Proxy Voting

– in the House of Commons at 7:20 pm on 23rd September 2020.

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[Relevant documents: Fourth Report from the Procedure Committee, Proxy voting: review of pilot arrangements, HC 10; and Memorandum from the Leader of the House in response to the Committee’s report, HC 10.]

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

We now come to motion No. 6 on voting by proxy, and with it we will also debate motion No. 7 on proxy voting during the pandemic. I inform the House that I have not selected the amendment to motion No. 7 in the name of the Chair of the Procedure Committee.

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons 7:21 pm, 23rd September 2020

I beg to move,

(1) That:

(a) the Resolution of 28 January 2019 (Proxy Voting (Implementation)), as amended on 16 January and 20 July 2020,

(b) the Resolution of 4 June 2020 (Proxy Voting (Extension)), as amended on 10 June 2020, be rescinded.

(2) That the following Standing Order be made:

VOTING BY PROXY

(1) A Member eligible under paragraph (2) may arrange for their vote to be cast by one other Member acting as a proxy (a proxy vote) under a scheme drawn up by the Speaker in accordance with this order and published by him.

(2) A Member is eligible for a proxy vote by reason of absence from the precincts of the House for childbirth or care of an infant or newly adopted child, subject to the conditions set out in the scheme published under paragraph (1) of this order.

(3) A proxy vote may be cast:

(a) in any division, including a deferred division, in the House, in Committee of the whole House, or in any legislative grand committee, save as provided in paragraph (4) below; and

(b) in a ballot cast in an election under Standing Order No. 1B (Election of Speaker by secret ballot), Standing Order No. 2A (Election of the Deputy Speakers), Standing Order No. 122B (Election of select committee chairs) and Backbench Business Committee">Standing Order No. 122D (Election of Chair of the Backbench Business Committee).

(4) No proxy vote shall be reckoned in the numbers participating in a division for the purposes of (a) Standing Order No. 41(1) (Quorum), and (b) Majority for closure or for proposal of question">Standing Order No. 37 (Majority for closure or for proposal of question).

(5) (a) A proxy vote may be cast only if the Speaker has certified that the Member for whom the vote is to be cast is eligible under the terms of this order.

(b) The Speaker shall cause that certificate, including the name of the Member nominated as a proxy, to be entered in the Votes and Proceedings no later than the sitting day on which it takes effect.

(6) A vote cast by a proxy shall be clearly indicated as such in the division lists published under the authority of the House.

(7) A Member is also eligible for a proxy vote by reason of absence from the precincts of the House in circumstances where there have been complications relating to childbirth; and the Speaker may make appropriate provision for the exercise of a proxy vote in such circumstances in the scheme drawn up under paragraph (1) above.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

With this it will be convenient to consider motion No. 7, on proxy voting during the pandemic:

That the following amendments be made to the Standing Order (Voting by Proxy) and have effect until 3 November 2020:

(1) In paragraph (2) after “child” insert “, or for medical or public health reasons related to the pandemic”.

(2) After paragraph (5) insert –

(5A) The Speaker may certify that a Member’s eligibility for a proxy vote for medical or public health reasons related to the pandemic should take effect before the certificate is published in the Votes and Proceedings, or that a certificate already granted should be varied, if satisfied there are urgent and unforeseeable circumstances to justify this.

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons

At the outset, may I put on the record my gratitude to my right hon. Friend Karen Bradley and the Procedure Committee for the Committee’s review of the pilot arrangements for proxy voting and their recommendations, which have formed the basis for the motions before us today? I am pleased that we have been now able to bring forward proposals to implement a permanent scheme for parental proxy voting. This is an important step in ensuring that we do all we can to support new parents in the House, in a measure that more broadly reflects the approaches to maternity and paternity leave seen across the country.

As well as being an important step, it is an historic one for the way that the House operates. Together we take decisions on vital matters of state, sometimes affecting questions of life and death. The results of Divisions in this House change people’s lives across the country. So the legitimacy of the system by which Members vote must be above reproach. Any reform of voting procedure is something that we need to get right in order to ensure that we maintain the full confidence of our constituents. That is why it was important to pilot these measures properly, as well as to review their operation.

I wish to thank my right hon. Friend Andrea Leadsom who, when Leader of the House, introduced the pilot scheme. The Procedure Committee, both in the last Parliament and in this, has played a key role to get us to this point. The pilot proxy voting arrangements for parental leave have now been in place for nearly 20 months. As the Committee has reported, proxy voting has worked well for Members who are new mothers and fathers, allowing them to continue to serve their constituents while also dealing with their familial obligations.

We are therefore in the happy position of being able to make such a fundamental change to our voting procedures. We are confident that it will work, and work well. I hope that the whole House will support the Procedure Committee’s recommendations to make a permanent change to Standing Orders to reflect the success of this scheme.

Let me now turn to arrangements for proxy voting that have been put in place during the pandemic. Early in June 2020, the Government brought forward a motion to extend the scope of proxy voting to allow Members unable to attend Westminster for medical or public health reasons related to the coronavirus pandemic to vote by proxy.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I thank the Leader of the House for bringing forward the continuation of the system. I want to ask him a specific question. I do not want to mention the person’s name, but someone took ill on the Sunday who was intending to come here to vote on the Monday, but was therefore not able to. Is there any way, at very short notice, in a real emergency, that provision could be made, on that timescale, to enable someone to vote?

