1. Parliamentary votes during COVID-19

    Covid-19 has meant changes to how parliaments all round the world work, and this means that parliamentary monitoring sites like TheyWorkForYou need to consider how they should change to reflect this.

    We are attempting to represent MPs’ votes fairly in this unusual time during which voting is not necessarily available to, or easy for, every representative. We believe in the current situation most (if not all) have the possibility of casting proxy votes, but need to ensure additional information reflects where this was not the case. We are concerned about the concentration of votes held by party whips through the proxy vote system and believe in terms of simplicity, time taken and the health of MPs and staff, the remote voting system was a better approach for both MPs and their constituents.

    The old normal

    Westminster has one of the oldest parliamentary traditions in the world, and consequently has a large number of antiquated processes and procedures which are not efficient or inclusive by contemporary standards.

    MPs sitting practically on top of their colleagues in the House of Commons was not an unusual sight pre-COVID, as the chamber is not big enough to accommodate all 650 elected representatives at one time. PMQs were defined by heckling from the backbenches, voting required physically walking through a lobby (rather than the electronic voting of the Scottish Parliament) with almost no allowance for proxy or remote voting.

    This was the system of parliamentary governance at the start of 2020, with little reason to expect any changes. The plan to vacate Parliament to allow essential repairs and maintenance to the building would have provided an opportunity to experiment with different designs or practices. Instead the plan was to build a replica of the chamber and division lobbies as they already exist.

    Change is resisted with reference to tradition, but behind that is also the understanding that changing the physical space and practices of Parliament would have an impact on where power is distributed. The result is a slow rate of change, where reform (such as an independent panel to deal with bullying and harassment allegations against MPs) is resisted and hard-won.

    And then COVID struck, and everything changed, very fast.

    A digital revolution — and a roll back

    There have never been such rapid shifts in practice in the House of Commons as during the COVID-19 crisis.

    MPs were sent from Westminster back to their constituencies to work from home, like so many of their constituents. Parliamentary business migrated online. All of a sudden, remote electronic voting was the only way of registering a vote. This was revolutionary. The hard working folks at the Parliamentary Digital Service managed to tweak the existing online MemberHub system to enable this new electronic service, and it seems to have worked extremely well.

    But this huge digital step forward has now been rolled back. In early June, MPs were summoned to return to the parliamentary estate, regardless of their individual health considerations. This meant that many MPs who have underlying conditions and were advised to shield from the virus had the unenviable decision of whether to risk their lives and return to Westminster, or to remain at home and risk not being able to vote or represent their constituents effectively.

    The government was insistent that remote electronic voting would no longer be available as an option, and while there were later concessions in the form of widening the criteria for which MPs could have a proxy vote, there are likely to have been some that missed votes or could not participate during this period because they were unable to be present or arrange for a proxy in time. This is not just an issue for MPs who cannot be in parliament in person, MPs voting in person have to do so in a way that is more time consuming than the normal approach.

    Proxy voting is the wrong approach

    While the proxy voting scheme was initially expanded from parental leave to those who were in a ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’/‘clinically vulnerable’ category, this has now been expanded again. The current situation is that the proxy voting scheme covers MPs on parental leave, or with a medical or public health reason related to the pandemic. There is a table at the bottom of this post showing who could vote during which period.

    There is no requirement to “provide any detail specifying why you are unable to attend Westminster for medical or public health reasons related to the pandemic”, so in practice, all MPs should be able to designate a proxy to cast votes on their behalf. That said, not all have done so, and there is no requirement that an MP must designate a proxy if they cannot attend Westminster.

    This has also had the side-effect of expanding proxy votes to MPs with health problems who would not have been ineligible for them before (we have previously written in favour of proxy votes for MPs with long-term health problems).

    As of the 24th June, there were 169 MPs who had applied for proxy votes – that is just over a quarter of all MPs. three quarters of these have listed a party whip as a proxy. That many MPs have designated their whip as a proxy simplifies the administration of such a large number of proxies, but means that those MPs have less effective freedom to rebel on a case by case issue.

