You will be well aware that Parliament has been debating the End of Life Choice Bill again.
The same debate will also have been happening around the rohe during tea breaks lately. As conversation starters go, “do you want to be able to choose your time of death if you’re terminally ill” is quite the ice-breaker. It certainly beats “so what happened to the Highlanders this season?”
Unusually this bill has been declared a conscience issue - and it’s worth running through how that changes things when debates and votes happen.
Mostly in the House there aren’t many surprises. Everyone knows that MPs from the governing parties will support government legislation. And the opposition usually signposts their own intentions well in advance as well.
Even with Member’s Bills (proposed laws from non-ministers) it’s often known ahead of time which parties will vote which way.
Because in Parliament almost every vote is a ‘party vote’, where the parties vote as a block and the number of votes for or against is called out by a party whip on everyone’s behalf.
MPs don’t have to be in the House to be counted. They’re meant to be on the precinct but only a minority are actually in the chamber during most debates.
Every MP for themselves
But when it’s a conscience issue - it is quite literally every MP for themselves. Parties can decide to vote as block - but most don’t. And even then they’re not counted as block votes. Every MP votes and is counted separately.
So for a conscience vote most MPs assemble in the chamber and then choose whether to exit again through one of two doors on opposite sides; one of which says ‘Ayes’ above it and the other ‘Noes’.
They are literally voting with their feet whether to support or reject the motion in question. This week the motion was “that the End of Life Choice Bill be now read a second time.”
The ‘reading’ of the bill is actually just a reading of a bill’s title by the Clerk at the Table and occurs after the vote, if the House agrees it should be read.
Conscience issues are also different in how the debate works. Usually in a reading debate there’s a roster of who will speak and when. The roster more or less alternates government, opposition, government etc.
But there’s no such roster for a conscience issue. There’s a set number of speeches but getting to speak means jumping to your feet and calling out to attract the Speaker’s attention in the hope they will call on you. Which is why speeches are referred to as ‘calls’, or ‘having the call’.
So for a conscience debate it is very likely more MPs come prepared to give a speech than actually get to give one.
In preparation for this debate the Speaker outlined factors he would take into account in choosing MPs to speak, but he acknowledged that as he didn’t know how all MPs were leaning on the issue getting an exact mix of pro and con might be difficult.
It’s all about a report
The debate is officially over the report of the Justice select committee which has been inquiring into the legislation for more than a year. So it’s worth noting that select committees also tend to work differently on conscience issues.
The justice committee report outlined a number of possible significant amendments but didn’t formally propose any of them to the House (as a report normally might), but only suggested technical changes. The report said this was because major changes on a conscience issue should be made by all MPs in the committee stage debate (which happens next).
In the end the bill was read a second time (70-50 in favour) and is now up for a Committee Stage debate at a members’ day in a few weeks time.