Keeping it in the family

We’re advertising for an intern in the Lib Dem office at present. Grey Goose vodka and peacock hats not included. Most students who intern for MPs do it for expenses and the CV; so employing your own student sons on between £30k and £50k would be unusual even if their work was highly visible. The antics of the Conway boys, and their father’s arrogance, means the story will stay in the headlines. And the ripples from the Conway case continue to spread. David Cameron admits that he employs his sister-in-law ; he is one of over 70 Tory MPs who employ members of their family. Peter Hain employs his 80 year old Mum as a secretary. Now there’s even talk of a ban on MPs employing family.

I don’t have a problem with MPs employing family members, particularly their partners. Politics is a total immersion experience, a lifestyle not a job. Having your spouse as your aide and confidante while you are working long hours, possibly hundreds of miles from home, is a good idea. And there are lots of examples of worthy employees – like Dan Hodges working for his mother Glenda Jackson MP – who happen to be relatives too.

So I’m worried that even the BBC slipped up today and reported the Conway case as being about MPs paying relatives to work for them. Wrong. The scandal is paying public money to people who then don’t do the work.

MPs offices are like small businesses, with members hiring and firing their own staff, funded by a staffing allowance. How many employees each has, and how much they are paid, varies widely. So do the caseloads of different constituencies, the working styles of different MPs, and the campaigning demands of different parties. Some MPs dip into their own pocket to subsidise the costs of the staff they feel they need. Rich MPs can afford to give extra perks, like Islington South & Finsbury MP Emily Thornberry having her husband buy housing for her staff. Nice work if you can get it!

The current row is about public money. But staff funded by special interest groups are an issue too. If the Conway boys’ fun at Mahiki had been funded by Monsanto, McDonalds or Microsoft, would that be any better? The system needs an overhaul. Publishing salaries and perks packages – public & private – and requiring staff appraisals, would be a start.

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