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Proxy Voting and Presence of Babies in the Chamber and Westminster Hall

Volume 717: debated on Thursday 30 June 2022

Procedure Committee

Select Committee statement

Karen Bradley, representing the Procedure Committee, will speak for up to 10 minutes, during which no interventions may be taken. At the conclusion of her statement, I will call Members to put questions on the subject of the statement and call Karen Bradley to respond to these in turn. I remind the House that questions should be directed to Karen Bradley, as the Chairman of the Committee, and not to the relevant Minister. Interventions should be questions and should be brief. Front Benchers may take part in questioning.

This morning, the Procedure Committee published its first report of the new Session, concluding two inquiries: the first on extending eligibility for proxy voting to those with long-term medical conditions; and the second on the presence of babies in the Chamber and Westminster Hall. I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for this opportunity to make a short statement to the House.

Our predecessor Committee did not consider the case for non-parental proxies in detail. When it came to our review at the beginning of this Parliament, we said we would consider the matter when pandemic proxies ended, if there was interest to justify a closer look. Pandemic proxies ended in July 2021 and we launched this inquiry on 23 September, to consider whether eligibility for proxy voting should be broadened.

To cut to the chase, I will quote directly from our report:

“the overwhelming balance of evidence that we heard was in favour of proxy voting being extended to include Members suffering from serious long-term illness or injury.”

The House will be aware that there have been several cases in the recent past of Members feeling compelled or being required to vote in person while seriously unwell, which risks bringing the House into disrepute. These events have led to increasing calls for proxy votes to be offered to Members suffering serious long-term illness, which would allow them to recover in their own home while still being able to exercise their vote.

However, discussions on a possible extension to the proxy voting system provoked concerns, principally on a Member’s right to privacy. I make it clear that Members who do not wish to use the proxy voting system can use pairing or, if appropriate, nodding through. We do not propose any changes to the mechanisms that are not procedural. Were the House to vote to extend the proxy voting scheme, it is essential that Members who favour a more private mechanism are able to access one.

It is also important to note that access to a proxy vote is not appropriate for every occurrence of ill health or injury. For this reason, we believe that any extension to the proxy voting scheme should not include provisions for short-term, non-serious medical conditions. In the case of non-serious illness that causes a short-term absence, Members should use existing informal mechanisms.

If the House were to endorse the principle of extending the scheme, it would be for the Government to bring forward changes to the Standing Orders. We believe that any extension should, in the first instance, take place as a pilot, the success of which the Committee would review.

The broad terms of a scheme issued under Mr Speaker’s authority should, in our view, include the following aspects. It should be available to Members who, as a result of serious long-term personal illness or injury, wish to vote by proxy. It should require medical evidence from a medical professional stating that the Member is physically unable to attend Divisions in the House. It should be recorded in the same way as a parental proxy, through a Speaker’s certificate recorded in Votes and Proceedings, stating that the Member has exercised their right under the Standing Order and giving the date and name of the nominated proxy, but not details of the medical condition. It should allow proxy voting cover for a finite time while giving Members the ability to renew if necessary. And it should decouple the issue of taking part in proceedings from the proxy vote. We understood and recognised the need for staying-in-touch days, and that some Members would wish to participate in proceedings while not being physically able to stay for the vote.

Now the Committee has published its conclusions and recommendations, it is for the House to decide whether the proxy voting system should be extended. We recommended that the Government schedule a debate before the summer recess to allow the House to debate and express a view on this issue, with a view to introducing a pilot in the autumn.

The question of whether Members should be able to bring babies into the Chamber and Westminster Hall was referred to the Committee by Mr Speaker in November 2021. The guidance to Members on this issue says:

“You may take babies or toddlers with you into the division lobby, and—if necessary to get to the division lobby—take them through the Chamber… You should not take your seat in the Chamber when accompanied by your child, nor stand at either end of the Chamber, between divisions.”

This guidance restates long-standing practice recognising that the Chamber, Westminster Hall and Standing Committees are not suitable environments for very young children.

