Aye to swipe cards may spell no for division lobby

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MPs may be able to vote by using swipe cards in the future, under far reaching reforms to the Victorian habits of the Commons now being studied by a cross-party committee of MPs.

MPs have voted for more than a century by walking past tellers in chairs stationed at the end of the division lobbies for the "ayes" and the "noes".

The sheer weight of Labour's majority has slowed down counting in the division lobbies, with delays while more than 400 MPs squeeze through the tellers' chairs.

The delays have been made worse because the clerks ticking off the MPs' names are still trying to put names to the new faces who have arrived in the Commons since 1 May.

To ease the congestion and bring the Commons into the electronic age, the MPs are looking at ways of speeding up the voting system using new technology.

It would be possible to install buttons on the green leather Commons benches to allow MPs to vote without getting out of their seats, like the audience in BBC Television's Question Time.

But Ann Taylor, the Leader of the Commons, yesterday gave a clear hint that she favours combining electronic advances with the old tried and tested system, which forces ministers to go through the division lobbies with humble backbenchers.

A swipe card would enable the MPs to speed up the divisions, without depriving backbenchers of their regular contact with their ministers.

Mrs Taylor told a Parliamentary press gallery luncheon: "I personally think there is a lot of advantage in voting through a lobby where you have to meet other colleagues and ministers cannot get off the hook, but that doesn't preclude speeding up the process and some kind of swipe card."

The electronic age could allow MPs to vote while watching the debate on television at home. But that is unlikely. Even a modernising Government recognises the dangers of allowing MPs too much time off to do their plotting away from the Palace of Westminster.

Mrs Taylor also opposed forcing MPs to end all their outside earnings, an idea raised by the Parliamentary Ombudsman, Sir Gordon Downey, but rejected by the Nolan Committee, on the grounds that it would create a political elite with no outside interests.

She also rejected suggestions that such a move would lead to MPs being compensated with a huge increase in their salaries. She said MPs had voted to have their salaries linked to civil servants.