Voting by Proxy (Amendment and Extension)

– in the House of Commons at 4:43 pm on 12 October 2022.

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[Relevant documents: First Report of the Procedure Committee, Proxy voting and the presence of babies in the Chamber and Westminster Hall, HC 383; and the Government Response.]

Photo of Penny Mordaunt Penny Mordaunt Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons 5:07, 12 October 2022

I beg to move,

That:

(1) this House

(a) believes that Members experiencing serious long-term illness or injury should be entitled, but not required, to discharge their responsibilities to vote in this House by proxy, under a pilot scheme issued by the Speaker and reviewed by the Procedure Committee;

(b) directs the Speaker to amend the scheme governing the operation of proxy voting in accordance with paragraphs 1-40 of the First Report of the Procedure Committee, HC 383, on Proxy voting and the presence of babies in the Chamber and Westminster Hall; and

(c) directs the Procedure Committee to review the operation of the temporary amendment to Standing Order No. 39A no later than 17 March 2023.

(2) the following amendments to Standing Order No. 39A (Voting by proxy) be made:

(a) in paragraph 2, delete “absence from the precincts of the House for”;

(b) in paragraph 2, delete “childbirth or care of an infant or newly adopted child” and insert—

“(a) childbirth;

(b) care of an infant or newly adopted child; and

(c) complications relating to childbirth, miscarriage or baby loss”; and

(c) delete paragraph 7.

(3) the following amendment to Standing Order No. 39A (Voting by proxy) be made, and have effect from 17 October until 30 April 2023: in paragraph (2) insert “(d) serious long-term illness or injury”.

It is a pleasure to open this debate on the proposals put forward by the Procedure Committee in its first report of this Session. This is a House matter that the Government have been very happy to facilitate time for so that Members can consider and debate the reforms in that report and associated changes proposed to the Standing Orders. The House has been asked to consider the expansion of the proxy voting scheme to cover long-term illness or serious injury under a pilot scheme lasting from 17 October 2022 to 30 April 2023, with a review to be completed by the Procedure Committee by 17 March 2023.

I think that all Members of the House will agree that Members should no longer hear the words “Could you have your chemo on another day?”, “We will send an ambulance for you so you can vote”, or “Thank you so much for delaying your c-section to vote in this critical debate.”

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Conservative, East Yorkshire

On reflection, does my right hon. Friend not think that it might be better to allow a longer period of time to elapse so that a fuller evaluation can take place, before the Procedure Committee is invited to make a further decision?

Photo of Penny Mordaunt Penny Mordaunt Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons

We want to get on with these measures. There has been careful consideration from a number of Committees in arriving at them. We want to get cracking with them, but the evaluation will be a matter for the Committee.

In addition, if agreed, this motion will make changes to the existing proxy voting arrangements by removing the bar on participation in proceedings while in possession of a proxy vote; providing equal rights in relation to proxy voting for parental absence for Members who are biological fathers, the partner of a person giving birth or an adoptive parent; and incorporating complications relating to childbirth into the main body of the Standing Order.

Any changes to the system of voting in the House of Commons should always be given careful consideration. I am grateful to the Procedure Committee and its Chair, my right hon. Friend Karen Bradley, for their work on this issue over recent years.

In February 2018, the House agreed that MPs

“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.”

That was followed by the agreement of a pilot scheme in January 2019 that was made permanent in September 2020. Since then, we have taken further important steps to meet the needs of new mothers, fathers and adoptive parents. In January 2021, the House endorsed a Government-proposed Standing Order change to expand the scheme to allow MPs who have had a baby or adopted a child to be entitled, but not required, to cast votes in the House by proxy. That system is currently in place.

Members will remember that the scheme was expanded for reasons of the pandemic for long periods in 2020 to good effect. When the system of proxy voting for baby leave was introduced, the House discussed the scope of the scheme in great detail. It was felt, on balance, that the anonymity of slipping and pairing was preferable for Members who were ill or had caring responsibilities, rather than declaring personal circumstances to qualify for a proxy vote during a difficult time. I understand that some Members will retain that view. That is why I agree with the Procedure Committee that the expansion of the proxy voting scheme should not affect the pairing and nodding-through mechanisms, which will remain available to Members.

Pairing has been, and continues to be, a valuable practice that allows Members to be absent from votes, whether that is as a result of ill health or other reasons. The Whips Offices on both sides of the House work hard to ensure that the system functions as well as possible for individual Members.

Nevertheless, since the earlier conversations about the scope of the scheme, there have been growing calls for expanded proxy voting to include those suffering from serious illness or long-term medical health conditions. That was the overwhelming evidence in the Procedure Committee’s inquiry, and the Government have a great deal of sympathy with Members in that position.

The Government welcome the Procedure Committee’s consideration of the evidence relating to the expansion of the scheme. In establishing a pilot to trial the expansion of the proxy voting scheme, the House would be recognising the importance of creating a more inclusive culture and working environment in Parliament and continuing the progress made in this area.

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

I hope, as I think we all do, that the pilot scheme will become a reality in its entirety, because society is changing. There is maternal leave and paternal leave, and other businesses understand that special conditions can be in place for people who are disabled. We as the mother of Parliaments—I say that collectively—should also move with modern changes in society and understand that we must have a workplace that endorses all the things that happen to our constituents out there in Strangford and elsewhere.