Since 2018 there have been several occasions on which Members have, with the discretion of the Chair, with prior notice and without disruption to proceedings, brought babies into the Chamber and Westminster Hall, so that the Members can either attend or participate. This has contributed to some confusion and a gap between the House’s practice and the guidance intended to shape it. We found a general lack of awareness of the guidance among Members.

In general, we detected support for greater flexibility for new parents. We heard evidence expressing concern that the usual resources afforded to Members are not extended to nominated members of staff covering Members who are exercising a proxy vote. This should not be repeated, and we have called for meetings, calls and briefings available to Members of Parliament to be made available to nominated members of staff covering for Members exercising a proxy vote.

The long-standing practice of the House is that babies should not be present in the Chamber or Westminster Hall. We believe that Members should not bring babies into the Chamber, Westminster Hall or General Committees as they observe, initiate, speak or intervene in proceedings, and we believe this should remain the guidance. Chairs will and should retain a degree of de facto discretion, which should be exercised sparingly. The firm expectation should remain that Members do not participate in proceedings while caring for a baby, and that where it is required, in exceptional circumstances, to bring a baby into proceedings, it should be agreed in advance.

The Liaison Committee should consider how far Select Committee practice should mirror other settings and, if necessary, agree guidance covering both Members and witnesses.

Finally, the Procedure Committee is grateful to all hon. and right hon. Members, and others, who shared their views with us on both inquiries. I hope our report will be welcomed by the House, and that the House will soon have a chance to vote on these issues.

I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the right hon. Lady and the Procedure Committee for their excellent work. I welcome their recommendations and the clarity and sensitivity with which they handled these inquiries. It is particularly helpful to have clarity on proxy votes for Members with long-term illness, without a presumption that they will have to use a proxy vote, even if they do not wish to do so. Respect for privacy and good working conditions is important.

Has the right hon. Lady had an indication from the Leader of the House, who might spring to his feet shortly to give us the answer, on the possible timetable? She mentioned having a debate and a vote before the summer recess, and she mentioned the Liaison Committee considering Select Committee practice. Has she had any indication on the timetable, and would she like to say more on what she thinks is ideal?

I thank the hon. Lady for her comments and her warm welcome for the report. The Committee considered these matters carefully; they are extremely sensitive. Members were not always willing to speak in public about these issues, because a lot of issues on social media and elsewhere made it difficult for them. This report reflects the views of the Committee and the views of the House that were expressed to us. As I have said, I would hope that we could have a debate and a vote on this before the summer recess, so that we could bring in a pilot scheme for proxy voting before the autumn, which we could start running in the autumn to see how it works. I do not think it would affect many Members; a very small number would wish to avail themselves of it. However, for those who would, it is important that they have it in place. The Leader of the House did indicate in his evidence that he was considering the options.

I commend my right hon. Friend on the eminently sensible and proportionate recommendations she is making. On the issue of bringing children to the Chamber, we are trying to make ourselves more in contact with the working practices of our constituents and having a “bring your child to work day” in a 365 day a year phenomenon does not seem to be a sensible thing to do. On proxy voting, I very much welcome what is proposed. We have made slow progress, at last getting there for female Members on maternity leave. Are there any measures to look at whether Members with a serious illness preventing them from coming to this place should be allowed to contribute to debates by a television link, as happened during the pandemic? I raise the example of our late colleague Dame Cheryl Gillan, who was able to participate in parliamentary proceedings within weeks of her last day, not physically but by video link, with that being of great value to her and to this Chamber. Could we not, in special circumstances, make that available, so as not to disenfranchise those Members from being able to participate in the debate as well as vote?

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. The issue of whether this was an appropriate workplace to bring children into was raised time and again. Overwhelmingly, the evidence and the views were that people did not think this was a place suitable for children. It is a very confrontational place at times and it can be noisy, although not at the moment, and it was felt that it was not suitable. I must make the point that proxy votes are available to fathers as well as to mothers, and that we recommended in previous reports that there should be equality for male Members who are fathers and eligible for the scheme, in line with the Women and Equalities Committee report and recommendations. We also recommend a decoupling of attendance in the Chamber from the proxy vote. At the moment, if one is on a proxy vote, one is not able to attend the Chamber. We think that that needs to be removed, but we do not want anybody to feel under any pressure to attend the Chamber if they are spending time with their newborn or having treatment for sickness. On his point about virtual participation, there is not, so far as I can tell at the moment, an appetite in this place to reintroduce any form of hybrid proceedings. If and when there is, I am sure the House would want to have its say on that matter.

