The Scottish Parliament Proxy Voting Pilot

Reading Time: 6 minutes

The Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee are due to hold a debate in the Chamber on Proxy Voting on 6 December 2022. The Committee propose a temporary rule change to the Standing Orders to allow for a proxy voting scheme pilot. This blog considers the Committee’s work and the background to the proposed scheme as well as proxy voting schemes in other UK legislatures. 

What is proxy voting? 

A proxy vote is a vote cast on the behalf of one person (often referred to as a principal) by another individual (known as a proxy).  

Legislatures around the world permit the use of proxy voting by elected representatives to ensure that they can exercise their vote during periods of absence. There is variety in how such proxy voting schemes are designed. For example, there are legislatures with longstanding proxy voting systems that any Member of the legislature is eligible for (e.g., The French Parliament). Some proxy voting schemes are provided for by resolutions of the legislature (e.g., House of Commons, UK Parliament), while others have a statutory basis (e.g., Chamber of Deputies, Luxembourg). Proxy voting schemes may also be designed with weighted voting to reflect the electoral systems by which representatives are returned to the legislature (e.g., House of Representatives, New Zealand Parliament).  

Why is the Scottish Parliament considering the introduction of a proxy voting pilot scheme? 

Proxy voting was implemented in legislatures in the UK (and internationally) to ensure the continuity of parliamentary and legislative business through periods of public health restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the Scottish Parliament did not implement proxy voting during the pandemic, both the Session 5 and Session 6 Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments (SPPA) Committees took an interest in proxy voting during this period. 

The Session 5 SPPA Committee had briefly considered proxy voting during 2019 and decided that it would await the outcome of the UK Parliament House of Commons’ pilot proxy voting scheme before revisiting the issue. However, following the introduction of a proxy voting scheme in the Senedd, the Session 5 SPPA Committee wrote to all MSPs to consult them on the matter of proxy voting. Thereafter, the Session 5 SPPA Committee took an interest in proxy voting as a means of business continuity in legislatures during periods of COVID-19 restrictions as part of its Inquiry into the resilience of the Scottish Parliament’s practices and procedures. The Session 5 SPPA Committee stated in its Legacy Report published on 23 March 2021 that: 

“The Committee therefore recommends that proxy voting be reconsidered by our successor committee in the wider context of the monitoring of the rule changes introduced to promote the resilience of the Parliament’s practices and procedures.” 

The Session 6 SPPA Committee considered proxy voting as part of its inquiry into Future Parliamentary procedures and practices. Specifically, the SPPA Committee considered whether there was merit in introducing a proxy voting scheme at the Scottish Parliament. The Committee stated in its Inquiry report published on 28 June 2022 that: 

“The majority of Members recognised that there was value in providing alternative means of recording the votes of those unable to attend the Chamber in person. A proxy voting scheme was regarded as complementing the voting platform and the informal pairing arrangements reached between some parties, providing an additional route for MSPs in certain circumstances – for example, in relation to parental leave or illness – to vote.”  

The Session 6 SPPA Committee also made the following recommendations for a proxy voting pilot scheme: 

“194. The Committee considers that there is a value in piloting a proxy voting scheme. It therefore intends to consult on how such a scheme would function with a view to proposing a temporary rule which would provide for a scheme that would permit Members, in certain defined circumstances including parental leave and illness, to nominate a proxy. 

195. The Committee suggests that such a scheme should be allowed to run for a period of around 12 months and that any permanent rule changes to provide for proxy voting should only be considered following a full evaluation of the scheme.” 

What has the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee proposed? 

The Session 6 SPPA Committee published its report with a proposal for a pilot proxy voting scheme to be implemented in the Scottish Parliament on 29 November 2022. The report indicates that Members should be able to request a proxy vote due to illness, bereavement, or parental leave. The Session 6 SPPA Committee propose that a Temporary Rule to establish a proxy voting pilot for 12 months is agreed to. The report on a Proxy Voting Pilot states that: 

“The proposed temporary rule provides for a member to arrange for their vote to be cast by another member acting as a proxy in any vote of a meeting of the Parliament or a Committee of the Whole Parliament. It also sets out that the Presiding Officer will issue a proxy voting scheme setting out details of how a proxy vote may be exercised. 

The temporary rule also sets out that: 

  • The Members concerned must comply with the terms of the scheme; 
  • There must be a valid proxy in place at the point of voting; 
  • A proxy may vote for one or two Members; 
  • The proxy vote has the same status as a vote cast by a Member in person for the prevention of doubt; and 
  • That the use of a proxy will be recorded in the minutes of a meeting to ensure transparency.” 