    While many MPs may never have chosen to exercise that freedom, this might create an expectation that the ‘norm’ is to pass the vote to the whip, and raise suspicions about MPs who might reasonably decide not to. The virtual voting system was ironically more traditional in preserving the idea that MPs (not whips) cast votes.

    In the past, we’ve contributed to a parliamentary inquiry supporting a more formalised system of proxy voting, not least because without a formal record, there is no data on how individual MPs have voted. Without data, we can’t publish accurate records that would give our users the context they need to understand the significance of a ‘no-show’ from their MP in a specific vote.

    But this position was working from the assumption that proxy voting would be accounting for at most a few dozen MPs. Accounting for large numbers of MPs raises new issues about how many proxy votes one MP should be able to exercise, and in general whether it is the appropriate solution for this situation. A remote voting system was a better solution to the problem at hand, that better protected not only the health of MPs and staff required to be present on the parliamentary estate, but the existing power relations of MPs and parties.

    Portraying MPs fairly

    Whether votes are through a proxy system, or whether they are not being recorded at all because an MP couldn’t make it into Parliament on health grounds, we want people to be able to fairly assess how and what their representatives are doing. Over the long term, we want to make sure that the special circumstances of these months are reflected.

    Here are our current plans on how voting records should reflect changing voting access:

    • We have added a box on the voting page to inform about the current situation, and that there were recent votes where some MPs were not able to participate. This is the same for all MPs, as proxy voting information is not complete and we cannot reflect which MPs may feel excluded from votes.
    • We have acted on a pre-existing plan to remove some of the comparisons we currently publish on metrics such as how many votes or debates they have participated in. This will remove the issue of MPs who are not physically present performing less well on these metrics.
    • In the long term, we will be exploring how individual votes where voting access was effectively restricted may be marked on the site, as well as exploring if other changes to the service are required.

    mySociety has worked with parliaments all over the world over the last 10 years, and we continue to consult on how procedures, information and systems can be digitised for better transparency, accountability and inclusion of the wider public.

    Given the changes and experiments going on in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, we’re going to be blogging more about the effect on democratic practices, as we focus in on various aspects of our parliamentary system in the UK and how it might be modernised.

     

     

    Who could vote when?

    Period Remote voting Proxy voting In person voting
    11 May – 2 June Everyone Parental leave
    2 June – 4 June Parental leave Physically present
    5 June-9 June Parental leave, ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’, ‘clinically vulnerable’ Physically present
    10th June- Parental leave, medical or ‘public health reason related to the pandemic’ Physically present

     

    Image: First virtual PMQs and Ministerial statement on Coronavirus 22/04/2020 by UK Parliament

  2. Keep on top of the new Parliament

    Whether or not you voted for the MP you ended up with, it pays to keep a careful eye on what they’re saying and how they’re voting.

    Democracy works best as a model when we, the public, hold our MPs to account. If you see them acting or speaking in a way that’s contrary to your views, tell them — otherwise, how will they know that anyone feels differently?

    But you’ll only be able to do that if you know what’s going on.

    Here’s one of the services that you might not know about, but which is a crucial tool for anyone wanting to stay up to date with Parliament:

    Alerts

    Sign up to an alert, and we’ll send you an email every time your MP speaks in a debate, or votes. Or, if there’s a topic you care about, we can send you an email every time it’s mentioned in Parliament.

    You can set up any number of alerts, to comprehensively cover your interests.

    What to do

    First of all, visit this page if you’d like to follow your own MP. Just input your postcode and email address, and you’re all set.

    Or, if you’d rather follow a word or phrase, follow the simple instructions in this post.

    Already signed up?

    One fifth of the UK has a new MP after the election. If you already have an MP alert set up, but your MP has changed, you also need to visit this page to switch over.

    And if you already have some other alerts set up, and you want to refine them, there are instructions here.

    Useful for everyone

    Email alerts are a really simple way to keep informed. They can be halted or paused at any time to suit your needs, and if Parliament isn’t sitting, your chosen MP isn’t active or your keywords don’t come up in a debate, you won’t receive anything on those days.