I welcome the report and what the right hon. Lady has said. The key point is that politics and democracy belong to everyone, so we have an obligation to make things as open as we can. I point to all the work that my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (Amy Callaghan) has done in trying to make sure that people understand the challenges of representation when someone has a long-term medical condition. Of course, nobody should find that they are disenfranchised because their Member of Parliament has a long-term medical condition or indeed has a baby. I hear what the right hon. Lady says about babies perhaps being a disturbance—I am paraphrasing her—in the Chamber, but I have to say that, having sat here for a number of years, an awful lot of hon. Members disturb us all significantly more than a baby or a small number of babies would. I make that point sincerely. So I hope that this place will come back to this matter, because if we are to be open to Members from diverse backgrounds—younger Members and Members who are parents—we need to examine all of these processes carefully so that we are not excluding people, as I fear this could. Although I appreciate all the work the Committee has done, and I note that there is a nod to the Chair having some discretion, is the right hon. Lady minded to look again at what the Scottish Parliament does in terms of babies? I would also be keen to hear whether she is confident that we will have a debate before the summer.

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. The evidence from the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire was some of the most powerful we heard in favour of extending proxy voting to those with long-term medical conditions. The hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) is right to say that, through no fault of her own, the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire is not able to attend as much as she would like and she feels disenfranchised as a result. Her example and evidence was some of the most persuasive we heard. I am not suggesting that a baby is necessarily going to be disruptive; rather, this would be an unpleasant place for a baby to be in at times, and it would certainly be noisy and uncomfortable for a small child. It is worth making the point that children are welcome in this place. I recall that when I was first elected and had young children they came to watch me in debates and joined me for their tea, with beans on toast from the Tea Room being one of their favourite foods I could provide in the Family Room. I never, at any point, felt that my children were not welcome in the environment and in the Palace, but in this place of work I would not have wanted to have had my child with me at that time. There was a real fear that people would feel obliged to do this, and in those precious few weeks of having a new child and a new person in one’s life Members wanted to be able to spend time with that new person, adjusting to being a new parent. They did not want to feel under any obligation to come here with a child because that was becoming the norm. As I say, there are plenty of opportunities for children to be in this place, and in my experience they are very much welcomed by all the staff in this building.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend and the Committee on a balanced report. I was required not to be in this place for three months because of long-term sickness and I would have welcomed the opportunity to exercise my view via a proxy. Will she give us a flavour of what she would want to see in terms of not only medical evidence, but a possible renewal of medical evidence for someone to continue proxy voting?

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. As a long-serving member of the predecessor Procedure Committee, I know he will have looked at these issues when it considered the issue of proxy voting for parental leave. The evidence we heard was clear that where someone is away for a short time, be it because of injury or illness, a constituency requirement, a Select Committee visit or any of the other reasons why we are not always in this place, that would not affect our constituents in terms of being enfranchised by our exercising our vote, but this changes once the time gets to somewhere around three months. We have not set a time limit, although I note that the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority is considering giving additional staffing support for people who are on long-term sickness for three months or more, and that seems to me to be about the right amount of time for medical evidence to be provided to the Speaker. We are not setting out what that medical evidence should be. It will be for a private conversation between the Member and the Speaker to demonstrate that they are not able to attend this place as fully as they would like because of their medical condition, and for the Speaker to exercise discretion.

I pay tribute to the Chair of our Committee. She knows that I am a long-serving, or perhaps long-suffering, member of the Procedure Committee. I welcome the recommendations on ill health proxies, as they show progress from where we were with the baby and adoption proxies a number of years ago. On decoupling from the estate, and being able to attend the Chamber and then leave, does she agree that this is simply about having a keeping in touch day and allowing this House to follow modern working practices for mothers and indeed fathers; they may wish to access this for slightly longer if they are sharing their maternity and paternity leave? This simply brings the House towards some modern practice.

