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
We’ve submitted evidence to the recent inquiry on whether Parliament should introduce a more formal system of voting by proxy. You can read our submission here, and see submissions from other organisations and individuals on Parliament’s website.
Voting by proxy is the practice of allowing someone else to cast your vote for you. In Parliament, when MPs go on extended leave, for example when they have a baby, there is no formal system in place; rather, arrangements are often made informally and, potentially, inconsistently.
A Member may approach a whip to request that they are paired with an MP from the opposition who will not be voting either, thus effectively cancelling out the votes that would have been cast. Apparently, there is also an informal tradition of allowing infirm or incapacitated (for example, because they are carrying a baby in their arms) representatives to vote from outside the chamber, but only when present within the precincts of the House. We were interested to see a remark in David Lammy MP’s own evidence:
I would also hope that the Committee might consider some way to end the practice notorious from the late 1970s of bringing seriously sick Members into Westminster in order to vote. This would carry severe reputational risk if repeated nowadays.
Why are we interested?
The inquiry is a direct result of the recent debate, on International Women’s Day, in which Harriet Harman led the call for a more formal system of voting by proxy for members on extended leave (and particularly on ‘baby leave’).
We agree that it’s important Parliament formalises this system, and we fully support any measure that will make life easier for parents, or those on extended leave for other life-changing reasons. And of course, we’re very much in favour of any initiative which will make parliamentary arrangements more transparent and accessible to the general public, which after all is the whole reason TheyWorkForYou exists.
But we also have a further interest in this subject. As you may recall, we were called out by MPs (and subsequently members of the public) for misrepresenting representatives on leave, since our site TheyWorkForYou was not displaying this information, leaving potential for members of the public to believe that such MPs were not attending to their duties.
In response to this, we are now able to manually add notes to the profile pages of those MPs who request it. However, as we outlined in our prior posts it’s not an ideal solution for a number of reasons, as summarised in our inquiry response.
We’re hoping that once the proxy voting system is formalised, the relevant information (that is, who is on extended leave, that a proxy is voting in their place, and the name of the proxy) will be released along with Parliament’s existing data outputs. You can read more about that in our response, but in short, this would allow us to display the information consistently and automatically, as we do for virtually all the rest of the information on TheyWorkForYou.
But it won’t only be useful for us. It’ll allow for the data to be displayed on Parliament’s own website, and of course will be of help to any website or tool which deals with Parliamentary activity and makes it easier for everyone to understand.
Image by Jessica Taylor (Parliamentary copyright, reproduced with the permission of Parliament). “Ayes to the right, noes to the left”. When there is a vote in the Commons, MPs leave their seats and walk into either the Aye or No lobby.
Last week TheyWorkForYou received criticism from some MPs following requests from Emma Reynolds MP to include a note on her voting record that acknowledged time she spent off on parental leave. Our initial response was not sufficient and we’re sorry.
You can see our more nuanced follow up response on Twitter here:
The @mySociety service @TheyWorkForYou is currently receiving criticism from some MPs following requests from @EmmaReynoldsMP to include a note on her voting record that acknowledged time she spent off on parental leave.
— Mark Cridge (@markcridge) February 2, 2018
In summary we’ve committed to doing two things:
- We’ll speak to Parliament to see if a feed of absences could be made available to update the relevant section of TheyWorkForYou.com
- In the meantime we have made some changes so we can manually append a note on long-term absences due to paternal leave or ill-health on request from MPs offices
TheyWorkForYou.com allows citizens to understand how their MPs are voting on issues on their behalf. We’re able to do this because we take the official record of what’s been discussed in Parliament, Hansard, and we represent it in a more ordered form that gathers together all of the votes from a particular issue together in one place.
We can only work with what is provided via the official feeds from Parliament – we don’t actively try to gather additional data; we do however manually categorise each vote to allow them to be grouped together, but everything else is automated.
So whilst we are reliant on what we’re able to source from the official Parliament feed, there is an extent to which we are re-presenting the original data in a more transparent way. Arguably that will change how people see it. As such we want to ensure that we properly represent as true a picture as possible.
MPs, like anyone else, often have to spend time away from their jobs for extended periods, either on parental leave, or due to illness. As this is not reflected in voting records from Parliament and thus not displayed on TheyWorkForYou it can paint an inaccurate picture of an individual MP’s commitment – this is an issue that we have been aware of for a couple of years.
This is particularly relevant in the case of women who take time off after having a child; the current practice in Parliament is that there is no provision for parental leave or ability for MPs to appoint a proxy to vote on their behalf, and that’s the issue that MPs were debating on Thursday when Emma Reynolds made her observation about TheyWorkForYou.
It’s a situation we agree is unfair and in need of urgent reform. We completely support any initiatives to stamp out practices that disproportionately discriminate against women in Parliament.
The list of things that Parliament needs to address in order to improve its working conditions is long and and deep-seated, that’s not something that mySociety can fix – the only people who can do that are MPs and staff in Parliament themselves and we’ll continue to support these changes where we can.
We know that records of attendance aren’t kept for MPs and we blogged about it previously. We also know that this should in principle be possible as they do publish absences of leave for Lords.
So what we have at least done in the meantime is put in place a workaround for TheyWorkforYou.
If we can get the aforementioned list of absences from an official Parliament feed then we’ll look to include that alongside relevant sections of voting records on TheyWorkForYou. This would be our preferred solution.
If, as we suspect, this just is not available or may be some time in coming, then for the moment we will manually append a note to an MPs voting record on request from their office.
This will at least allow us take care of the most clear cut cases.
