What is the actual procedure when UK MPs go to take a vote in the House of Commons?

In the House of Commons, the Speaker says "The Question is as on the order paper". Next, he/she says, "As many as are of that opinion say Aye." Then, following shouts of "Aye", he says, "of the contrary, No," and similar shouts of "No" may follow. If one side clearly has more support, the Speaker then announces his/her opinion as to the winner, stating, for example, "I think the Ayes have it". Otherwise, the Speaker declares a division.

Any member may object to the Speaker's determination. If the Speaker feels that the division is unnecessary, he/she may first ask those who support his/her determination of the voice vote to rise, and then ask those who oppose the opinion to rise. Then, the Speaker may either declare that his ruling on the voice vote stands, or proceed to a division.

If a division is to be taken, the Speaker first states, "Division! Clear the Lobby!" The Division Bell then sounds across the Parliamentary Estate as well as several buildings in the vicinity, such as restaurants and pubs, and Members' Lobby in front of the Commons' Chamber is cleared of strangers, primarily journalists who have access to the Lobby. Division bells notify any members not currently in the chamber that a vote is about to start. A recent development has been the use of pagers and mobile phones by party whips, to summon members from further afield.

One minute into the division the Speaker puts the question to the House again. It is often the Whips who answer the question this time after which the Speaker announces the Tellers, two (one Government MP, one Opposition MP) for the Ayes and two for the Noes. Tellers are usually whips, but on occasions can be rebel MPs, or even frontbench spokesmen (in the case of the Liberal Democrats).

MPs have to walk through the two Division Lobbies on either side of the House and give their name to the Division Clerks at the end of the respective Lobbies to vote. They are then counted by the Tellers as they leave the Lobby. The Whips keep check on which MPs enter which Lobby and try to persuade them to enter the Lobby that the Party would like them to enter.

Eight minutes after the question has been put for the first time, the Speaker declares, "Lock the Doors." The lobby entrances are locked, and only those within the Lobbies may continue to vote.

After all members have voted in the lobbies, the vote totals are written on a card and the numbers are read out to the House by the Tellers. The Speaker then announces these numbers a second time, announcing the final result by saying 'The Ayes/Noes have it, the Ayes/Noes have it'. The Speaker does not vote, except in the case of a tie and then only strictly in accordance to precedent. This means that the Speaker will vote in accordance with these principles:

  • Legislation remains unchanged unless there is a majority in favour of amendment,
  • Legislation is allowed to proceed to the next stage unless there is a majority in favour of rejection, and
  • All other motions are rejected unless there is a majority in favour of passage.

Members may signify, but not record, an abstention by remaining in their seats during the division. Though the practice is traditionally frowned upon, MPs can also pass through both lobbies, effectively registering their abstention.
It is stipulated that all Members of Parliament are required to stay in or around the premises of the House of Commons until the main business of the day has ended, however long that may be. In the unlikely event that fewer than forty members voted in the division, the division is ignored, the question at hand is postponed until the next sitting, and the House proceeds to the next business.The nature of divisions in the House of Commons is one which traditionally could go on well into the night, sometimes past midnight. However, in 2000 the House introduced, on an experimental basis, the procedure of "Deferred Divisions." Essentially, some divisions are delayed until the next Wednesday. The procedure is used for very few matters; most divisions still occur normally.

There have been suggestions that electronic voting may be easier and quicker to do than physically going through a division lobby. However, MPs have often found that a division is the best way to interact with senior members of the government. And it can be considered a way to sort out problems for the Member's constituents.