Scrutinising government

MPs still pay £3m in salaries to family members

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Flickr/Houses of Parliament 02/Davide Simonetti

MPs are still paying nearly £3m of public money to family members despite attempts by the new expenses watchdog to tighten up the system, analysis by the Bureau can reveal.

Nearly a fifth of all MPs still employ members of their family, despite wide criticism of the practice during the expenses scandal.

The 136 MPs who continue to pay salaries to ‘connected parties’ employ them in roles including office manager, secretary, and parliamentary assistant, according to figures collected by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) for the financial year 2010-2011.

More than 40 family members were paid £30,000 or above, and six received between £40,000 and £44,999. Those paying relatives include 27 new MPs.

Sir Christopher Kelly, chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life caled for ISPA to look again at allowing the practice amid fears that it could be abused.

‘In our report the Committee recommended that MPs should no longer be able to employ family members at taxpayer’s expense. Although we heard plenty of evidence during our inquiry that many spouses and family members were doing a good job … we continue to be concerned about the potential for abuse – perceived or otherwise – which this creates and we hope that IPSA will keep this under review.’

The six MPs who paid out the highest include:

  • Tom Harris, who employed his wife Carolyn as office manager
  • Peter Bone, who employed his wife Jeanette as office manager
  • Sir Alan Haselhurst, who employed his wife Lady Angela Haselhurst as office manager
  • Stephen Hammond, who employed his wife Sally as senior parliamentary assistant
  • Graham Brady, who employed his wife Victoria Lowther as senior parliamentary assistant
  • Christopher Chope, who employed his wife Christine as secretary

Employing a relative is one of the most controversial practices still allowed under the changed expenses rules.

More than 40 family members were paid £30,000 or above, and six received between £40,000 and £44,999.

In 2009 the Committee on Standards in Public Life, headed by Sir Christopher Kelly, recommended a ban on the practice as it was ‘not consistent with modern employment practice designed to ensure fairness in recruitment, management of staff and remuneration; and it will always carry with it a suspicion of abuse.’

Then-prime minister Gordon Brown accepted the report’s conclusions, but the head of IPSA Sir Ian Kennedy later said one family member per MP can be employed.

Both MPs who currently sit on the Committee’s board, Oliver Heald and Margaret Beckett, employ family members.

Three MPs employed more than one relative in 2010-11, including Sir Peter Soulsby who employed his wife and two daughters. This is within the rules if the family members were employed before the 2010 election and are not replaced when they leave.

Sir Peter has since stepped down as an MP to become the mayor of Leicester.

Estranged wife
Laurence Robertson, Conservative MP for Tewkesbury, employed both his estranged wife and his new partner at a combined cost of at least £55,000. He declined to comment on this situation.

Sir Stuart Bell’s wife was paid over £35,000 as office manager, although he has no constituency office. The Evening Gazette in Middlesborough recently reported that no-one had answered the phone at his home or Westminster office despite them making 100 attempts over several months.

Information on salaries is only published in bands, but the total amount paid to MPs’ families last year was between £2.8m and £3.5m. Twenty-seven new MPs employed a relative.

Most of the family members are wives or husbands, but eight sons or daughters were employed. Others include a niece, daughter-in-law, and even a mother.

Sir Christopher Kelly added that the expenses system should be ‘beyond any suspicion of abuse’.

Both MPs who currently sit on the Committee’s board, Oliver Heald and Margaret Beckett, employ family members.

The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, has previously said he supports a ban.

Last year’s figures are lower than those paid out at the height of the MPs’ expenses scandal, when up to £5.8m was paid to family members. But many will feel the bill is still too high.

Graham Brady MP, who employs his wife Victoria Lowther as senior parliamentary assistant, said: ‘All my staff are employed on the appropriate pay scales reflecting their experience, qualifications and responsibilities.’

Sally Hammond, who earns between £40,000 and £44,999 as senior parliamentary assistant to her husband Stephen, defended her arrangement. She told the Bureau: ‘I have twenty-five years of experience of working for Members of Parliament and our arrangements conform to all IPSA requirements.’

A version of this story was published in the Independent