    It takes just a few seconds to scan the email, and, if you’re interested in the content, a couple of minutes to click through and read the content.

    Useful for businesses, campaigns and charities

    Alerts can be equally helpful if you work for an organisation that would benefit from knowing whenever your field is mentioned in Parliament.

    If an MP shows sympathy for your cause, you could get in touch and see if you might work together; you might ask them to submit a question to the House, come and see your organisation in action, or help you to forge useful links.

    Or if they say something misguided, you can put them right with a press release or a letter inviting them to come and see the facts for themselves.

    Some organisations run campaigns around upcoming legislation, asking their supporters to get in touch with their own MPs with their experiences and information that might help inform their vote.

    Image: ©UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/ Stephen Pike (CC by-nc/2.0)

  3. TheyWorkForYou — helping you hold the new parliament to account

    When you woke up this morning to check the election results, you may have visited TheyWorkForYou.

    And you’d have found it bang up to date, thanks to the new MP data that was added through the night, as the election results came in. More than a fifth of you have a new MP, and whether you voted for them or not we know you’ll want to keep them accountable.

    Donate to help us keep this service going.

    We’ve just now added one final MP — for St Ives, since weather conditions prevented ballot boxes coming over from the Isles of Scilly earlier.

    We’ll be helping you hold all MPs, new and returning, to account over the next few years, as we publish their debates and votes, expenses, interests and contact details.

    We make it as simple as possible for everyone to understand what’s going on in Parliament, and how you can play a part in your own democracy.

    Right now, you can get a headstart:

    If you’re a developer, researcher or just a good old data junkie, you might additionally like to:

    Now we need you to help us

    We’re determined to carry on providing these services, but we still need your help to do so.

    There are seven days left to run on our crowdfunder. Thanks to the generosity of hundreds of donors, we’ve already raised almost £10,000, for which we are enormously grateful.

    But we still need to raise another £15,000 so that we can continue providing these services, as well as adding new features that will improve the site and make Parliament easier for everyone to follow.

    Please donate now.

    TheyWorkForYou crowdfunder

    Image: ©UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/ Stephen Pike (CC by-nc/2.0)

  4. Can you help TheyWorkForYou survive… and thrive?

    TheyWorkForYou is currently operating without dedicated funding, and that’s a problem. In order to keep it running for the next twelve months, we’re going to need your help.

    That’s why we’ve set up mySociety’s first ever crowdfunder. If you enjoy — or perhaps even rely on — TheyWorkForYou’s services, then please be a hero and pledge to help ensure the site can continue to provide them.

    Donate now

    Why donate?

    TheyWorkForYou has a simple aim: to make it easier for everyone to understand what happens in Parliament – from a searchable, shareable record of exactly what was said in debates, to how your MP voted. We think that it’s important in a democracy that you should be able to see who your MP is, check what they are saying and how they are voting on your behalf.

    Now more than ever, the UK needs clarity over what’s said and done in Parliament. As political activity becomes more complex, and has more effect on all of our lives, TheyWorkForYou’s remit becomes all the more critical.

    However, just keeping the site going on a daily basis takes a substantial amount of staff time and expertise, not to mention the costs involved in hosting a heavily-visited website. Taking all that into consideration, it takes a good sum of money just to keep standing still. We’ve worked hard to find the support we need through our usual funding channels, but so far without success.

    Then, if we want to do more than just keep TheyWorkForYou in its current state — and we’ve got a long list of much-needed features we’d love to add, many of them suggested by you, our users — we need to reach the full target of £25,000.

    How you can help

    So if you’re in a position to do so, please put on your democracy superhero cape and donate to help keep TheyWorkForYou running.

    And if you’re not, then you can still help by sharing the link to the crowdfunder far and wide. We really appreciate it.

    Donate now

  5. Our services during election periods

    If you’re a user of mySociety’s Democracy-focused sites, such as TheyWorkforYou and WriteToThem, you may notice a few changes during the election period.