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons

Yes. The motion before us says:

“a certificate already granted should be varied, if satisfied there are urgent and unforeseeable circumstances”,

so Mr Speaker now has the ability to do this at very short notice. With parental leave, there is normally some element of notice, whereas with the coronavirus, there may not be any notice at all. However, there has to be some discretion for Mr Speaker, because there comes a point in the day at which it is too difficult administratively to get something in place. The hon. Gentleman raises a fair point, and I am glad to say that that has been taken account of.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

My right hon. Friend said that we have brought in proxy voting to help Members for reasons of public health. The trouble is that this whole system has been corrupted. A huge number of Members of Parliament now have proxy votes. I do not believe that the great majority of them are actually shielding or medically ill—I think it is just for convenience. This shows the creeping danger of what is going on. I would like to get from the Leader of the House, as someone who loves the House of Commons, a personal view of that and a determination that if a Member wants to vote, in virtually all circumstances, they should take the trouble to turn up here.

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons

I hope that my right hon. Friend is wrong in saying that people are abusing the system. We have to have a system that works on trust, and that is one of the changes being made to the parental leave system: previously, evidence had to come from a doctor, but now we are accepting that hon. Members will behave honourably.

The motion states:

“The Speaker may certify that a Member’s eligibility for a proxy vote for medical or public health reasons related to the pandemic should take effect before the certificate is published in the Votes and Proceedings”.

It is for “medical or public health” reasons. That includes being in an area subject to a local lockdown; being unable to send children to school because of needing to self-isolate or because the school has required children to be at home for whatever reason; and issues relating to difficulties with public transport, which were more acute earlier in the crisis than they are now. It is a fairly broad definition because the circumstances are changeable and, to some extent, unknowable. It seems only fair to allow Members, on their own say-so and their own cognisance, to say to Mr Speaker that they feel they are in such a position that they need a proxy.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

May I press my right hon. Friend on that? Why do some Members have a proxy vote one week but are then here the next week, or they have a proxy vote and we see them wandering around the corridors? We all know that this is being abused, and I want the Leader of the House to give a firm commitment that he will not have this creeping corruption of our procedures.

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons

Members with a proxy vote may only appear remotely. They may not appear in the Chamber. Mr Speaker has been absolutely clear on that. I would not expect Members who have a proxy vote to be in the precincts of the Palace, because if they can be here, they ought to be voting in person. Any Member who had behaved in that way would not be behaving within the spirit of the temporary Standing Order.

This system has allowed many Members to have their votes recorded, and in the current circumstances, I think it is right that we make the continuing provision for proxy voting. The broad eligibility criteria provide appropriate flexibility in the circumstances. Any Member who has any concerns related to the coronavirus must feel entitled to apply for a proxy vote, and I hope that this motion will be agreed by the House today. It will allow for the current temporary arrangements to be in place until 3 November 2020, in line with the arrangements for remote participation in the Chamber and other measures that facilitate social distancing.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Conservative, Forest of Dean

Forgive me for referring to a matter that was dealt with a few moments ago. I knew I had read this and I just wanted to make sure that I was accurately quoting it, just to help my right hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh. In the report of the Procedure Committee on proxy voting, the Clerk of the House noted in his evidence that there had been a small number of issues with colleagues not understanding the rules on whether they should be here if they had a proxy vote. He said that there were a very small number of cases where he had had to intervene, and that number was diminishing as colleagues properly understood the rules. I hope it is helpful to put that on the record.

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons

I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend. It is indeed helpful and useful to put on the record the evidence given to the Select Committee.

The Government, working with the House authorities, will continue to keep these matters under review following broader public health guidance, as we have since the outset. We are fortunate in the robust measures put in place under the leadership of Mr Speaker, which have allowed this Parliament to conduct its essential business in a covid-secure way. It is worth noting—this is, I think, significant—that because we did not apply the relaxation of the rules that came in over the summer, we are able to continue as we are now because we always remained in line with the tighter rules that allowed us to come back on 2 June. That is why this week’s announcements do not necessitate any sudden reversion. It is, however, worth reminding all Members of their obligation to observe social distancing, especially when queueing for Divisions. That is important and we have an obligation to show we are doing the same as other British subjects.

Photo of Owen Thompson Owen Thompson SNP Whip

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. Does he feel that in the current situation there is appropriate social distancing when a Division takes place? From what I have seen, there is not.

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons

The Doorkeepers and the Whips are doing an excellent job to encourage proper social distancing, but we are a society that believes in individual responsibility. Members of Parliament really must lead by example and show they can be responsible. I confess I find that most Members keep a safe six-and-a-half-foot distance from me, Mr Deputy Speaker, although I am worried about whether that is because of the coronavirus or for other reasons that perhaps I will not go into.

None the less, I am extremely grateful for the continuing work of all those on the estate who contribute to making our proceedings possible in the present difficult and imperfect circumstances. Meeting the challenge posed by the pandemic has certainly provided lessons for all of us in appreciating afresh the value of actually being here together. The effectiveness of our scrutiny and the efficiency of our law making was sadly diminished during the period of the hybrid proceedings. Since then, the rigour of the measures applied across the estate and the ingenuity of the procedural approaches pioneered particularly by Mr Speaker have enabled so much that was once thought impossible: the welcome return of Backbench Business Committee debates, sitting Fridays, and soon, from a motion coming immediately after this one, Westminster Hall debates. All those things help us to represent our constituents better.

Photo of Andrew Griffith Andrew Griffith Conservative, Arundel and South Downs

May I thank my right hon. Friend for his endeavours as Leader of the House to ensure the voice of this House can be heard during this crisis, but reiterate that not a single constituent is saying that we are suffering from an excess of legislative scrutiny, given some of the measures that are being brought forward at this time?

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons

I doubt that in the whole history of Parliament any constituent has ever complained about an excess of legislative scrutiny. I think a surfeit of lampreys is more dangerous than an excess of legislative scrutiny.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Conservative, Forest of Dean

I am only intervening on my right hon. Friend because he mentioned the subsequent motion on Westminster Hall. I was not going to bring it into scope myself. I do not know whether this is a matter for him or for the Chair on a future occasion, but I note that that motion states:

“the Chair in Westminster Hall may limit the number of Members”.

