On 23 September 2020, the House of Commons agreed to confirm arrangements allowing MPs who are away from Westminster because of reasons relating to childbirth or the care of an infant or newly adopted child to vote by proxy. These arrangements were previously in place on a temporary basis as part of a pilot scheme.

In parallel, the House agreed to extend temporary arrangements introduced earlier in the year that allow MPs to vote by proxy for medical or public health reasons related to the pandemic. These were further extended on 22 October 2020 and are now set to remain in place until 30 March 2021.

In contrast, members of the House of Lords are not able to vote by proxy. Previously an “ancient practice”, the House discontinued allowing members to vote on another’s behalf over 150 years ago. Erskine May—a guide to parliamentary practice—records that no proposal has since been made to formally suspend the prohibition. This remained the case until June 2020, when Lord Howard of Rising (Conservative) tabled a motion to suspend the rule against proxy voting during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Standing order 60: Proxies not to be revived

The current rule against proxy voting was agreed by the House on 31 March 1868. On that date, the House agreed a new standing order—a rule regulating procedure—that prohibited the practice unless the House decided otherwise. Now known as standing order 60, the rule remains in force. It reads:

Proxies not to be revived [31 March 1868]: The ancient practice of calling for proxies shall not be revived except upon the suspension of this standing order; and not less than two days’ notice shall be given of any motion for such suspension.

Proxy voting as an ‘ancient practice’

The customs and rules relating to proxy voting in the House of Lords changed a great deal during the period in which it was permitted. This included who could perform the role of a proxy.

Originally, as Dr Paul Seaward of the History of Parliament’s Reformation to Referendum Project has observed, proxies were substitutes who represented the interests of the absent member. During a debate in the House of Commons on the subject of proxy voting in 1837, Thomas Duncombe, then MP for Finsbury, provided examples:

The first notice to be found of proxies was in the reigns of Edward I, and Edward II [1272–1327] when the bishops of Durham and Carlisle were ordered to remain in Scotland, where they were defending the marches, but were at the same time commanded to send up well-instructed persons to represent them; and from that time to the reign of Henry VIII peers, when unavoidably compelled either by illness or employment by the King on foreign wars to absent themselves from Parliament, were enjoined to send proxies, but these proxies were not members of the House, but men of lesser rank; the spiritual Lords being frequently represented by parsons, prebendaries, and any members of collegiate bodies whom they chose to send.

By the early seventeenth century, this had changed so that proxy votes were cast by other members of the House.

In 1626, two standing orders were introduced to regulate proxy voting. This included limiting the number of proxies any member could hold to two. The orders read as follows:

  • That, after this session, no Lord of this House shall be capable of receiving above two proxies, nor more to be numbered in any cause voted.
  • That all proxies from a spiritual Lord shall be made unto a spiritual Lord [bishop or archbishop], and from a temporal Lord unto a temporal Lord [hereditary peer].

At the same time, proxy books were introduced that recorded details of proxy votes. These continued in use until 1864, at which point the records comprised 150 volumes.

Other rules regarding the use of proxies were already in place before 1626. For example, proxies were not used when the House was in committee or in judicial proceedings.

Reduced use and reform

Dr Seaward has noted that proxies were used much less frequently after 1830, “perhaps because peers noticed an increasing public antagonism towards the practice”. He added: “They were deployed in a division in the House for the last time in 1864 (on British policy towards the dispute between Prussia and Denmark), when, unusually, they altered the result”.

In June 1867, a select committee formed to report on the business of the House added proxies to the list of subjects it would consider as part of its work. It reported the following month. The committee concluded that while the right to vote by proxy was a privilege “so ancient as to have become a prescriptive right as inherent in their peerages as that of being summoned to Parliament”, it was open to the House to regulate its use.

The committee’s report also included the view that “the exercise of the right of voting by proxy by peers who have had no opportunity of hearing the debate is objectionable. It diminishes the attendance of peers in the House and tends to weaken in the public mind the authority of the decisions at which the House arrive”. The committee recommended that the practice be discontinued, rather than abolished, via a standing order that would prevent proxies being used.

Debate on the committee’s proposals

The House debated the committee’s report on 31 March 1868, before moving to agree the new standing order.

Opening the debate, the Earl of Malmesbury, then Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Lords, summarised the committee’s conclusions. He said that while the “privilege enjoyed by peers, of being represented in the House by proxies when unable to attend personally, was a very ancient and historical one”, the committee had “considered whether any change should be made in regard to that practice”. He then summarised its main finding on the question of how the House could stop the practice:

It was clear that the privilege of the peers to use proxies could only be put an end to by act of Parliament; but there were abundant precedents to show that the House itself could, by its own orders, regulate the mode of exercising the privilege.

He then summarised a “difference of opinion” that had emerged on the committee on the merits of proxy voting:

[…] it was thought that their Lordships’ House would be more popular, and would enjoy more confidence with the country in respect to its decisions, if that privilege [proxies] were waived, inasmuch as those who were not present at the debates were not supposed to have a full knowledge of the points on which they would have to vote. On the other hand, there were many members of their Lordships’ House who, though prevented from being present in the House by illness or through employment under the crown, were yet perfectly cognizant of what was going on there, and as capable of giving an opinion on subjects brought before Parliament, as if they were present and heard the debates.

Lord Malmesbury added that the committee, “though divided in opinion, decided that, on the whole, it would be preferable to put an end to the use of proxies, and that an order of the House should be adopted to that effect”.

Furthermore, the committee “recommended that, to prevent that order from being lightly suspended, twice the usual length of notice should be given of any motion for its suspension”. For this reason, the wording of the standing order says that “not less than two days’ notice shall be given of any motion” for its suspension.

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Image: Copyright House of Lords.