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Tue, 29 September 2020

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Proxy voting for parental absence is essential for our thriving parliamentary democracy

Proxy voting for parental absence is essential for our thriving parliamentary democracy

The fact that the House extended the pilot without debate demonstrates that proxy voting for parental absence is already an accepted part of House procedure, writes Karen Bradley MP. | PA Images

4 min read

The Procedure Committee's new report recommends proxy voting for parental absence be made permanent. Through these changes we hope that the number of new mothers in the House will continue to increase.

Having children can be a challenge at the best of times: as any parent will confirm. Juggling the demands of early parenthood with the unique responsibilities of an MP can be especially challenging.

That’s why the Procedure Committee, which I chair, recommended—in a key report released earlier this week—that proxy voting for parental absence, which the House has been trialling since January 2019, be made permanent. It’s a big moment in the evolution of Commons procedure, and a moment that will be “to the benefit of parliamentary democracy”, to quote from the 2018 resolution of the House which first endorsed the principle.

Proxy voting to allow new parents to have their votes recorded while exercising the rights that Parliament itself has given to employees, may appear a small step, particularly given the other very significant changes the House has had to make in the last six months. Nevertheless, through these changes we hope that the number of new mothers in the House will continue to increase.

It is encouraging to note that already three of the new MPs first elected last December have used the scheme: starting, or continuing, a family is now clearly not incompatible with a political career at this level. The number of new fathers who took up proxy votes during the pilot is itself very encouraging and sends a strong message about the importance that both parents have in those first precious few weeks.

The Committee’s recommendation is the product of a review started in September last year under the chairmanship of Sir Charles Walker, after the House approved the proxy voting pilot scheme his Committee had designed and which Andrea Leadsom, then the Commons Leader, had put forward.

The pilot was originally for 12 months, but was extended first because of the election and then because of the pandemic: the fact that the House extended the pilot without debate demonstrates that proxy voting for parental absence is already an accepted part of House procedure.

Covid-19 required a significant expansion of our review, to consider the extension of proxy voting to absences due to the pandemic, rushed in by the Government once remote voting was discontinued. The report calls for proxy voting for Members subject to coronavirus restrictions to continue, though careful consideration must be given to the eligibility criteria once the current scheme expires at the end of this month.

However, the combination of having so many proxy votes in place, combined with the far from adequate temporary division arrangements now in operation, has caused logistical headaches. I salute the hard work put in by Commons staff to compile the division data that so many Westminster Watchers rely on.

Large-scale proxy voting under these arrangements represents a significant challenge: a system which relies on a whip to cast several dozen votes in a division by e-mail after having given the number to the tellers has some evident points of failure, which have on occasion resulted in the numbers declared having to be amended later.

Many of us favour a temporary return to the pioneering remote digital voting system successfully implemented by the House Service and PDS earlier this year

Back in June, my Committee had serious concerns about how temporary physical divisions would work. We still do. Many of us favour a temporary return to the pioneering remote digital voting system successfully implemented by the House Service and PDS earlier this year.

The current proxy voting pilot expires on 28 September. Now that the House has our report, the ball is in the Leader’s court: as the number of colleagues able to return to Westminster increases, he has to find a system which allows MPs still kept away from the House by the pandemic to be able to vote in divisions on behalf of their constituents.

As for the Committee, we continue to review House procedure and practice during the pandemic as the situation evolves, and we are always happy to listen to the concerns of colleagues.

 

Karen Bradley is the Conservative MP for Staffordshire Moorlands and chair of the Procedure Committee. Find out more about the Committee’s report into Proxy Voting and their wider inquiry into procedure under coronavirus restrictions on the Petitions Committee website.

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