Finally, on babies in the Chamber, as the father of a 17-month-old, I wholeheartedly back the Committee’s report. I would not want to bring my son into the Chamber, although he has benefited from being in for a Division. This is not just about new mothers in this place; there are also lots of new fathers who care deeply about what happens to their children, and we should have a voice in this process as well.

I thank my friend, the Vice-Chair of the Committee, for his comments. He is right: we did want to decouple the requirement not to be in the Chamber from the proxy vote. We heard significant evidence about keep-in-touch days for new parents.

We also heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), who said that when she was recovering following her breast cancer diagnosis, she was able to avail herself of the proxy vote because we still had pandemic proxies, but that she was also able to come into this place and make contributions. For her, that was good for getting her back into working practices and good for her recovery, but it would have been very detrimental to her recovery had she had to stay to vote later in the day.

We reflected that in the report. We wanted to make sure that there was a decoupling of the requirement not to attend the Chamber from the proxy vote, because it would give Members the opportunity to do that kind of keep-in-touch day.

May I praise both my right hon. Friend for her chairmanship of the Committee and the Clerks for their hard work on this report?

As a member of the Committee, I support all the recommendations; it was a unanimous report. I also support what my right hon. Friend and the shadow Leader of the House called for: a chance for the House to have a say on this—ultimately, it is for the House to decide how we proceed. I am sure the Leader of the House will be addressing that in due course.

May I invite my right hon. Friend to praise all our colleagues who gave evidence, particularly oral evidence, to our Committee? Seven Back Benchers gave evidence on the proxy vote part, many of whom, such as the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Amy Callaghan) and my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), shared very personal stories of illness.

We had two oral evidence sessions on the issue of babies in the Chamber: one with my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns), who is in her place, and one with the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy). The environment was quite toxic, because there was a lot of misogyny around the issue on social media. Giving evidence to us from both sides of the argument showed courage, and I wondered whether my right hon. Friend could reflect that.

My hon. Friend is right: the Clerks of the Committee have been, and always are, absolutely exemplary, and we could not do the work that we do without them. He is also right that the atmosphere around some of the evidence was toxic. We need to be able to have this debate in a reasonable fashion. We need to discuss the issues and reflect the views of the House overall. That is why it is important that we do now have time for that debate and a vote, so that the House can make its decision as to how it wants to proceed.

I welcome any progress in modernising this House, and the report is very welcome. I personally believe that we should be more open to the public about our pairing arrangements, which would help with some of this. It is not acceptable for constituents to have to rely on reading Twitter to know whether, in a vote, their MP had just abstained or was paired. I am unusual in that once I abstained by walking through both the Aye and No Lobbies, because I wanted my constituents to know that I was abstaining and not just being paired.

I do welcome the step forward, but part of the problem relates not just to the issue of privacy, but to the fact that some MPs on short-term sick want a recorded system, to be able to show that they are either paired or they are proxied. That is still the gap, and I wondered whether the Committee would consider that.

On children, I have a slightly different view, but I respect the outcome of the Committee. I do wonder, however, about the outcome with regard to viewing and observing in Westminster Hall debates. A Member could quite easily bring in a child to view in the Public Gallery. It seems slightly farcical to me that they could be behind a rope, but not on the other side of it if they were viewing. I wonder whether we can review some of those intricacies and challenges in the future, because Westminster Hall debates are a very different beast from those in this Chamber.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. As Chair of the Procedure Committee, I should make the point that positive abstentions are not really the done thing in this place, but I do understand why he felt the need to do so.

We did look at the issue around the informal arrangements and whether they could be more formalised, but we must accept that there will always be informal arrangements in a place that involves 650 of us who are, effectively, sole traders. It is up to each individual Member to decide how they let their constituents know about their votes. We have great transparency around voting, as lists are published, which simply was not the case previously. There is nothing to stop any Member from being clear about their view on whether they abstain positively, or whether it was a pairing arrangement.

On babies, I make the point that there is discretion. The Chair, with advance notice, can, if it is deemed appropriate, say that on a certain occasion it is okay to bring a small child into the Chamber. There may be circumstances in which that is simply the only option and the Chair is happy to accept that; it is not that this is precluded. The practice of the House allows for it to happen, but it has to be with advance notice and at the discretion of the Chair. It also has to reflect, I think, whatever the debate may be. There will be some debates where the presence of a baby may be more appropriate. I would not wish to pre-judge that, but it will be for the discretion of the Chair, and it is available.