Photo of Penny Mordaunt Penny Mordaunt Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. I know that many Members of the House gave evidence to the inquiry. This is not about the merits of those individual cases but, clearly, this needs to be trialled and we want to ensure that that is brought forward as swiftly as possible.

It is important that all Members of this House can participate in our votes. Divisions here change people’s lives across the country, so the legitimacy of the system must be above reproach to ensure that we maintain the full confidence of our constituents. Proxy voting meets that test. It has worked well for Members who are new mothers or fathers, allowing them to continue to serve their constituents while dealing with their family obligations. We have confidence that extending its scope under these pilot arrangements will work well.

I do not wish to detain the House for too long. However, the motion proposes one or two other changes that hon. Members will wish to consider carefully. I am grateful to the House authorities for providing an explanatory note ahead of the debate.

I wish briefly to cover one proposed change. The motion removes the requirement that Members be absent from the House to exercise their proxy vote. That follows representations from Members who might wish, for example, to participate in an urgent question or statement for which the suspension of a proxy vote with notice is impossible. The House will note the concerns raised both by the Government and by the Procedure Committee that this measure is likely to be of most benefit to Members who are based relatively close to London, and that it could introduce pressure on Members to participate in proceedings while on leave for parental duties or because of matters of ill health.

As the Committee points out:

“Absence from the Estate serves a dual purpose: it explains why a Member is able to vote by proxy but also affords a degree of protection to Members taking care of very young children.”

Members will be able to make use of proxy votes on a voluntary basis and in the same spirit. It will be entirely voluntary, and it will be for each Member to determine whether they wish to participate in a debate at short notice. I assure Members that, in introducing this change, the Government do not envisage any change to the role of MPs, or how they perform in this place their duty to their constituents. Nevertheless, there may be circumstances in which this change will serve a helpful purpose by enabling Members to participate in proceedings without suspending their proxy. Of course, Members should not attempt to vote in person in those circumstances.

The Government believe that a pilot scheme in which the effect of this expansion is carefully measured is a sensible first step, as it is imperative that the voting process remains robust and transparent and that the personal accountability of each Member’s vote is not lost. The review conducted by the Procedure Committee will be essential in determining whether the changes to the scheme are made permanent.

As Members of this House, we all have a duty to ensure that Parliament is inclusive for all Members and their circumstances, be they parental responsibilities or long-term illness, which the proposed pilot scheme would cover. The Procedure Committee found that the

“overwhelming balance of evidence…was in favour of an extension of proxy voting” to include those areas. Ultimately, it is for the House to consider whether it thinks it right that the proxy voting system be expanded. For my part, I hope that the House will support the Procedure Committee’s recommendations. I commend the motion to the House.

Photo of Thangam Debbonaire Thangam Debbonaire Shadow Leader of the House of Commons 5:17, 12 October 2022

I thank the Leader of the House for moving this important motion. It is disappointing that we had to wait until after the summer recess for this debate; I can only hope that it has inspired her to press ahead with other important matters of House business such as the Members’ code of conduct, which we will be partially debating next Tuesday—but that is for another time.

I thank Karen Bradley, her Committee and its staff for doing such excellent work in pressing on with the issue and pursuing it so determinedly, and for the sensitive way in which they conducted their inquiries. I have already welcomed the publication of their report, read it carefully and noted its recommendations. The Committee clearly received an

“overwhelming balance of evidence…in favour of proxy voting being extended to include Members suffering from…long-term illness or injury.”

I am happy to assure the right hon. Lady that she has my full support in introducing this pilot scheme.

I also pay tribute to the hon. Members for East Dunbartonshire (Amy Callaghan) and for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), who both gave very personal evidence to the Committee about the difficult challenges that they faced with long-term illness. We all know at least one colleague who, despite being seriously unwell, has wanted to drag themselves in for a vote and carry out their most basic duty as a Member of this House at a time when it may have been unwise to do so.

I wish also to put on record my support for the counter to that. We also know of the really supportive work done by the Whips Offices. I was well supported by my Whip throughout the time that I was having treatment, so I was able to stay away and not have to think about it. That is a very personal choice and I fully recognise that there will be Members with different views and different needs, but I want to make it clear that I am glad that the option of nodding through and pairing remains, and that this measure is therefore optional.

Parliament ought to be a model workplace at the forefront of rights at work and accessibility. I think that the motion strikes the right balance: it is proportionate and it is welcome.

As the Women and Equalities Committee has recommended, addressing outdated, entrenched, gendered stereotypes about childcare is essential. Members should have the option to take shared leave, and I am glad that today’s motion could resolve that.

I also want to put on record my support for the decoupling of a proxy vote from restrictions on participating in other parliamentary proceedings. The Committee understood and recognised the need for “keeping-in-touch days”, as they may be called. Some Members will want, and feel able to, come in occasionally to make an intervention, but will not necessarily feel able to stay physically for votes or return the next day. I commend the Committee for recognising the benefits of such flexibility. I know that that range of choices will aid recovery and improve wellbeing, as, of course, will “nodding through” and pairing.

