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The House of Lords has long reached decisions on contested questions through ‘divisions’; so called because when a vote is held the House ‘divides’ between members voting either ‘content’ or ‘not content’ on a proposition. These have usually involved members filing through spaces known as division lobbies located either side of the chamber, where—up until recently—officials recorded members’ names alongside designated members known as ‘tellers’ who counted votes. But the House has not always voted in this way, and more recently both the Covid-19 pandemic and technology have led to changes in long-established practices.
1. Historical background on divisions
The terms ‘content’ and ‘not content’ have been used in the second chamber since at least the 16th century. For example, the English parliamentarian and diplomat Sir Thomas Smith (1515–1577) wrote between 1562 and 1565 on voting in the House of Lords that members voted “‘content’ or ‘not content’, without reasoning or replying” when asked whether they agreed with a question.
The House first codified its voting practices in the 17th century, with standing orders recording that after a question was ‘put’ by the Lord Chancellor, and beginning with the lowest-ranking peer, “every man in his turn rises uncovered, and only says ‘content’ or ‘not content’”. However, this method of voting did not always produce a definitive outcome. Henry Elsynge (c.1606–1656), who served as a House of Commons clerk in the mid-17th century, recorded that when an outcome was in doubt one peer from each side of the vote would be appointed to poll members who would stand to be counted from their seats.
A little later that century, John Relfe (1621–1711), who served as reading clerk from 1673 to 1711, recorded in 1670 that it was decided those voting ‘content’ were to go below the bar (a barrier that separates the chamber from the area outside) if there was any doubt on the outcome of a vote. This practice was later formalised in standing orders, so that from 1691 those voting ‘content’ would go below the bar and those voting ‘not content’ would remain within the chamber.
The current system of members voting in ‘content’ and ‘not content’ division lobbies located either side of the chamber dates from March 1857 and was first recorded in standing orders in 1858. Certain standing orders (SOs) governing the conduct of divisions today date from June 1865, including SO 53, which provides for members to be able to vote from their seats in the chamber on grounds of infirmity.
2. Proxy voting
The practice of members of the second chamber voting either ‘content’ or ‘not content’ differs with practice in the House of Commons, where MPs vote either ‘aye’ or ‘no’ during divisions. Another distinction between how the two Houses handle divisions concerns proxy voting. In 2020, the House of Commons agreed to confirm arrangements allowing MPs to vote by proxy for reasons relating to childbirth or adoption. It also agreed temporary arrangements to allow proxy voting during the pandemic that have now lapsed. In contrast, proxy voting has been prohibited in the House of Lords for over 150 years.
Before its prohibition, the ‘ancient practice’ of proxy voting had a long history in the second chamber, including changes in 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. But this had changed by the early 17th century so that proxy votes were cast by other members. Then, in 1626, two standing orders were introduced to regulate proxy voting, included limiting the number of proxies any member could hold to two. Dr Seaward has noted that proxies were used much less frequently after 1830, “perhaps because peers noticed an increasing public antagonism towards the practice”.
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. The committee reported the following month. It 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 recommended that the practice be discontinued, rather than abolished, via a standing order that would prevent proxies being used. The House debated the committee’s report on 31 March 1868, before moving to agree the standing order that remains in force as SO 59. Erskine May indicates that no proposal to suspend the standing order has been debated since the rule was agreed.
3. Recent changes to modern practice
As noted above, prior to the pandemic most members voted by physically walking through the division lobbies located either side of the chamber. They would give their name to a clerk before walking past two members at the end of each lobby, who, acting as tellers, would count them before the division result was announced in the chamber.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, social distancing requirements led to dramatic changes in parliamentary working practices, including voting arrangements. Both Houses soon moved to enable members to vote remotely using an online system. But while the House of Commons only used its system in May 2020, the House of Lords used its remote voting system for significantly longer:
- Between 15 June 2020 and 6 September 2021, members could vote remotely using the online voting system without restriction on their physical location.
- In July 2021, the House agreed to proposals that from 6 September 2021 the rules would be changed so members could only vote if they were doing so “from a place of work on the parliamentary estate”, unless they were exempted from the requirement. But votes were still held using the online system, allowing members to vote from their preferred device.
Meanwhile, the House of Lords Commission had agreed in June 2021 that the House should start using pass readers in the division lobbies to record votes instead of officials recording voting members’ names and tellers their votes. In February 2022, the House agreed to proposals on using pass readers for divisions and the new system was used for the first time on 7 June 2022.
However, under a standing order introduced in July 2021 (SO 24A), members who may be physically unable to attend the House in person on grounds of long-term disability may apply to vote electronically using the pandemic-era remote voting system or by telephone. Members physically present in the chamber may still vote from their seats on grounds of infirmity by presenting a valid security pass to the clerk at the table. If the pass reader system fails, divisions may be conducted as normal but with officials recording names manually.
4. Read more
- House of Lords Library, ‘Customs and traditions of the House of Lords’, 7 August 2017
- House of Lords Library, ‘Proxy voting and the House of Lords’, 26 November 2020
- House of Lords Library, ‘House of Lords: Timeline of response to Covid-19 pandemic’, 1 March 2022
Cover image: Copyright House of Lords.