the House will not wish to increase stress for Members approaching birth by imposing requirements around eligibility for a proxy vote which prove challenging to meet. Any permanent proxy voting scheme ought therefore to make allowances for Members to claim eligibility for a proxy vote from some time before the estimated due date. We note that the pilot scheme already provides for an additional four weeks to be taken before the due date for pregnant Members who by reason of their condition are not able travel to Westminster by air.
46.We recommend that the maximum duration of eligibility of a proxy vote for maternity absence should include a period of up to four weeks before the due date, together with a period of no more than six months commencing on the due date or the date of the birth, whichever is the later.
47.The proxy voting scheme for parental absence provides two weeks for a father, partner or second adopter. The scheme does not specify a time period within which this must be taken. The Clerk of the House pointed out that:
The scheme currently allows for mothers to apply for a proxy vote for six months starting “at or before the due date”. There is no similar restriction on fathers who can take their two weeks proxy voting period at any point (with the restriction that it “shall be taken in one continuous period of two weeks”). Members may wish to consider whether the scheme should specify a point beyond which a father cannot apply for a proxy vote. Under a literal interpretation of the scheme as currently drafted, a father, partner or second adopter, can apply for a proxy vote for parental absence at any point—be their child six weeks, six months or six years old. The scheme does refer at other points to “new fathers” but it is not clear precisely what “new” means in this context.
For reference, the UK Government’s guidance for statutory paternity leave places a limit on the period after birth during which such leave may be taken, requiring it to end by 56 days (eight calendar weeks) after the birth. The statutory entitlement “must end within 56 days of the birth.”
48.The proxy voting scheme ought to be as clear and explicit as possible, and in this respect the existing scheme is not: while facilitating flexibility it ought not to invite abuse. We recommend that a Member who is a new father, partner or second adopter ought, when certifying eligibility for a proxy vote, give the date of birth or adoption. Any permanent scheme for proxy voting for parental absence ought to provide that eligibility for a proxy vote for new fathers, partners or second adopters ceases six months after the stated date of birth.
49.We also received representations arguing that the proxy voting arrangements ought to reflect the provisions for shared parental leave in employment legislation. The Centenary Action Group wrote:
Parliament needs to reflect the real world in which parenting is a valued role and this applies to men as well as to women. Shared parental leave provisions should be in place for both men and women, as this will challenge the pervasive stereotype of women are primarily responsible for childcare, which makes life in the workplace harder for women.
50.Our predecessor Committee had considered the issue in its initial report and came to the conclusion that:
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.
51.We appreciate the sentiments of those who have proposed extending proxy voting to encompass shared parental leave. Nevertheless, we do not consider that it is appropriate to determine the practices of the House with express reference to employment statutes: an entitlement to participation in divisions by proxy in certain circumstances cannot be equivalent to a statutory entitlement to paid leave from employment. The proposal for proxy voting to facilitate shared parental leave arguably goes beyond the scope of the House’s original intention, as set out in the resolution of February 2018, which focused on proxy voting as a means to address the “motherhood gap” in the House rather than the broader objective of promoting shared parenting.
52.In many cases, facilitation of a longer period of proxy voting for parental absence for a Member would be done for the purposes of allowing the other partner to return to employment outside the House earlier than would otherwise be the case. That Member would not, indeed could not, cede any of the other duties and obligations of membership of the House and representation of constituents to another in order to benefit a partner who was not a Member, no matter how desirable the objective.
53.We have had no representations from Members seeking modification of the proxy voting entitlement to allow the sharing of parental leave of a partner who is not a Member. Should circumstances change to the extent that Members begin to require this degree of flexibility in proxy voting arrangements, it would be possible to amend the proxy voting scheme to provide this facility without further reference to the House. We would if necessary be happy to advise on how this amendment might be achieved.
54.The pilot proxy voting scheme provides that the duration of eligibility for a proxy vote should be taken as a continuous period, including “periods when the House is adjourned, prorogued or dissolved.” During the pilot period the House has been through several adjournments, periods of prorogation and a period of dissolution. None of these periods had any effect on the reckoning of periods of eligibility for proxy votes. During such periods no votes of course take place and no divisions are held.
55.Some have contended that the maximum period of eligibility for proxy voting ought to be extended so as not to reckon any period where the House is prorogued or dissolved, though none have suggested that the period ought to be extended so as not to reckon periodic adjournments (or recesses). Ellie Reeves MP said:
My baby was due on 3rd November (the latest I could commence my proxy under the scheme) and Parliament was dissolved on 5th November, at which stage I was no longer an MP. Due to being in the middle of an election campaign I worked right up until my baby was born on 11th November. I returned to some work within a day or two of having my baby and two weeks after he was born, I was back.