My question—it may not be for today—is whether we will have call lists and, effectively, the same processes for Westminster Hall that we have for the Chamber to enable that limitation to take place, and whether that could be furnished to Members in due course.

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons

By your leave, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will try to answer that question. Mr Speaker or the Chairman of Ways and Means will set out the proposals, but, yes, there will have to be limits and, yes, therefore call lists, except that many Westminster Hall debates do not have so many people involved that we would face getting up to the limit.

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley Chair, Procedure Committee, Chair, Procedure Committee

I wanted to put on the record that at the meeting of the Procedure Committee earlier we agreed to a short sharp inquiry into the use of call lists and time limits. We encourage all hon. and right hon. Members to contribute to that inquiry.

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons

I am very grateful for that and I know that Members will be glad that such an inquiry is taking place.

Ultimately, we have a system that is working and balances the need to ensure the safety of Members and staff, while providing a robust voting system to allow the delivery of the legislative programme and the key decisions affecting our constituents. I therefore commend the motions to the House.

Photo of Valerie Vaz Valerie Vaz Shadow Leader of the House of Commons 7:34 pm, 23rd September 2020

I, too, will address both motions in my response. I thank the Leader of the House for tabling them, and a special thank you to the Chair of the Procedure Committee and its members. They have worked incredibly hard to get many reports out in double-quick time, so that we can continue with this.

The Committee’s report is the fourth of the Session and was published on 10 September, but the launch of the first inquiry seems a long time ago, after the House resolved on 1 February 2018:

“That this House
believes that it would be to the benefit of the functioning of parliamentary democracy that honourable Members who have had a baby or adopted a child should for a period of time be entitled, but not required, to discharge their responsibilities to vote in this House by proxy.”

We have had a number of debates and, as I set out from the Dispatch Box on 18 July 2018, 13 September 2018 and 22 January 2019, Her Majesty’s Opposition, the Labour party, support the principle of proxy voting for parental absence. I am not sure when baby Sixtus was born and whether the Leader of the House indulged in proxy voting at the time.

The motion provides for the new Standing Order for voting by proxy for parental absence. It is not temporary or time-limited. It accepts the Procedure Committee’s recommendation that

“provision for proxy voting for parental absence be made in the standing orders of the House”.

The new Standing Order makes a number of amendments to the original proxy scheme, allowing proxy voting for the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, in addition to the others. It removes the provision for the exercise of a proxy vote for Members who have suffered a miscarriage, quite rightly replacing the wording with

“in circumstances where there have been complications relating to childbirth”,

which may include postnatal depression. It removes the restriction on proxy voting in a Division

“on any motion in the form specified in section 2(2) of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011”— if we want to vote for an early general election, we may do so by proxy. Those were all recommended by the Procedure Committee in its report.

In the proposed Standing Order, the certification process touched on by the Leader of the House becomes the responsibility of the Speaker alone. The Procedure Committee’s report found:

“The requirement to produce certificates of pregnancy or adoption to demonstrate eligibility for a proxy vote has proved onerous.”

The Committee suggested that such certificates were “unnecessary”, which I also suggested during the debates—people do not have to prove that they are pregnant or having a baby. It is up to the Speaker to decide whether to remove the certification process. I agree with that recommendation.

I was to provide evidence to the Procedure Committee in March, but the pandemic set in and I was unable to do so. It was arranged for 15 July, but I think the evidence was incorporated into the Committee’s other report, “Procedure under coronavirus restrictions”. As a result, the evidence was not included in this report, but I know that the written evidence is on the website. I hope it was taken into account. I have to pay tribute to the Clerk of the Committee, who has been assiduous. I have known him from other Committees, and my thanks go to him.

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley Chair, Procedure Committee, Chair, Procedure Committee

I wanted to say absolutely, categorically, that the right hon. Lady’s evidence was very informative and informed our report. She was right that the evidence is published under a different inquiry, but it very much helped to inform us in this inquiry.

Photo of Valerie Vaz Valerie Vaz Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

I thank the right hon. Lady for that.

Turning to proxy voting during the pandemic, the second motion amends the Standing Order on voting by proxy to allow proxy votes

“for medical or public health reasons relating to the pandemic” until 3 November 2020.

The Procedure Committee report found that

“the system of remote voting used in May was a more effective means of handling divisions in the House under conditions where the division lobbies could not be used in the traditional way and where a large number of Members were unable to attend for public health reasons.”

Her Majesty’s Opposition put that in our written evidence for the Committee on 9 July 2020, when we said:

“The electronic remote voting system was a practical and necessary measure which allowed Parliament to continue in unprecedented circumstances during the pandemic. The decision to end electronic voting on 2 June 2020 was”—

I am afraid—

“undertaken without consultation or consideration of Members”,

or of their democratic accountability. It was replaced by the proxy voting system, which was clearly inferior to the safe and efficient remote voting system that did not fail once.

In its report, the Procedure Committee found that the current system of proxy voting for coronavirus absences

“is barely adequate, is potentially unreliable and imposes disproportionate administrative burdens on staff.”

Photo of Owen Thompson Owen Thompson SNP Whip

Even with the extension to proxy voting, does the right hon. Lady agree that a number of Members are still disenfranchised because they are not able to cast a vote in the House?

