Open data and all that

How often do MPs turn up for work (Part 2): the good, the average, and the downright lazy

with 6 comments

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.

Chart showing distribution of attendance of current MPs, by main parties

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?

The part-timers

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.

Attendance Party Constituency Attended/possible
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
Jack Straw 40.7% Lab Blackburn 1363/3352
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
Francis Maude 44.6% Con Horsham 1495/3352
David Mundell 44.8% Con Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale & Tweeddale 373/833
Michael Howard 45.0% Con Folkestone & Hythe 1507/3352
Stephen Dorrell 45.1% Con Charnwood 1512/3352
Adam Ingram 45.8% Lab East Kilbride, Strathaven & Lesmahagow 1535/3352
William Hague 46.0% Con Richmond (Yorks) 1543/3352
Michael Ancram 46.2% Con Devizes 1547/3352
Nicholas Clegg 47.4% LDem Sheffield, Hallam 395/833
Frank Cook 47.6% Lab Stockton North 1597/3352
Kenneth Clarke 47.9% Con Rushcliffe 1605/3352
Claire Curtis-Thomas 47.9% Lab Crosby 1605/3352
Richard Caborn 48.2% Lab Sheffield Central 1615/3352
Liam Fox 48.2% Con Woodspring 1617/3352
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
Mark Oaten 49.0% LDem Winchester 1635/3337
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.

For Example

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.

So What?

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.

Written by countculture

September 27, 2008 at 10:41 am

Posted in parliament

Tagged with , , ,

6 Responses

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  1. I think you have a very simplistic view of what MPs do for a living. Voting is usually a minor thing and I’m far mor irritated by those MPs who vote, yet who have not listened first to one moment of the debate, which you mention.

    If you are an MP, you are accountable to around 70,000 people and a number of them feel they own. You get regular phonecalls in the middle of the night, you get invited to stuff at evenings and weekends, you do weekend surgeries. You do casework and advocacy.

    Personally, I find it hard to imagine how any MP does less than 70 hours per week.

    So if you have an MP who misses a few votes because they’re going to the housing office to advocate for a family living in a B&B or if they are instead meeting an autistic child at the request of a parent who wants you to understand autism better, then they are doing their job far better that some arse getting pissed in the bar, whose waiting for the division bell to go so they can vote.

    Just my humble opinion

    Alex Hilton
    07985 384 859

    Alex Hilton

    September 27, 2008 at 12:19 pm

  2. It should be observed that the data only spans the period since Labour gained power. It is to be expected that a party of government with a straight majority should be required to turn out and vote for most divisions, since they know that their votes will be meaningful.

    Quite how different this dataset would look in times of a hung, Conservative or Liberal Democrat government is left as an exercise for the patient or time-travelling reader.

    David McKee

    September 27, 2008 at 1:39 pm

  3. Alex
    Actually I’m not saying that all MPs do for a living is vote, and if you read the first post and the notes at the bottom of this one I stress that using votes as a proxy for attendance has a number of difficulties, including the problem of MPs who just turn up to vote.

    However, it’s the only measurement (at the moment) we have. How much time they spend dealing with constituents, for example, how often they hold surgeries or any other non-voting business is not available.

    In addition, if there were an inverse correlation between division attendance and how good a job an MP does, as you seem to be implying, then this would mean that the Conservative MPs are consistently doing a better job than Labour ones (see my first post for the comparison) …which would seem odd coming from a Labour Party activist like yourself.


    September 27, 2008 at 1:41 pm

  4. David

    Interesting theory. I speculated on the previous post what might be the reason for Labour’s attendance figures being consistently higher than the Conservatives, but you may be right it’s to do with motivation (knowing their votes will mean something), or possibly to stronger whips.

    I made clear in the previous post when comparing attendance figures by year that it was only since 1997, but it’s worth stressing the point in the post for clarity. Thanks for pointing it out.


    September 27, 2008 at 3:52 pm

  5. […] Last time I looked at how evenly distributed of MPs attendance was, looking at how the averages were made up by party, and at some of those individual MPs who had particularly low attendance rates. […]

  6. […] let’s have a look at the main parties in detail, using the same histograms used before to show the distribution of the parties attendance figures. Interestingly (well, in a wonkish sort of way), the distributions are a bit more spread out than […]

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