What’s next for the proposed Scottish Parliament Proxy Voting Pilot? 

The Scottish Parliament will consider and debate Motion S6M-07078 on 6 December 2022 as part of the SPPA Committee debate on proxy voting. The motion, as lodged, states: 

“That the Parliament notes the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee’s 7th Report, 2022 (Session 6), Report on a Proxy Voting pilot (SP Paper 270), and agrees that the temporary rule change to Standing Orders set out in Annexe A of the report be made with effect from 4 January 2023.” 

The SPPA Report on a Proxy Voting Pilot indicates that the SPPA Committee will invite the Presiding Officer to issue the scheme before the end of 2022 if the Scottish Parliament agrees to the motion. The SPPA Committee also indicated that the scheme to be issued by the Presiding Officer should set out how a Member holding a proxy vote will be able to cast the principal Member’s vote. 

How do proxy voting schemes work in other legislatures of the UK? 

The Scottish Parliament is not the first legislature in the UK to propose a proxy voting scheme for elected representative on parental leave, experiencing bereavement, or in a period of illness. Both the UK Parliament House of Commons and the Senedd implemented proxy voting schemes for certain elected representatives before the COVID-19 pandemic. The Northern Ireland Assembly also introduced a temporary proxy voting scheme as part of its measures to ensure legislative and business continuity during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

House of Commons, UK Parliament 

The House of Commons has operated a Proxy Voting Scheme since January 2019. The scheme was first introduced as a pilot to allow Members of the UK Parliament (MPs) to vote in parliamentary business while on parental leave or recovering from pregnancy and childbirth complications. The scheme was also available for medical or public health reasons related to the COVID-19 pandemic until 30 March 2021. The Proxy Voting Scheme was made permanent on 23 September 2020 following a review of the scheme by the House of Commons Procedure Committee.  

The Proxy Voting Scheme allows for proxy votes to be cast if the Speaker has issued a certificate confirming the vote by proxy arrangement. Proxy votes may be cast in any division in the House of Commons or in any legislative grand committee. However, proxy votes may not be used to establish a quorum or allow a closure motion. Proxy votes are indicated in division lists (how MPs voted). 

The House of Commons Procedure Committee considered whether the scheme should be extended as part of its inquiry on Voting by Proxy. The Committee found “widespread support” for extending the Proxy Voting Scheme in evidence to the inquiry and recommended that UK Government schedule a debate in the House of Commons on whether the scheme should be extended before any changes to the scheme are implemented.  

The House of Commons agreed on 12 October 2022 to extend the eligibility to vote by proxy to MPs experiencing illness, injury, or bereavement under a pilot scheme issued by the Speaker. The House of Commons Procedure Committee are expected to review the temporary extension to the Proxy Voting Scheme by the 17 March 2023

Senedd Cymru  

The Senedd agreed to introduce a trial proxy voting scheme for Members of the Senedd (MS) on 11 March 2020. Standing Orders 12.41A-H of the Senedd allows an MS on parental leave, or absent due to miscarriage and stillbirth to vote by proxy. The Standing Orders supporting proxy voting in the Senedd are due to expire on 1 April 2023. As such, the Senedd Business Committee is currently undertaking a review of the Senedd trial proxy voting arrangements

The current trial arrangements allow any MS certified by the Presiding Officer as eligible for parental leave to vote by proxy. The vote is recorded as a proxy vote and may be used for all business taking place in plenary proceedings. Unlike the proposed Scottish Parliament scheme, proxy votes are not permitted to establish a quorum in Senedd plenary proceedings or where the vote pertains to subject-matter requiring a two-thirds majority in the Senedd. 

Northern Ireland Assembly 

The Northern Ireland Assembly does not have a permanent proxy voting scheme. However, the 2017-2022 Committee on Procedures indicated an interest in permanently retaining proxy voting after it was introduced for voting in plenary during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Temporary Standing Order 112 allowed Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) to vote by proxy from March 2020 until the end of the Assembly’s 2017-2022 mandate. There were no specific eligibility requirements to request a proxy vote. However, MLAs participating remotely in hybrid proceedings were not able to vote remotely but could vote by proxy. The MLA who wished to vote by proxy had to give notice of their proxy vote and the period for which it was to be in place to the Speaker. Temporary Standing Order 112 also provided for an emergency proxy vote procedure where an MLA became aware that they had to self-isolate during a sitting day. 

Courtney Aitken 

SPICe Research