I am aware of the concern that has been raised over privacy for Members, which is, perhaps, why I am referring again to “nodding through” and pairing. There will be Members who want to make that choice for that reason. I was reassured to see no proposed changes in the mechanisms that exist as political agreements between Whips Offices, because respect for privacy is important. When they wish to do so, Members should be able to—and, under this proposed arrangement, they can—continue to choose that more discreet option.

I have a few questions for the Leader of the House, and possibly for the Chair of the Procedure Committee as well. Can the Leader of the House tell us what other considerations there have been about maintaining privacy for Members if that is what they wish? Can she, or perhaps the Chair of the Procedure Committee, give us a bit more detail about how the scheme might work in practice? What thresholds have been discussed in relation to the severity of illness or injury that will qualify a Member for a proxy vote?

Has thought been given to the possibility that the pilot may have to be extended if it is not used for the very legitimate possible reason that Members simply do not need it during the six months that we have allocated? I hope that no Members will need it, but they may, and it may be for a happy reason. There may be all sorts of reasons unconnected with illness. If Members do need it because of illness, we will be able to test the parameters of the pilot, but if they do not, I suggest that we will need to extend it. It would be wrong for the scheme to be dismissed because of low take-up, or not to go through some of the complications that may arise if we do not test it in practice.

Given that this is a pilot scheme, may I ask whether the Procedure Committee will have time to assess the way in which it works? Can the Leader of the House update us on her discussions with the Chair of the Procedure Committee about how the pilot will be assessed? What criteria will be used, and will this involve an assessment of Members who proactively do not want to be part of the scheme, but want their considerations to be heard?

This pilot of a very well-considered proposal has come at the right time. In fact, we could all probably say that its time was probably last year or the year before, but I am glad to be here at this point, when we can say that we are taking another step forward towards making our Parliament truly one in which all can serve, regardless of health, disability or childbirth status.

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley Chair, Procedure Committee, Chair, Procedure Committee 5:22, 12 October 2022

Let me start by thanking my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House for finding time for the debate. It is very welcome that time is provided in the House for us to debate these matters properly. A habit had been developing of making such debates “nod or nothing”, which did not give Members an opportunity to have their say about the important matters which govern how we best represent our constituents.

As my right hon. Friend said in her opening remarks, proxy voting is a relatively new procedure for the House. It was initially introduced in 2018, but, as my right hon. Friend said, it was in May 2019 that that the pilot scheme for proxy voting during baby leave was introduced following a report from our predecessor Committee, chaired by my hon. Friend Sir Charles Walker. The current Committee, which I now chair, reviewed the pilot scheme and produced a report in September 2020, making the baby leave scheme permanent.

During that process, we were acutely aware of calls to extend proxy voting to other areas, but we wanted to ensure that the review focused on the way in which the proxy scheme worked for those on baby leave—a very “known” event which is very public. People are very aware that their Members of Parliament, or their spouses, are having babies. I think that that has improved this place, and made it a much more welcoming environment for new parents.

At the time we issued our report in September 2020 we were in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, and at that same time the House agreed that proxy voting should be extended for matters of illness or being unable to attend this place due to the coronavirus. At that point, it was a widely used measure. For very good reasons, Members were not expected to be in the Division Lobby. That was absolutely right, because it would not have been a safe place for them. A very difficult process of voting with social distancing was introduced, and it was quite right that proxy votes were available to pretty much anyone who wished to use them by the end of the pandemic. I think there was a point when only about 14 Members had not taken up a proxy vote.

I want to reassure any Members who are concerned that we are going to start down that route again that that is not what this scheme envisages. This will be a much more restrictive scheme which we do not envisage being used by more than a small number of Members at any one time. However, it was clear from all the evidence that we took that, for those Members who need it, the scheme will be the most valuable way to enable them to represent their constituents.

I see that Amy Callaghan is here, and I know she is going to contribute to the debate at some point. Hers was one of the most overwhelming pieces of evidence given to the Committee. She said that representing our constituents and being able to have our votes recorded was an incredibly important part of the democratic process, and that it cannot be right in a modern Parliament that wants to give open access to everybody if Members feel unable to do that or if they feel pressured to put their health in jeopardy in order to come into this place and vote.

I am pleased that the Government have tabled this motion. I want to make a point about confidentiality, because that is something that I am nervous about. I am not going to say that I am not concerned about it. We toyed with this issue on the Committee: how can we ensure that someone going through a deeply personal and private experience can have the confidentiality they need when taking up this scheme? It is clear that we have to ensure that there is transparency to constituents around voting, but that transparency could impact on people’s personal situations.

The first point is that nobody needs to take up the opportunity. If Members do not wish to take a proxy vote, they do not have to do so. I am pleased that pairing will still be available, even though it relies on trust and on the relations between the usual channels working. It is an important part of the way we conduct our business. For any Member who is away for just a short amount of time, pairing is a good way to deal with these matters. We heard evidence that if a Member was unable to attend for a few weeks, their constituents did not notice, but there was strong evidence that after a certain period of time, they did start to notice that their Member was not voting. It is a matter for each of us how we represent our constituents and what we are prepared to say in the public domain, but the evidence we received from the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire, my hon. Friend Tracey Crouch and many others who had gone through or were going through long-term medical conditions was overwhelming: they said that the availability of this option, for those who wished to take it, was incredibly important. So I am pleased that that is going to be the case.

