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MPs failing to attend crucial Commons committees

April 8, 2009 12:00 AM
By Sam Coates, Chief Political Correspondent in The Times

Backbench MPs routinely skip the meetings of powerful Commons committees, undermining Parliament's power to scrutinise the Government, The Times has learnt.

At least 60 of the 220 members on the most influential Commons committees examining public services and government spending missed more than half their meetings last year, according to an analysis of figures released this week by Parliament.

Several backbench MPs have told The Times that they do not regard select committee attendance - which was once seen as a route to high office - as a priority. This has prompted anger among some select committee chairmen who believe that backbench MPs from all parties are shirking their elected responsibilities.

The figures have emerged amid the controversy over expenses, with several Cabinet ministers and other MPs having to defend claims for second homes that amount to thousands of pounds on top of their salaries.

MPs often point to select committee work as a reason for low attendance in debates in the chamber of the House of Commons. Phil Willis, chairman of the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, is urging them to show greater commitment to committees: "I think it is the job of members to attend."

Select committees are seen as a vital part of the parliamentary process, cross-examining ministers and other experts and producing reports to which Whitehall departments must respond. Last year select committee members went on 49 foreign trips at a cost of £1.4 million.

Yet overall attendance at several key select committees covering education, foreign affairs and culture have dropped 10 per cent in five years. The attendance rate for the main committees is 64 per cent, down from 70 per cent in 2002-03.

"There is no reward for being a diligent select committee member," Tony Wright, the chairman of the Public Administration Committee, said yesterday.

MPs now openly pick and choose which meetings they attend with impunity. Jim Dowd, a Labour MP who attended 18 out of the 37 meetings of the Health Select Committee, suggested that he had the balance "about right". He said: "I go to the ones I can get to and the ones that do not clash with my many commitments as a London MP."

Emily Thornberry, a Labour backbencher who attended 13 of the 36 meetings of the Communities and Local Government Committee, said that she principally attended those meetings on housing - a minority of its workload. "I have never made a secret of the fact that I think it should be a housing committee. Also, I couldn't go to all the meetings because the House was sitting and there were debates on [important] issues. There is a difficulty because there are lots of calls on your time."

Figures for select committee attendance for the year to November reveal that members of all parties failed to turn up. Siôn Simon, who was a backbencher until last October, attended only 11 of 37 meetings in the ten months of last year in which he was a member of the Treasury Select Committee, which is playing a key role investigating the credit crunch. He stopped attending when he became a minister. Mr Simon, now Further Education Minister, rejected suggestions that he was failing in his job. "I was a regular attendee," he said.

Committee sources confirmed that he had missed some meetings while a backbencher and said that they were unaware of a reason for this.

Dawn Butler, another Labour MP who was promoted from the back benches last October, attended only 15 of the 64 meetings of the Children, Schools and Families Committee. Her office blamed a ten-week absence from Parliament due to illness, saying that there were 19 occasions where either her health or a diary clash meant that she was unable to attend the committee.

A source on the Children, Schools and Families Committee suggested that select committee work "did not sit well" with either Ms Butler or the Conservative Adam Afriyie, who attended only three out of the 45 meetings when he was a member.

"Dawn was keen to be a government member or whip and Adam wanted to go on the Tory front bench. So their focus was elsewhere," the source said. Mr Afriyie's office was unable to contact him yesterday, saying that it was "under instructions not to bother him" during the recess.

Some MPs failed to turn up for meetings, giving no explanation. Others quit unilaterally before the whips were able to find a successor, meaning that their places went unfilled.

Geoffrey Cox, the Tory backbencher who attended 13 of the 51 meetings of the Environment and Rural Affairs Committee, suggested that he mainly attended when the issues were directly connected to his Devon constituency. He said: "I try to attend the important meetings, including ones with ministers, but I don't attend all. I take a view about how to distribute my time. There are some inquiries . . . where one has less involvement, because they don't affect constituencies."

A recent report by the Liaison Committee of select committee chairmen accused party leaders of undermining the system by expanding the number of places and numbers of committees. This may "result in the perverse outcome of an overall decrease in the quality of scrutiny".

The Government has recently relaxed the rules to allow parliamentary private secretaries, the lowest rung of the ministerial ladder, to sit on select committees. This would have been unthinkable in previous Parliaments because the bodies are meant to be independent of government.

Several MPs have also criticised the trend of MPs turning up at committee meetings, asking one question and then leaving, thus ensuring that they are on the attendance register.

"You only have to turn up for five minutes to be recorded as attending," said one select committee chairman.

Change by committee

Children, Schools and Families Committee Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, announced in October last year that he would scrap Key Stage 3 tests, taken by 14-year-olds, after sustained criticism, particularly in a report six months earlier by the committee that had recommended an overhaul of the system

Health Committee The Government was forced to look again at the dentistry system after the committee published a report in July saying that the programme for England was failing. The Government accepted the report's recommendations

Home Affairs Committee Proposals for direct elections to police authorities were withdrawn after the committee called on the Government to consult again on the plan. The committee asked for all schools to be issued with material on forced marriage

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