Photo of Valerie Vaz Valerie Vaz Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

They are able to cast a vote through the proxy system, but they are not able to come here to do that.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

I am sorry, but I cannot believe it is right that I was sitting in my garden at my daughter’s birthday party in Lincolnshire, and I could nip in and try to proxy vote. Given the circumstances we are in—we are supposed to be Members of Parliament; we are not forced to be here—most Members of Parliament can make the effort to come here in person and vote. Remote voting did not always work. I do not know what it is like in Leicester or Vauxhall, but in Lincolnshire our broadband is terrible, and at least twice the system broke down for me. Members turning up in person and being seen by their colleagues—that is the right way to vote.

Photo of Valerie Vaz Valerie Vaz Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

The right hon. Gentleman may have been in his garden, but he could not have used proxy voting—it was by remote voting. The House worked hard to get this system up and running, and there were many tests. When it came to voting, the system worked, and it enabled people not only to vote remotely, but to take part in debates, which was vital. How the right hon. Gentleman chooses to vote is a matter for him, but I know that hon. Members are assiduous. They did listen to and take part in debates, and they could vote remotely. I am sorry that he did not like the system. It did work, and it worked extremely easily.

In my oral evidence to the Procedure Committee on 21 July, I recommended the reinstatement of electronic remote voting for those Members who are unable to attend the parliamentary estate in person for public health reasons related to the pandemic. That is key: a pandemic is going on. I am delighted that the Procedure Committee also took that view, and it is unfortunate that the Leader of the House has chosen not to implement the recommendations.

Members are still unable to take part in debates on primary legislation, and can participate virtually only in questions, urgent questions and statements. I do not know whether the Leader of the House is aware that the Petitions Committee had a debate with people taking part even while shielding. We know that can work, and I hope he will look at that. As we enter a new phase of coronavirus restrictions with rising infection rates, Parliament needs a safe, functional remote system.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Conservative, Forest of Dean

I have discussed this matter with the Leader of the House, and I agree with the right hon. Lady’s point about participating in legislative debates. It is good that we have enabled colleagues to participate virtually in the scrutiny parts of the House’s proceedings, but we must look at a way of enabling those who cannot be here to participate in the legislative process. As the Prime Minister said this week—I think he is right—we are in this for the long haul. This is not a short, tiny period. We could be operating under these procedures well into next year at the earliest, and we need measures that enable all colleagues to participate fully in the business of the House. That is not for our benefit, but for that of our constituents.

Photo of Valerie Vaz Valerie Vaz Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and many right hon. and hon. Members have told me that they are disenfranchised because they cannot take part, particularly in recent important legislation such as the Internal Market Bill. They cannot tell the House what is happening in their constituency if they are unable to be here for public health reasons. We need a functional remote voting system that ensures fair representation and allows all right hon. and hon. Members to do their democratic duty. We in Her Majesty’s Opposition support the motion.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. This is a time-limited debate, and I will be allowing a short period for the Leader of the House to respond to the debate. Everybody has a call list, so they can see who wishes to speak. It would be nice if everybody could show some time restraint in their contributions and allow everybody some say in this important debate, but I am not imposing a time limit.

Photo of Andrea Leadsom Andrea Leadsom Conservative, South Northamptonshire 7:44 pm, 23rd September 2020

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I will be quick.

I thank very much my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, Valerie Vaz, and the Chair of the Procedure Committee, my right hon. Friend Karen Bradley, for what I think is a real improvement on proxy voting for parental leave. It is great to see that someone no longer has to prove, when their tummy is out there, that they are actually pregnant and it is not just a cushion. That is very valuable.

On the other hand, I have to say that I am a bit disappointed. As the right hon. Member for Walsall South said, we had many debates in this place, and there was a Procedure Committee review of parental leave a long time ago. That was always done on the expectation that if it worked, we would include it, but also potentially expand it. I see that the Committee’s latest report says, “We don’t want to expand it because if somebody is very ill or recently bereaved, for the purpose of transparency, that would have to be disclosed.” I am sorry; I just do not accept that.

I think that this is a missed opportunity. We have had some colleagues in this place who have been desperately ill. They are not allowed to vote by proxy. They are just going to have to turn up or be paired. What really sparked this change was the inadvertent breaking of a pair when a colleague was off on maternity leave. I do think it is a grave disappointment—

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley Chair, Procedure Committee, Chair, Procedure Committee

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for the work that she did to get us to this point. May I just assure her that the Procedure Committee is committed to looking at proxy voting once we are through the pandemic? What we wanted to do at this stage was to ensure that we had a report that allowed the Government to bring motions forward on parental leave and that dealt with proxy votes during the pandemic, but I give her my absolute commitment that we will look at this again and consider whether it is right to expand proxy voting beyond parental leave once we are back to—let us hope—business as normal at some point soon.

Photo of Andrea Leadsom Andrea Leadsom Conservative, South Northamptonshire

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that reassurance. Even so, were somebody to be very ill now with cancer or some other awful thing, they would, under the current circumstances, be very tempted to say, “This is related to the coronavirus pandemic.” My right hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh said that people are swinging the lead. I do not think people are swinging the lead, but I do think that, since we have what is in effect a very lax system of self-assessment for any illness related to the coronavirus pandemic, for someone who was recently bereaved or, indeed, very ill with something that was nothing to do with the pandemic, that would be the way to remain enfranchised in this place. Surely, that cannot be right.

Very briefly, on proxy voting during the coronavirus pandemic, I am concerned that we are not really able to socially distance in a properly fit way. Instead of using our passes in the Lobbies, I would love to see us perhaps using them in Westminster Hall, where it would be much easier for people to remain apart from one another. We do have bottlenecks. It is very difficult for the doorkeepers to keep us all away from one another when there are bottlenecks as we are filing through the Lobby, even after using our passes, so I would like to see that change. However, I welcome all these changes, and I congratulate all those who have sought to improve the system.