    Generally speaking, the sites just work. Sure, there are a bunch of tasks we’re managing on a daily basis behind the scenes, but none of those need bother you, the user. To employ a tired old metaphor, the sites glide swanlike, while under the water there’s some busy paddling to ensure that the latest debates, votes and representatives’ contact details are all present and correct.

    During an election, though, that paddling becomes a bit more visible, and some services may be interrupted.

    WriteToThem

    You want to contact your MP? Here’s the thing: officially, you don’t have one at the moment.

    Parliament has dissolved. The representatives formerly known as MPs are no longer allowed to refer to themselves as such, and their parliamentary email addresses have been withdrawn.

    So when you visit WriteToThem, you’ll see this message where we normally provide the link for writing to your MP:

    What WriteToThem looks like during an election

    Note that you can still use WriteToThem to contact all your other representatives, from local councillors to MSPs, Assembly members, MEPs, etc — provided that your issue is relevant to them (you’ll see a short list of the types of issue each representative deals with, on the site).

    If you’ve got something to say about the current political situation or a matter that you’d like your MP to vote on, though, you’ll just have to wait. Even if your former MP is standing for re-election, they’re most likely dedicating a lot of their time to canvassing, and of course they won’t be taking any issues into the debating chamber just now because Parliament is not in session.

    Where it becomes a little more tricky is if you have a constituency issue you want an MP to help with. Perhaps consider if it’s something your local councillor/s may be able to help with instead — it’s always worth asking them, anyway. If not, and if it’s an urgent matter, it may be worth calling your former MP’s office, as some (especially those standing for re-election) will still be running a bare bones service.

    If your issue is not urgent, then wait until a couple of weeks after the election. In particular, if you find yourself with a brand new MP they’ll be finding their feet, setting up staff and office equipment, etc.

    TheyWorkForYou

    You’ll see the word ‘former’ used a lot, if you visit TheyWorkForYou over the next few weeks. For example, the homepage generally has a prominent link to direct you towards your own MP’s page. These days, it looks like this:

    TheyWorkForYou showing the woird 'former' during an election

    And if you do click through to any MP’s page, you’ll see that they now have this below their name:

    On the page where we list all MPs, you’ll see this factually accurate message at the top:

    If you want a list of who the MPs were, it’s still there, you just have to click the link.

    And then there’s one more thing: of course, as there are no debates taking place in Parliament, we’re not sending out Westminster email alerts (you’ll still get those from Scottish Parliament and the London Assembly, though).

    When will everything be back to normal?

    Our friends at Democracy Club collate the election results as they come in, producing data that we can then import. Thanks to them we’re generally able to update TheyWorkForYou pretty much in real time. So, when you wake up in the morning you’ll hopefully be able to:

    • Check who your MP is;
    • If it’s someone new, sign up for alerts so you get an email when they speak.

    For a little while, of course, new MPs will have very little content on their pages: you’ll see a message to say that data will start to appear once they’ve done a bit more.

    WriteToThem takes a little longer to get back up to speed: that’s because we need to import all the MPs’ email addresses, and these can take a while to come through. If we’re using an official parliamentary email address, experience shows that they may not even be set up by Parliament for a short while.

    So please be patient — as we mentioned earlier, it’s probably best to wait a couple of weeks before contacting your brand new MP in any case.

    Meanwhile…

    While mySociety sites are fully operational in the periods between elections, there are other organisations who swing into action and do their best work during this time.

    So here are a few things you can do, thanks to those other orgs, while you wait for mySociety’s democracy services to return to normal.

    • Visit WhoCanIVoteFor and WhereDoIVote from Democracy Club to discover who your local candidates for the General Election are, what they stand for, and where to find your nearest polling station.
    • Upload scans of the political mailouts coming through your door to ElectionLeaflets, and help build a permanent archive of promises that elected representatives can be held to account for further down the line.
    • Get the Who Targets Me extension on your browser to see clearly who is behind the political ads you’re being served on Facebook.

    And finally: if you have questions about the whole electoral process, read the beginner’s guide to the UK General Elections we put together in 2017. While the names and dates have changed since then, the facts are still the same.

