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Remote Voting

Volume 675: debated on Wednesday 22 April 2020

Before I call the Leader of the House to move motion 6, I should inform the House that I have selected the amendment to the motion in the name of Karen Bradley. The amendment will be debated together with the main motion, and the Questions necessary to dispose of the motion will be put at the end of the debate. I call the Leader of the House.

I beg to move,

That the following orders be made and have effect until 12 May:

Remote divisions

(1) A remote division may be held only in respect of business taken in hybrid substantive proceedings.

(2) With the leave of the Speaker, the Member in charge of an item of business may designate it as subject to decision by a remote division and if so whether that divisions should be a deferred remote division.

(3) The Speaker shall determine whether a remote division is required and may announce that determination before putting the question.

(4) Standing Orders Nos 38, 40 and 41A (save as provided in temporary standing order (Conduct of remote divisions)) shall not apply to proceedings relating to remote divisions.

(5) If, when the question is put on an item of business which has not been designated to be decided by a remote division, the Speaker’s opinion as to the decision on the question is challenged, the question shall not be decided and the House shall move to the next business.

Conduct of remote divisions

(1) Members shall participate in a remote division or a remote deferred division through arrangements authorised by the Speaker.

(2) A remote division shall be initiated when the Speaker puts the question and announces that it will be decided by a remote division.

(3) No tellers shall be appointed for a remote division.

(4) Members may record their vote in a remote division for a period of fifteen minutes from its initiation.

(5) The Speaker may interrupt and suspend a remote division if notified of a technical problem.

(6) The result of a remote division shall be declared from the Chair.

(7) The House may proceed to its next business before the result of a remote division is declared and the Speaker may interrupt subsequent proceedings in order to announce the result.

(8) A remote deferred division shall be held in accordance with the provisions of paragraph (5) of Standing Order No 41A and this order. If, after the result of a remote division or a remote deferred division has been announced, it is reported to the Speaker that problems in the conduct of the division occurred which might have affected the result, the Speaker may declare the division to be null and void and may make arrangements for it to be re-run.

I think it is fair to say that I am surprised to be moving a motion to introduce remote voting in the House of Commons. In general, I am not an advocate of change to the House’s voting system or, to be perfectly honest, to many other things. Lord Palmerston’s words ring in my mind:

“Change, change, change: aren’t things bad enough already?”

I am strongly of the view that our current approach is the best one, but as I said yesterday, parliamentary procedure is not an end in itself but a means to allow the institution to function successfully. We are facing a particular set of circumstances that have required us to be innovative so that we can ensure that the House of Commons can both scrutinise the Government and continue to legislate. I am bringing forward this motion alongside the other one today because it makes sense for the House to consider it on the same day as it takes a view on extending hybrid proceedings.

It may help the House if I briefly talk through the motion. What was originally section K establishes the framework for a system of remote voting for hybrid substantive business. As we begin to bring forward Government motions, including on legislative proceedings for remote debate, we will be able to designate whether those motions are to be subject to a new remote voting process, or to a remote deferred division process. If we choose not to designate a motion in this way, under the terms of paragraph (5), the motion becomes subject to a decision on a “nod or nothing” basis. The House agreed yesterday, in the resolution on proceedings during the pandemic, that we must aim for equal treatment between those participating in proceedings in the Chamber and those participating remotely. In the absence of remote voting, any division called would be subject to physical division. In the current circumstances, we cannot create a situation that encourages Members physically to attend proceedings in Westminster.

The detailed arrangements for how remote voting will work will, under section L, be set out by you, Mr Speaker. Under the new system, remote divisions would become a process administered by the House, with the result delivered directly to the Speaker. Votes in a remote division would be expected to be cast in a 15-minute window, and in a deferred division during the usual 11.30 am to 2 pm slot on Wednesdays. I have tested the new arrangements, which operate via the Members’ Hub interface. I must confess that that was the first time I had ever used the Members’ Hub interface, but I understand that it is very widely used.

I am grateful to the House authorities, particularly staff in the Parliamentary Digital Service, for their work on developing the Division tool so quickly. I know that they are keen to facilitate further testing next week, including with Members, which will be crucial to build confidence in the new system. I am keen that the testing happens ahead of the Government designating any business for remote divisions. Let me be clear: we are not intending to designate any business for remote divisions next week. It will not happen that fast.

