Procedure under coronavirus restrictions: remote voting in divisions Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

Overall assessment

1.The Leader of the House has indicated that on Tuesday 12 May he will move a motion in the House proposing an extension to the coronavirus procedures agreed to by the House on 21 and 22 April. We recommend that the proposed extension should be timed to expire on a date not later than the end of the first week of June, immediately following the planned Whitsun adjournment. We recommend that during the period of any extension the Speaker, following discussions with the House of Commons Commission, the Leader of the House and opposition parties, review the requirement for the temporary procedures in the light of public health advice and any revision of the secondary legislation governing free movement and association during the pandemic. (Paragraph 4)

2.The Committee appreciates the very hard work undertaken across the House Service and by the broadcasters to ensure the smooth operation of hybrid proceedings to date. We recommend that a review be undertaken—in particular of the possibility to extend the daily time available overall, the balance between question slots or the number of days per week—to ensure that more backbench colleagues are able to contribute to scrutiny and substantive proceedings while also ensuring safe working conditions for staff of the House and broadcast staff. (Paragraph 6)

3.The Committee is satisfied that the proposed system is suitable for use by the House in recording the votes of Members in remote divisions or remote deferred divisions under the arrangements agreed to by the House on 22 April, but as a sub-optimal substitute during the global pandemic, and only for as long as those temporary orders have effect. (Paragraph 11)

4.Under the terms of the temporary order of 22 April, the Speaker has considerable power over the operation of the new system:

Although it is not spelled out in the orders, it follows that the Speaker’s authorisation of the arrangements for conducting remote divisions, announced on 6 May, may be rescinded at any time. (Paragraph 14)

Arrangements for remote divisions

5.The Committee’s opinion on the suitability of the remote voting system over MemberHub is given on the basis that the system is designed for temporary use during the COVID-19 pandemic and has not been designed for permanent use to replace the existing arrangements for physical divisions. On this basis we are satisfied that the system is sufficiently secure to facilitate the accurate recording of the votes of Members in divisions on all business to be taken in hybrid substantive proceedings. (Paragraph 30)

6.Significant additional resource and expenditure would be required if the House were to require a system which could provide sufficient authentication assurance to allow remote voting on a permanent basis. We would welcome evidence on this matter from Members to assist us in our inquiry. (Paragraph 31)

7.Should any Member in fact facilitate, or attempt to facilitate, access by another person to MemberHub in order to cast a vote in a division, the action of doing so is likely to constitute a serious breach of privilege and contempt of the House. It is also likely to constitute a serious breach of the Code of Conduct for Members. In this, as with all matters, Members are expected to act honourably and failure to do so is a breach for which there are serious sanctions. (Paragraph 34)

8.Such action, if suspected or detected, will result in a complaint to the Commissioner for Standards as well as being raised in the House as a matter of privilege. Serious contempts and breaches of the Code have typically been dealt with severely by the Committee of Privileges and the Committee on Standards respectively, and by the House in consequence. (Paragraph 35)

9.The Committee is reassured to note that a system has been put in place to allow a Member’s vote to be recorded through the remote voting system where there has been a demonstrable network failure which has prevented the Member from accessing the system. We expect this facility to be used only as a last resort in case of genuine inability to access the system. (Paragraph 41)

10.We expect the House Service and PDS to undertake continuous evaluation of the system’s performance and to monitor, and take swift action to address or mitigate, any systemic issues with Member access which may arise. We recommend that PDS provide a report to the Speaker in respect of each division to confirm the number of Members who attempted to log in, the number of failed attempts, and the outcomes in each case. (Paragraph 42)

11.We recommend that the House Service and PDS actively seek feedback from Members on the operation of the system following each remote division, to identify any underlying issues with connectivity or system performance which may arise. (Paragraph 43)

12.We recommend that, before he gives leave for any business to be designated as subject to a remote division, the Speaker should receive a report on the number of Members who have not been registered on the system, along with the reasons why. (Paragraph 45)

13.We recommend that the Parliamentary Digital Service accelerate development work as much as is possible under current conditions, with a view to launching the site as soon as possible. (Paragraph 48)

14.We anticipate that in the early period of the system’s operation, the time at which every remote division will be called will be known and communicated well in advance. This ought to provide some reassurance to Members concerned about accidentally missing a remote division. (Paragraph 49)

15.We note that the Leader of the House has announced that the report stage of the Agriculture Bill is to be taken on Wednesday 13 May. The Committee has not yet seen any proposal for the adaptation of the House’s procedure and practice on report stages to the specific constraints of hybrid substantive proceedings. The House’s standing orders relating to programming remain in effect: any proposal by Ministers on the programming of report stage under hybrid substantive proceedings will merit close examination to ensure that the rights of backbenchers to table amendments on report and have them debated and voted upon are not unreasonably constrained. (Paragraph 56)

16.In the event that differential decisions are taken on loosening lockdown by any of these authorities, or indeed that the UK Government releases lockdown differentially in some regions, we recommend that the House take these conditions into account so that Members can continue to participate in proceedings in a way that complies with the regulations and guidance relevant for the area they live in and take into account the limited geographical spread and small numbers of Members of some of the parties represented in the House. (Paragraph 70)

Published: 8 May 2020