The House of Commons passed a historic motion on Monday night to approve a 12 month trial of proxy voting for MPs on parental leave.
The trial allows MPs on maternity leave of up to 6 months and paternity leave of up to 2 weeks to nominate a fellow MP to vote on their behalf. An amendment proposed by Conservative MP Philip Davies also allows for proxy voting to be applied in the case of miscarriage.
Traditionally, two methods have been used to ensure that neither side in votes gains an unfair advantage from an MP being absent for good reason, like maternity leave or being seriously ill. The first, “nodding through”, allows someone’s vote to be cast even if they cannot pass through the Commons’ voting lobbies. Such is the Victorian nature of many of the Commons traditional proceedings that in the UK MPs indicate their vote not by pressing an electronic button, but by physically walking through one of two sets of doors (or both if they wish to abstain) and registering their votes with designated counting MPs, known as tellers. Nodding through, usually used for gravely ill MPs, requires an MP to be present somewhere on the parliamentary estate though, leading to the previous farcical situation of voting by being in the back of an ambulance driven in and out of the estate gates.
A breakdown in trust of the effectiveness of the second method, “pairing”, led to cross-party pressure from mostly female MPs to bring in proxy voting. Pairing sees a member’s absence for a vote on one side of the house being cancelled out by a member’s absence on the other, thereby ensuring their absence doesn’t produce an unfair advantage. It is an informal arrangement and not strictly Commons procedure, but does require registering with government whips. In July last year, Scottish Liberal Democrat MP and mother to a new-born Jo Swinson accused the government of deliberately breaking a pairing arrangement after the MP she was paired with in a tight Brexit trade bill vote, Conservative Party chair Brandon Mitchell, voted anyway. While some news outlets reported that the pairing arrangement had been deliberately broken, Mr. Mitchell and the Chief Whip, Julian Smith, claimed it was an ‘honest mistake’.
Regardless of the truth of the matter, it set in motion the push for proxy voting with a procedures committee of the House looking into how it could be implemented in practice and Speaker John Bercow expressing his support for the measure. However, the wheels of change to parliamentary procedure traditionally move at a snail’s pace and required a further prompting for proxy voting to be introduced.
In the dramatic and catastrophic defeat of Prime Minister Theresa May’s EU withdrawal agreement deal, heavily pregnant Labour MP Tulip Siddiq stood out as she was wheeled in to cast her vote. Ms Siddiq said she didn’t have faith in any pairing arrangement being kept and so delayed the caesarean birth of her second child by 2 days in order to vote – literally, Brexit delayed a baby being born.
An urgent question tabled by Jo Swinson (pictured above) in the aftermath of this finally saw Leader of the House, Andrea Leadsom, confirm that the government would put forward a motion to allow for proxy voting, which Swinson described as ‘giving a whole new meaning to being overdue’. Labour MP Jess Phillips promised to ‘make a misery of the lives of anyone’ who opposed based on ‘patriarchal, paternalistic, draconian and old-fashioned sensibilities’.
On Monday, MPs will have an hour to debate the proposals and the temporary standing orders to allow proxy voting. If approved this is how it will work. pic.twitter.com/RbUTTJZ5DL
— PARLY (@ParlyApp) January 26, 2019
When Mr Davies, noted wrecker of many a bill, tabled several amendments to the motion, Ms Phillips expressed her doubts as to his genuine motivations. Mr Davies said he supported proxy voting, but felt that the bill did not go far enough, with no equality of parental leave between genders and proxy voting not being allowed in other circumstances, like during bereavement leave, when an MP was seriously ill, or after a miscarriage. Ms Swinson welcomed the suggestions put forward by Davies, but in the event he watered down his proposals to just that of allowing proxy voting also in the case of miscarriages.
In a debate which saw MPs vote on the plans at the not very family friendly time of 11:15pm, proxy voting became parliamentary practice. The Speaker confirmed that the measure could be introduced the very next day and Ms Siddiq became the first MP to use the system, nominating fellow Labour MP Vicky Foxcroft to be her proxy for crucial votes on Brexit.
I believe I will be the first MP to vote by proxy tomorrow! I’ve asked @vickyfoxcroft to do the honours. Thank you to the Speaker, @andrealeadsom @HarrietHarman @joswinson & others. Raphael & I are so grateful that I can represent my constituents in these important votes. pic.twitter.com/YgBa4WeV0d
— Tulip Siddiq (@TulipSiddiq) January 29, 2019
It is worth stressing that proxy voting has only been introduced for a trial period of 12 months and could conceivably be scrapped by next January. However, such is the strength of feeling on the issue, it’s more likely that the use of proxy voting will be widened in 2020 and placed on a more permanent basis.