Taking the register

There are many calls upon a backbench Member of Parliament’s time, and I am sure that most would not welcome the commitment to attending up to seven half-day sessions a week that membership of the HS2 Select Committee entails. Even a Member who is wholly committed to the important work of acting as a court of appeal for the unfortunates impacted by the HS2 proposals is bound to find occasions where other obligations must be satisfied, drawing him or her away from the delights on display in Committee Room 5.

Provided that they turn up for divisions and find their way into the correct lobby, MPs are largely left to organise their own time and many, somewhat controversially, manage to pursue outside interests in addition to their parliamentary and constituency duties. I am sure that Members of the HS2 Select Committee must find any alternative that presents itself to the humdrum routine of committee business a temptation and, in these circumstances, it seems churlish to check up on attendance. However, the transcripts that are published of each session of the Committee provide a list of Members present on the first page, so I have not been able to resist monitoring how well the Committee has been attended and summarising this data for all public sessions held in the 2010-2015 Parliament in the histogram reproduced below.

HS2_SC_attendance_2014-15On the face of it, the Members deserve to be congratulated on their diligence; full attendance has been achieved at about 39% of sessions, and has only shrunk to the quorum of three at a tiny 3% of the sessions. The Chairman has led his committee by example; he has only failed to be listed in the transcript as occupying the Chair on one occasion, and even then he did attend for part of the session. Three other Members have supported him ably, with individual attendance records ranging from 88% to 96%. The final two Members have not been quite so dedicated, with individual attendances of 70% and 56%.

But attendance percentages calculated this way can flatter the contribution that an individual Member is making. This is because it is only necessary to turn up at some stage during the session to be listed on the transcript as an attendee. Generally this does not pose a problem, as most Members appear to appreciate that, in order to do justice to the evidence presented, it is necessary to be present for most, if not all, of each session. Indeed, where it has been unavoidable for one of the more conscientious Members to absent themselves for part of a session, it has not been unknown for the petitioner present to be treated to an explanation and an apology.

However, the Member with the worst attendance record also appears to be the one who has spent the least time in sessions when present. I witnessed this myself when I watched the Committee proceedings from the public seats one Monday in December last year.

It being a Monday two sessions had been scheduled, the first in the afternoon starting at 2pm following by an evening session planned to start at 7pm. It transpired that there was to be a ministerial statement in the House of Commons that afternoon that Members of the Select Committee wished to attend, so the afternoon session was shortened to run from approximately 2pm to 3.30pm and the evening session lengthened by starting it at 4.30pm approximately; the evening session continued until approximately 9pm, with two breaks for divisions in the Chamber.

If you look at the attendance list on the front page of the transcript for the first session you will see a full complement of six Members listed as attending, and the same is true in the transcript for the second session. However, the video records for the two sessions tell a different story. The recording of the shortened afternoon session starts with sound only, video not appearing until 14:24. However, the regular views of the Member’s seats that are shown during the approximately one hour of video recording that is available, confirm that only five members were present throughout. My recollection, as an attendee, was that this was indeed the case for the whole of the first session.

The complete video recording of the second session shows the sixth Member arriving at 17:01, about one half-hour after the start of the session, and then revealing an empty chair where that Member was sitting at 18:47, a situation that pertains for the rest of the recording. So the sixth Member was only in committee for a maximum of 106 minutes that day. Taking both sessions together, and excluding breaks for divisions, the Committee sat for 291 minutes that Monday, so the sixth Member was present for very slightly more than one-third of the time.

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