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In Context: Conscience votes

The Scottish Parliament

In Context: Conscience votes

What is it is a conscience vote? 

Normally, when voting on issues to enact laws members of parliament are expected to vote on the position of their party. But this is not always the case. On issues of moral or social significance parties may allow their members to vote freely, based on their own views or that of their constituency. This is known formally as a conscience vote, or less formally as a free vote.  
 
What happens if a member votes against party lines? 

If a member votes against their party’s position when they are not permitted a conscience vote it is called “crossing the floor”. This is rare as members of parliament are expected to vote with their parties to show that the party is united on an issue.  

In order to prevent this from happening, parties employ the whip system; a tool that attempts to enforce discipline. It is the job of the whip, an appointed member of the party, to ensure that backbenchers vote with the interests of their party’s policy.  

If MSPs defy the whip, the party can decide to impose a punishment. If a member repeatedly continues to defy the whip a more severe punishment may be dealt. Punishments can include movements of office, decreased likelihood of promotion, and in severe cases deselection.  
 
When have conscience votes been used? 

There have been high-profile conscience votes in the last ten years at the Scottish Parliament. In 2014, members were given a free vote on same-sex marriage. The legislation was passed with 105 MSPs voting for it and 18 against it. All three of the largest parties had members vote against the bill.  

The Scottish parliament rejected the assisted dying law, which was first brought forward by the late Margo MacDonald MSP, then championed for a second time in 2015 by the leader of the Scottish Greens, Patrick Harvie, following MacDonald’s death in April 2014. Given a free vote on the legislation, members voted 82 to 36 against the bill.  

Last month the Scottish Conservative members were allowed a free vote on the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill, but they were the only party to do so.  

In the UK, one of the most famous free votes happened in 1967. The Abortion Act 1967, introduced by David Steel, was passed by MPs, legalising abortions on certain grounds by registered practitioners, and regulating the tax-paid provision of such medical practices through the NHS.  

Tony Blair's government was the subject of several free votes over hunting with dogs from 2001. Every vote in the Commons on the issue passed, but each time it was later thrown out in the House of Lords. 

Are free votes officially recorded?  

Free votes are not officially recorded, and they often occur without any formal announcement. At times it can be hard to definitively distinguish if members have been given a free vote, or if they have been whipped.  

The government takes no part in votes being held normally or freely. In 2013, the leader of the house at Westminster said: “Whipping is a matter for individual parties and not a matter that the Government can comment on.”    

What has the fallout been in the past? 

Last month, following calls for there to be a conscience vote on the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill, seven SNP MSPs voted against the bill and their party, while another two abstained, making it the largest rebellion in SNP history. Ash Regan resigned from her post as community safety minister after she said she was not “100 per cent certain that women and girls would not be in danger”.

In 2006, the communities minister, Malcolm Chisholm resigned from Jack McConnell’s cabinet just hours after he voted with a motion brought forward by then deputy leader of the SNP, Nicola Sturgeon, to replace the Trident nuclear system.  

Tavish Scott resigned as a minister in 2001 over a tie-up trawler scheme. Scott voted with the party on the issue, but disagreed with certain aspects of the tie-up scheme, and resigned as a result. He said: “I resigned last Friday because I sought to convince ministerial colleagues of those arguments for more short-term aid, but I failed. I was not able to change colleagues' minds last week and then I witnessed a determined line against tie-up. As I was not able to support government policy on fisheries, I had no alternative but to resign. Let me be clear: when one is a minister, one supports the government. If one cannot support the government, one resigns"  
 

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