Parliament must extend proxy voting to be worthy of its pre-eminence
On the rare occasions that both sides of the House come together to agree a motion, it can be persuasive. This is exactly what happened when the House of Commons recently agreed to pilot a scheme that will see proxy voting extended for MPs who may be physically unable to attend Westminster.
When I entered Parliament in 2019, I was promptly and unwittingly struck by comparisons between the institutions in which I had worked. As a military man, I took my place in an organisation that got the job done. It was efficient and precise, processes were ruthlessly stress-tested, everyone knew their role and for me, it was always output focused. But in Westminster, I was assailed by how counter-intuitive and idiosyncratic much of the working environment is, not to mention its apparent obsession with dogma and orthodoxy.
Indeed, three years on, it continues to surprise me that the quirky organisation in which we are privileged to serve is not more institutionally efficient or resilient. And whilst the diehards will tell you that it works – and it does – I somehow ended up on the Procedure Committee.
The House has long recognised the reputational damage caused by nodding through gravely ill Members
Although opinions vary, it is my humble view that parliamentarians do have an inherent responsibility to embrace modern operating procedures and to empower themselves to be more clinical in supporting each other, even by statute. As the shadow leader recently stated, “Parliament ought to be a model workplace at the forefront of rights at work and accessibility,” and I entirely agree. Yet we should also be a modern workforce. Not only are we judged on serving our constituents, but a stronger voice is needed in how we perform that key function and in challenging the dogma that pervades.
MPs work around the clock, at pace, and we believe in what we are doing, irrespective of political conviction or agenda. But when we strip it down, the only non-discretionary function that we must deliver is to vote! So why would we not make that most fundamental legislative priority fit for purpose? And why as elected representatives would we not want to make it easier for ourselves to be more publicly accountable in doing it, even when personal circumstances or serious illness preclude us from attending the House?
It is wrong that MPs who are seriously ill or injured, caring for loved ones at home or facing the most desperate compassionate circumstances, cannot register a vote without physically being on the estate. Worse still, those unable to register a vote for good reason should not have to face the dilemma of explaining it, of divulging sensitive personal information to their constituents or even suffering abuse for it.
The House itself has long recognised the reputational damage caused by nodding through gravely ill Members. Those in Westminster before 2019 may even recall one Member being pushed through the voting lobby in a wheelchair, whilst suffering from a brain tumour. It is shameful that we demean ourselves in this way, but we should at least be reassured that progress is within reach.
As for the new motion, there is no question that “complications relating to childbirth, miscarriage and baby loss” should be fully incorporated within the standing order to qualify for a proxy vote.
Members experiencing long-term illness or injury should also have a proxy vote, and the bar to participate in proceedings for those who do should be removed.
The Speaker has already agreed the parameters for the pilot and it will end by April 2023. The final report will be produced by the Procedure Committee and the House will agree on whether to make the changes permanent.
Lastly, whilst this may perturb some, I do not believe that we are here to stand still as parliamentarians. We are here to force the agenda, move forward and make sure that the House remains fit for purpose in an increasingly technological world. Parliament must therefore be relevant!
James Sunderland, Conservative MP for Bracknell.
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