Open data and all that

How often do MPs turn up for work (Part 1)?

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With MPs are still on their summer break (barring recalls for bank failures), it seems a good time to examine their performance. Consider it an end-of-term report.

Ironically, given how keen the government has been on public-sector targets, there are few ways we can measure how good a job MPs do, and even the most basic — how often do they turn up to work? — has be be worked out through a roundabout way. There’s no attendance register, still less any way of knowing how often they attend constituency surgeries, or other parliamentary work outside of the Commons.

All we have is the fairly rough measure of whether (and how) they voted in any given division. It’s crude and given to over and underestimating (abstentions appear as a no-show, whereas turning up only to vote is the parliamentary equivalent to going to work to get your card stamped), but it’s the best measurement we’ve got, until Parliament itself decides to improve transparency by giving us something else.

Thanks here should go to the people at the Public Whip project who collate this data by parsing Hansard into a form you can then analyse. The figures, however, only go back to 1997, so it’s not possible to compare the figures between a Conservative and Labour government, for example.

The basics

So, how often does the average MP turn up? About 64% of the time. Or to look upon it another way, 36% of the time (over a third) the average MP doesn’t bother to turn up to vote.

That figure is the average for votes since 1997, but it’s been consistently between 59% and 71% (see chart below). As the table shows, the attendance rate for the current crop of MPs is a little better (the main total includes MPs that have since left the house), and that for the House of Lords predictably low.

Attendance rates 1997 – Jul 2008
All MPs 64.5%
All Current MPs 68.3%
Lords 29.9%
Labour MPs 69.8%
Conservative MPs 61.7%
LibDem MPs 64.7%

However, as anyone with rudimentary knowledge of statistics or a healthy degree of scepticism will know, a raw average will hide a multitude of sins, so it’s worth delving into that overall figure a little closer.

The Political Parties

When you break down the attendance figures by party, one thing becomes pretty clear, Labour MPs vote a lot more often than either Conservative or Liberal Democrat ones do. The broad trend (i.e. moving average) shows some improvement over the past few years, but still remains below 70%.

Why is this? Why are the Labour figures so much higher? Maybe it’s something to do with being in power (remember the figures only go back to 1997), or perhaps Labour MPs really do care more, or perhaps they are keen to be seen to be supporting their party’s bills. Or perhaps there are more Labour backbenchers with not much else to do.

Whatever the answer, the Conservative’s low attendance figure does seem at odds with David Cameron’s statement that “MPs are meant to go to parliament; that’s what their job’s about.”

The minority parties have almost universally poor attendance records (with Sinn Fein it was party policy not to attend), and if we exclude those the average (i.e. for the three main parties) rises a little to 66.9%.

Why is the figure so low?

Personally, I’m not sure that’s a great figure. Is it really OK that for over a third of the time MPs had something better to do?

Perhaps if they were ministers, they were busy running their department, which is understandable.

Perhaps they were dealing with urgent constituency business — certainly possible, though I’m not sure it would account for such a high figure.

Perhaps, they attended the debate, but decided to abstain —  though given MPs can vote both ‘No’ and ‘Aye’ at the same time, effectively an active abstention — it would seem unlikely to be the case, or at least be a significant factor.

Perhaps, also, MPs are human like the rest of us, and given a job to do (much of which is mundane) have a tendency to bunk off when there’s no supervision.


Next time I’ll have a look at how evenly spread attendance rates are, in particular whether the average is unduly affected by high- and low-attending MPs.

Notes on the calculations

The above calculations were derived from the voting record freely available from the Public Whip project. The data can be downloaded in the form of a MySQL database, and this was used together with custom MySQL queries to generate a spreadsheet (available here) containing Average MPs voting percentage for 1997- July 2008, and for individual years within that range.

The political parties’ percentages were they obtained by taking the average (specifically the arithmetic mean) of the MPs attendance percentages, so the above figures for the parties are the the average of their MPs average attendance rates.

The attendance figure for the House of Lords is only for divisions to early June 2008.

Photo at top is Parliamentary Copyright.

Written by countculture

September 17, 2008 at 10:34 am

Posted in parliament

Tagged with ,

3 Responses

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  1. […] a comment » Last time I briefly looked at MPs average attendance figures, and also the attendance figures for MPs for the three main parties. This time I’m going to […]

  2. […] attendance are calculated by whether an MP voted in a division. As noted in my first post on the subject, this is an imperfect proxy for actual attendance, as the figure may be depressed by silent […]

  3. […] frequent arguments for low attendance of voting divisions by MPs is that the figure is depressed by ministers (and shadow spokespersons), whose other […]

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