Open data and all that

How often do MPs turn up for work (Part 3): attendance week by week

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GEEK CONTENT ALERT: This post is possibly only for those really into the details of attendance figures, as the data is somewhat dense. See also notes at bottom of page for what ‘attendance’ actually means.

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.

This time I’m going to investigate the attendance over time — specifically, how it varies week by week. I’ve done this by working out the average attendance for each week, and graphing them over time (see below, click for full-size image).

As you can see, there’s a lot of information on the graph, but there are probably a few key things to point out:

  1. Note the red weeks — these are the weeks where the average voting attendance is less than 50%. Sometimes this is due to the opposition abstaining en masse, for example.
    Other times the reason is less clear — the 16% attendance figure in early 2006, for example. Though there was plenty of business that week, there appears to be only one division — on the report stage of the Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Bill on March 10, in which only 105 (including 4 tellers) out of 646 turned up.
    Perhaps the attendance during the rest of the week was much higher. Unfortunately Parliament gives us no way of telling. It’s not even possible to look at the video of the event to see how full the chamber as unlike the CSpan Archive of the US Congress, video coverage of Parliament is only available for 28 days after it happens.
  2. The periods when the Commons is in recess are in blue, and cover a multitude of things, from general election campaigns, holidays, party conferences (in 2003 and 2004 there were distinct blocks of time off for these, separate from the summer break — now there’s just a single very long break), and time during which, in the words of the official Parliament website, “Members can carry out their other duties”.
    The recess periods tend to be slightly longer than shown, as they typically start sometime during the preceding week.
  3. To me, a lot of the low attendance weeks appeared to be close or adjacent to recess periods. Is this a coincidence, or is there a possibility that MPs have a tendency to, well, bunk off early? Well, sorry to disappoint you, but the figures don’t support it. The average attendance for weeks adjacent to recess periods is 65.3%, for all other weeks 64.7% (see spreadsheet here).

I then wondered what the main parties attendance looked like, so below I’ve overlaid those figures on the same graph. It’s a very dense graph, but quite interesting for the geek at heart (again, click on the graph to see it full size).

There’s loads of info there to delve into, especially when there are strong divergences between the parties, or strong convergencies, for that matter. There are also some potentially suspicious drops, though like the apparent drops around recesses, care should be taken as the figures can have multiple readings.

For example, there’s a drop in attendance in week 20 of 2007 (May 14-18). Attendance this week was only 45.6% (see spreadsheet here), but a closer look at the voting divisions that week, shows that for much of the week voting attendance was relatively high:

Monday 15/05/07
Armed Conflict — Parliamentary Approval, 539 votes cast

Tuesday 16/05/07
Points of Order — Housing, 544 votes
Orders of the Day — Clause 2 — Meaning of “relevant duty of care”, 531 votes

Wednesday 17/05/07
Orders of the Day — New Clause 29 — Reduction of regulatory burdens, 400 votes
Orders of the Day — Clause 81 — “Local improvement targets”: interpretation, 403 votes
Orders of the Day — Clause 179 — Abolition of functions of Patients’ Forums, 376 votes

Thursday 17/05/07
Orders of the Day — Clause 182 — Duty to consult users of health services, 277 votes

However, the figures were brought right back down due to a series of very poorly attended votes on the Friday (May 18).
Motion to sit in private, 56 votes
Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill — Question Proposed, 144 votes
Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill — Constituent letters, 132 votes
Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill — MP’s correspondence, 137 votes
Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill — Third Reading, 125 votes
Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill — Third Reading — Closure, 143 votes

The suspicious (and sporting) at heart may recall that the England vs West Indies test match was on at Lords from May 17-21, and speculate that a number of MPs decided to enjoy the second day’s play.

However, another, perhaps more likely, reason for the low attendance is what was being voted upon — a Bill that would have “taken away the public’s right to know about the internal workings of Parliament, or see any correspondence between MPs and any government department or local authority“. Like many such votes on transparency, MPs seemed curiously reluctant to be seen to taking a position against openness, yet apparently have no interest in supporting it either. (The Motion to sit in private, by the way, was a procedural tactic to prevent the bill being filibustered).

Of course, it’s also perfectly possible that both explanations are true 🙂


Next time I’ll compare ministerial voting records vs back-benchers

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 weekly attendance of MPs, grouped by party (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

October 14, 2008 at 5:55 pm

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