When looking at how Cambridge MP Julian Huppert has voted on housing benefit reform I came across a rather odd House of Commons rule which made it difficult to interpret some of his votes (or abstentions).
The weird rule is found in Standing Order 31(2)(b); its effect is that:
When the House of Commons is considering a motion moved by the opposition and there is a Government amendment which replaces all the operative text of the motion with an alternative there is a special rule invoked for deciding what MPs in the commons are deemed to have agreed.
If a majority of MPs vote against the opposition motion, and against the Government amendment, the opposition motion is declared agreed to.
My view is it’s reasonable and defensible to interpret a vote against the motion, followed by a vote against an amendment which seeks to replace all the operative text, as a vote against both of the options on offer. However as if a majority of MPs voted in that way the original motion would be deemed to be agreed to it’s understandable if MPs who oppose both options decide abstain rather than vote in line with their views.
Due to this situation I think Standing Order 31(2)(b) is highly undesirable, it creates unnecessary complexity and obfuscates what an MP’s vote might have been intended to mean.
The question is raised as to what matters most: what an MP actually voted for or against, or how the speaker is required by the standing orders to interpret that vote?
I can only assume the rule has been put in place by unimaginative people who think there is always a binary choice between an opposition motion and an alternative.
Does This Matter?
I can’t find any example where the majority of MPs have rejected both an opposition motion and an alternative put forward as an amendment.
Huppert has received lots of criticism for abstaining, rather than voting; for example:
— Imogen Buxton (@immy_buxton) November 13, 2013
— mary sweeney (@marysweeney0) November 12, 2013
Is there another way?
At most meetings (board meetings, council meetings etc.) the way this kind of thing would be dealt with is to first hold a vote on if an amendment to the original motion will be accepted. The choice in this vote is if you like the original or amended version of the motion more (if you don’t care you can abstain). Then a further vote is taken on the “substantive” motion which is either the original if the amendment wasn’t made, or the amended one if it was.
Had the House of Commons followed this kind of practice Julian Huppert would have been able to first vote against the Government amendment; and then vote on if he agreed or not with whatever ended up as the substantive text. It would have been really clear what he had voted for, what he had voted against (or what question he had abstained on).
A binary choice
The effect of the House of Commons’ weird rule is to force a binary choice on MPs; once the opposition motion is rejected, in the vote on the amendment they are effectively asked to choose between the opposition and Government options.
That’s not the question that’s put to MPs; but that’s the effect of their vote if the weird rule in the standing orders is taken into account.
What if a majority of MPs agree to the opposition motion
If the majority of MPs vote “Yes” to the original motion standing part, the original motion has been deemed agreed to, even if an amendment has been moved. This doesn’t happen very often (there’s an example from April 2009).
What usually happens?
The common route taken by the majority of MPs is to reject the opposition motion ie. to vote “No” to “That the original words stand part of the question” followed by a vote “Aye” (Yes) to “That the proposed words be there inserted” and the speaker declares the amended motion agreed to.
Standing Order 31(2)(b) means that in this common case there is then no need to put a further question, that the motion as amended is agreed. Votes in the House of Commons take a long time, so avoiding one is desirable, but that shouldn’t be at the expense of an MP being able to clearly express their view on the matters before them.