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Explained: The latest ‘Covid-secure’ Commons voting system as MPs seek to avoid snaking queues around Parliament

Explained: The latest ‘Covid-secure’ Commons voting system as MPs seek to avoid snaking queues around Parliament

The new system has been trialled before MPs get a chance to use it. (Image: Jessica Taylor/Parliament)

4 min read

After weeks of bitter wrangling over the Government’s bid to get MPs back into Parliament, Commons authorities have unveiled a new system they hope will stop MPs from having to form slow-moving queues snaking around the estate just to cast a vote — and restore some limited sense of normality to the chamber.

WHY IS THIS NEEDED?

When the country went into the Covid-19 lockdown the Parliamentary Digital Service raced around the clock to give MPs a ‘hybrid’ set up, allowing them to take part in debates and cast votes remotely. 

Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle remained present in the chamber, while some MPs and frontbenchers like Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer still turned up to spar at set-piece events like Prime Minister’s questions.

But the Government ordered that system to come to an end as Mr Johnson unveiled his roadmap for easing the Covid-19 lockdown — arguing the seat of democracy should be setting an example to the rest of the country.

It meant MPs returned to Westminster at the start of June. But, with strict social distancing rules in place, the Commons division lobbies — which MPs normally walk through to cast their votes — were deemed "unsafe" by Public Health England.

Instead, a temporary set-up was put in place, which saw long queues forming throughout the Parliamentary estate, with MPs forced to walk in a line outside the Commons chamber before entering, declaring their name and which way they are voting, and then being asked to walk in front of the relevant frontbench according to the choice they had made.

While ministers have granted a number of concessions on proxy voting and virtual participation in debates for those affected by Covid-19, the temporaty system quickly sparked confusion, with some MPs going the wrong way or forgetting to say their names.

WHAT DOES THE NEW SET-UP LOOK LIKE?

Backed by Commons Speaker Hoyle, the new division procedure will see MPs use new pass-readers installed in the traditional “aye” and “no” voting lobbies. 

It will be much closer to the usual set-up — but, House authorities believe, allow for social distancing to continue, protect staff and avoid close contact in the lobbies.

When a vote is called, MPs will go to Parliament’s Westminster Hall and join the back of one of two queues — again, spread two metres apart — according to the way they are planning to vote. 

Tellers (MPs chosen to verify the count when there is a Commons vote) will take their usual positions at the end of each division lobby behind the Speaker’s Chair.

The two queues will merge in Members’ lobby, and as MPs pass through the ‘aye’ or ‘no’ lobby, they will be asked to tap their Commons pass on either of the two pass-readers installed there.

If an MP accidentally votes more than once, it will only be counted as a single vote, the Commons says.

And those members casting a proxy vote on behalf of a colleague who may be shielding from Covid-19 can walk past the tellers and letting them know they are doing so.

The MP will then be asked to email the Public Bill Office to let Commons officials know they have voted for their proxy.

Explaining the changes, a House of Commons spokesperson told PoliticsHome/The House: "The new system allows for a steady flow of Members through the two division lobbies whilst following PHE guidance.

"Members will be guided in two socially-distanced separated queues in each lobby, all going in the same direction.”

The move would, they said, be paired with other measures to enforce social distancing including locking the doors to Members' Lobby a minimum of 25 minutes after the start of a division — unlike the eight minutes for a "traditional" vote.

The plan will also scrap “the need for division clerks to be stationed in division lobbies to record votes”, the spokesperson added, while floor markings and signs in the lobbies will help guide MPs on social distancing. 

HOW WILL THE RESULTS BE ANNOUNCED?

The Commons says tellers from the winning side will come to one of the despatch boxes to announce the result, as happens under the usual set-up. 

The results will then be published on the Commons Votes app and website — but those of who have gotten used to speedy results have been told there will be a ”delay of at least one hour in the publication of the results”.

The new system will be up and running on Tuesday, potentially sparing Tory MPs the sight of them having to publicly declare their opposition to a Labour push to extend free school meals throughout the summer to help deal with the damage caused by the coroanvirus crisis.

 

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