Thangam Debbonaire asked about the consideration given by the Committee to eligibility—I feel like I am answering a statement here. We came to the view that a scheme should be designed to allow the Speaker the final say on the provision of medical evidence for someone needing to take time away from this place in order to get the treatment they need and have the best chance of recovery from whatever their condition may be. It should be noted that the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority allows Members of Parliament an additional budget for staff if they are away for three months or more. I would have thought that is a very good example, as three months feels about the right amount of leave needed to qualify for a proxy. Clearly, it will be on a case-by-case basis. We did not want to dictate which conditions qualify and which do not, but we were keen to make sure there is flexibility for Mr Speaker.

The hon. Lady also asked about time for the review, and my right hon. Friend Sir Greg Knight, who is a previous Chair of the Procedure Committee—I served under him—is right. I am slightly concerned about the timeframe for the review, because I would not want so few Members to take up these proxies that we do not have evidence on which to operate. The Leader of the House is extraordinarily pragmatic and helpful, and I am sure she will work with me if it is felt that the pilot needs to be extended slightly before the Committee reviews it. We will, of course, find time for whatever review is required.

Finally, we deliberately decoupled any parliamentary absence from the baby leave proxy when it was introduced, so that no new parent felt pressured to come to this place. They were allowed to have proper time with their newborn, in the way that all new parents should have, but we learned during coronavirus that there are many occasions when it is important for Members to be able to contribute to debates and then to exercise their vote via proxy, both for keeping in touch and for recovery. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford that being able to come in for a few days at a time, to be able to take part in debates while still receiving treatment, and still to be able to go home and recover, is incredibly important.

I finish by thanking the other members of the Procedure Committee and my fantastic Clerks, who worked incredibly hard on this report. Without them, we would not have had the superb report that is before the House today. I fully support the motion, and I hope the House will agree to it unanimously.

Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow SNP Spokesperson (COP26) 5:32, 12 October 2022

I thank the Leader of the House for moving this motion.

This appears to be one of those rare and happy occasions when agreement breaks out across this place, so I do not propose to speak for very long. I am conscious that many colleagues have been involved in exploring these issues in great detail for some time, and they will want to speak, so I will keep my remarks brief.

I begin by paying tribute to all the Clerks, as the convener of the Procedure Committee, Karen Bradley, mentioned, and all the Members who contributed to this report, through either their work or their evidence. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend Amy Callaghan for her tireless and determined work on this issue, and for her willingness to draw on her own very challenging experiences of serious illness to advocate for these important changes to this place’s voting schemes.

The SNP firmly believes that politics and democracy belong to everyone, and we are committed to Parliaments being as open as possible. The Scottish Parliament is currently conducting an inquiry, launched by Holyrood’s presiding officer, into parliamentary procedures and practices, and we look forward to its results. We welcome the progress made in this motion. It makes politics and Parliament more accessible to everyone, which can only be a good thing.

It was in September 2020 that this House agreed to make permanent arrangements for proxy voting for MPs who are absent from Westminster because of childbirth or caring for an infant or newly adopted child. It is certainly more than time for this to be extended to cover Members with serious long-term illness or injury. The case for extending the scheme was already strong before covid-19, but it is even clearer now, in our post-pandemic society, that as other industries adapt and modernise their work patterns and practices, the time has come for this place to do likewise.

As the Australian academic Dr Sonia Palmieri comments in the report,

“the changing membership of Parliaments and wider changes in society created a drive for greater flexibility in order to create greater productivity and diversity.”

Our Parliaments must reflect that. The overwhelming balance of evidence heard by the Procedure Committee was in favour of an extension of proxy voting to include serious long-term illness or injury. Some Members have touched on how the pairing scheme can work well in the case of short-term illness or injury, such as a bad bout of flu. However, pairing disenfranchises two Members and it is also difficult to explain this somewhat opaque system to constituents. Proxy voting is generally simpler and more democratic, and I have confidence that the protections suggested will protect confidentiality adequately and appropriately. We need to ensure that Members advised by their doctor to take a prolonged period off have better accessibility to still being able to represent their constituents. Pairing will still be available to those who prefer it, and will continue to be available to those with short-term illnesses or injuries.

Constituents should not be disenfranchised because their Member of Parliament has a long-term medical condition, a disability, caring responsibilities for an infant or newly adopted child, or complications relating to childbirth, miscarriage or baby loss. Furthermore, I was sorry to read that Members taking long-term absences have highlighted the abuse they have received on social media for missing votes through no fault of their own, because there was no system in place to use their vote.

I should state that I also support the Women and Equalities Committee’s call for biological fathers to have an equal opportunity to take advantage of the proxy voting scheme. It is important we do not entrench gendered stereotypes about childcare, and I hope the House will return to this in the future. I also continue to favour the continuation of the electronic voting system introduced during the pandemic. Clearly, it is a step too far at this stage, but I hope that we will be able to come back to it.

