Jo Swinson’s pairing problem shows a wider problem with Parliament’s rules

A further twist to the controversial vote on Europe this week: it turns out that although Jo Swinson was, very reasonably, on maternity leave and paired, the Conservative she was paired with broke the pair and voted:

Pairing itself is a procedure that, although it has been around for centuries, is still an ‘unofficial’ procedure that happens outside Parliament’s formal rules. It is the arrangement which is made between two MPs who would otherwise vote opposite ways that each of them will not vote.

Pairing therefore means no difference to the outcome of the vote results, and allows MPs to cater for being ill, having a pressing family appointment and indeed the other pressure of work on an MP which requires them to do all sorts of other things in addition to being in Parliament. (Such as being a minister, or meeting constituents, or researching their speech for the next day, or 1,001 other tasks which would have people loudly complaining that their MP isn’t doing their job if they passed up on all of them.) Pairing is particularly useful as not only whether or not a vote is going to be close is not always known in advance, nor is the time of the vote or even whether or not there will be a vote.

The pairing breakdown in this case is mired in controversy. The Conservative Brandon Lewis claims it was a mistake that he didn’t avoid voting, but oddly made that mistake twice on the very close votes and yet kept to it on all the other votes that evening. Jo Swinson and other Lib Dems have said as a result that they don’t believe it was a mistake.

Such a situation could happen at all because pairing is outside the rules of Parliament. There is no way to enforce that promise not to vote. Pairing is rather dependent on goodwill. It is basically a case of mutual promises made on the basis that you are both decent human beings and/or know that breaking a pairing arrangement will cost you goodwill and help in the future.

A subsidiary problem with pairing is that MPs who are paired are not listed as such in the voting records. Which means an MP who is paired, an MP who abstains and an MP who decides to lie drunk on their sofa watching Countdown are all recorded the same way, i.e. not at all. That’s not great for voters wanting to know what their MP did. (Nor is it great for historians either, something which kept me busy during my PhD years trying to work out which MPs were actually paired on a key Parliamentary vote in the 19th century which passed by just one.)

But the other problem is that there aren’t more sensible arrangements for MPs on paternity leave. As Lib Dem Chief Whip Alistair Carmichael said:

MPs who are absent from Parliament on maternity, paternity or adoption leave are entitled to some piece of mind that representing their constituents interests can be safely attended to in some way.

If an absent MP were to be allowed to nominate a proxy for the purpose of voting then the sort of mistake we saw with Jo Swinson would not have happened.

The current system is archaic and it is long past time it was reformed. Given the number of very close votes, it is clear that urgent action is required. The Government must therefore give MPs a say before the summer recess.

Writing on Facebook he added:

After last night’s shenanigans in the House of Commons this afternoon I was able to secure an urgent question on the need for a more modern way of providing baby leave for MPs. I was pleasantly surprised by the support from all parties.