Absentee rate among MPs on the increase

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On the eve of a general election in which MPs will be seeking to persuade the voters that they are worth every penny of their pounds 43,000 backbench pay, the Commons has published work records showing that absentee rates are rising.

While the Chamber of the House is the main forum for Commons debate, the detailed examination of legislation is supposed to be carried out in standing committees - mostly meeting away from the public gaze.

Commons records show that in the one-year session ending last October, 60 Bills were enacted, and 39 of them were considered in 201 sittings of standing committees, on which 536 of Westminster's 647 politically-active Members were asked to serve.

Attendance records show that in that session, 1995-96, the absentee rate was 23.5 per cent; up from 17.5 per cent in 1992-93, the first session after the last election. In 1994-95, the absentee rate was 21.5 per cent.

Those figures disguise a variety of performances by individual members. Some refuse to serve at all on standing committees; others allow their names to be put forward, and do not attend; others are most assiduous, logging record attendances on standing committees, and on the complementary select committees that monitor the work of Whitehall departments.

Committee workhorses for 1995-96 include:

Matthew Banks (C Southport), who attended 57 out of 62 standing committee meetings he had been summoned to attend, along with 26 out of 32 Transport Select Committee sittings;

Bernard Jenkin (C Colchester N), who went to 61 out of 65 standing committee sittings to which he was called, and 28 out of 35 Social Security Select Committee hearings;

Stephen Timms (Lab Newham NE), who managed only 52 out of 70 standing committee sessions, but 38 meetings of the Transport Select Committee; and

John Whittingdale (C Colchester S and Maldon), who went to 50 out of 52 standing committee sittings, and 28 out of 40 sessions of the Health Select Committee.

Colchester appears to be a well-served city. Mr Whittingdale also went to three out of four sessions of the extremely mundane Committee on Consolidation of Legislation - which managed an absentee rate of almost 70 per cent in 1995-96.

Other high rates of absenteeism were registered for the Select Committee on Statutory Instruments, which vets delegated legislation - 55.7 per cent - and European legislation, one of the most important committees at Westminster, which had an absentee rate of 43 per cent, up from 38 per cent the year before. For the year as a whole, the Commons sat for just 146 days - 13 days less than the previous year. The average length of a day's sitting was 8 hours 45 minutes.

9Sessional Returns 1995-96. Commons paper 164. Stationery Office; pounds 17.10.