Ministers attending General Assembly told to ‘clock in’ or lose expenses

MINISTERS and elders at the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly have been ordered to “clock in” to make sure they do not skip debates.

They have been warned they will be refused their expenses unless they attend at least ten of the 13 sessions during the seven-day gathering, which got under way today.

Kirk chiefs say too many of those attending the Assembly, known as commissioners, do not arrive until Monday, even though business begins on Saturday, and then fail to turn up for important debates during the rest of the week.

Now the Kirk is to use new technology to keep track of ministers and elders and make sure they do not play truant.

New electronic voting handsets, issued to every commissioner, will allow individuals to register their presence in the Assembly Hall and the devices will keep a record of their attendance.

Under Kirk rules, commissioners can claim up to £55 per night for overnight subsistence and up to £15 per day out-of-pocket expenses.

But now they have been warned expenses will not be paid to those who do not record attendance for at least ten out of the Assembly’s total of 13 sessions between today and Friday.

Around 750 ministers and elders from all over Scotland attend the Assembly. For a few years, the Kirk experimented by holding it from Thursday to Wednesday in a bid to ensure commissioners stayed for the whole time, but many went home for the weekend, so last year it returned to the Saturday to Friday pattern.

In its report, the Assembly arrangements committee said: “In 2009 a church-wide consultation brought to light a significant concern that many sessions of the General Assembly were poorly attended and that some action should be taken to address the issue.

“Even in some of the most important debates a significant number of commissioners are not present. This same criticism arises year after year.

“Last year more than 20 per cent of commissioners did not arrive until Monday and one of the most significant developments in church life was debated with less than half of the commissioners present.”

The church officials acknowledge there could be “extenuating circumstances” which require someone to be absent. In such cases the executive of the Assembly arrangements committee will act as “final arbiter”.

One Edinburgh minister, who asked not to be named, said there could be little argument about the new checks and the threat of refusing expenses.

He said: “There may be a few people squirming, but no-one can object. If we’re going to criticise bankers’ bonuses and so on, we have to act ethically ourselves.”

A Kirk official said: “You were always meant to attend the majority of sessions in order to claim any expenses, but there was never any way of checking up before.

“People often don’t arrive till the Monday and then drift off by Thursday afternoon, but if you are a commissioner you are meant to attend Saturday to Friday – that’s the deal; if they don’t want to do that, they shouldn’t be a commissioner.”

An elder from Glasgow has already tabled a motion saying that from next year the requirement should be increased so that commissioners must attend 12 out of 13 session to qualify for their expenses.