Some French and Italian MEPs have let entire years slip by without their thoughts turning to their duties. The French use the parliament as a parking place for older statesmen and those on their way to better positions. Robert Hersant, the French newspaper publisher and media tycoon, is a particularly rare visitor, turning up for only 4 per cent of sessions. He is standing again this year.
The research was carried out by the Independent,, Frankfurter Allgemeine, El Pais, the Irish Independent and Liberation. It is based on the official attendance records, which MEPs must sign, for sessions between July 1989 and March 1994. The Parliament has all the data but does not publish it, because it does not wish to cause embarrassment.
Attendance is by no means the only indicator of an MEP's dedication: some distinguish themselves by committee work. But the plenary sessions in Strasbourg and Brussels are where the important votes take place. Equally, some operate what is called the SISO system ('Sign in, Sod off'). But in the absence of any other indicator, it is one of the few ways of showing who are most committed MEPs. British MEPs attend on average about 80 per cent of sessions, the same as their German and Greek colleagues. The Labour members are marginally more diligent than the Conservatives, with an 83 per cent record against 77 per cent. Only one British MEP has a really bad absentee record: Ian Paisley, the Northern Ireland MEP for the Democratic Unionist Party, comes only 39 per cent of the time.
The highest showings are by Henry McCubbin, Steven Hughes, Terry Wynn and John Tomlinson on the Labour side, and by Edward Kellet-Bowman in the Conservatives, all with over 96 per cent attendance. Twenty-six of the eighty-one British MEPs have over 90 per cent scores. Bottom of the list after Mr Paisley are Lord O'Hagan of the Conservatives, who resigned through ill-health last month, John Stevens (Con, Thames Valley) with 50 per cent, Lord Plumb (Con, The Cotswolds), 56 per cent. All the rest have over 60 per cent.
The best record is held by the Irish and the Dutch, with 86 per cent. The Irish regard parliament as highly important given the cash they receive. Though there are party divergences in attendance records, these appear far less salient than national political culture in explaining why people turn up. There are five days in each monthly Strasbourg plenary session; records indicate that MEPs tend to miss either the Monday or Friday or both.
Some continental Euro-MPs habitually missed entire five-day sessions. The Italian figure of 60 per cent attendance is almost certainly an over-estimate; the French average is 66 per cent. Many MEPs appear only a few times, and it is difficult to tell from the parliamentary record whether they have left the institution altogether. Achille Occhetto, leader of the PDS, the former Communists, has barely appeared; nor has Bettino Craxi, the former Socialist party leader. Absenteeism is a problem in terms of the Parliament's credibility and operation. The overall level of attendance is probably 70-75 per cent. Concern that the outgoing Parliament has not performed well has led to calls for action to bring members into line.
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