Amendment (a) was tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), the Chair of the Procedure Committee. May I start by reiterating the sincere thanks to her and her Committee for their rapid work? I appreciated the opportunity to join the Committee in a private session last week and to be able to set out the Government’s thoughts. The Committee has produced a substantial and immensely helpful report, and I know that the Committee will continue to play a key role.

As I said yesterday, I am very much aware that the Committee has some specific concerns about moving to electronic voting. I think it is safe to say, and not unduly indiscreet of me, that I probably share a number of those concerns. I have listened carefully to the Committee and am grateful for the conversations that I have been able to have with its Chairman. I understand and accept the need for the Procedure Committee to be assured that the remote voting technology works, and for the Committee to have time to express its views on the matter. However, I would ask whether the Chairman would consider withdrawing her amendment in exchange for a formal commitment from the Government today. If this motion passes, I can confirm that we will not designate any Divisions subject to these new arrangements until the Committee has examined the proposed scheme and the Chairman has written to me to set out the Committee’s views on the scheme and whether it considers it to be workable. I would be most grateful if the Chairman in turn could commit to that work being carried out by the Committee as quickly as possible.

I fully understand that this motion is proposing a significant change in the way we do our business. I am grateful to the Procedure Committee for the key role that it will play, and I am committed to listening carefully to the views of Members across the House as we develop these new and temporary ways of working. Let me stress that again: this would be a temporary change, driven by the need for the House to continue to make progress on key legislation and to give Members the right to have their say. I therefore hope that the House can support the motion, which I commend to it.

It may be helpful to point out that it is only if the amendment is moved that we will need to worry. It may not be moved.

I rise to speak to amendment (a), which is, after paragraph (5), to insert:

“6) paragraphs (1) to (4) of this Order shall not have effect until the Speaker takes the Chair on the sitting day after the Chair of the Procedure Committee shall have reported to the House a resolution of that Committee that

(a) it is expedient to use remote divisions during the period for which this Order has effect and

(b) the arrangements authorised by the Speaker are appropriate to be used in remote divisions and remote deferred divisions.”

The amendment stands in my name and those of several Committee colleagues and others.

The Leader of the House has set out succinctly and appropriately some of the concerns that my Committee has about the proposals to move to remote voting. As he said, we have looked in depth at the proposals for hybrid scrutiny, the motion on which we have just considered, and we have looked at how we deal with questions, of which we have just seen the first example happening in reality. But we have not yet had a chance to consider the proposals for remote voting, and I am therefore grateful to the Leader of the House for his comments.

I will say up front, in response to the Leader of the House’s comments, that I do not propose to move the amendment, given that he has made a commitment that, in effect, delivers what the amendment would have done, but does so in a way without the need to amend the motion. I will also give him the commitment, as he asked, that I will write to you, Mr Speaker, and to him with the Committee’s view on the proposed system within two sitting days of an assurance from the House service that it is ready to be deployed.

I apologise to the shadow Leader of the House for not calling her first, but I wanted to know whether the amendment would be moved.

I thank the Leader of the House for outlining the Government’s views on remote voting. The Chair of the Procedure Committee has not moved her amendment, but may I just say that while the Opposition are aware of the important work that the Procedure Committee does, clearly it is a matter for the Government, the House and the Opposition to decide? The Procedure Committee cannot override what the work of the House does, but we are in fast-moving times and we know that people are working incredibly hard to get this right. We know that the Procedure Committee has made comments on, for example, proxy voting, and its views are very important. It should be consulted and we will listen to its views.

Circumstances are unusual and the House is moving as fast as it can, but whatever happens, we have to make sure that—the Commission had this discussion—any remote voting is secure, and that everyone is satisfied that any remote working is secure. The optics of votes going wrong is not where we want to be, and it is certainly not the vision of the House we want to present.

I apologise for coming in again, having already had my bite of the cherry, but I wish to make a point on the practicalities. I tried the trial run that digital services have been running through MemberHub, and I pay tribute to digital services. On 6 April, when the Committee wrote to you, Mr Speaker, we were clear that we did not believe that it would be possible to get to this point, so the work that has been done is incredible.

However, people need to recognise the realities of everyday life for a Member of Parliament at the moment. We are focused on our constituents and on our constituency work. We are not sitting with our telephones waiting for a text to come in to say that a vote is happening. It is not like it is in the Chamber, and there are real concerns about ensuring that Members get used to the way the system works.