56.In introducing proxy voting for parental absence, the House facilitated Members who are new parents to exercise their entitlement to vote in divisions by proxy, without having to attend the House. The House did not introduce a regime of maternity and paternity leave to replicate the statutory provision for time off from employment.
57.Part of the unique role of a Member is having to deal with the relative unpredictability of periods of adjournment, prorogation and dissolution. Prorogation and dissolution are periods in which no votes are cast. Suspending the six months of eligibility over these periods would create an element of inequality between Members eligible for a proxy vote depending on due dates. Those Members who had a baby close to, or during, a prorogation recess or a dissolution would have the de facto advantage of an extension of the period of eligibility. Modifying eligibility periods so as to standardise the number of sitting days on which each Member is eligible for a proxy vote would prove exceptionally complex to administer and would no doubt introduce other elements of inequality.
58.Ellie Reeves also urged us to “remove the need for an MP on maternity leave to physically attend Parliament to swear in” as she had been required to at the start of the present Parliament.
59.Swearing-in is a statutory requirement. The Parliamentary Oaths Act 1866 provides that each Member must swear the oath or make the affirmation prescribed by law at the Table of the House. Any Member who sits in the House for a debate or who votes in a division after the Speaker has been chosen without having sworn in or affirmed is liable to a fine of £500 for each offence and vacation of their seat. A Member who cast a proxy vote for a Member who had not yet sworn in would potentially make the latter liable to incur both penalties.
60.While the Act is capable of being amended, it is not within the power of this Committee, nor indeed the House acting unilaterally, to do so. The House introduced a proxy voting pilot in order to facilitate new mothers and fathers in being absent from divisions in the House for a period of time, but it did not facilitate the suspension of other duties and obligations of membership of the House. While making provision for parental absence from swearing in may be desirable, it does not fall within the scope of the arrangement originally envisaged by the House. It is for the Government to bring forward proposals to change the law in a way which would excuse new mothers who are Members from the requirement to attend the House in person to swear in. We also consider that the House should approach with caution any proposal to facilitate participation in its proceedings by Members who have not sworn in.
61.Some Members who had a proxy vote told us that the end date of their eligibility for a proxy vote was not clear, and contended that the House authorities should have reminded them in advance that the facility was due to expire. Tulip Siddiq said:
I called the Speaker’s Office the day that my son turned six months and I was told that my proxy voting was over. I should have been told about that slightly earlier. I was only notified when I inquired, “When is this over?” […].
62.The start and end date of eligibility for each proxy vote is provided in the Speaker’s certificate which is issued in each respect, and is published in the Votes and Proceedings for the day the certificate is issued. We consider that it is first and foremost the responsibility of each Member to record the date on which it has been agreed that their eligibility will expire. We nevertheless acknowledge that it is not always easy to find this information. A page on the Parliament website indicating current proxy votes would assist in this regard. It would provide clarity for Members and staff seeking information on active proxy votes.
63.We recommend above a system whereby a certificate can be issued on a non-sitting workday. A web page containing information on current proxy votes could of course carry this information in the absence of an edition of the Votes and Proceedings.
64.We recommend that, under any permanent proxy voting scheme to be established by the House, the information contained in every proxy voting certificate issued under the Speaker’s authority ought to be made available on a dedicated page on the Parliament website.
65.The current proxy voting scheme reads “the Member eligible for proxy voting shall name the Member who has agreed to carry her or his proxy vote”. The Clerk of the House pointed out:
One of the Members who applied for a proxy vote asked House officials whether they could appoint multiple proxies. They had read the scheme, but did not think it was clear from the scheme that multiple proxies were not allowed. Having multiple proxies would be confusing for the tellers and division clerks, who would not know who was casting the proxy in any given division.
66.The scheme refers to the Member carrying the proxy vote in the singular, which implies that there can only be one proxy at a time. Nonetheless, if there is a possibility for confusion, it should be clarified. We agree with the Clerk that multiple proxies would cause confusion. Any permanent proxy voting scheme should be amended to clarify that a Member may nominate only one proxy at any one time.
67.We heard concerns about the practicalities of casting a proxy vote in the division lobbies. During the pilot some Members casting a proxy vote used a self-produced card as a visual aid to the division clerks and the tellers. This helped clarify, for the benefit of division clerks, the identity of the Members for whom they were casting a proxy vote. As well as assisting tellers when counting the Members who walk out of a division lobby, it serves as a reminder to the Member exercising the proxy that they must tell the tellers about the additional vote being cast.