    Image: Reproduced with the permission of Parliament

  6. Understanding the votes on TheyWorkForYou

    With so very much going on in politics right now, and so many MPs in the spotlight at any given moment, there has been a lot of sharing of TheyWorkForYou’s voting records on social media.

    Of course, we’re all for it, if it helps people understand MPs’ voting history and the stances they’ve taken during their careers: we even include little share buttons beneath each voting record section to help you do this.

    But as from a couple of weeks ago, you’ll also see a new addition to these sections: we’ve added a link saying ‘please share these voting records responsibly’ — and if you click on it, you’ll see a page setting out lots more information about votes, including the data that feeds the voting information on the site, and what you can — and what you definitely shouldn’t — conclude from it.

    What TheyWorkForYou has always tried to do is take the complex, sometimes messy, often arcane and opaque business of Parliament and make it easy for the everyday person to understand, even if they don’t have a degree in Politics or lifelong membership of a political party.

    The trouble is, as our users and MPs themselves can be very quick to point out, when you try to simplify a complicated area, some nuance is always lost. There are things everyone should know before they charge onto Twitter or Facebook, hoping to win an argument or denigrate an MP by brandishing their record on foreign policy or social issues. And so we’ve set these points out on one page.

    A key question that arises when writing a page like this is: if we can’t present everything (either because the data doesn’t exist, or because including it would complicate the overall picture so much that we would risk losing our aim of making things easy to understand) should we present anything at all?

    We ask ourselves this question fairly often, and so far our answer has always been ‘yes’. Please read our page so that you fully understand the reasons behind the decisions we make.

    Image: MP speaking at Theresa May’s last Prime Minister’s Questions, 24 July 2019, CC-BY-NC, Copyright UK Parliament / Jessica Taylor.

  7. Making votes easier to understand

    Parliamentary votes (or ‘divisions’ as they’re known in the lingo) aren’t always the easiest things to understand; yet, as we know from our email inbox, they’re often what our users want to know about most.

    Supported by a grant from Open Society Foundations, we’re now displaying  MPs’, Lords’ and Scottish Parliament votes on TheyWorkForYou more graphically, making them easier to understand at a glance:

    (Click the image to see this vote in situ.)

    For a long time TheyWorkForYou would display divisions as a plain list, usually at or near the end of a debate. When a user wrote to ask us how they could see how a specific representative had voted on the issue of the day, we’d point them towards the relevant section of the right page — but of course, it’s much better if you can find the information for yourself.

    Things improved a little when we created the Recent Votes page, and separated out information for each vote onto their own pages. At that point, though, we were only displaying votes which counted towards the topics we cover on representatives’ Voting Record pages: in other words, those which helped us assess MPs’ and Lords’ stances on issues such as university tuition fees, fox-hunting, etc.

    Now, with this new tranche of work, we’ve been able to make the following improvements:

    • All votes are included on the Recent Votes page, not just ones feeding the voting records.
    • The voting breakdowns are shown graphically, so you can see straight away what the rough proportions were, and to what extent each party’s members made up each side. It should also be easy to see immediately when a representative votes differently to the majority of their party!
    • As we blogged recently, we’re including information on voting for anyone subscribed to MP alerts.

    If you’d really like to understand the full context of each vote, we hope you’ll click through from these pages and read the preceding debates.

    We hope you’ll now find it a lot easier to understand votes — and this certainly feels like a timely addition, given the interesting voting activity of recent days.


    You can help us keep improving our services.
    Donate now


    Image: Katie McNabb

  8. How your MP voted… in your email inbox

    If you subscribe to emails that tell you every time an MP speaks via TheyWorkForYou, then you may have noticed a change in today’s mailout.

    From today, we’re trialing alerts not just when your chosen MP has spoken, but also when and how they voted — and what could be more timely, what with the dramatic votes of last night! As always, you can click the link in the email to see further context.

    The alerts also cover votes in the House of Lords, and in the Scottish Parliament.