I will leave it there, but I commend the progress made towards this pilot. It respects the needs of constituents and Members. As the academic Professor Sarah Childs from the University of Edinburgh noted in her contribution to the Committee’s inquiry, the principle of presenting

“‘role model’ inclusive workplace best practice, setting the standard at home and abroad” is an important function for any Parliament. There is more to be done on accessibility, as I have mentioned. The UK still ranks very poorly on maternity provision, and I ask the House to note that the Scottish Parliament allows MSPs to take their babies into its debating Chamber, as it is considered essential that parents with babies are able to be fully involved in the business of Parliament, which includes the Chamber, However, I am sure that is something this House will return to in the future, and I really commend the report and all the work put into it. This is a good day for the House.

Photo of James Sunderland James Sunderland Chair, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, Chair, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill 5:37, 12 October 2022

As a proud member of the Procedure Committee, I rise to support the motion and to commend the excellent work that the Chairman does. The Clerks and staff are excellent, and we have seen her contribution and those of all the members in the report.

When I became a Member of Parliament in 2019, I was most intrigued from day one by the comparisons between the institutions in which I had served. As a military man for 27 years, I was proud to serve an organisation that got the job done. It was very efficient and slick. People knew their place and it was very output-focused. Coming to Westminster, I was struck straightaway by just how quirky and unique this place is, with the obsession with standard operating procedures, dogma and process. It has baffled me to this day, three years on, that we are not more efficient here in how we work. Adjusting to what one might call “antiquity” was not necessarily easy for me, which is probably why I joined the Procedure Committee, because I felt as though I could add some value to what we were doing. Today’s motion is a classic example of where we can add some value.

Parliamentarians should, by nature, be considering ways of becoming more relevant, entering the 21st century and bringing Parliament to the fore in terms of modern ways of working. I completely agree with the shadow Leader of the House that this is about modern ways of working to benefit any modern employer. We are and we should be modern employees. We are adults and we are paid to do a job; we serve our constituents. At least give us a say on how we do that business.

When we consider what an MP actually does, we see that the roles and responsibilities are huge. They are vast—we work around the clock, we work really hard and we believe in what we are doing—but if we analyse it and strip it down, the only non-discretionary thing that we have to do is voting. We have to come here and vote on motions and legislation, which is what our constituents expect us to do, so why would we not make that most fundamental priority fit for purpose? Why, as elected Members of Parliament, would we not make it easier for ourselves to do that? Why would we not do what is necessary to help ourselves in that important task?

So in a nutshell, it is absolutely right that we support the motion today and that we consider extending proxy voting. In my view, it is crazy that Members of Parliament—adults who are ill or injured, who are caring for loved ones at home, with the most desperate, compassionate circumstances, or who are similarly indisposed—cannot register a vote without physically being here. Those who were here before 2019 may recall the scenes of one particular Member being wheeled through the voting Lobby in a wheelchair, suffering from a brain tumour. It is absolutely outrageous that we demean ourselves and what we do here by forcing that to happen.

This is also about childbirth and complications arising from childbirth, and about maternity and paternity leave, and there are many other examples of where we could and should extend proxy voting. We did electronic voting during the pandemic, and my word, it worked so effectively, didn’t it? Why would we not be able to exercise a vote by electronic means? I understand why that is not with us now and why it is necessary to be here in person, and I am a great fan of that, but it was so easy to vote in 2020 using our phones, so why should it not be as easy for us all to vote in the same way or via alternative means if there is a legitimate reason why we cannot physically be here?

So should we remove the bar to participation in proceedings while in possession of a proxy vote? Yes. Should we incorporate

“complications relating to childbirth, miscarriage or baby loss” into the body of the Standing Order? Yes. And should we temporarily allow Members experiencing long-term illness or injury to use a proxy vote? Absolutely, yes. This is what the military might call a no-brainer: it has to happen. Of course, as we heard earlier from the Chair, the devil is in the detail, and there will be work to define the exact qualifying criteria for a proxy vote. That will come from the pilot and through trial and error, but there is no question but that this is the right thing to do.

Finally, I commend to the House the work of the Procedure Committee more widely. It is an often forgotten Committee, but one that had real utility during the pandemic, in ensuring that we could continue working in that awful, difficult circumstance. Of course, we must challenge dogma and orthodoxy. We are not here to stand still as parliamentarians. We are here to force the agenda, move forward and make sure that this place is fit for purpose. Parliament must be relevant. I therefore look forward to many more such motions as we go forward.

Photo of Amy Callaghan Amy Callaghan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Pensions and Inter-Generational) 5:43, 12 October 2022

I thank the Leader of the House for bringing this motion forward today.

“I’m not broken;
Westminster is.”

I first uttered those words nine months ago, having launched a campaign to introduce the very measures that we are debating. They are measures to benefit our constituents, because let us be clear: they are the ones disadvantaged when their Member of Parliament cannot vote on their behalf. I must say that seeing three Leaders of the House over the duration of my campaign and the Procedure Committee’s inquiry really gave my campaign slogan a bit more credibility than I was initially hoping for. This place is broken; this place is exclusive; this place must enact more reforms. But today we can start to change that. Today, almost exactly two years since I walked out the door of the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow, we are starting to make this place just a bit more progressive. We can make this small but mighty change that will see no constituent disenfranchised due to the ill health of an elected Member.