Photo of Tommy Sheppard Tommy Sheppard Shadow SNP Leader of the House of Commons 7:48 pm, 23rd September 2020

I appreciate that we will not vote on the motions tonight and that the amendment was not selected, and I appreciate that there will be a lot of discussion happening in other places about this ongoing process, so I do not wish to detain the House; I will be brief. However, I wish to make some points by way of giving notice of things that I do not think are going to go away as we chart our way through this in the next weeks and months.

First, although on the face of it these motions appear very similar—both are concerned with proxy voting—actually, in character and intent, they are quite distinct and different. The first, which deals with proxy voting for parental leave, is a matter of providing a facility to individual members in specific circumstances that they may or may not come across during their time in this place. The second, however, is a matter of the type of changes that we should make to how we function collectively in order to deal with a public health response to a global pandemic.

For the benefit of Sir Edward Leigh, who I do not think has quite got this, this debate is not just about trying to do the right thing for individual Members who may be ill or shielding; this is also about us as an institution trying to do the right thing and protect the rest of society from the actions that we take, because they have consequences, too. That is why it is important that we revisit how we operate in this place.

On the face of it, there appears to be a fairly major contradiction between the stance that the Government took yesterday—what they are imploring the public to do—and the rules that we apply to ourselves. Yesterday, the Prime Minister said to employees and employers, “You should work from home if you can do so.” It is not good enough for this Chamber to tell the general public that, but when MPs have the opportunity and the possibility of working from home, they choose not to do so by switching off the machine that allows remote participation. We do need to revisit this issue and make sure that the message is consistent.

We need to do three things. First, we of course need to go back to the system of remote voting. As the shadow Leader of the House said, it was simple and secure, but most of all it was safe and allowed us to vote effectively without coming into proximity with one another.

Secondly, we need to get rid of this ridiculous split, with some of our proceedings allowing virtual participation and some not. Frankly, I do not understand the distinction, so I do not expect the public to understand it. Were I not here tomorrow—Thursday—I could participate in business questions and fulfil my role by making a two or three-minute speech in the morning using my computer. I am down to speak in a debate in the afternoon, but I would be forbidden from taking part in that debate were I not here. That is wrong; we should have the opportunity to participate virtually in all our proceedings.

Finally, I implore the House leadership to be more open-minded and ambitious about how it approaches this topic. Instead of thinking about this as a matter of how we can, with second-hand iPads and dodgy broadband connections, try to communicate through the screens in the Chamber, let us be a little more sophisticated. Let us harness all the technology that is available to us, look at major centres of population throughout the United Kingdom and hire proper video-conferencing facilities that will allow Members to go to a place and be absolutely certain and secure that they can participate safely and remotely.

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley Chair, Procedure Committee, Chair, Procedure Committee 7:52 pm, 23rd September 2020

I, too, will attempt to keep my remarks short.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House for accepting most of the recommendations in my Committee’s report. We do support the motion on the Order Paper. Although the amendment was not selected, my right hon. Friend will have noted that it did not try to change the motion; it would merely have added to it something on other forms of voting.

I pay tribute to my predecessor, my hon. Friend Sir Charles Walker, because his incarnation of the Committee was the first to look at a version of proxy voting for parental leave. Had it not been for the work done by his Committee at that time, we would not be where we are now. I also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend Mrs Miller, who was the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee at the time and part of the team that pushed so hard to make sure that proxy voting for parental leave could be brought in. I reassure my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House that there was unanimous support for the recommendations on parental leave in our report, and we are grateful that the Government have taken most of those recommendations forward.

The Committee members do differ when it comes to proxy voting for coronavirus. I am afraid that the majority view—I will be clear that it was a majority view; not everybody on the Committee feels the same—was that the proxy system for coronavirus is substandard. The majority view was that it is a very unwieldy system and is possibly open to abuse—that point was made by some Committee members; indeed, my right hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh would have found friends in our debate on that—but it was also felt that it is simply unreliable and not robust. We know that the queuing is not properly socially distanced. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is right to say that that is a matter of individual responsibility, but it simply is not possible: we see perhaps 500 Members queuing up and, inevitably, there end up being logjams, delays and points at which people are too close to each other. People are worried and scared—not just for their own health but for the health of the staff of the House of Commons. If we do not have our staff here, we cannot operate.

The majority view of the Committee was that we had a robust system of voting. The remote voting system that we used on our phones worked. It works consistently in the other place, which has been using it, and it is quick and simple. I do not accept that Members would not attend this place; Members want to be here. We want to take part in Committees and we want to take part in proceedings. We want to be here and be part of it. Some simply cannot, but we can see that it is not possible for all of us to be here. We are limited to 50 in this Chamber, and many Members feel that they are putting their health at risk to take part in a Division. They may really want to be part of that, but they have not been able to take part in the debate because there simply is not space for them.

Photo of Andrew Griffith Andrew Griffith Conservative, Arundel and South Downs

As a member of the Committee, I would like to pay tribute to the chairmanship of my right hon. Friend. It is true, nevertheless, that we as a Committee were unable to reach consensus. We had a strong consensus—consensus I was proud to be part of—on the issue of parental leave, but we were not as a Committee able to reach consensus on the appropriate means of voting. I would just urge my colleagues on the Committee and the Leader of the House to ensure, as we continue to address this issue, that the full House has a chance to express its view. It is so profound that it is really not something I suspect we are likely to be able to reach full consensus on in the Committee.

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley Chair, Procedure Committee, Chair, Procedure Committee

I absolutely agree. The point of my amendment was to give the House an opportunity to have its say. I personally believe there is a majority now for a return to voting by phone, not because people do not want to participate, but because it is robust and sensible. It gave more time for people to be able to do their job as an MP, and it meant that we were the safest and most efficient Parliament. I have to say to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House that we were held up across the world as a Parliament leading on how to manage the pandemic and keep Parliament going, and it looked like a very retrograde step to move away from that.

