All About Parliament
Do backbench MPs decide anything?
In a few areas the convention is that no whip is issued and MPs are allowed a free vote:-
a) There are a group of moral issue where the parties see the decision as a matter of individual conscience and moral judgement and so the whip is not applied. Changes to the law on abortion and lowering the age of consent for gay men have always been in this category, partly because of the views of Catholic MPs. Votes on hunting and embryo research have been free votes. Sometimes these issues have been whipped though and, for example, Labour has whipped on the abolition of capital punishment. The Conservative Government of John Major tried to whip their MPs on changes to divorce law but the Whips advised that this would lead to defeat and so the issue was made a free vote. Even so on these conscience issues voting is often mostly on party lines.
b) Matters affecting the organisation of Parliament have normally been decided by a free vote. The election of the Speaker is on a free vote, as has been House of Lords reform, modernisation of Commons procedures and MPs’ pay. There is no absolute rule on this however and the party leaders did not give a free vote on the introduction of the new expenses rules given the public reaction to the expenses scandal. Although a vote may be free the attitude of party leaders may still influence MPs; Tony Blair’s support for a mainly appointed House of Lords helped to prevent proposals for an elected house getting through.
c) The second reading of a Private Member’s Bill is decided on a free vote. Many of these topics are not in any case controversial. However beyond this stage the Government has to find time for the Bill and can prevent it going further.