I did not choose to fall ill; no one does. I did not choose four months of hospital stay and life-saving surgery, and I did not choose to live my life with a disability. It has been a hell of a long journey back to this place, but I would do it all again, because representing the people of East Dunbartonshire is an absolute privilege. It should not have to be this difficult. At a time when I needed my workplace to show compassion and understanding, the procedures were not there. This place legislates for equality but could not provide it for its own elected Members.

But this is not about me. If this is the struggle that I and many others across this House have faced, I shudder to think what rogue employers are doing to our constituents the length and breadth of these four nations; to people who just need some understanding and time as they recover from ill health. This place sets the tone for a society that enables those who are fully able and further restricts the vulnerable. Let us change that today.

This place can be so much more. Irrespective of politics and the constitution, this place should be a force for good. This place should act with courtesy, respect, equality and inclusivity—hallmarks of how we want our society to function, from the Commons to our communities. It is our communities that look to us to provide. We are servants of the public. Our constituents—the people of East Dunbartonshire—should look to this place for examples of good practice. Their voices should never be silenced.

Voting by proxy, promoting inclusivity and providing adjustments for those with a disability gives every workplace across these four nations the standard to strive towards. I am particularly grateful that, under this scheme, proxy voting does not hinder participation. I discussed this in my evidence to the Committee and also read it from others. This is what a phased return to work should look like and this will be a shining example to people across our constituencies.

The former Leader of the House, Mark Spencer, gave me his time and let me nip his ear off on numerous occasions about this issue, and for that I am incredibly grateful. I also welcome the new Leader of the House to her role and wish her well. The issue of proxy voting has always been about people, not politics, and I would be very happy to meet her to talk about my experiences and how we can make this place better for future generations. My deep thanks go to the Chair of the Procedure Committee, Karen Bradley. Lastly, I give heartfelt thanks to Mr Speaker for his unwavering support. He was generous with his time and advice and he gave me reassurance that the House was taking this issue seriously and that we absolutely had to get it right.

It is not lost on me that I have pushed boundaries and made some people feel uncomfortable, but I make no apologies for that. Disability, accessibility and making this place more inclusive sometimes means having awkward conversations. I hope that, after this debate, I feel proud and reassured that the next Amy Callaghan—am I allowed to say that?—will not have this battle on their hands. Let us make this a start: the start of a process of change where this place can become a beacon of light, shining by way of promoting equality for people right across our communities, and becoming the example of an inclusive Parliament.

When I walk out of the Chamber for the last time, I hope to do so proudly, leaving this place in a better state than when I joined it. With everyone’s help today, we can begin that process. Madam Deputy Speaker, I am not broken, and today Westminster might just get a wee bit better.

Photo of Patrick Grady Patrick Grady Scottish National Party, Glasgow North 5:48, 12 October 2022

I think that there is only one Amy Callaghan, and the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire has just proven that with one of the most eloquent speeches that many of us will have heard in this House. I congratulate her immensely on everything that she has achieved.

I think the hon. Member alluded to the point that, if we started from scratch, we would not invent the current system for voting in Divisions in this House. Crowding into Lobbies to queue up for an individual headcount is a colossal waste of time and resources.

The card reader system has marginally improved things, but we still waste hours, if not days, each year simply queuing up to vote. Anything that improves the experience and accessibility of voting in Divisions, however marginal, is to be welcomed.

During the pandemic, the then Leader of the House—now, quite remarkably, the Business Secretary—made great play of the historic and

“absolute, unequivocal constitutional right of Members to attend Parliament”,—[Official Report, 16 December 2021; Vol. 705, c. 1172.]

which, he repeatedly reminded us, dates back to at least 1340. Of course he was correct: we are privileged to have an absolute right to attend Parliament.

I completely agree with James Sunderland that, ultimately, the purpose of attending is first and foremost to vote. We have an absolute right to vote in this House, but we do not have an absolute right to speak. We can do our best to get on the Order Paper or to catch the Speaker’s eye, but there is rarely, if ever, an absolute guarantee of being called to speak, so ultimately it is through voting that we can be certain of exercising our mandates to represent our constituents.

However, there are times when attending Parliament is difficult, if not impossible. The House eventually recognised that, with a system of proxy votes for baby leave. Even in a few short years, that experience has been overwhelmingly positive and has evolved and developed. Anyone who would suggest rolling it back would find very little appetite at all for doing so.

Extending proxy votes to Members in other unavoidable situations that make attendance difficult is the natural next step. The Procedure Committee heard many important personal examples, and we have just heard one, incredibly powerfully, on the Floor of the Chamber. The broad consensus for today’s motion is to be welcomed, as is everything in the Procedure Committee’s report. I echo other Members of the Committee in thanking the Clerks for their outstanding work, as always, in assisting with its production.

Having served on the Committee from 2015 to 2017, it has been a fascinating experience to return to it in this Parliament. I agree with the Chair that perhaps there will be a little flexibility to let the pilot scheme breathe, given the delays in getting this motion to the Floor of the House in the first place, but I slightly disagree with her when I say that, in reviewing the operation of the scheme, I hope we can consider whether there is room to go further or do things a little bit differently.