I thank my right hon. Friend and all the members of the Committee, who showed such sensitivity in their discussion of this topic and their questioning of us. I also wish to pay tribute to Mr Speaker and the Deputy Speakers, who, throughout my time as a young mother—I have a 17-month-old who is very good friends with the hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore); they play together very nicely—have shown complete support of new mothers, whether it be leaving the Chamber to breastfeed or needing any support at all. I would also like to recognise the new Chief Whip, who has made real efforts to support those of us on the Government Benches who are pregnant or have these sorts of concerns and needs.

I have this to say to my right hon. Friend the Chair of the Procedure Committee: we must be very careful with the public discourse about this place, because it is like no other workplace. Mistaken comparisons are made with our constituents who work in shops at tills, because they cannot bring their babies with them. The same applies to lawyers who are fighting domestic abuse cases, which are among the topics that we discuss, who would not be allowed to bring their babies with them. I also have some concerns over the use of the discretion of the Chair—in Westminster Hall, for example—and that being abused. The pressure that I have come under during this period has been quite strong, and I fear that Chairs of Committees might feel that they have been forced to allow babies in.

Will my right hon. Friend clarify two things? First, as she touched on earlier, we are not banning babies from the entire building; we are banning them from this Chamber. My babies are in the House with me every single day, as many colleagues have said, and I do not even know that they are here. My second question relates to babies who are in a neonatal care unit. Did the Committee consider whether fathers should receive a far extended parental leave period, so that they can support their babies through that really sensitive time?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. I also pay tribute to her and to the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) for giving their oral evidence on what is a contentious issue. I agree that Mr Speaker, the Deputy Speakers and the Chairs have always shown incredible sensitivity and compassion.

We have conventions in the House around attending the opening and closing of debates, and being there for the speeches before and afterwards. I know that the Chairs have often used their discretion to recognise that the timing of a speech may not coincide with the time that a baby needs feeding, so they have allowed for the Member to have that discretion. I pay tribute to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for all you have done on this issue. As somebody who was a trailblazer as a mother in this place, you know only too well what it is like.

My hon. Friend is also right that babies and children are not banned from the precinct. In fact, if we go outside the Chamber any day, we will see Members with their children enjoying the facilities. It was very important to me as a mother, when I first came to this place, that my young children understood the job that I was doing and could feel that they were part of it. On fathers, we have said that the recommendations around having equality for fathers and mothers in the Women and Equalities Committee report should be adopted.

I welcome the Chairperson’s statement and I thank her for all she has done. I absolutely support young mothers’ being able to sub for a Member in a proxy vote; I also value the importance of breastfeeding for those able to do so and believe we should facilitate that as much as possible. Proxy voting allows that too, so those are some good points. Behind every MP are an incredible staff who do marvellous work, including many ladies. Is there help also available for MPs’ female staff members when it comes to breastfeeding and child facilities, so that they are able to access similar consideration?

I never thought I would be in a debate discussing breastfeeding with the hon. Gentleman, but there we go; there is a first time for everything. I assure him that all the facilities and support available to Members, including the physical and crèche facilities, are available to staff of this place. That is an important point, because he is right that it is our staff who ensure we can turn up here every day and get the job done—I notice that my Clerks have now turned up in the Chamber, so I pay extra tribute to them once again.

I particularly thank the right hon. Lady and everybody who put so much time and effort into compiling this important report, which affects every Member of this place and takes us a step forward in our modernity.

Bill Presented

Recognition of Armenian Genocide Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Tim Loughton, supported by Sir Iain Duncan Smith, John Spellar, Chris Law, Christine Jardine, James Gray, Jim Shannon, Andrew Rosindell, Dr Rupa Huq, Wera Hobhouse, Alan Brown and Chris Stephens, presented a Bill to require Her Majesty’s Government formally to recognise the Armenian genocide of 1915-23; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 24 March 2023, and to be printed (Bill 133).