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Sunday, February 03, 2008


The media really has got the bit between their collective teeth today with revelations galore about which MP is employing which member of their family and a few instances of some strange goings-on with the Parliamentary expenses system.

As if he did not have enough to worry about The Sunday Telegraph reveals that Peter Hain employs his 80-year-old mother on a Commons salary of £5,400 a year. She has been his part-time secretary for 16 years. Anybody who has met Adelaine Hain, will know that not only is she a charming, intelligent and highly capable individual but that even at the age of 80 she would knock spots off many younger people in this role.

The article goes on to list other MPs who employ family members, including Mr. Cameron himself:

Mr Steen, the MP for Totnes, admitted that his daughter worked for him, but rather than being a scandalous situation like Mr Conway's his daughter was in fact being "underpaid". "Her work represents good value because she is willing to be flexible with her hours. I will be paying her more in future."

Other MPs employing family members include the Labour MP Dawn Butler, whose brother Tennyson is a case worker, and the senior Tory MP Sir George Young, whose daughter Camilla is a full-time Commons worker.

With so many MPs potentially under scrutiny, panic gripped the Commons last week. Even as he tried to fight back over the Conway affair, David Cameron, the Tory leader, was not immune to scrutiny of his own affairs.

While there is nothing to suggest any wrongdoing on his part, the fact that even Mr Cameron employs a family member - his sister-in-law Alice Sheffield as his correspondence secretary - shows just how awkward the issue has become.

They say that panic has gripped the Commons tearoom with Labour MPs turning on John Mann, the Labour MP for Bassetlaw who wrote to the Electoral Commission complaining about irregularities in Tory funding a few weeks ago:

As one Labour MP said: "This isn't just hurting the Tories. It's damaging all of us, politics in general, and that's no good for anybody. It will mean people just condemn us all and we end up with apathy and disengagement."

Meanwhile the Mail on Sunday catalogues the rather bizarre staffing arrangements of Bob Spinks, the Tory MP for Castle Point in Essex. They tell us that he employed his lover's daughter when she was still a sixth-form pupil:

Ashleigh Sharp has been Bob Spink's parliamentary assistant since 2006, when she was just 17 and enrolled at a sixth-form college in Benfleet, Essex.

Miss Sharp, the daughter of Mr Spink's former partner, Gail Boland, is now paid more than £5,000 a year by the MP – despite also being a student at Buckingham University.

Furthermore, he also employs his ex-wife, Janet, whom he divorced in 2002 and who now carries out her duties from Dorset, and his daughter, Charlotte:

Mr Spink said he had ensured that all his staffing arrangements were legitimate and said he would campaign for more transparency over MPs' allowances.

He said he continued to employ his ex-wife, despite her move to the West Country, because she was a "professionally qualified secretary and PA".

"I got specific clearance from the Fees Office for her continued employment, in Dorset. This arrangement is widely known in my constituency," he added.

He also employs his daughter, Charlotte, on a casual basis and paid her £4,400 in the past financial year.

Finally, for now anyway, the Mail on Sunday also reveal that Conservative MPs Nicholas and Ann Winterton have claimed £165,000 in Commons expenses for their £700,000 second home six years after they paid off their mortgage. They switched their fashionable London apartment to a family trust and used their parliamentary allowances to avoid death duty. It is alleged that, using a loophole in Commons rules, they claim more than £30,000 a year in "rent" from the public purse, which is paid to a family trust set up for their two children.

The paper explains that: The extraordinary arrangement has allowed them to benefit in two ways.

Their family has obtained £165,826 in "rent" for a home which they bought outright in 2002. And they stand to make a saving of up to £280,000 in their death-duty liability.

Sir Nicholas yesterday insisted he had done nothing wrong and that the "rent" payment and the family trust deal had been approved by the Commons authorities.

However, he said it was drawn up before checks on handouts for MPs' second homes were tightened up – and would probably not be allowed if it had been put forward now.

He said: "I am not dishonest. We don't own the flat, because once it is handed over, it becomes the property of the beneficiaries of the trust [his children].

"I see nothing unethical or wrong in it. It was agreed by the Commons Fees office – I happen to rent a property that I bought outright."

Although all of these arrangements are within the rules, they do highlight a lack of transparency and consistency in the process. Clearly there is a need to regularise the way that MPs employ their staff, ensuring that there are agreed salary scales and that recruitment and employment methods follow good equal opportunity principles.

It is also necessary, in my view, to change the way that the authorities pay for a members' accommodation whilst in London. It is clearly right that this sort of assistance continues but no member should be allowed to profit from it. A balance has to be struck between best value for the taxpayer and the needs of individual MPs. Some of this is already in place in the Welsh Assembly but we can do much more as well.
True, the assembly system is better but when will people learn that ignorance of the law is no defence? "The fees office said it's ok" defence is pathetic when as in the cases of Wendy Alexander and Joyce Watson they were given incomplete information and asked the wrong questions. And remember the Assembly's shockingly shrinking boundaries as to who can claim an "out of cardiff" allowance. Peter, you are from Swansea, and I think I'm right in saying that you don't claim this but don't you think it shocking that AMs whose consituencies are within less an hours drive-time from the assembly are entitled to rack up profits on subsidized properties?
This issue has to be fixed or many will just switch off to politics and regard all MPs (and AMs) as "troffers" of the public purse. It does seem that quite a few MPs (and relatives) have their heads, shoulders, back-sides and feet in the public purse trough.
I think in the case of the Assembly it's been there, done that. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/wales/3487340.stm)
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