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.
Traditionally, during a division, Members divide physically 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.
Until 2020, the names of Members voting in each lobby were then recorded by clerks with the numbers taking part counted by tellers.
However, since the pandemic started these arrangements have changed:
- in the Commons, MPs now record their names by tapping their pass against one of several pass readers that are now installed in the lobbies. The two tellers in each lobby still record the number of MPs voting as they pass through: the number counted by the tellers is the definitive result of the division.
- in the Lords, a system of electronic voting that was introduced for remote working in 2020 is still in place. However, members now have to be on the parliamentary estate to vote, unless permission to vote remotely has been given for accessibility reasons.
Immediately after a division, 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 Commons division totals
Occasionally the total number of votes for or against that is announced in the Commons 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
- Some MPs' names have not been recorded on the pass reader terminals (which can be corrected later when Members report 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 names are recorded when MPs tap their pass against one of several pass readers that are now installed in the lobbies. This is what generates the lists of names in Hansard and Votes in Parliament.
Electronic voting in the Commons
The House of Commons agreed temporarily to allow remote electronic voting for divisions on 22 April 2020 and the first remote division took place on 12 May 2020. These temporary orders lapsed on 20 May 2020 and were not revived.
Proposals to adopt a permanent electronic means of voting in the Commons have been considered at various times in the past, 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.