I thank the right hon. Lady. She is absolutely right: most of us have been pinned to our computers trying to get constituents back, and trying to help them to work out whether they have lost their job. She is right that we have been working incredibly hard. However, as with everything when there is legislation—only the substantive hybrid proceedings will involve a vote—it is right that it will be the business of the House that will be for Members to focus on. Hopefully it will be a bit more than just standing by the telephone. As I said, I have not had the run-through and I would certainly like it.

There are other ways of voting, which hon. Members may not like. In the Welsh Assembly, they actually have a roll call. That is one way of doing it. On the subject of the Whips, we will miss the cheeky face of my right hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) guiding us in. Maybe he can pop up on the computer. That human interaction is very important, but the key thing, as we have all said, is that that is the way the House operated; we have to move to a new position now because of the pandemic, to keep Members safe. Any way that we can do that remotely, keeping everyone safe while ensuring that House staff are also safe and that the voting is secure, is very important. We know that we have the technology to do that, because people do it for the Eurovision song contest.

I am not sure that the Leader of the House wants to hear this, but I think the European Parliament also operates some kind of remote electronic voting. Perhaps we will not go there, given that it has the word “Europe” in it, which has been expunged from our parliamentary vocabulary.

I thank the right hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley). She and her Committee do an assiduous job. We have all appeared before it and, quite rightly, been given a hard time. Her predecessor did that too. Her Majesty’s Opposition support the motion as set out by the Leader of the House.

Thank you for calling me, Mr Speaker, perhaps unexpectedly, in the course of this afternoon’s brief proceedings. Observant Members will have noticed the flurry of Whips who have entered the Chamber, which is always a sign of distress for us mere ordinary Members, but let me remind every Member of this House that we are all sent on an equal basis to this place by our constituents to make representations on their behalf.

I attempted a moment ago to raise a point of order, perhaps not being au fait with the radical measures that were taken yesterday preventing Members from doing so.

Actually, you can make a point of order; I just wanted first to hear whether the amendment would be moved. If you wish to make a point of order, I can take one at this stage, but I thought that you would prefer to speak instead.

I am most grateful for that clarification, Sir. The point I wished to raise was one of procedure. Given his extensive understanding of how this place works, my right hon. Friend the Lord President of the Council would have known the answer to this. The question was whether it was perfectly orderly for a Member to add their name to an amendment, although not printed on the Order Paper, while it was in the possession of the House, and whether they could move that amendment, even if the lead Member wished not to. That was the point that I wished to make.

A lot of things are being done in haste, and I appreciate entirely the need to do so given the situation that we are in. It is right that a number of Members are present in the Chamber and can demonstrate the same guidance that we are giving to our constituents—for example, those who email us frequently with their concerns about working in depots and factories and on construction sites.

It is right and proper that a number of us should be in the Chamber to demonstrate social distancing in this way. I merely ask the Government to be careful what they wish for, because I do not think that some of the measures, despite the protestations of wishing to get back to normality in some swift way, will be successful in getting back to that normality.

I accept the need to move quickly. Everybody regrets the situation that we are now in, but it is vital that Back Benchers should have the ability, even in these times of great uncertainty, to make important representations on behalf of their constituents.

To be fair, through the leadership of the right hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), the Chair of the Procedure Committee, of which the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg) was a distinguished member for many years—he and I served together on it—the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House have made commitments on behalf of the Government and the official Opposition, after representations from the Chair and through the Speaker, that these changes are temporary and that we will be able to review them as part of the changes to voting. In many ways, with the greatest of respect to the hon. Gentleman, we have that commitment. Of course I agree with him that we are all created equal, but of course, Whips are slightly more equal—speaking as a Whip. [Laughter.]

Indeed. As well as being a distinguished member of the Procedure Committee, the hon. Gentleman is, of course, a distinguished member of his party’s Whips Office. Whenever I think of the term “usual channels”, I am reminded that, of course, even great cities need their sewers. I am sure there is a high degree of interconnectedness in all those usual channels. We need to be mindful of the times in which we are living, and that this lockdown is not equal. We are not all in this lockdown together. There is a divide between the white-collar worker and the blue-collar worker. People working in the private sector and people working in the public sector are invariably in different circumstances. Let us always have that at the forefront of our minds and ensure that proper parliamentary scrutiny of the Government’s work can continue.

I want to talk briefly about the process. I thank the right hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley) and the Procedure Committee for bringing forward their ideas and thoughts; they are very important to put on record.

