MP claims “many” colleagues employ lovers

May 1, 2009 at 3:48 pm 1 comment

Derek Conway MP pictured with his family

An MP who was suspended from the House for paying his son son £50,000 of public money for “work” as a researcher spoke in yesterday’s debate on expenses.

Derek Conway made similar payments to his elder son Henry during his time at university, totalling £32,000.

He was ordered to pay back more than £5,000 and had the Conservative party whip withdrawn. He is standing down as MP for Old Bexley and Sidcup at the next election.

“It is said that politics is a vain calling—that people stand in this place and say, “Hear my views. Look at me, look at me,” he told MPs.

“I suspect that all Members of the House have looked at me in great detail and I still bear the scars. It would be a vanity on my part, however, to think that the Government’s proposals on the employment of staff are down to the experiences that have been well publicised in this place and in the media.

“Therefore, one must wonder: why the haste?

“More than 200 close family members are employed by Members of Parliament. Many more employ lovers, who are not necessarily known to be related, and many more again employ in-laws because of the difference in their surnames.

“No doubt the total number of relatives employed by Members of the House is 250 rather than the lower estimate. Is that wrong? People will make their own judgments about my case, and they have done so.

“However, many Members of Parliament find it convenient to employ family members, not necessarily to supplement their income, because many MPs take a drop in salary when they come to this place—I halved my salary when I came back.

“Many Members employ family because of availability and reliability, and as many Members have experienced before me, family members are often employed for confidentiality and convenience. Is it just the money? I am not sure that that is the case, and it will be interesting to see how the Commission addresses the problems of central employment.

“As I experienced during the investigation of two years into my personal activities and those of my family, the Standards and Privileges Committee, whose distinguished Chairman has spoken today, wanted to know whether there was a need for the person to be employed by the Member of Parliament, whether they were able to do the job—presumably two-year-olds would not apply—whether they were actually doing the job, and whether the reward for what they did was reasonable, which, one would expect, is a test that will apply to every Member of the House.

“However, the standard of proof varies, and I say to the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee that if his reports are contrasted, they will show that there is a difference in the standards applied, not only by the current Committee but by previous Committees, to the Members before them.

“The House will recall the treatment that led to the loss of Elizabeth Filkin’s services, in relation to the case of the right hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid), and more recently the comparison between the investigation into my family and that into the employment arrangements of the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman).

“Interestingly, when my elder son Henry was being investigated, the commissioner, who is a polite and decent man, was extraordinarily thorough. However, levels of thoroughness are a human failing, for us all.

“In Henry’s examination, there were long-distance calls to Canada, with witness statements being taken. Cleverly, the commissioner even found a secretary who had worked in the office, and had long since left, but unfortunately she remembered seeing Henry and seeing what he did.

“By mere coincidence, there was even a photograph of him helping at a function. One tried to gather together the evidence. That compares interestingly with the later Committee report, for which some of the witnesses who had been reported in the press were not even contacted and asked for their opinion.

“By contrast, my son sat for two and a half hours giving evidence before the commissioner. One wonders whether Committees of the House, as we know from experience, bend over backwards to try to protect Front Benchers if they possibly can.

“In my case, both commissioners found that my sons had worked, and the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, when he was not busy trying to sort out computer contracts for his friends, took a particular interest in my case, as he was anxious that it should be prosecuted. The Crown Prosecution Service – ”

At this point veteran Tory MP Sir Patrick Cormack intervened.

“On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In view of the fact that the Member who is addressing the House accepted the punishment of the House, apologised unreservedly and paid back the money that was taken, is not this speech rather an abuse of that?”

Deputy Speaker Sir Alan Haselhurst said he did not see the point of order.

“Every hon. Member is responsible for the remarks that they make in this Chamber and will be assessed accordingly. I call Mr. Derek Conway.”

Derek Conway said he fully accepted what the Standards and Privileges Committee said in his case.

“But that does not prevent me, any other Member of this House or any member of the public from contrasting the different reports that the Committee produces. It found in my case that the issue hung on the level of reward. Henry, my eldest son, was paid at the second quartile of the lowest grade.

“That is relevant to the debate that the House has been having on the employment of staff, including those related to Members of Parliament. As I know from bitter personal experience, my son, who was at the second quartile of the lowest grade and was a part-time student, was judged to have been paid too highly.

“Therefore, one awaits with interest any inquiries that are made into the husband of the Home Secretary, who is paid at the top of the highest grade while being a full-time house husband.

“Speculation about what Members of this House are doing and what is reported in the papers should apply to all Members, not just some. How these points in the salary scales are arrived at remains a mystery to me.

“In my case, the Committee decided that it would have been appropriate for my son to have been paid at the entry point of the lowest grade, with an annual cost of living and a 2 per cent. annual performance increase.

“That is not laid down by the House authorities anywhere; I have not seen it applied anywhere else. I do not think I am challenging the Committee by raising this, because I shall be raising it with the House authorities in the coming months.”

This displeased Tory MP Bernard Jenkin, who said in a point of order:

“I find it difficult to believe that an hon. Member who has accepted the findings of a Committee in a disciplinary case of his can subsequently come back to the House and call into question the judgments that that Committee has made. That seems to be what the hon. Member is doing.”

Sir Alan replied that again there was no point of order.

“I have made one ruling. Every hon. Member must be responsible for what they say in this Chamber and, short of an attack on or criticism of another hon. or right hon. Member, it is a matter of judgment on which every one of us will be held accountable. I have not heard anything that causes me to rule the hon. Gentleman out of order, but he is responsible for what he says and he must consider carefully what he does say.”

Derek Conway concluded:

“I am not challenging what the Committee is saying. What I am asking is that if Members are looking for guidance on what level of pay to set for their staff, should they look to the House authorities, to the Green Book or to personnel practice?

“The Committee’s different decisions in different cases do not necessarily help to provide that guidance, but they set a precedent—that is the point I wish to make. Interestingly, I think that although the Government are using great haste to try to resolve this matter, it will not end today.

“My inquiry went back eight years, so whatever the Government or the House decide today, this matter will not finish today.

“I have resigned myself to being the Admiral Byng of this Parliament, but that does not stop me developing a new hobby, and I believe that those Members of this House who have employed close family members should look a little more closely at the Committee’s decisions on levels of pay and how interest each year should be applied.

“I do not think for one moment that the inquiries into how Members have employed their staff will end with tonight’s debate.”

MPs voted for a series of changes to their expenses and staffing arrangements yesterday.

Members representing outer London constituencies will not be entitled to a second home allowance and MPs will have to make detailed declarations about employment outside the House.

Members’ staff will in future be employed by the House and not individual MPs.


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