How often do MPs turn up for work (Part 4): the ministerial effect
[Note: Voting attendance 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, or more transparency of MPs actions, this is the only one we have.]
A frequent arguments for low attendance of voting divisions by MPs is that the figure is depressed by ministers (and shadow spokespersons), whose other responsibilities prevent them from attending as many votes (as they’d like to), thus bringing down the overall average.
Seems reasonable, so let’s have a look at just how much of an influence this ‘ministerial effect’ has on the overall figures. First, let’s look at the average voting attendance for ministers and non-ministers (calculation details below):
|Attendance rates May 97 – July 08|
Er, wait a minute, so the average voting attendance rate for ministers is higher than non-ministers? That’s not what we expected. However, basic averages (i.e. the mean) can hide a multitude of sins, so let’s have a look at the distribution of those attendance figures.
As you can see, while the peak of the ministerial attendance is around the 65% mark (less than that for the non-ministerial one), there were far more divisions in which 90%+ of ministers voted than there were for which 90%+ of non-ministers voted.
This makes sense, in a way, as ministers are far more likely than backbenchers to turn up en masse for votes their party sees as important. It’s this that largely accounts for the figures we saw in the table above. However, what the graph also shows is that when you take the ministers out of the equation, attendance definitely does not shoot up. There is, in short, no ‘ministerial effect’ to account for the low attendance of MPs.
[It’s worth mentioning that the ministerial office records are slightly incomplete — the record of Parliamentary Private Secretaries is missing during some periods — so I’ve run the figures for ministers both including and excluding PPSs. As you can see, it doesn’t make a lot of difference.]
The party lines
Having looked at the big picture, it’s time to look at the ministerial vs non-ministerial attendance by party, specifically the three main parties in Parliament.
As you can see, the relationship between ministerial and non-ministerial attendance is noticeably different for each of the parties. Labour ministers do indeed have noticeably lower attendance rates than their backbenchers, though not as much as I’d expected and not enough to alter the distribution massively.
However, for the Tories and LibDems, the surprising thing — for me, at least — was the attendance rates for their spokespersons are actually noticeably better than their backbenchers, raising rather than lowering the overall figures. What, I wonder, is the reason for this?
Finally, a couple of quick graphs to wrap this post up. One shows, perhaps not surprisingly, that Labour ministerial attendance rates are less than for the shadow spokespersons — presumably the time commitment for a governmental position is greater than that for the equivalent shadow position.
The other shows the distribution of backbenchers attendance figures, by party. I’ll leave that one without making any further comment.
- The Ministerial/non-ministerial attendance rates were calculated by looking at every Commons division between May 1997 and July 2008, and working out the number of ministers/non-ministers who could have voted in that division, and the number who actually did vote. The average attendance figures in the table were calculated by dividing the aggregate number of votes by the aggregate number of possible votes.
To calculate the distribution of attendance rates I calculated the ministerial/non-ministerial attendance rate for each division, and plotted these on a graph to show how those attendance rates are distributed (as usual, I’ve made the underlying figures are available as a spreadsheet here and here if you want to examine them further).
- Ministers are those holding any sort of ministerial office as per the PublicWhip database, including whips, but excluding select committee members (although it wouldn’t be hard to run the figures to include select committee members). The Parliamentary Private Secretaries record at the Public Whip is incomplete for several periods, and unfortunately (and ridiculously) there is no historical record of ministers available from Parliament’s own website.
- 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 figures.
- The graphs are visual representations of the density of the distribution, and were plotted using R using the kernel densityplot function.