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Proxy Voting

Volume 735: debated on Wednesday 28 June 2023

[Relevant documents: Third Report of the Procedure Committee, Proxy voting: Review of illness and injury pilot, HC 807, and the Government response, HC 1325; Correspondence from the Procedure Committee to the Leader of the House, on the proxy voting: review of illness and injury pilot, reported to the House on 7 June 2023.]

I beg to move,


(1) this House

(a) notes the Third Report from the Procedure Committee, on Proxy voting: Review of illness and injury pilot (HC 807), and, subject to paragraph (2) of this motion, approves the recommendations relating to extending the scheme on an ongoing basis and absences from the parliamentary estate in paragraphs 6, 7, 18 and 19 of that Report.

(b) endorses the proposals relating to the evidence required to obtain a proxy vote and the duration of such a vote set out in the letter dated 8 June from the Procedure Committee to the Leader of the House relating to arrangements for proxy voting for Members with a serious long-term illness or injury, and directs the Speaker to amend the scheme governing the operation of proxy voting in accordance with those proposals with effect from 11 September.

(2) the amendment to Standing Order No. 39A (Voting by proxy) made by the Orders of 12 October 2022 (Voting by proxy (amendment and extension)) and 26 April 2023 (Voting by proxy (extension of pilot arrangements)) shall have effect for the duration of the present Parliament.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. Following a successful pilot scheme and considered review by the Procedure Committee, the House is asked to approve a change to the Standing Orders to extend proxy voting to Members suffering long-term illness or injury until the end of this Parliament. The House is also asked to endorse further recommendations from the Procedure Committee to ensure that appropriate and suitably robust arrangements are put in place for Members who wish to apply for a proxy vote. It recommends that Members who avail themselves of the proxy voting system for reasons of long-term illness or injury must provide a certificate from a hospital consultant, and that any such proxy vote can be held for a maximum duration of seven months, with the possibility of further extension if recommended by both the consultant and the parliamentary health and wellbeing service. To give time for Mr Speaker to amend the scheme and for any affected Members to gather the necessary paperwork, the changes—if agreed—will take effect from 11 September.

The Government want to support a more inclusive culture and working environment in Parliament, and welcome the Procedure Committee’s conclusion that the pilot has been a success. I am grateful to all Committee members and its Chair, my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), for all their work on this issue. In changing the procedures of this House, we must maintain the transparency of the voting process and ensure that the electorate can hold Members to account for the performance of their parliamentary duties. I believe that the scheme, as amended, satisfies those priorities while providing sensible accommodations for Members, enabling them to discharge their responsibilities when prevented from doing so for reasons of long-term illness or injury.

Changes to the rules governing this House must be introduced with care. Extending the scheme to the end of this Parliament, rather than in perpetuity, will allow the House to consider and monitor its operation and consider any changes. I hope that the measures carry the support of Members. I thank colleagues for all the work done on the scheme, and I commend the motion to the House.

I thank the Leader of the House for bringing forward this important motion. I join her in thanking the Chair of the Procedure Committee, her colleagues and the Committee staff for all of their hard work on proxy voting over many months. They have handled the issue sensitively and thoroughly.

I support the motion before us in the name of the Leader of the House. I have spoken before about the importance of Members being able to fulfil their core duty to vote on behalf of the people they represent even if they have a serious long-term condition or injury that prevents them from coming to the estate. It is right that colleagues who are suffering are able to recover properly in their own home. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Amy Callaghan), who is not in her place today, who has done so much to champion this cause.

It is right that we make this change for colleagues who might otherwise have dragged themselves into Parliament —as we have all known someone do—when it was probably unwise, or who have stayed at home because they had to and felt terrible about it. The process that we are debating aims to fix that. The Committee’s report notes that the pilot scheme, which extended the eligibility for proxy voting, has enabled several Members to vote who would otherwise have been unable to do so. I am glad that they were able to continue representing their constituents in that way. It is welcome progress, and I support the extension of the scheme.

The Committee has carefully considered the principle of absence from the estate in eligibility for a proxy vote. That has been an essential element of the rationale for proxy voting in general since its introduction in 2019. There has been some deliberation on removing that principle from the Standing Orders. The intention is that Members who are well enough to come in and participate in some of the day’s parliamentary proceedings can do so, and will not then be ineligible for a proxy vote if they cannot stay until a late vote or are not physically well enough to participate in a busy voting Lobby.

The Committee has issued welcome clarification stating that it should not become commonplace, and I agree. It has provided a helpful example of an MP who may be well enough to come in for an urgent question of particular relevance to their constituency, but then needs to go home. It seems that the Committee has worked through the issue and struck the right balance.

