It is an honour to follow the Mother of the House, Ms Harman, who has led this debate from the beginning. I pay tribute to her for her work not only on this issue but on other transformational issues that she has raised in order to reform the House of Commons. I did not participate in the debate on
It is fair to say that the contribution from Jo Swinson has drawn the attention of the House to the difference between a new mother and a new father, and to the reason why a new mother will need to be absent from the House for far longer than a new father. The Procedure Committee looked at several issues, including parental leave not only for mothers and fathers but for newly adoptive parents. I think it was Mr Lammy who drew our attention to the need for newly adoptive parents to be able to bond with their children, particularly as they are not the natural birth parents. It is important that those actions can be taken during those early stages.
The right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham talked about the duty of individuals to come and vote in this House. That is quite clearly why we are elected. Up to now, the principle has always been that an individual MP had to be present in the Chamber, or on the estate if they were incapacitated, where their vote could be counted. We are now considering whether we should change that fundamental principle. Having sat through all the evidence, I completely understand the case for changing it, but we should remember that the Procedure Committee did only what the House asked us to do, which was to look at the issue of baby leave for new parents. That is why we need to be slightly cautious here. This is a debate on the principle of proxy voting in general, as well as on the specific issue of baby leave, and we need to look at how things have changed.
The fundamental issue involved is a Member’s right to vote in this House on his or her views. I would probably go to the ends of the earth to oppose the principle that the Whips should take over a Member’s right to vote. I almost always vote with my party, but not always, and I defend my right as a Member to stand up for my constituents, as opposed to just my party. I would therefore absolutely oppose any proposal that the Chief Whip or any other Whip could go through the Lobby and cast a vote on my behalf. If we are going to introduce these changes, the fundamental principle has to be that it is not the Whips who determine which way a vote should be cast.
Mention has been made about whether a Member casting a proxy vote should be present in the Chamber to observe all or part of the debate before voting, and whether they even need to know what they are voting for. It is for individual Members to ensure that they are informed as to what they are voting on and how they vote. That is their job. From that perspective, it is not necessary for someone to be in the Chamber listening to every single word that is uttered in a debate before they come to a conclusion and cast their vote accordingly. It is therefore equally possible for a Member to watch the parliamentary channel remotely and then instruct someone to vote on their behalf in a particular way. That is perfectly reasonable with new technology. However, we need to consider some precautions. If we are going to make a change, it should enable new parents, new mothers in particular, to exercise their vote, but there should be no unintended consequences.
I completely agree with the Procedure Committee’s report, which says that proxy votes should not be used at all in matters such as counting towards the quorum, a closure motion or other technical votes. We need to consider the circumstances in which proxy votes should apply. When the measure is introduced—I look to the Leader of the House to propose how it should operate—it should be done in such a way that we can review the process after, say, 12 months to ensure that we have not introduced unintended consequences or other problems.