The “proxies for all” system that existed during the pandemic operated incredibly successfully and removed any question of what the reason was, what the qualifications were or why people had to be absent at any given time. It also remained voluntary throughout the pandemic. Members did not have to sign up for a proxy vote; they could attend if they wanted to, or make an arrangement for pairing, or to have a slip or to be nodded through, using the other mechanisms that exist.

It is worth exploring how the system might evolve, and that includes looking again at remote voting, because it worked extremely well and ultimately that is where the future of a modern, 21st-century Parliament should lie.

Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Treasury - Chief Secretary)

Does my hon. Friend share my surprise and puzzlement that most people are not allowed to have a vote counted if they do not physically go through the Lobby, but there is absolutely no requirement on us to have listened to a single word of the debate? We do not need to know what it is we are voting on, as long as we turn up. Does he understand why my constituents, and possibly his, think that that in itself is something strange?

Photo of Patrick Grady Patrick Grady Scottish National Party, Glasgow North

Yes, my hon. Friend makes a good point. The Chamber is maybe not quite as full as it ought to be for a debate of this importance, but I am sure that other hon. Members, wherever they might be, are following our proceedings live—as no doubt are the many thousands of people tuning in to the live stream and to BBC coverage and so on. There are a lot of different ways now to engage with parliamentary proceedings, both for members of the public and for those of us who, for whatever length of time, are Members of Parliament.

We only have to look at the Scottish Parliament to see how, when it was first set up 20 years ago, it went out of its way to become that kind of modern exemplar, adopting fixed decision times and electronic voting. Similar systems are in place in devolved legislatures and, indeed, local council chambers across these islands. In Holyrood they have continued to use remote voting since the pandemic, which is of huge assistance to Members of the Scottish Parliament who have remote constituencies, caring responsibilities or other kinds of accessibility requirements.

If Parliament—any Parliament, including the future independent Parliament of Scotland—is to be inclusive and truly representative of our modern and diverse society, then participation for its elected Members must be as straightforward and as intelligible to the outside observer as possible. Proxy voting means that Members are not forced into an opaque pairing system or the nonsense of nodding through, which is essentially a proxy voting system but means that Members—I have experienced this as I have had to nod people through in the past—have to stay somewhere else on the estate but are excused from having to go through the Lobbies. That does not help people who have difficult conditions for which they should really be at home recuperating and regaining their strength. The extension of the scheme will allow constituents to be represented even when a Member is indisposed through no fault of their own.

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

I thank the hon. Gentleman, who is a valuable member of the Committee. I want to reassure him that many people who are not here are watching the debate. My hon. Friend Theo Clarke, who is availing herself of the proxy vote for baby leave, has just texted me to say how pleased she is that the debate is happening and how much she wants the extension to go through, so there are Members observing who might not be in the Chamber.

Photo of Patrick Grady Patrick Grady Scottish National Party, Glasgow North

I entirely agree. That exactly proves the point. Many Members are in their offices right now catching up on their constituency correspondence, but they will have the Chamber feed on and will be watching the debate out of the corner of their eye, if only just to find out when the Government will drop the Whip so they can all go home. That is exactly the point: we engage differently now. It does none of us a service when people see pictures of a full Commons talking about one thing and an empty Commons talking about another. That is not representative of how this job works. This point has already been made, but if we want people from more diverse communities, with broader life experience, and who want to raise a broader range of issues, we have to make the job as accessible as possible. That is what I think is happening today.

At this rate, we might manage to drag this House into the 21st century sometime around the start of the 22nd, but by then Scotland will be blazing its own trail as an independent country and, for us, Westminster will be merely a quaint historical curiosity.

Photo of Margaret Ferrier Margaret Ferrier Independent, Rutherglen and Hamilton West 5:56, 12 October 2022

I commend the work of the Procedure Committee, its Chair—Karen Bradley—and its Clerks. I pay tribute to Amy Callaghan for sharing her experience in such a powerful way.

I support the motion and think that the changes are a positive step towards increased flexibility that will benefit constituents in the long run. Of course, it is important that the proposed amendments to Standing Order No. 39A are narrow enough that Members should attend when capable. In a parliamentary democracy, the communities that Members are elected to represent should feel confident in the knowledge that their MP will be present and will show up for the job that they have put us here to do.

I welcome the change to give proxy votes to those who are kept away from business as a result of serious long-term illness or injury. It is crucial that our constituents’ voices continue to be heard and represented in this place through our votes, even when something beyond an individual’s control has prevented them from attending. We are all human, and we are all susceptible to illness or injury.

The Committee’s report, in reflecting the evidence given by colleagues, considered nuanced points about the current pairing system, the anonymity ensuring that absent Members do not need to publish personal or private medical information, and the perception of the public when they see that Members have missed numerous votes over an extended period—that is where a recorded proxy vote is key. Some, though, still believe that pairing through the Whips is the way we should continue.