Yesterday, I brought to the attention of the Leader of the House the issue of potential legislation that may involve a vote. If a vote were involved, it would be very important to MPs from my party, from Northern Ireland and from other parts of the United Kingdom. I know that many new MPs have a similar opinion to me—indeed, I suspect, the Leader of the House does too. I want to put on record that, if potential legislation went through a Delegated Legislation Committee that we may not be part of, which would bring legislation before this House to be voted on, and if we found in any way that we were not, and could not, be part of that voting process, that would be against the very ethos of democracy and what I believe in—freedom and liberty and my right in this House to express my view and vote about something. That would be totally erroneous and unacceptable to me as an MP and to other members of my party, and to others in this House.

The matter I refer to concerns the abortion issue, because I understand that there is some indication that that legislation may come forward. I want the assurance in this House that, as part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, we in Northern Ireland will be assured of our vote and that there will not be a technical reason why we cannot vote.

I will not detain the House for long. As a member of the Procedure Committee, I associate myself with all the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley). It is important that the Government understand that she spoke for all of us on the Committee when she put forward her amendment. There are many of us who have reservations about the pace with which we are moving, and who are mindful of the precautionary principle that we act in haste and repent at leisure, and of the temporary having an awful habit of becoming the permanent.

That said, we are enormously reassured by our continued engagement with the Leader of the House, who, I believe, shares many of our views. Given the constructive approach of the Government today and the clarification by him and the shadow Leader of the Opposition, I will support the Government.

I echo the statement that my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Andrew Griffith) has just made, and I shall be brief. When decisions are made on a temporary basis, as the introduction of income tax was, they sometimes find their way of remaining for longer. The Leader of the House has been gracious enough to listen to the Procedure Committee and to the amendment, which will not be moved, so I hope he will be good enough to listen to the report. I do not wish to pre-empt the Committee’s findings, but if that report says that it is vehemently against or it finds significant problems within the system, I hope he will address that and listen to those findings before we rush into the implementation of that system.

As we have heard in some of the comments made by Members from parties across the House, it is very important to ascertain whether or not we can ensure that it is the Member voting; we need to make sure there is a lock for that and that the system is efficient. Depending on when each vote is brought to this House, it is very important that that can be done. It is important that the Government listen to the findings of that report, give it its due course and give their due deliberation.

I shall reply to as many of the points made as possible.

My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) are both concerned about Members being able to vote. The system has to ensure that every Member is able to vote. I can give that commitment on behalf of the Government; we will not adopt a system that would fail, and we will listen carefully to what the Procedure Committee has to say. If it identifies any problems, obviously we would want to put them right before bringing in any system.

My hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Andrew Griffith) makes the point that the temporary often becomes permanent, and my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes mentioned income tax. It is worth noting that one of the reasons we had to reconvene was because income tax remains an annual charge, partly because of its temporary nature when it was introduced. We had to have the Finance Bill within 30 days of the Budget statement and we have to have it completed by a date in October otherwise there would be no income tax. Therefore, safeguards that are built in sometimes turn out to be effective much, much later than anyone could have expected or anticipated.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley) for deciding not to press her amendment. The commitment I have given is clear; obviously, we want a system that works, and we want the views of the Procedure Committee on that before we go any further. My hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg) made the point that anybody whose name is on an amendment is allowed to move an amendment. Amendments are withdrawn by leave of the House. I just make the point to him that sometimes what is possible procedurally is not wise procedurally, and that when there is a consensus of the House and someone has not moved or withdrawn an amendment, it is sometimes considered eccentric to insist on persisting with that amendment—not that I would ever dare to accuse anybody of eccentricity, because people might refer to pots and kettles, and, to mix my metaphors, I would be hoist by my own petard.

May I conclude by thanking the shadow Leader of the House for her continually constructive approach to these matters? It is a real pleasure to be working with her in these difficult times to try to create solutions that will work for everybody. The attitude of the official Opposition has been exemplary, and I am very grateful for that.

I think these are the last words that will be spoken from this Dispatch Box when we are not in a virtual Parliament; it is not that in hybrid proceedings Members may not be able to speak from the Dispatch Box, but that until 12 May these are the last physical proceedings we will have. I am very grateful for the support from across the House for the work that has been done. We will be in a new era the next time this House meets.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjournment

Resolved, That this House do now adjourn.—(Michael Tomlinson.)

House adjourned.