Photo of Owen Thompson Owen Thompson SNP Whip

On that point, I can give as an example the fact that we had the Japanese Parliament talking to the Procedure Committee about the processes we had implemented. It was looking at what we had done, but during that process, we had to say, “We’re very sorry, but actually these leading processes that we implemented have since been turned off. They were great; however, we’re not using them anymore.” There are some Members who still cannot take part, but if we were to have such a vote it would be the first time all Members would actually be able to take part, because they were not able to do so last time.

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley Chair, Procedure Committee, Chair, Procedure Committee

Absolutely, and I would reflect that. I gave evidence to the Procedure and House Affairs Committee of the Canadian Parliament, and exactly the same points of view were put forward.

Another point about the system we have at the moment, with the large number of proxy votes, is that the power is held in the hands of the Whips. Hundreds of votes are held by the Whips. I know my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will say that a Member can give their proxy to anyone they wish, but that is not what has happened. Whether we like it or not, constitutionally, it is not perhaps the best look for this Parliament, and it is something that many right hon. and hon. Members are desperately uncomfortable about.

I want to be very clear that the moment we can go back to the Division Lobbies and use them in the traditional way, I will be the first person to request that we do so, but until we can do that—until we can vote safely in the Division Lobbies, in a way that is safe for our own health and that of the staff in this place—I ask my right hon. Friend to consider giving this House a chance to have another say on whether we want to return to remote voting.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough 7:58 pm, 23rd September 2020

Hon. Members may not know this, but in the 18th century Members used to send their servants to vote for them—they would mumble “Leigh” or whatever the name was. That is why we are not allowed to wear an overcoat as we walk through the Division Lobby.

I am afraid that human nature is innately lazy, and there is a reason why we vote in person. I say to Tommy Sheppard that, yes, the Government are encouraging solicitors to work from home, but this is not a solicitor’s office; this is the Parliament of the United Kingdom. We are elected by the people to come here and to be here—to be seen and to see.

With regard to the safety of Members, I agree that what we are doing is completely absurd. Here we are, totally socially distanced—I am not allowed to go just one step further towards my hon. Friend Virginia Crosbie—but then we wander through the Lobby, all crowded and chatting to each other. Is it beyond the bounds of possibility that we could have another voting terminal in the Lobby, or outside the Chamber, or in Westminster Hall? We could even have one in Portcullis House—at least it would still be in Parliament. People say that we are unsafe when voting, but there is a way of getting around it.

This whole issue of proxy voting just shows what happens when we make these reforms. I am afraid that, human nature being what it is, people would much rather be sitting at home or doing their gardening and then tapping on a computer to vote than making all the effort of coming down here. I say to the hon. Member for Edinburgh East—we know that large numbers of SNP Members are proxy voting—that of course it is a crashing bore to have to come all the way here on the plane from Edinburgh or Glasgow, taking three and a half hours. It takes me three and a half hours to get here from Lincolnshire, but I take the view that if I want to speak and take part, I should make the effort to come.

What if someone is genuinely ill and cannot be here? Again, I suspect that a lot of people who have proxy votes are not really genuinely ill—it is just very convenient to sit at home, appear on the screen up there and have their say without making the effort to make the journey. But if someone is genuinely ill and does not want to come, they do what we have always done—they go to the Whips and say, “Can I have a pair?” The advantage of that is that we have to give a reason, and sometimes they say yes and sometimes they say no. If they say no, we can sometimes ignore them, as I have done many times, or, if we want to preserve our careers, we can obey the instruction and make sure we turn up.

There is nothing wrong with pairing. We have the Whips here. It would be perfectly possible. We have always done it in the past. In the famous vote that Jim Callaghan lost by one vote, there was one Labour Member genuinely ill in hospital. Even then, we were allowed to bring people down here in ambulances and the Whips would check them in. But Jim Callaghan, being a gentleman, said, “No, I’m not going to take that Labour MP out of hospital to come here in an ambulance to be checked by the Whips to vote—he will be allowed to stay in hospital and die in peace.” He lost the vote, lost the Government and lost the general election. People did things properly, and we must ensure that we do things properly.

This is a zombie Parliament. These call lists are just terrible. The much derided Speaker Bercow, who everybody apparently now dislikes—I thought he was quite a good Speaker at the time—made sure that everybody got in. The Prime Minister was constantly coming here. Mr Cameron was constantly coming here, my right hon. Friend Mrs May was always coming here: we were questioning them and everybody got in. Now we have these call lists. Some people have been applying for Prime Minister’s Question Time for two years and have not got in once. This is giving too much power to the Government. It is scandalous that some Whips are going through the Division Lobbies wielding 50 votes. This is just letting the Government off the hook.

By the way, I am all in favour of parental leave. I was on the Procedure Committee and I voted it through. I remember that when my son was born on a Thursday, the Whips made me turn up here on the Monday. They were pretty tough. They are quite nice people now, the Whips. In those days, they were all ex-Army officers who had had a good war and had burnt faces from burning tanks and things. They were cruel and horrible. They made me turn up three days after my son was born. I am all in favour of parental leave, but it has to be tightly controlled.

I beg my right hon. Friend Karen Bradley: do not take this system too far. Let us recall what has happened in this period and go back to the traditional way of being here and voting in person.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke 8:03 pm, 23rd September 2020

I rise to very much support the motion and commend the Leader of the House for his statement.

