The UK’s legislative process has come under scrutiny in recent months. Whilst there have been some modernisations in recent years, including the ability to vote by proxy and ‘pairings’, has the time come for the way MPs vote in the House of Commons to change?
What is the legislative process?
The legislative process refers to the stages that a bill goes through before becoming an Act of Parliament (law). Whilst it is the duty of the electorate to choose who represents their local area, it is up to MPs to decide whether a bill should be written into UK law and serves their constituents the best. A bill goes through the following stages before becoming law:
- House of Commons: First Reading – a bill is introduced.
- House of Commons: Second Reading – a bill is debated in full and then put to the vote.
- House of Commons: Committee Stage – the Public Bill Committee will then examine the text of the bill in more detail, debate its finer points, propose changes and then vote on those changes.
- House of Commons: Third Reading – amendments can be introduced by MPs, it is debated again and voted on for the final time in the House of Commons.
- House of Lords: First Reading – the bill is introduced into the House.
- House of Lords: Second Reading – the bill is debated in full and then put to the vote.
- House of Lords: Committee Stage – scrutinised again by the Public Bill Committee and voted on.
- House of Lords: Report Stage and Third Reading – Amendments are introduced by Lords, it is debated again and voted on. If the bill changes at this stage, it goes back to the House of Commons and the process returns to step 1. If there are no changes, the bill receives royal assent and becomes law.
From the above list, it is clear to see how people believe that the legislative process is too inefficient and lengthy. Furthermore, if bills are changed by the House of Lords many times, it can take years before it becomes law. However, this article aims to highlight the way that MPs vote in various areas of this process. The debate on the efficiency of the legislative process is a question for another day.
How do MPs vote, and have there been recent changes?
The process outlined above also shows how MPs are required to vote two or three times on a bill before it goes to the Lords. Under the current system, MPs must be physically present in the House of Commons to vote and have only eight minutes to do so. There is no smartphone app to vote on, nor a website to vote from home if an MP is sick for a day or two.
Changes in recent years have sought to make the system fairer, and they have worked in certain circumstances:
- Proxy voting: for MPs that are on maternal or paternal leave, they can nominate another member to vote on their behalf if they cannot be in the House. On 3 June 2020, this was extended to MPs shielding and over the age of 70 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Pairing: If a member cannot be present in the chamber for any reason, they can pair with another MP from the other side of the House. Their pair will not vote on the bill going through, and so it would not matter that they weren’t in the chamber.
Furthermore, the virtual parliament ran for a few weeks during the COVID-19 pandemic, and whilst it proved successful, Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg decided to end it in favour of MPs returning to Westminster to carry out their legislative function physically.
Is the current system of voting fair?
- It is in sticking with parliamentary tradition that MPs should vote in person. The Westminster model of democracy is respected worldwide, and any changes would undo the tradition that has built up over many years.
- Pairing and proxy voting have ensured that MPs who cannot be in the chamber under extreme circumstances are allowed to make their voices heard.
- It encourages MPs to take their job seriously and make an effort to come to parliament to debate motions and vote in person. It reflects well to their constituents.
- Pairing can be seen as unreliable, as there is nothing physically stopping a paired MP from voting for or against a bill.
- The virtual parliament run during the COVID-19 lockdown was seen as a huge success and tipped to be the future of voting in Westminster.
- A virtual system would mean that people wouldn’t have to travel to Westminster to vote, and would mean a much more efficient system.
Edexcel AS: ‘The way that MPs vote is outdated and in need of modernisation.’ How far do you agree with this view of the legislative process in the UK Parliament? 
Edexcel A-Level: Evaluate the view that MPs should be able to scrutinise the government when they are absent from the House of Commons. 
AQA AS: ‘The way that MPs vote is outdated and should be modernised.’ Analyse and evaluate this statement. 
AQA A-Level: Explain and analyse the stages a bill goes through before becoming law.