Members of both Houses register their vote for or against issues by physically going into two different areas either side of their debating chambers. This is known as 'dividing the House', while the areas concerned are 'division lobbies'. Therefore, a vote is called a 'division'.
Voting in the Houses
When a vote is held the Speaker in the Commons - or Lord Speaker in the Lords - asks Members to call out whether they agree or not. The Speaker will then judge whether there is a clear result. If this cannot be determined, the Speaker or Lord Speaker calls a division by announcing 'clear the lobbies' (in the Commons) or 'clear the bar' (in the Lords).
When can a division take place?
Divisions can take place at almost any time that the House is sitting. Divisions usually happen at the regular 'moment of interruption' of the main business of the House of Commons, which is 10pm on Mondays, 7pm on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 5pm on Thursdays and 2.30pm on Fridays; but divisions can and do take place later - or earlier - than these times.
Members do not have to participate in a debate to be able to vote, and may be elsewhere in the Parliamentary estate. To notify Members that a division is taking place, division bells located throughout the Parliamentary estate and surrounding premises ring and TV screens with a specialised feed (called the 'annunciator service') display that a division is taking place.
There are different division bells for the Commons and Lords, and Members only vote in the divisions specific to their House. When the division bells ring Members have eight minutes to vote before the doors to the division lobbies are locked.
During a division, Members literally divide into two separate areas. These are called the Aye and No lobbies in the Commons and the Contents and Not Contents lobbies in the Lords.
As they pass through the lobbies, the Members have their names recorded by clerks and are counted by tellers. Once the lobbies are empty the Speaker (Commons) or the Lord Speaker (Lords) announces the result of the division. The whole process takes about fifteen minutes.
If the vote is tied - which is very unusual - in the Commons the Speaker has the casting vote. The Speaker casts his vote according to what was done in similar circumstances in the past. Where possible the issue should remain open for further discussion and no final decision should be made by a casting vote.
In the Lords, the Lord Speaker does not have a casting vote. Instead, the tied vote is resolved according to established rules (called the Standing Orders).
In the Commons, MPs can vote on a series of motions using ballot papers at a convenient time (currently from 12.30pm on Wednesdays) instead of holding divisions immediately at the end of a debate. These are known as deferred divisions.
Deferred divisions can be used with motions on statutory instruments and on certain types of motion which are not subject to amendment, proceedings on Bills are excluded
The Division List
The Division List records the way in which Members have voted and is usually available to the public soon after the event in Hansard Online and Votes in Parliament.
Discrepancies in division totals
Occasionally the total number of votes for or against that is announced in the Chamber does not tally exactly with the number of MPs' names recorded in the division list.
There are two usual possible reasons for a minor discrepancy:
- The tellers have miscounted (but tellers from both sides have agreed their total) or
- The clerks have missed recording a name (which can be corrected later when a Member reports that their name is missing).
The votes are counted by two tellers, one from the Aye side and one from the No side, by a simple headcount as they come through. The tellers report their agreed figures to the Chair, and that is the result announced in the Chamber.
The votes are recorded by clerks taking the names of Members as they pass through the division desks. This is what generates the lists of names in Hansard and Votes in Parliament.
Proposals to adopt an electronic means of voting in Parliament have been considered but no one alternative appeared to command any great support among Members. Many Members view the procedure of voting in person through the lobbies as an essential opportunity to speak to or lobby senior colleagues.
Commons Library briefings
The House of Commons Library produces briefing papers to inform MPs and their staff of key issues. The papers contain factual information and a range of opinions on each subject, and aim to be politically impartial.
The Library has produced a paper that describes the current practice and historical development of divisions.
The Library has also produced a paper on the procedure and history of deferred divisions.