    This is one part of the work we’re able to do towards enhancing access to democracy, supported by a grant from the Open Society Foundations. It’s a feature we’ve wanted to add for a long time — not to mention something that you’ve been asking for — and as we hope you’ll agree, it certainly adds to our overarching goal of trying to make the goings-on in Parliament more accessible to everyone.

    Find out more about votes

    Generally speaking, you can check the Recent Votes page on TheyWorkForYou to see whether your MP was present for a division; or if you know what date it was held on, you can go to the calendar, click through to the relevant debate, and find the divisions usually near or at the end of the page.

    How to sign up for alerts

    Not signed up to follow your MP’s activity in Parliament yet? It’s very simple: just go to this page and input your postcode.

    Enjoy tracking your MP’s votes, and watch this space for more voting-related improvements coming soon.

    Image: Luca Micheli

  9. TheyWorkForYou is ready for its close-up

    A mocked-up page from TheyWorkForYou featured in the first episode of the BBC thriller Bodyguard. Now that’s what we call attention to detail!

    The protagonist and eponymous bodyguard, David Budd, is assigned to protect the story’s fictional Home Secretary, Julia Montague MP. And within the programme’s all thriller no filler formula, what really got our pulses racing was probably a welcome moment of calm for most viewers — Budd doing a quick Google to find out more about his new boss.

    What came high in the search results? Why, TheyWorkForYou, of course (sorry, @Parlidigital!), and Budd was able to click through to see the Home Secretary’s voting record and just how it had impacted on his own past life fighting in Afghanistan. These tweets from the show’s designer reveal just how much thought has gone into every detail.

    Screenshots of mocked-up TheyWorkForYou for Bodyguard
    Image: Matthew Clark’s Twitter

    Back in 2015, we thought long and hard about a small piece of wording on TheyWorkForYou: the text that goes with MPs’ voting stances (see the second half of this blog post). This wording tells you that an MP ‘consistently’ or ‘occasionally’ (or always, or never) voted for or against an area… such as military action in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Julia Montague, it turns out, is a very ‘consistent’ voter.

  10. Proxy voting and parental absence in Parliament: inquiry report

    So proxy voting has been in the news again. For whatever reason, MP Brandon Lewis failed to honour an agreed pairing for Jo Swinson while she was on maternity leave. Those arguing in favour of a more formal system might say that this story — and the ensuing confusion — underlines the point perfectly.

    You may remember that we submitted evidence to the Commons Procedure Committee inquiry on just this matter. Back in May, they published their report and recommendations for Parliament (you can see the summary here if you’re in a hurry).

    While we broadly support measures that will formalise the currently informal system, our main interest is in digital data being available so that our own site TheyWorkForYou, as well as parliamentary sites run by other people, can disseminate the information clearly, aiding transparency and accessibility.

    We were glad to see that this point has been acknowledged. Paragraph 59 of the report states:

    Where a proxy vote is cast, it must to be recorded in a transparent way. When listing the result of divisions, both online and in its printed edition, the Official Report (Hansard) must note votes which were cast by proxy, by marking a symbol adjacent to the name of the absent Member and identifying the Member who cast the proxy vote. It should be the aim that this record should be treated as an integral part of the digital record of Commons divisions and should be shared as open data in a format compatible with Parliament’s Open Data output, both as part of the dataset for each division and as a standalone output.

    So what next?

    The recommendations were to have been debated in the House of Commons at the beginning of this month, but a lack of time prevented that from happening.

    As it’s now the summer recess, the report will come back to the table in September. Presumably the recent display of how informal pairing can fail will stand as a rather good argument for these more official arrangements.

    As for the mechanics of the matter, the implementation of proxy voting will require a number of changes to be made to Standing Orders (the rules by which each House’s proceedings are run), which the committee has suggested should be put to the House for decision at the same time as the report is debated.

    If these are agreed to, they’ve recommended that the scheme should brought into force with immediate effect; there would then be a reassessment after they’ve run for twelve months to see if any further changes are required.

     

    Image: Andrew Seaman