I wish to put it on the record that, for some, proxy voting is not suitable, and there are other ways of managing absence. I was reassured to see that there are no proposed changes to the mechanisms that exist as political arrangements between the Whips’ Offices. That also covers concerns about privacy that some have raised. That is important. Where they wish to do so, Members should—and under the proposed arrangement, still can—choose a more discreet pairing option or be nodded through. I can attest to the value of that option, as I used it in my first year here when I had a serious illness, and I am glad that it remains.

Parliament ought to be a model workplace, at the forefront of rights at work and accessibility, but it is also, crucially and exclusively, the centre of our democracy and a representation of that principle. I believe that the motion strikes the right balance between those principles and the unique requirements of an MP. It is proportionate and welcome, and I am glad to support it today.

I am of the view that what cannot be said in five minutes is probably is not worth saying at all, so I will be brief, but it is incumbent on me to speak on behalf of the Chair of the Procedure Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), for whom I have the highest admiration, having been a member of her Committee since entering Parliament three and half years ago.

We know that proxy voting is a formal arrangement that allows Members who are absent on baby leave to have another Member register a vote on their behalf, but there have been repeated calls to review the process, and rightly so. Following the Procedure Committee report on the extension of eligibility for proxy voting to include serious long-term illness and injury, the House agreed to a pilot scheme, which ran earlier this year. It was successful, and the Committee was directed to review the operation of the pilot and make a report, which we have done. Since then, as we know, the Government have tabled the motion to give effect to some of the recommendations made by the Committee in its report and in its subsequent letter to the Leader of the House in June.

If I can, I will make the key proposals completely clear. First, the Procedure Committee recommended that the House extend eligibility for proxy voting to include serious long-term illness and injury on an ongoing basis. If passed, this motion will have effect until the end of this Parliament, but it is subject to wider review.

The new arrangements will require a note from a hospital consultant, rather than a GP. That is because we think that resetting the expectation at a level where a Member has required hospital care or is under the care of a consultant is about right. Occupational health will now play a role in the initial review of notes provided, seeking further information if necessary. That is important because Mr Speaker is ultimately responsible for making the call, and he needs assurance from a professional body to do that. A proxy vote for illness or injury will be allowed for a maximum of seven months, although it can be extended in certain circumstances and certification will remain with the Speaker.

I think what we are discussing today is reasonably clear, and I am happy to support the motion. The pilot has been useful and I am pleased to have been part of it as a member of the Procedure Committee. In recent months, Members have been able to exercise their vote when they might not otherwise have had the opportunity to do so, so it is a positive thing.

The proposals bring this place into line with human resources arrangements in other locations. We are a modern employer; we have to be a modern employer and we have to befit the role a modern employer plays. The proposals also allow discretion and privacy, which are important. The ability to register a proxy vote enables those who have a good medical reason not to come on to the estate to maintain their privacy and keep that reason from becoming more widely known. This is about doing the right thing as a good employer, and of course it is subject to review.

I thank the Leader of the House for moving the motion this evening. We in the SNP support the recommendations made in the Procedure Committee’s report and in its subsequent letter to the Leader of the House. We thank the members of the Committee for their efforts.

Proxy voting works. We saw that with the measures put in place during the pandemic and with the current pilot for Members suffering from injury or long-term ill health. It has enabled several Members to fulfil their responsibility to vote in Divisions when they would otherwise have been unable to do so.

I, too, pay special tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (Amy Callaghan), and I thank the shadow Leader of the House for her acknowledgement of my hon. Friend’s efforts. She has been a trailblazer on this issue in many ways, bravely and eloquently drawing on her own very challenging experiences of serious illness to advocate for these reforms and for many other necessary improvements to accessibility in this place.

Proxy voting is a simple, common-sense and reasonable adjustment that allows Members to fulfil their obligations to their constituents without putting their health at risk. It is about ensuring equality and inclusivity for elected Members, and enabling them to do their jobs. The introduction of this reform on a permanent basis is long overdue, but very welcome.

I thank the Leader of the House for moving the motion and for accepting the recommendations of the Procedure Committee, of which I am pleased to be a member.

The idea of extending proxy voting further was not entirely without controversy. Some people were very concerned about it—understandably, given that we are meant to be a Parliament where people gather and exchange views, and our voting system is designed to ensure that Members vote in person rather than via a proxy. Our task was to consider whether we should allow a proxy vote for Members who were suffering from a long-term illness or a serious injury; it was not to take into account those who had a short-term illness or were travelling on parliamentary business, or who felt that this was an adaptation they needed in the long term for career reasons.