This motion is all about improving the functioning of this place for the benefit of parliamentary democracy, as we have heard. But, as ever, there is a very careful balance to be struck, not because, as a body, we are resistant to change, but because the way Parliament works is more of an art than a science. Enabling more Members to participate is a very good thing, whether their physical presence here is curtailed for reasons of parenthood or pandemic. I agree with a lot of what my right hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh said, because we have to be clear that using a proxy is no substitute for being here in person. Voting is only one small part of what MPs do while they are here in the precincts of this place. I would go so far as to say that physical participation in debates and questions is absolutely more productive than participating virtually, although that is better than nothing at all.

I believe that we have lost a great deal of the depth of scrutiny, influence and spontaneity within this Parliament under the coronavirus restrictions and I, like my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough, feel that that is a very negative thing. In particular, the rigorous use of call lists, which seemed appealing, is now stifling a great deal of the scrutiny that we take for granted in this place, because it is the interaction between Members and Ministers inside and outside the Chamber that influences the scrutiny of the legislation we bring before Parliament. Parliament was designed to be interactive, and the use of technology is diminishing that. We need to be honest and acknowledge that proxy voting is not the same as being here, but that it is better than nothing at all.

Change does not happen here very often, but in the past six months we have seen a great deal of change, some of which we have not enjoyed at all. We feel that the application of proxy voting particularly for parental leave is something of a keeper and that we should continue with it, but the broader application of proxy voting should be dealt with with a great deal of trepidation.

I want to ask the Leader of the House whether making the use of proxy voting permanent for those with family obligations will be coupled with further consideration of other support for people in that position, particularly the support that they might get from the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. At the moment that is still somewhat based on conversations that people have in corridors rather than on a set of rules that have actually been agreed, and that makes it unfair.

We are elected first and foremost to be representatives of the people in our constituencies, but we are also custodians of this democratic process. The way this place runs, our culture and ethos and the way we evolve the procedures here are a serious responsibility, and I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend Karen Bradley, who does so much on this. We need to take this responsibility seriously. The motion tonight is proportionate. It is tested and it is welcome, but it is no replacement for people being here, and I very much hope that we will see people back in the Chamber in their full numbers as soon as we are possibly able to do that.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Conservative, Forest of Dean 8:07 pm, 23rd September 2020

I will endeavour to be brief, and to pick up a number of points that other Members have made. First, I support the motions on the Order Paper, and I welcome them. Perhaps I can be of help to my right hon. Friend Karen Bradley, the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, on the point that my right hon. Friend Andrea Leadsom made about coming back to the arrangements regarding other reasons not to be here. One of the things I can perhaps offer, as a former Chief Whip, is that these things are connected. For example, when someone is absent for parental reasons, the fact that they can now have a proxy vote actually makes it more challenging to enable other colleagues to be absent for other reasons, particularly ill health. That is because pairing involves colleagues from both sides of the House, and it was often those who were not here for maternity or paternity reasons who enabled other colleagues to be paired with them.

On the question of delay, I would counsel that if we are in this for the long haul, the Committee might wish to attend to that matter—maybe not to reach a conclusion but at least to look at it—earlier, and to see whether we need to address the point about people who are seriously ill earlier. Another point is that, culturally, pairing is not well understood outside the House. It means that when two people who are going to vote on opposite sides cannot be here, they effectively cancel each other out. Our voting is more visible now, however, because there are apps to enable people to see how we vote, so if we think that it is not really acceptable for someone who is very ill to just not vote, we need to put in place a mechanism whereby they can vote, so that people who are seriously ill are not required to turn up here in person. It may be that things have moved on and that, because we have made one set of changes, we need to make the other set of changes because they are more difficult to implement.

Let me pick up on the point that Tommy Sheppard made. It is not often that I defend members of the Scottish National party in the House, but I will defend those who are not here. In my experience, it is easier for many Scottish Members to get here by plane than it is for me to get here from the Forest of Dean—certainly in terms of the time that it takes. I do not believe that there is a significant number of Members in this House—I am afraid that I disagree with my right hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh on this point—who do not want to be here. In my experience, Members of Parliament work really hard to get into this House, and they want to be here. I certainly love my constituency and I love being at home, but I would not trade it for being in this place.

None the less, we do have to recognise the issues facing many of our colleagues—either because of their own health or because of their shielding responsibilities, or, as the Leader of the House mentioned, the variety of reasons around childcare. A parent may be in their place here, but if their child is in a bubble and a child in that bubble has coronavirus, that bubble will get sent home and that parent may not have access, particularly at short notice, to childcare. Someone will have to stay at home to look after their children, so they may not be able to get here. That will mean not that they are not dedicated, but that they are having to balance their responsibilities as a Member of Parliament and a parent, as many of our constituents have had to do during the pandemic. We need to recognise that if we want a diverse range of Members of Parliament, of different ages, different backgrounds, different financial requirements, and people who are parents, we need to ensure that they can all participate in this House as Members of Parliament. I think that what the hon. Gentleman said was perfectly sensible.

On remote voting, the Leader of the House and I could probably have a competition over who was most keen on in-person voting—I am not sure which of us would win that competition. I always champion in-person voting when people suggest that we should move to modern electronic mechanisms. That is because, certainly for members of the major parties—the Labour and Conservative parties—it is a fantastic opportunity for Back Benchers to engage with Ministers. I say to every Back Bencher that if they ever want to keep Ministers accountable and accessible, never move permanently to remote voting because they will never see a Minister in this place again. For constituents who wonder what the benefit is for them, I say that in-person voting is so valuable because we can then raise their issues directly with Ministers quickly and efficiently. When Ministers do not have their civil servants present, they can sometimes see the point of something without someone persuading them that the issue is not worth solving.

The whole point about that is that we can access people. The problem at the moment with the way t we have to vote is that we cannot just go and grab a Minister. If Members are to be properly socially distanced, they have to be 2 apart, or perhaps a little less if they are wearing a face mask, but a complex, difficult conversation is impossible in those circumstances. I am afraid, therefore, that I do agree with what is in the report.

