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Claustrophobic and frightening - the Commons voting process needs a radical shake-up

Claustrophobic and frightening - the Commons voting process needs a radical shake-up
4 min read

SNP MP Marion Fellows writes about her claustrophobia and why she needed extra support in the voting lobbies last week. She says "There is a long way to go to modernise Westminster which is so out of date".


Westminster is a place of traditions which have run their course. If Parliament wants to appeal to people at a time when mistrust of politics is rife, it must be fit for the 21st century. That’s why it’s time Westminster swapped dusty tradition for pragmatic modernity. 
 
When I talked about being helped through the voting lobby last Thursday I was raising, not just personal experience, but real concerns over health and safety for Members of Parliament and Clerks in the Voting Lobbies. Cramming over 600 people in a small space, then channelling by four Clerks to register your vote can be a frightening experience. As I said in the Chamber I know that had I not had successful treatment for claustrophobia I could have run amok and caused injury to others and myself.   
 
When I was first elected, I was astonished to see the Serjeant-at-Arms armed with a sword in antiquated dress sitting in the Chamber – and indeed on one famous occasion being asked by him to clear the lobbies during a vote. Until fairly recently Clerks scored off your name on a list using a pen and ruler.  They now record Members votes on an iPad, which begs the question why can’t member record their vote electronically? Votes can take at least half an hour each time and when Members must run from far off parts of the Parliamentary Estate this adds to the time which could be better spent in Committees and other meetings.  I get the feeling that some MPs like tradition so much that they would rather we reverted to quill and parchment. Indeed, we have already debated the issue of Vellum for recording Acts of Parliament. 
 
The Scottish Parliament, designed for the 21st century, has electronic voting which takes seconds and a fixed time for casting votes.  It works.  Committees generally do not sit at the same time as the Chamber and Members of the Scottish Parliament are able to attend all Debates if they wish.  It is a much more family friendly Parliament. 
 
Rather than wasting precious time, Westminster should free it up so that we have more time to question Ministers; to debate the important issues of the day; and more time to spend in our constituencies speaking to people and local groups, rather than being stuck in the Westminster bubble hearing the same views constantly echoed. 
 
There have been cases in the past where MPs were kept on the estate in Ambulances to vote and people were pushed through in wheelchairs with one MP postponing her Caesarean section. What message does this send to the public? We should be embarrassed by how other countries view Westminster’s archaic practices. 
 
Parliament has previously agreed in principle to proxy voting and the Procedural Committee has also recommended proposals to modernise voting methods. As the Speaker has said, the only reason concrete steps to modernise voting and bring Westminster into the 21st Century have not been taken is because the UK Government has not sought to do so. They are stuck in the past and so desperate to have their Brexit vote succeed that they would have people pushed through the lobbies in wheelchairs.
 
Thankfully, this week the UK Government has agreed to have a meaningful vote on the issue of proxy voting for maternal, paternal and adoptive leave. But this is just one step in the right direction. There is a long way to go to modernise Westminster which is so out of date, rather than call it ‘the Mother of Parliaments’, perhaps ‘the Grandmother’ is more fitting. 

Marion Fellows is the SNP MP for Motherwell and Wishaw

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