Following this afternoon’s vote in the debate on the third reading of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, Christopher Lovell has expressed his disappointment at Tim Farron’s “abstention” today. It seems that Mr Lovell who lives in Leeds, not in Tim’s constituency, feels that because there is no vote recorded by Tim Farron in today’s debate, Tim abstained. I counter that this is not true. Tim did in fact, quite clearly not vote. It has been suggested by Erskine May that there is a procedure in Parliament to register an abstention: voting in both lobbies (Erskine May, Parliamentary Practice, 23rd edition, 2004, p412).
A House of Commons Briefing Paper, Divisions in the House of Commons, SN/PC/06401 states
If fewer than 40 Members, including the Speaker and the tellers, participate in a division, it does not meet the quorum required. The House then moves on to the next business, and the subject of the division is postponed until the next sitting day. Members who wish to defeat a particular item of business may engineer a division and then stay out of the lobbies, as they can thus render the division inquorate.
Though Members are free not to vote in any division – for instance, they may simply remain in the Chamber whilst the division takes place – there is no means for them to positively register an abstention. There are also examples of Members voting in both lobbies (Aye and No) to signify their abstention. Similarly, a Member who has voted in the wrong lobby in error may, if he or she has time, cross over to the other lobby and vote again, hence nullifying the effect of his or her original vote. Members can also, if they wish, stay in the lobby and not register a vote at all.
A Member may not vote on a matter in which he or she has a direct pecuniary interest, but in order to act as a disqualification, this interest must be immediate and personal, not merely of a general or remote matter.
My own MP, Naomi Long, appears not to have voted in the third reading of the above-mentioned Bill either. However, without knowing the intricacies of her diary (or indeed of Tim’s) it is difficult to know what had her away from the chamber, but it could have been one of several things. It is possible that both Tim and Naomi have a ‘pairing’ arrangement in place, but that is a private matter that would be known to the Whips and I do not see why we should know this. It is not essential for every MP or Peer (in the House of Lords) or indeed MSP, AM, or MLA to vote in every vote in every sitting of his or her respective legislative assembly. What is essential is that the quorum is reached: in the Commons it is set at 40.
Constituents often want to have the attention of their MP when they demand it – and that quite easily could be on a day when there is business in the House in which the member is especially interested. When this is not the case, it is clear that they are not required to be there. Of course, it could be that the MP in question is not uninterested, or is interested deeply, but is for whatever reason unable to be in the House at that time. Our MPs are not granted the grace of bilocation. They are human.
In the particular case of Tim Farron, Christopher Lovell is using the letter from Tim to LibDem party members about replying to the consultation on equal marriage and implying that Tim has failed us by not voting today. I really feel that that is quite unfair.
Update from Naomi Long
Naomi Long MP revealed on Facebook as a response to my post that she was unable to be in the Commons this week as she is recovering from surgery. (updated Weds 22 June 2013)
- Oxfordshire MPs divided on gay marriage vote tonight (oxfordmail.co.uk)
- Opinion: Lib Dem MPs: Vote for equality, human rights and love today (libdemvoice.org)
- 11 Liberal Democrat MPs vote for registrars to be exempt from marrying same sex couples (libdemvoice.org)
- We’re being left behind in Northern Ireland: why I am a proud Liberal Democrat (gyronny.com)