Is it time to consign the pairing system to the parliamentary dustbin?

Posted On: 
22nd January 2019

Trust in the pairing system has broken down, and support for proxy voting is growing. But introducing a workable system is not as straightforward as it sounds, says Tony Grew

The government front bench before last week's vote on the Withdrawal Agreement
Credit: 
Uk Parliament/Jessica Taylor

An MP on the floor of the House in a wheelchair, heavily pregnant and clearly in discomfort, was one of the starkest images from last week’s events.

Tulip Siddiq was in the Commons to vote against the prime minister’s Brexit deal, and was wheeled into a packed lobby where broadcasters had been given access to earlier in the week to film reports for the main news bulletins explaining how MPs vote.

What must the millions of viewers who saw them have made of these 19th century procedures? MPs on all sides were uncomfortable with and unhappy about Ms Siddiq’s situation, Kemi Badenoch being a notable exception.

The Speaker thinks the government whips office is blocking progress on proxy voting. A source on the Procedure Committee complains it is a cabal of pale, male and stale MPs opposing reforms because they are too wedded to tradition.

Whether or not that is the case, the granting of a proxy vote is not as simple as it sounds. While it is correct to say that it would be unreasonable for an employer to force an employee who was about to undergo a caesarean into work, MPs are not employees. They are office holders.

If proxy votes are granted for pregnant MPs, it would have to extend to male MPs on paternity leave. And what of MPs who are seriously ill, or who have been recently bereaved? Who will judge whether or not a proxy should be granted?

As the demographics of the chamber change, it is likely we will have many more female MPs having children. As Emma Reynolds put it last week, “how many babies do we in this House, collectively, have to have before we see any change?”

The Speaker thinks that change is essential for the reputation of a House “starting to take an interest in the modern world”.

Regrettably it is not as simple as just getting on with it. A female government minister expressed a private view that it will be extremely challenging to come to a consensus on proxy votes. She argues that the whole point of having a debate, particularly on a conscience issue, is that it can change minds. Only after hearing the debate should an MP decide how to vote. A proxy vote decided in advance is not acceptable to her.

On which votes would proxies be allowed? Only government business or all divisions? Will whips, clerks or another MP be responsible for casting a proxy vote? A Labour backbencher told me he would not trust his whips with his vote if the issue was on Europe.

Sometimes it is clear when the Commons will vote, other times it is more unpredictable and on occasion spontaneous. That adds more complications.

The government minister told me that the only practicable system is the existing one: pairing.

Last week Ms Siddiq said she has no faith in the pairing system, which is understandable in the light of what happened to Jo Swinson’s arrangement in a previous vote. Government MPs point out that Labour in opposition has broken more pairs than they have, which is like saying I broke some windows but a bigger boy broke more, not a satisfactory situation in a House where honour is presented as the most basic of the rules of engagement.

Pairing also only applies to the two main parties, as the SNP aren’t slow in pointing out.

It seems trust has broken down, that pairing will be consigned to the Parliamentary dustbin and a new system is needed for the many Commons babies that will be born in the coming years.

Proxy voting presents so many questions, but there may be answers for most of them. The system will take time to embed, but if MPs have the will it can be achieved.

One reform to voting would be much easier to implement. Last week we had the unusual sight of 600 MPs in one lobby. We know the lobbies were packed because MPs have taken to sharing voting selfies on social media.

Marion Fellows later complained to the leader of the House that she had to be assisted because she felt very uncomfortable, having previously received treatment for claustrophobia. It is reported that another MP collided with Ms Siddiq’s wheelchair during Tuesday’s division.

Those of you reading this column on your smart phone may have used fingerprint technology to unlock it. It would be simple for the House to install dozens of fingerprint scanners in the voting lobbies, considerably speeding up the process of divisions and providing immediate information about how MPs voted.

It would also retain the traditions of MPs voting together, and tellers could still oversee the process and announce the vote in the chamber.

Perhaps this is the reform that 19th century proceduralists and 21st century reformers could unite around.