In the case of Members who sit on these Benches as independents without party affiliation, that does not work, because the number of independents is consistently low in comparison. That position is very often overlooked in terms of how it might impact on our ability to do the job effectively. There is no option of pairing for independents, but we are no less concerned that our constituents should have adequate representation in this place.

Before I conclude, I have two questions for the Leader of the House. Generally, doctors will provide a fit note for employees who are absent from work for seven days or more. If a fit note is the criteria that will be used to determine a Member’s eligibility for a proxy vote, will the same timescales apply so that a proxy vote could be granted when the Member cannot attend from seven days of illness onwards? There are situations where a Member may, for example, unexpectedly be admitted to hospital, but whether or not their condition will be limiting for the long term may not be immediately clear and they miss out on votes again.

Under the proposed amendment, the pilot scheme would need to be reviewed by 17 March 2023. Serious long-term illness or injury cannot be easily planned for and I wonder how the scheme could be assessed if eligible cases were very low between now and March. Will the Leader of the House share any criteria that would be used to inform a decision on that, and if numbers were too low to decide, could the pilot be extended?

The House is a unique and sometimes antiquated place of work that comes with a great sense of privilege, but it is right that we modernise where we can and where it would be advantageous. As long as a medical professional has deemed a Member unfit to attend, they should be given the space to recuperate without the pressure of feeling that their constituents have no voice.

Photo of Craig Whittaker Craig Whittaker Assistant Whip, The Treasurer of HM Household 6:00, 12 October 2022

I shall be brief. Like my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, I thank the Procedure Committee for its helpful report and recommendations. I also thank the Women and Equalities Committee and its Chair, my right hon. Friend Caroline Nokes, for their recommendations, which have really enhanced the other Committee’s report.

As was set out at the start of the debate, the Government welcome the step of implementing the pilot scheme, which will offer greater assistance to Members with serious long-term illness or injury. I am grateful to the Committee for indicating that it will review this change to the scheme, and I think it is important that the pilot should be implemented permanently only if the Committee can reassure the House that it has worked well.

I welcome the thoughtful debate that we have had today. It was wonderful to see and hear Amy Callaghan here today and have her endorsement that we are finally starting to take disability and accessibility for Members seriously in this place. I know how hard she has campaigned, over a very long period, for these changes and I must say huge congratulations to her on a personal level as well.

Thangam Debbonaire, the shadow Leader of the House, asked three questions. The first was around maintaining the confidentiality of the individual Member. As my right hon. Friend Karen Bradley said, although proxy voting is designed to be a transparent and open process for constituents, we do have the nodding through and pairing process from our superb and excellent Whips’ Offices, which ensures discretion if preferred by the Member; and of course the Procedure Committee will consider confidentiality when it assesses the pilot scheme.

The hon. Member for Bristol West also asked about the threshold of injury or illness. That ties in with a question asked by Margaret Ferrier. This is a highly pragmatic scheme, for which the Speaker will have discretion. Mr Speaker will also publish updated guidance to the scheme in due course. I hope that answers that question.

Finally, the hon. Member for Bristol West asked about the assessment process for the pilot. My right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands said that the process used during the pilot conducted in 2019—assessment by those who actually used the scheme—would be applied here too. If more time is needed because of lack of use of the scheme, it will be for the House to decide whether to allow more time for that pilot scheme. I think that covers most of the questions that were asked.

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

It is wonderful to see my hon. Friend at the Dispatch Box. Could I ask for his commitment that the Government will facilitate that vote to allow the pilot scheme to be carried forward, and allow the House to make that decision?

Photo of Craig Whittaker Craig Whittaker Assistant Whip, The Treasurer of HM Household

The straightforward and right answer to that is yes. We will make sure that gets facilitated.

There is much more we can consider when looking at how we adapt some of our proceedings in the House to make them fit for the 21st century and—as the wonderful hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire said—make it a more modern environment for Members, as well as those who are not Members who come into this place. There is no question in my mind but that we need to continue to make progress, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will reflect carefully on the points made in today’s debate. I hope Members will support the motion, and I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That:

(1) this House

(a) believes that Members experiencing serious long-term illness or injury should be entitled, but not required, to discharge their responsibilities to vote in this House by proxy, under a pilot scheme issued by the Speaker and reviewed by the Procedure Committee;

(b) directs the Speaker to amend the scheme governing the operation of proxy voting in accordance with paragraphs 1-40 of the First Report of the Procedure Committee, HC 383, on Proxy voting and the presence of babies in the Chamber and Westminster Hall; and

(c) directs the Procedure Committee to review the operation of the temporary amendment to Standing Order No. 39A no later than 17 March 2023.

Ordered,

That,

(2) the following amendments to Standing Order No. 39A (Voting by proxy) be made:

(a) in paragraph 2, delete “absence from the precincts of the House for”;

(b) in paragraph 2, delete “childbirth or care of an infant or newly adopted child” and insert—

“(a) childbirth;

(b) care of an infant or newly adopted child; and

(c) complications relating to childbirth, miscarriage or baby loss”; and

(c) delete paragraph 7.

Ordered,

That,

(3) the following amendment to Standing Order No. 39A (Voting by proxy) be made, and have effect from 17 October until 30 April 2023: in paragraph (2) insert

“(d) serious long-term illness or injury”.