I think it fair to say that the trial was a success, but I also think there was evidence that some people were securing proxies in circumstances that were not envisaged in the creation of a scheme for those with serious long-term illnesses. We had always intended this to be a temporary measure allowing those who could not attend Parliament because they were too ill to have their voices heard at least in the voting Lobbies. The expectation was that at some point, they would come back and vote in the normal way. Personally, I would be sympathetic to allowing a proxy vote as a long-term adaptation for someone who was not fit to be here for the whole day, which I think is reasonable, but that is not what the Committee was tasked to do, and it would have to be the subject of further work if the House so wished.

There are some tweaks in the report. The requirement to produce a letter from any medical professional has been changed to a requirement to produce a letter from a consultant, to emphasise our expectation that a proxy vote would be used in the event of a serious illness probably involving hospital care. There is now the expectation of a seven-month time limit, intended to be in line with the arrangements for statutory sick pay, so we are not trying to make arrangements for Members that are different from those in the real world. This is meant to be a temporary situation from which Members will eventually emerge. The insertion of the reference to an occupational health review was an attempt to help Mr Speaker, with his discretion, to work out whether an application was actually related to a serious long-term illness.

If Members want the scheme to be a success and to be a permanent feature, I urge them not to apply for it on the grounds of a short-term illness or to extend maternity leave. They should not be speaking regularly in the Chamber and voting by proxy unless there is a very exceptional circumstance. They should not be at drinks dos on the parliamentary estate and voting by proxy. That is not what the scheme is intended for. It is intended for Members who are too ill to be here.

We considered whether there could be a very prescriptive scheme, with a list of conditions that were serious enough to be covered, but we worked out pretty quickly that we would probably be coming back here every few weeks to add a new condition that we had missed, which would leave Mr Speaker far too fettered in his discretion. We also accepted the persuasive evidence we heard that a Member in the final stages of recovery from an illness might be able to come back to work part time but might not be able to be here for a long night of voting into the early hours, and that there was clearly merit in the Speaker’s having discretion to enable the Member to speak in the Chamber without having to be here for hours when they were not fit to be.

The shadow Leader of the House talked about the principle of a proxy vote being available only to those who are generally not on the parliamentary estate, but, as she noted, we did not include that as an absolute rule. If there is an emergency in a Member’s constituency, the Member may want to break their leave and speak about it, but generally Members will be absent and will not be here for the whole day, or the whole week, or the whole month. That is the balance we were trying to strike. We were trying to find a way to enable Mr Speaker to use his discretion to ensure that the scheme was not being abused, and to ensure that, generally, Members who are fit to be here should be voting in person, while those who are not fit to be here can vote by proxy. That is what we were trying to achieve, and I urge Members who make applications to stick to the spirit of it. I suspect we will have another review by the end of the Parliament so that we can see whether proxy voting should become a permanent fixture after the next election. I certainly hope that when we get the next review, we will see that the people who are using proxy voting have been sticking to the spirit and the intention of it, and that that will enable it to become a permanent feature.

I very much support the motion and, as a member of the Procedure Committee, have been involved in some of the discussions of it.

One of the most important elements is that the amendment to the Standing Order is made only for the duration of this Parliament. My concern, which I expressed during the Committee’s discussions, is that it is fine when we have a Government with a large working majority —people will not be too fussed about issues such as whether somebody with a medical condition who is on the estate is also able to have a proxy vote—but if, after the next general election, the balance between the Government and the Opposition were much closer, or there were even a hung Parliament, I can see that difficulties might arise and the Members of the new Parliament might want more rigour written into the Standing Order than I think there is in the current version.

That is why it is important that the amendment is made only for the duration of this Parliament. I hope that, during the rest of this Parliament, there will be an attempt on both sides of the House to see whether we can introduce some rigour and consistency into the way in which people with medical conditions can access proxies and the circumstances in which they cannot.

The motion is also valuable because, by inference, it excludes any suggestion that people who are temporarily suspended from the House for conduct unbecoming should be able to creep back in through the proxy voting system. People who are absent from the House because of their own conduct, which is nothing to do with health or baby leave, should under no circumstances be able to exercise a proxy vote. The motion does not facilitate that; I think, by inference, it excludes it. As I said in an earlier debate, if we allow people who are excluded from the estate because of conduct unbecoming to have proxy votes, that will contaminate the whole process. I am grateful to the Leader of the House for not contaminating this amendment to the Standing Order.

I again thank the Procedure Committee and all right hon. and hon. Members who have worked with it to produce the proxy voting scheme. I hope that Members will support the motion. I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.