How often do MPs turn up for work (Part 2): the good, the average, and the downright lazy
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 examine what makes up those averages — are MPs much of a muchness (the average attendance, remember, is about 64%), or are there wide variations, with the figure being inflated (or reduced) by high (or low) attending MPs.
It’s worth starting by looking at the figures visually. (For the moment, I’m concentrating on the three main parties, and specifically current MPs. This means that the figures we’re looking at are higher than the overall average, as the three main parties’ attendance records are better than the minority parties, and current MPs’ figures are better than for those who’ve left parliament — I’ll perhaps look at why that is another time.)
The graphs below show the proportion of MPs in each attendance band. So the first band represents MPs who vote between 0% and 5% of the time, the next between 5% and 10% and so on.
As you would expect given the figures on average attendance, the Labour MPs are more skewed towards the higher attendance figures than are the other parties, with the highest proportion attending between 80% and 85% (compared with Liberals 75-80% and Conservatives 65-70%). As before, that raises the question: why are Conservative MPs attendance rates so much worse than the other two main parties?
Most interesting, perhaps, are those MPs at the bottom end of the scale, who can’t even manage to turn up 50% of the time, and they are shown in the list below.
|Gordon Brown||14.7%||Lab||Kirkcaldy & Cowdenbeath||492/3352|
|Michael Mates||35.5%||Con||East Hampshire||1189/3352|
|David Blunkett||36.7%||Lab||Sheffield, Brightside||1229/3352|
|Charles Kennedy||42.1%||LDem||Ross, Skye & Lochaber||1412/3352|
|John Prescott||42.4%||Lab||Kingston upon Hull East||1420/3352|
|Ruth Kelly||43.9%||Lab||Bolton West||1470/3352|
|David Mundell||44.8%||Con||Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale & Tweeddale||373/833|
|Michael Howard||45.0%||Con||Folkestone & Hythe||1507/3352|
|Adam Ingram||45.8%||Lab||East Kilbride, Strathaven & Lesmahagow||1535/3352|
|William Hague||46.0%||Con||Richmond (Yorks)||1543/3352|
|Nicholas Clegg||47.4%||LDem||Sheffield, Hallam||395/833|
|Frank Cook||47.6%||Lab||Stockton North||1597/3352|
|Richard Caborn||48.2%||Lab||Sheffield Central||1615/3352|
|Robert Walter||48.5%||Con||North Dorset||1627/3352|
|Tessa Jowell||48.7%||Lab||Dulwich & West Norwood||1631/3352|
|Nicholas Soames||48.9%||Con||Mid Sussex||1638/3352|
|Patrick Cormack||49.6%||Con||South Staffordshire||1654/3333|
|Malcolm Rifkind||49.7%||Con||Kensington & Chelsea||414/833|
|Bill Etherington||49.97%||Lab||Sunderland North||1675/3352|
As you can see, some of the 27 MPs appearing on the list are ministers or shadow ministers, including of course Gordon Brown (Tony Blair only managed 8.3% attendance).
The argument of course is that ministers should concentrate on running their department rather than attending every vote; the counter argument is that if it’s important enough to legislate about, it’s important enough for all MPs to discuss and vote on.
In many cases, however, there seems on the face of it little justification for an MP to vote in fewer than 50% of the divisions, and justify it is surely what they should do.
Perhaps they work tirelessly on behalf of the constituents who voted them in. Perhaps they do sterling work investigating and challenging the government’s claims. Perhaps there is some other legitimate reason why they attend so rarely.
Whatever the reason, it is surely fair to expect MPs to explain to their constituents and the citizens for whom they work why attend so rarely.
Let’s look, for example, at the MPs at the better end of this list, those that almost managed to turn up 50% of the time.
There’s Bill Etherington, Labour MP for Sunderland North (with an attendance rate of just under 50%). He’s apparently leaving Parliament at the next election due to a boundary change, and looks as though he’s counting the days, having spoken in only one debate in the past year, according to They Work For You.
Now in his sixties, according to his Wikipedia profile he started work age 14 in the shipyards, and eventually became a union official, before becoming an MP 16 years ago. You might guess that he’s had enough and is now ready to retire. And indeed, he told the Sunderland Echo, “I shall not be fighting the next election. I’ll be 68 or 69 by then and I’ve done my bit.” Fair enough, but does that make it OK to be only a part-timer for the rest of his time as MP, and does it really explain why his attendance record has been consistently so poor?
Or what about the MP next to him in the list, Conservative MP for Kensington & Chelsea Malcolm Rifkind, former Foreign Secretary (and other ministerial positions) in the last Conservative government, before losing his Edinburgh seat in 1997. Now he’s been re-elected to Michael Portillo’s old seat is he showing the new boys a thing or two about commitment and hard work? Not if his attendance record is anything to go by.
Again, perhaps there’s a good reason. Being Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions? But that lasted only 7 months. Of course, the suspicion is that perhaps there isn’t enough time, given other outside interests (a directorship, a consultancy, membership of an advisory board, various writing and speaking engagements).
Then there’s another Conservative, Patrick Cormack, MP for South Staffordshire, and currently member of the Liaison Committee and chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. Having been an MP since 1970, he’s often referred to as a ‘Tory grandee’, is the Chairman and Life President of The House Magazine, and has a number of other outside interests. Yet, since 1997 he’s only turned up to vote 49.6% of the time.
Finally there’s Mark Oaten, Liberal Democrat MP for Winchester, who since 1997 has managed 49% attendance, and since May 2005 just 33.6%. He was Shadow Secretary of State for Home Affairs for the first six months, but 33.6%? Compare that with the Liberal Democrat Shadow Chancellor (and briefly Acting Leader) Vince Cable MP who in the same period achieved 69.5% attendance.
These four MPs, taken from the better end of the part-timers list, are possibly not representative of the list as a whole. It’s possible even that all 27 MPs have a good reason for their poor attendance record, as it implies a lack of trust.
Possibly. On the other hand, MPs have been time and again been extremely resistant to operating transparently, with many being dragged kicking and screaming to reveal information about outside interests, family members employed as staff, expenses payments, and so on. So much so that it’s perhaps not surprising that people reading these figures suspect the worst.
I’ll perhaps return to this list in a future post, but in the meantime if any of these MPs represent you, why not drop them a line via Write To Them and ask them to justify their poor attendance record.
Next time I’ll have a look at how attendance rates change week-by-week.
Notes on the calculations
The above calculations were derived from the voting record freely available from the Public Whip project, and cover the period from May 1997 to July 22, 2008 (when the house rose for the summer recess). The data can be downloaded in the form of a MySQL database, and this was used together with custom MySQL queries to generate the attendance of all current MPs (available here as a spreadsheet).
The 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 abstentions (i.e. not voting in a division, rather than voting both ‘aye’ and ‘no’) and by just turning up to vote, but failing to attend the debate. However, until Parliament provides a better measure for attendance, this is the only way of calculating it.