Whips have an important role in party business within Parliament, particularly when the voting strengths of the main parties are close, as in the 1992-1997 parliament. For major votes it is imperative for government and opposition to maximise the turnout, and the Whips try to ensure that every member from their party turns out to vote.
The duties of Whips include:
Keeping MPs and peers informed of forthcoming parliamentary business
Maintaining the party’s voting strength by ensuring members attend important debates and support their party in parliamentary divisions
Passing on to the party leadership the opinions of backbench members.
The term ‘whip’ also applies to the weekly circular sent out by each Chief Whip to all their MPs or peers notifying them of parliamentary business. The degree of importance is indicated by the number of times that the debate or division is underlined:
Items underlined once are considered routine and attendance is optional
Those underlined twice are more important and attendance is required unless – in the Commons – a ‘pair’ (a member of the Opposition who also intends to be absent from the division) has been arranged
Items underlined three times are highly important and pairing is not normally allowed.
‘Three-line whips’ are imposed on important occasions, such as second readings of significant Bills and motions of no confidence. Failure by MPs to attend a vote with a three-line whip is usually seen as a rebellion against the party and may eventually result in disciplinary action, such as suspension from the parliamentary party.
Whips in the House of Commons:
In the Commons the party Whips consist of the Chief Whip and, in the three main parties, the Deputy Chief Whip and a varying number of junior Whips. Each of the smaller opposition parties also normally has a Whip.
The Government Chief Whip has the formal title of Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury. The Chief Whip appointed in 2001, Hilary Armstrong MP, is assisted by 15 other members who serve as Whips. Government Whips and some Opposition Whips receive a salary in addition to their parliamentary salary. The Government Chief Whip is directly answerable to the Prime Minister. She attends the Cabinet and makes the day-to-day arrangements for the Government’s business programme.
The Opposition Chief Whip receives advance notice of the Government’s business programme each week, and no final decision is taken by the Government until after consultation with him or her. The Chief Whips together constitute the ‘usual channels’, often referred to when the question of finding time for debating a particular issue is discussed.
Whips in the House of Lords:
Party discipline tends to be less strong in the House of Lords, and the Whips are less exclusively concerned with party matters. Defeat for the Government is normally less serious. Nevertheless, for major issues the Whips still strive to ensure a good attendance. There is no pairing system in the Lords.
Government Whips in the House of Lords hold offices in the Royal Household. They also regularly act as government spokesmen, which happens only rarely in the House of Commons.