I’ll be watching the dramatisation tonight on BBC 4, On Expenses. I’m glad this story is being told as I felt journalist Heather Brooke, who spent five years trying to get information about MPs’ expenses, lost her moment of glory when the Daily Telegraph published the damning revelations unearthed by her relentless pursuit. It resulted in the biggest political scandal in living memory because of a flawed system, rather than greed.
In our haste to make MPs clean up their act, I am concerned that some recommendations from Sir Christopher Kelly’s committee on standards in public life will have a detrimental effect on MPs’ family life, sparse as it is.
For example, a ban on MPs employing family members has been proposed; currently 200 MPs employ relatives. Those I have spoken to tell me this is the only way they have of maintaining regular contact with their spouses or children, and they feel bereft at the thought of losing this valuable contact.
Working 80 hours a week leaves very little free time to spend with family, if the family has not broken up. All MPs make considerable personal sacrifices to do their job effectively, and they don’t complain about the long hours as they know it is par for the course.
It is also proposed that MPs should rent second homes only and that MPs living within an hour’s journey of London should not be able to claim for second homes. A new independent parliamentary regulator may be appointed to review an appropriate limit for monthly rental claims every year, and the figure is likely to be controversial. While the mood of the moment calls for restraint, it’s important to remember the unusual circumstances our MPs work under. Why seemingly punish them for past mistakes, instead of having a system that is fair to their personal circumstances, and one which the public could understand if transparency and communications were improved?
A woman MP I spoke to yesterday is a single mother whose marriage broke down because of the demands of her job and her constituency is just within the hours travelling distance of Westminster. She has to employ a full-time nanny for her son so he can stay with her during the week in London. MPs had a half-term break last week, but as bad luck would have it, it was not the same week as her son’s half-term.
How can a single mum (or dad) on £65,000 a year be expected to pay the running costs of two homes and a full-time nanny in these circumstances? She manages because her ex-husband is helping, but it’s not easy.
Another woman MP I spoke to – a former Labour minister who has resigned to spend time with her family – told me it took her more than two years to pay off her huge debts of £90,000 (from memory) incurred as a parliamentary candidate, and how hard she found it having a constituency in the north and being based in London too, where she also kept her kids so they could be close to her. People need to wake up to the fact that being an MP is not a well paid job, and that they want their family around them so they can live as normal a life as possible. Let’s fix the flawed expenses system, but it needs to include flexibility and consideration for MPs for whom family life is important.
All political parties have pledged to get more women into parliament. I wonder what impact these proposals will have on this, and the recommendations of the Speaker’s Conference which is trying to make parliament a more family friendly workplace.
I believe it is going to take a lot more than a crèche to achieve this!
Instead of our MPs spending time with families on sink estates for Channel 4’s Tower Block of Commons series, why not challenge sceptic members of the public to swap roles with an MP and do their work, and see how they cope.