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Free Votes in the House of Commons

There are a group of what have been called conscience issues that may not be whipped such as abortion, euthanasia and the age of consent for gay people. Catholic MPs, for example, could not be whipped on the abortion issue.

They are not always free votes, however, and Labour sometimes whipped on the abolition of the death penalty before 1965 and whipped on openly gay people serving in the military in 2000.

Sometimes backbench pressure forces a free vote, as happened during the Major Government when the Whips found that they could not force Conservative MPs to toe the line on divorce law liberalisation.  Sometimes the Whips exert pressure on a free vote or some MPs look to see what the Prime Minister is doing.

The book edited by Philip Cowley  Conscience and Parliament, 1998 gives some excellent case studies on how conscience issues were dealt with.

A matter of Convention

It has been a matter of Convention that issues to do with the organisation of Parliament are not whipped – this includes the election of the Speaker, House of Lords Reform, changes to House of Commons procedures and MPs’ pay.

However, the leadership often gives a steer on what their backbenchers should do and, after the expenses scandal, the convention was completely ignored when the party leaders combined to push through the Parliamentary Standards Act to change the system in 2009, even though there were one or two revolts on particular clauses.

The change in Standing Orders to introduce English Voted for English Laws was also whipped by the Government because it was controversial between the parties.

Second Readings

The second reading of Private Members’ Bills are traditionally a free vote, though Government Whips may talk them out so the vote is not reached and for the Bill to proceed any further it needs Government support so that enough time is allocated for the remaining stages.