When a vote is called, peers can vote Content or Not Content. The voting figures do not always correspond with how many peers are present. On occasion, some members abstain from voting. The reason the Government lost a vote last week on the Academies Bill was because of a combination of some Liberal Democrat peers abstaining and cross-bench peers dividing disproportionately against the Government.
There is, though, no way of recording abstentions, at least not in the Lords. In the Commons, some MPs deliberately vote in both lobbies as a way of recording their wish not to support one side over another and their names are published. In the Lords, if a peer votes in both lobbies, the name of the peer is removed from the division lists. It happened in the vote last night on the Child Trust Funds regulations. A motion of regret was defeated by 189 votes to 154. Hansard records ‘The name of a noble Lord who voted in both Lobbies has been removed from the voting lists.’ Voting in both lobbies is rare: there is, after all, little point in doing so.
It does raise the question of whether there should be some way of recording abstentions. Is it in principle desirable and, if so, is it practical? Could one have a separate line in a division lobby for those who wish to record their abstentions? There would still be the problem (wearing my research hat here) that some peers may wish to abstain without having their names recorded, so would be among the absent, but that would be their choice. I dislike abstaining, though I have done so on occasion. Should I be able to have my abstention recorded?