Did some MPs have to leave their sickbeds to vote on Brexit?

26 June 2018
What was claimed

MPs were forced out of hospital and their sick beds to vote in Commons.

Our verdict

A convention allowing unwell or pregnant MPs who are on parliamentary grounds to vote without entering the division lobby wasn’t applied to a vote on the Brexit bill last week. This meant one sick MP, and two heavily pregnant MPs who wanted to vote were obliged to physically enter the lobby.

“MPs forced out of hospital and their sick beds to vote in Commons because Theresa May was scared of being defeated”

The Sun, 20 June 2018

A number of sick and pregnant MPs were obliged to pass by the chamber of the House of Commons in person last week, as they wanted to vote on an amendment to the Brexit bill.

Parliamentary convention normally means that unwell or pregnant MPs do not have to physically enter the division lobby to vote, and need only be on parliamentary grounds. However, this convention was not applied in the Brexit bill vote last week.

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MPs can normally vote without passing through the lobby

There are a couple of parliamentary conventions which allow MPs to vote without passing through the division lobby, which is the normal way of voting on parliamentary matters.

The convention of nodding through “is when an MP is counted as having voted because, although they are present on the parliamentary estate, they are unable to pass through the division lobby because they are physically unwell or they have a small child with them.” This is a practice of the house, but not a rule.

Another convention, known as pairing, “is an arrangement between two MPs of opposing parties to not vote in a particular division. This enables an MP to be absent without affecting the result of the vote as they effectively cancel each other out. Pairing is an informal arrangement which is not recognised by the House of Commons but must be registered with the Whips. Pairing is not allowed in divisions of great political importance”.

What happened in the vote?

Last week, MPs voted on an amendment to the Brexit Bill—you can read more about the vote and the Brexit bill here. Reports state that nodding through was not allowed in this case, meaning that several pregnant or ill MPs had to attend in person if they wished to vote. Reports suggest that government whips suspended the practice of nodding through for the vote although we’ve not seen confirmation of this. The government has said it wasn’t given enough notice to make arrangements for MPs to be nodded through.

Nodding through is a practice operated by the whips, relying on cooperation between government and the opposition.

Labour MP Naz Shah arrived for the vote in a wheelchair and carrying a sick bucket. She told the Guardian that she expected to be able to stay in the car that brought her on a four-hour journey from hospital in Bradford to London, but was obliged to enter the chamber.

Labour MP Laura Pidcock reportedly voted whilst eight months’ pregnant, and Liberal Democrat MP Jo Swinson voted while past her due date. All three voted against the government.

What could happen in the future?

The importance of nodding through has been heightened by the narrow majority which the Conservative government (accounting for the support of the DUP) currently holds in parliament. According to the University College London Constitution Unit: “In current circumstances, a critical vote could turn on whether a small handful of Members were able to attend in person.”

They continue: “There are currently 208 female MPs, just under one-third of the membership. This compares with 27 in the 1974-79 parliament and 60 in the 1992-97 parliament—the last two occasions when the government of the day was not confident of its majority and close votes were likely.”

In February, parliament voted in favour of MPs on parental leave (including paternal and adoption leave) being able to vote by proxy. An inquiry was set up to determine whether and how to implement a formal system for this. The Procedure Committee has now published a set of "practical proposals for the House to consider, should it wish to establish a system of proxy voting for MPs who are new parents."

Update 18 July 2018

We updated the piece with more information on the proposals set out by the Procedure Committee for implementing proxy voting.

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