However as a solution this is far from ideal as it will mean that we are entirely reliant on being notified when an MP is away and when they return, which leaves a lot of opportunity for inaccurate record keeping.
With the best will in the world, we all know that human error can creep in to manual systems — of course we’d never suggest that an MP would lie about taking a leave of absence, that’d be ridiculous; but it would be easy for those about to go on maternity leave to forget to engage in a piece of admin that isn’t even required by Parliament. TheyWorkForYou is familiar to a lesser or greater extent by different MPs and they regard it as significant to a greater or lesser degree. This being so, we’d never be entirely confident that we were presenting a completely consistent and accurate record.
It puts us in a position where we are inadvertently going to be held responsible for keeping track of each MP’s attendance without the means of actually carrying out this role to an acceptable standard. It also raises the issue of where we draw the line – there are many reasons an MP may not be able to attend Parliament other than long-term illness or parental leave; having received such requests over the years from MPs, we can be sure this is going to come up again and again, so we suspect that this won’t be the end of the discussion.
That being said we agree that applying a short term patch to support the cause of parental leave in Parliament is a price worth paying and we’ll deal with the follow ups as best we can in the meantime.
Image: Andrew Bowden CC BY-SA 2.0
@TheyWorkForYou – @EmmaReynoldsmp is saying that you refused to note that she was on maternity leave next to her voting record? Is that true? Is that something that is under active discussion? it seems to penalise female MPs as it stands https://t.co/7FfPFLY2EP
— Simon Burall (@sburall) February 1, 2018
TheyWorkForYou refusing to note that an MP was on maternity leave? Wait, that doesn’t sound like us…
TheyWorkForYou has one main aim: to make it extremely easy to see what’s going on in Parliament. To that end, we publish debates, voting records, and all sorts of details about MPs such as their job titles, expenses, and even which words they use most often.
Sometimes, interpreting all of these facts needs a little context. Case in point: when an MP is off on extended sickness or maternity leave, the number of speeches and votes they make will, of course, go down. There are many little exceptions like this, in fact: for example, my own MP was, for a while, a teller, meaning that he counted votes and was not normally allowed to vote himself. As you’d expect, this had quite an effect on his voting tally.
Now, the trouble with these exceptions is that they’re not easy to code. Most of TheyWorkForYou’s data actually comes from Parliament itself: they provide all the day’s debates, for example, as XML code, which our automated scripts pick up and publish out in the nice, readable format you see each morning on TheyWorkForYou. That’s how we’re able to publish such a large quantity of content on so many MPs: if TheyWorkForYou was compiled editorially, it’d require a far larger staff than we have.
So in fact, when Emma Reynolds got in touch to ask that we note her maternity leave on TheyWorkForYou, we didn’t refuse. Rather, we told her the truth: that it was a tricky issue that would require a manual bit of coding, but we’d add it to our development list and hopefully get to it.
And that’s what we did. The trouble is, our development list is long, and we’re constantly having to make decisions about what to prioritise. This ticket is now a few years old (Ms Reynolds was not the first to ask for a note on her record to explain special circumstances) and it hasn’t yet risen to the top of the list above bug fixes and other more urgent additions. TheyWorkForYou is currently unfunded, so of course, projects which have funding and expectations/deadlines attached to that funding take priority.
You can see just how long we’ve had this issue open, and that it has had some thought, in our development ticket here (related tickets are also here and here).
Note: In retrospect, we recognise that the advice below is not strictly relevant to this post. While we do very much need funding, and also do very much encourage anyone with coding skills to come and help out with our backlog, these two solutions would not alleviate the main obstacle to the issue above, which is that the required data isn’t output by Parliament. So, feel free to read on if you like, but with that in mind. mySociety CEO Mark Cridge put out a series on tweets on Friday which clarify our thinking; you can see those here.
Until we’re able to prioritise this piece of work (or any other that our users/MPs would like to see), there are a couple of solutions.
Ask for Parliament to add such information to their output
As mentioned above, most of TheyWorkForYou’s content is automated, so if there were a data source to show that an MP was on a leave of absence, we could easily pick it up and include it on their page. We’ve asked an MP’s office about this but they replied:
We are not aware of any official source of information about an MP taking leave of absence.
From our point of view, this would be far preferable to a manual solution, which would rely on MPs getting in touch themselves to let us know when exceptions applied. This would almost certainly lead to a situation where some did, and some didn’t, meaning the information could look more accurate than it really was. Many researchers use our outputs, so we wouldn’t want this to become the foundation of a study on MPs’ leaves of absence!
Be the change you want to see
OK, that’s a bit of a hippy-esque maxim, but in this case it’s quite apt.
A small job like this would not take very long or cost very much — the reason we haven’t yet managed it isn’t because it’s a massive piece of work, but because there are so many other pressing tasks.
An MP (or anyone) who wanted to see a new feature could help by making a donation. If you specify that it is for a particular addition to the site, we’ll get back to you to discuss how viable that is, and how we can make it happen.
Or do it yourself! Like most mySociety projects, TheyWorkForYou runs on Open Source code. That means that, if you have development skills, you are very welcome to fork the code and make a pull request for whatever improvements or additions you like. We’ll gratefully merge in any that fit with the site (have a chat with us first to make sure everyone’s on the same page).
If you’re not a developer (say, for example, you’re an MP), you could even contract one to do this for you.
We hope that’s cleared things up a bit. We’re not out to demonise MPs who take maternity leave, honest. And we’ve lodged an official request for a correction from the Times.
Image: Erik Lundqvist