In April 2013, the chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee reflected that owing to the ‘shrinking working year at Westminster’, it felt as though MPs were ‘hardly working’, leading one correspondent to a London newspaper to suggest providing them with ‘a bonus scheme related to attendance’. However, concern over the number of empty seats in the Commons chamber is hardly new and was a common theme of political discussion in the period following the Reform Act of 1832.
As the parliamentary session of 1852 closed, The Times noted that while the House of Commons had divided 127 times that year, on only 19 occasions had the number of MPs present exceeded 300. Its reminder to the country’s 656 Members that they had been ‘sent to Westminster to work’ was issued at a time when their attendance of the Commons was being closely watched, with questions being raised about their dedication to parliamentary duties.
Although MPs were obliged to attend the House of Commons, ordinarily they could not be compelled to do so, the infliction of fines for non-attendance having ceased towards the close of the seventeenth century. However, the matter of parliamentary attendance began to attract public attention during the passage of the Reform Act in 1832, which was expected to make the Commons a more popular national forum than hitherto. Prior to this, electors usually judged their MPs’ activity by reading reports of their speeches in the press or in the pages of Hansard. However, only a small minority of MPs ever spoke in debate and it would later be noted that the most conspicuous speakers were not always the most diligent Members. The large majority silently recorded their votes in divisions, although when matters of great public interest were at issue unofficial division lists appeared in the newspapers. The first attempt to collate information about these divisions was made in 1834 with the publication of a selective and not entirely accurate return of each MPs’ votes during the first two sessions of the reformed parliament. Richard Gooch’s ‘synopsis of votes’ attracted public interest and was even used at the 1835 general election to expose the absenteeism of a sitting Whig MP.
Early in 1836 MPs bowed to calls for their activities to be more widely publicised by initiating the official publication of their divisions. Provincial newspapers were now able to furnish detailed accounts of the voting activity of local members, who were no longer able to evade the public eye, the Conservative journal John Bull promising that every division would now ‘be scrutinized’ with ‘a jealous eye’, and warning MPs that during the session the ‘gaieties of Paris, the allurements of Italy, and the sports of the field, must be forsaken’. That year a national survey of MPs’ voting activity revealed a wide disparity in attendance between the two parliamentary parties, it being noted that whereas 34 Whigs voted in more than half of the divisions, only five Conservative MPs did so.
Although some observers believed that voting in divisions was ‘a fair criterion’ of the extent of an MP’s attendance at the House, it could never be ascertained whether a Member had sat through a debate before being required to vote. By the same token, MPs who may have spent hours listening to a debate would not appear in a division list if they paired with an opposition Member before the division was held. Nevertheless, by the mid-1840s absenteeism among Irish MPs, some of whom wished to boycott ‘the imperial parliament’, was so acute that it threatened to disrupt the sittings of Commons committees. A comprehensive analysis of the ‘attendance accounts’ published by the Spectator in October 1849 confirmed that ‘parliamentary truant playing’ continued to be rife. Finding that only 65 Members had voted in more than half of the divisions, 27 of whom held government office, it was concluded that some low-scoring MPs appeared to have ‘been elected for no purpose at all’. The report was widely carried by the national and provincial press, although some commentators argued that attending divisions was a doubtful standard by which to estimate a Member’s usefulness. While admiring the ‘unparalleled energy’ of the Bradford MP, Colonel Thomas Perronet Thompson, for voting in 216 of the session’s 219 divisions, the Hampshire Telegraph cast doubt on whether he had understood all of the questions on which he had voted, and contended that a man who spent an evening studying the parliamentary ‘blue books’ at his club, but avoided dividing on subjects with which he was not acquainted, could never be accused of neglecting his duty. The fine details of government measures could, it was argued, ‘be best settled’ with only five or six well-informed Members being present.
However, other commentators believed that voting was ‘the definite deed’ by which MPs could be judged, and constituents remained eager for ‘a short and easy reckoning’ of their representatives’ performance. Regular attendance was frequently demanded in two-member constituencies represented by MPs of opposing parties, the case of Gloucester demonstrating that the balance of representation was upset when the borough’s Liberal MP voted 109 times and his Conservative colleague only 16. The campaign for administrative reform which arose from the debacle of the Crimean War encouraged provincial newspapers to maintain an even closer watch on their MPs. A register maintained by the Parliamentary and Financial Reform Association furnished another comprehensive return of voting behaviour in September 1853, when it was found that fewer than one in six MPs attended more than half of the session’s divisions, and 44 voted in fewer than one tenth. Metropolitan MPs, some of whom were the keenest advocates of parliamentary reform, were among the worst offenders, and the Association encouraged constituencies to try the delinquents at the bar of public opinion. Such advice did little good, however, as a subsequent analysis in 1856 revealed that only 95 MPs had voted in more than half of divisions, while 89 were absent for more than 180 of the 198 held in the session.
Newspaper interest in this matter appears to have waned under Lord Palmerston’s emollient premiership between 1859 and 1865, but when party politics reignited over the reform bills in 1866 the relevant divisions were largely attended, a fact attested to by the Parliamentary Buff Book, which provided annual reports on MPs’ attendance until 1881. By then party discipline was more rigorously enforced and a decade later it was ‘quite common’ for more than 500 MPs to vote in a single division. By 1899 it was reported that divisions were ‘extraordinarily well attended’, and the absentee MP appeared to be a thing of the past.
K. Rix, ‘“Whatever passed in Parliament ought to be communicated to the public”: reporting the proceedings of the Reformed Commons, 1833-1850’, Parliamentary History, 33:3 (2014), 453-74