68.The scale of the current use of proxy votes for coronavirus absences, and the fact that a small number of Members are at present carrying several dozen proxies, makes the use of this system impractical under the current temporary arrangements for divisions. We nevertheless consider that the system is worth introducing for parental absence proxy voting, once the temporary coronavirus proxy arrangements have ceased.
69.We recommend that under any permanent system of proxy voting for parental absence the House Service should issue a proxy voting card to each Member carrying a proxy to aid confirmation that the Member is carrying a proxy vote.
70.Members casting a proxy vote may have to cast their own vote in one lobby and their proxy’s vote in another lobby. There was a slight concern about this requirement as there are no special arrangements to facilitate this. Many Members have cast votes in this way without any reported issues. As such, we do not think any special arrangements are necessary. It could cause more confusion if the time period before the doors are locked were extended or if Members carrying a proxy were allowed to enter a division lobby after the doors had been locked. It is part of the Member’s responsibility as being a proxy that they ensure they can cast votes appropriately, in both lobbies if necessary.
71.Some Members also flagged that it is easier to cast a proxy vote if both Members’ surnames are in the same division group (A-F, G-M, N-Z). It can be difficult to cast a proxy vote at one desk and then move to the queue for another desk to cast the proxy. Moving to another desk to cast a proxy is not strictly necessary. Division clerks are instructed to accept proxy votes on behalf of other desks in the same lobby. The name can be communicated to the other desks towards the end of the division. Nonetheless, we encourage Members nominating a proxy to try and choose a Member whose surname is in the same division group. This would make the process easier. We do not think any formal changes need to be made to accommodate this.
72.When the motion for the temporary order to facilitate proxy voting was moved on 28 January 2020 it did not include the provisions in paragraph 8. The paragraph was proposed as an amendment by Philip Davies MP and was agreed by the House. It reads:
The Speaker may also make provision for the exercise of a proxy vote for Members who have suffered a miscarriage.
73.This paragraph was agreed by the House after the detailed proxy voting scheme had been agreed in principle between the Speaker and the leaders of the three largest parties, prior to formal signature and entry into force. As such, the scheme does not make any explicit provision for the exercise of a proxy vote under these circumstances.
74.The term “miscarriage” has a specific definition. A literal interpretation of the current provision would mean that a Member who suffered a miscarriage would be entitled to a proxy vote, but an expectant parent who experienced other perinatal complications leading to fatality would not be eligible. We consider that the spirit and intention of the proxy voting system is to provide the facility in all instances of perinatal fatality. We recommend that any proposed standing order ought to provide for eligibility for a proxy vote for reasons related to complications in or associated with childbirth.
75.Any Speaker’s certificate issued under this provision does not need to specify that the provision is being used. As the Clerk of the House suggested, “The wording of the certificate could, as with other proxy voting certificates, simply say “is eligible to have a proxy vote cast” without specifying any further reason.” It is also possible that the Member concerned will not want to take a proxy vote and may choose to be ‘paired’ instead. This will of course be an individual and personal decision.
76.Each and every fatality arising from perinatal complications represents a personal tragedy. We do not think that under such circumstances it is appropriate to make detailed and specific recommendations about additional provisions for such events in any scheme without the benefit of further consultation. In the circumstances, where a Member wishes to use the proxy voting facility for such reasons, it may be most appropriate for the Speaker to be given discretion to establish the period of eligibility in each case, in consultation with the Member concerned.
10 No Member has claimed eligibility for a proxy vote on the other grounds provided for in the temporary order, namely adoption or miscarriage.
11 (HC 10, 11 March 2020)
12 (HC 10, 11 March 2020)
13 (HC 10, 11 March 2020)
14 (HC 300, 1 July 2020)
15 HC Deb, 18 July 2018,
16 Commons Reference Group on Representation and Inclusion (), para 11
17 (HC 134, 30 October 2019)
18 (HC 300, 1 July 2020)
20 (HC 134, 30 October 2019)
21 (HC 134, 30 October 2019)
22 House of Commons Service (), para 12
23 GOV.uk, [accessed 4 August 2020]
24 Centenary Action Group ()
26 Ellie Reeves MP ()
27 Ibid. Stella Creasy MP and Kemi Badenoch MP also swore in, both accompanied by their infants.
28 Parliamentary Oaths Act 1866,
30 (HC 134, 30 October 2019)
31 House of Commons Service (), para 10
32 Mr Christopher Leslie MP (), para 1
33 Tracey Crouch MP (),
34 House of Commons Service (), para 13
Published: 10 September 2020