From my experience, because Members want to use that opportunity to talk to each other, they are torn between socially distancing and creeping closer together. I do agree with what the hon. Member for Edinburgh East said: we need to set an example. Even if, individually, we try to set an example, it is not always possible when there are hundreds of colleagues getting very close. I am not saying that I am perfect at it, but sometimes I try to shoo people away because they are getting too close. It is difficult. As a fan of in-person voting, I think we need to think about setting a good example and looking at remote voting.

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley Chair, Procedure Committee, Chair, Procedure Committee

Not only is it not possible for a Member to find the Minister that they need to find in the queue in a socially distanced way, but they are not able to do so privately, because they are in a queue of hundreds of people from all different parties. With the best will in the world, even though I have great friends from all parts of the House, I may not want to discuss some issues in front of them.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Conservative, Forest of Dean

My right hon. Friend makes a very good point. All I ask the Leader of the House to think about is the fact that the big advantage of in-person voting—my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and I are in massive agreement on this point—is the access that Back Benchers get to Ministers. That is simply not deliverable in the present circumstances. Perhaps it is a little bit, but certainly not to the extent that it was. Regrettably, because I love in-person voting, I do think that during this period, which I fear will be lengthy, the Leader of the House should at least think about that and put in place some procedures that will mean that we can bring in remote voting if we need to. In particular, if we are forced to take more stringent measures—I hope we are not, but it is entirely possible that we are—we may need to look at it.

On remote voting, and then I will conclude to allow the Leader of the House to get in, the other point that struck me in the report was about areas of local lockdown. I agree with him that if someone is in an area of local lockdown, there are ancient privileges for Members of Parliament to be able to come here, but we also have to set an example. If someone is in an area where we are telling constituents that they must not go to work if they can work at home, although there may be reasons why Members of Parliament feel that they should be here, this would set a dreadful example and look very much like, “One rule for us and one rule for our constituents”. If a Member is in one of those local lockdown areas, as something like a fifth of the population are, we want them to do what they are encouraging their constituents to do, and in those circumstances, they cannot be here and participate. I think we need to think about how we deliver that, and those points are made powerfully in the report. Although I am a traditionalist on in-person voting, I urge the Leader of the House to look at it going forward.

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons 8:15 pm, 23rd September 2020

It is always a pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend Mr Harper. In the event that we went back to the level of lockdown that we had in April, of course the Government would reconsider the situation.

I note the point made by my right hon. Friend Mrs Miller about more support for families. That is very important. An interim chief executive of IPSA has just been appointed and I will ensure that it is taken up with him.

My right hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh goes back to the 18th century, which shows what a modernist he is, but it is of course true that overcoats are not meant to be worn so that people do not send somebody in their place to vote.

My right hon. Friend Karen Bradley, the distinguished Chairman of the Procedure Committee, made a number of points. It is really important that Members know that they do not have to give the proxy to Whips. That is fundamental; they can give it to anyone they like. And remote voting is not that robust because of the conditions mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough, in that wi-fi goes down.

I am so grateful for the speech by Tommy Sheppard. I am not sure if he is going to like this—it is part-flattery and it is part-disagreeing with him—but, when he is here, his points are made 10 times more effectively than when he is appearing up on the screen. I do not know whether, from my point of view, that is a good or a bad thing, because his points come across extremely well, but we are key workers as Members of Parliament, and therefore I think we need to be here to hold people like me to account, which is a thoroughly good thing,

I finish by thanking Valerie Vaz for her support on these motions.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

(1) That:

(a) the Resolution of 28 January 2019 (Proxy Voting (Implementation)), as amended on 16 January and 20 July 2020,

(b) the Resolution of 4 June 2020 (Proxy Voting (Extension)), as amended on 10 June 2020, be rescinded.

(2) That the following Standing Order be made:

VOTING BY PROXY

(1) A Member eligible under paragraph (2) may arrange for their vote to be cast by one other Member acting as a proxy (a proxy vote) under a scheme drawn up by the Speaker in accordance with this order and published by him.

(2) A Member is eligible for a proxy vote by reason of absence from the precincts of the House for childbirth or care of an infant or newly adopted child, subject to the conditions set out in the scheme published under paragraph (1) of this order.

(3) A proxy vote may be cast:

(a) in any division, including a deferred division, in the House, in Committee of the whole House, or in any legislative grand committee, save as provided in paragraph (4) below; and

(b) in a ballot cast in an election under Standing Order No. 1B (Election of Speaker by secret ballot), Standing Order No. 2A (Election of the Deputy Speakers), Standing Order No. 122B (Election of select committee chairs) and Backbench Business Committee">Standing Order No. 122D (Election of Chair of the Backbench Business Committee).

(4) No proxy vote shall be reckoned in the numbers participating in a division for the purposes of (a) Standing Order No. 41(1) (Quorum), and (b) Majority for closure or for proposal of question">Standing Order No. 37 (Majority for closure or for proposal of question).

(5) (a) A proxy vote may be cast only if the Speaker has certified that the Member for whom the vote is to be cast is eligible under the terms of this order.

(b) The Speaker shall cause that certificate, including the name of the Member nominated as a proxy, to be entered in the Votes and Proceedings no later than the sitting day on which it takes effect.

(6) A vote cast by a proxy shall be clearly indicated as such in the division lists published under the authority of the House.

(7) A Member is also eligible for a proxy vote by reason of absence from the precincts of the House in circumstances where there have been complications relating to childbirth; and the Speaker may make appropriate provision for the exercise of a proxy vote in such circumstances in the scheme drawn up under paragraph (1) above.