The news that 122 of the UK’s 650 MPs still employ family members has been greeted, predictably, with righteous fury. Not content with the knowledge that no future MP will be allowed to employ a family member (that was banned last March), the indignant campaigners are now demanding that all Members currently employing spouses, siblings, or children should sack them immediately. On Wednesday, The Mirror jumped on the bandwagon and named and shamed the offending members in a colourful expose complete with hideously unflattering photos of their families. Having a bad hair day, after all, is tantamount to sponging off the state.
Of course our members of parliament should be subjected to scrutiny, and of course, the expenses scandal of 2009 made it difficult for the public to trust those in the Westminster bubble. But to have a functioning democracy, there must be a point where we accept that representing a constituency in parliament is a job unlike any other – and that means the rule book has got to be bespoke.
For a start, although lots of jobs require travel, there are very few in which a person has a civic duty to be in London from Monday to Thursday, but would be scorned by a few thousand people for not going up north every weekend. For MPs with young children, this is a particularly serious issue, as I saw for myself when working as a Parliamentary Assistant in Westminster.
My boss, a 45-year-old woman, made the decision on her election in 2010 to send her two very young children to nursery school in her North-Eastern seat. She thought, quite rightly, that she would only gain the respect and trust of her constituents if she based herself in her constituency. Her then 3-year-old sons didn’t quite see it like that, and spent Monday to Thursday nights crying because they missed their mum. After years of struggling to find the right balance, she eventually moved them down to a school in London – at the cost of unanimous opprobrium at home in her constituency.
Unless we start asking our members of parliament to take a vow of chastity when they get sworn in, children are always going to be an important part of the job. For my boss, the answer to her dilemma was employing her husband who worked with her in London during the week. He could then could travel up to Staffordshire, with her children, to work with her at the weekend. What other employee on a public-sector salary would agree to that sort of arrangement?
The truth, whether we like it or not, is that family members are quite often the best people for the job. They understand the constituency, instinctively get the oddities of Westminster, will intuitively know where their boss stands on every big issue, and will (usually) be willing to drop everything at a moment’s notice to do whatever needs doing. They are also best placed to navigate the labyrinth of rules behind MPs expenses, which, for an outsider, is near impossible.
So why all the fuss? These people must be causing some serious problems for so many people to be baying for blood. Well, no. the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority – the body set up post 2009 to monitor MPs expenses – published a “comprehensive” report last March which concluded that “there were no compliance concerns” and that although connected parties earned more on average than other staff, they tended to hold more senior positions. Not surprising when you consider that most MPs who employ family members employ their middle-aged spouses, and most of the junior staff in Westminster are under 25.
What did IPSA do with this information? Bizarrely, having spent thousands (of taxpayer’s money) on researching and producing this glossy document, they decided to ignore its findings. Although their own report showed that the practice was causing no harm, it was deemed “out of step with modern workplace practice” and outlawed. Almost enough to make you question whether the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority needs a bit of scrutiny itself.
It’s been nine years since the expenses scandal and it’s time we all gave MPs a bit of break. Attacked from all sides by the press, the public, and (in the case of both major parties) their own colleagues, it’s not surprising that some of them need the support of their family at work. And when those family members seem to be doing a better job than most of their colleagues, it’s probably time to let them get on with it.
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