When members of Parliament are given a free vote, they are allowed to vote their conscience on a particular bill. Free votes are not particularly common, especially on significant legislation.
For Americans, the severe whipping MPs sometimes get may seem strange. In Congress and state legislatures, there are party whips who use various methods to persuade members to vote a certain way. They may be able to dangle carrots of certain preferential treatment or future committee assignments. Party discipline here is a different. Because the executive and legislative functions are so intertwined, an indisciplined party can bring down a Government.
That is why a Government that chooses to introduce very morally questionable legislation has to force members of its party to choose between the Prime Minister and their conscience. If a Government allows a free vote, they are saying that it would be nice if the bill were inacted, but not key to their policies and agenda for the country.
Backbench member of the party of Government are held in line with a lot of carrot and stick. Fronbenchers – members of the Prime Minister’s ministerial team – are held in line with their jobs. If a minister cannot vote with the Government, they are expected to resign and return to the back benches. This means a loss of between one-third and more that half of their salary, depending on their ministerial rank. Except for particularly high-flyers, it also means their hope for advancement in their political career is effectively over.
It is easier to return to the frontbenches after a scandal of immorality than it is over disloyality to the party whip. In other word, it is better to lie, cheat, steal, improperly use ministerial influence for personal gain, or cheat on your spouse using public money to finance it and cover it up, than it is to vote your conscience.
If you are still with me, I said all that to say this. Gordon Brown has determined that Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill now has parts that can be allowed a free vote and parts that can’t. Human/animal hybrids are now optional, as are saviour sibilings. However, embyro screening and lesbian parents are not. And once all the amendments have been voted on, regardless of the outcome, all ministers must vote for the Bill or resign.
Prior to the PM’s partial back-down, there were a dozen members of the Government who were willing to rebel, including three Cabinet ministers. Reports are that two of the three Catholics, Paul Murphy and Des Browne, are satified. Ruth Kelly, a member of Opus Dei, was reported back in 2004 to be “straight down the line” on abortion and other life issues.
The embryo screen provisions of the Bill are plainly contrary to Catholic teaching. This would specifically authorise the killing of embryos that do not meet certain genetic criteria. I’m also not sure how the idea that lesbian parents would both be able to register as parents on a birth certificate is in line with Catholic teaching either. Under this provision, children of lesbian parents will be forbidden to from contacting their fathers (since due the nature of the species, every has a male parent, whether or not that fits into the lesbian lifestyle) until they are eighteen years old.
When the dust has cleared, it will be interesting to see who has voted their conscience, or even for which Catholics the teaching of the Church is their conscience.