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MPs’ expenses and family life

image 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 image 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.

Her only complaint is the lack of understanding by the public about what her  image demanding job involves, and she is a Shadow Minister, and that so many people do not know what an MP does.

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.


13 Comments

  1. I don’t see why a debate cannot be had about that. Marriages need both people to take part. And I really don’t see why we NEED mothers of small children as MP’s in parliament when if MP’s did their job properly the women with small children would be properl
    Dog Life Jacket

  2. No you wouldn’t, Ellee, you wouldn’t want my job as you have a happy marriage and love your work 🙂

    I do see them as human beings and there is scope in humanity for great cruelty, greed, heroism and inspiration. Not every MP is a Frank Field and in my opinion we can do without some of the others.

  3. Pip, I can understand your anger, and you are not alone. I think we need to see our human beings too. It’s true when Richard says it’s not a job like any other in the real world. And I’d like your job too. 🙂
    I don’t want to judge women MPs who have young families, they do it because they feel driven and believe they can make a difference. It’s their choice, and we should support them.
    John, thanks for your comment too, you raise some interesting solutions.

  4. So much for my efforts to get a smiley person!

  5. The myopia of MPs regarding their expenses is still staggering. People should seriously consider the hours & the pay before they enter politics. Whinging later is too awful.

  6. Richard Havers – the job I’d really like is a columnist. Once you’ve done your 20 or 30 years apprenticeship (or have a famous father or some other connection with celebrity) you don’t even have to drop into the London office to write your column, you can email it in and then get paid LOADSAMONEY! Yes please. And if they would pay for me to visit exciting but not too dangerous countries occasionally I’d like that too. That’ll do nicely 🙂

  7. Richard Havers – I agree that we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water but I wasn’t suggesting that, nor am I naive about what an MP’s job entails. I agree with Susannah Davey in that a woman with small children should probably wait a while rather than bemoaning the effect her job choice has on her family. But I would change parliament in suggesting stopping voting at ridiculous times long into the night. I don’t see why a debate cannot be had about that. Marriages need both people to take part. And I really don’t see why we NEED mothers of small children as MP’s in parliament when if MP’s did their job properly the women with small children would be properly represented.

    Mothers, especially single mothers with small children, make a choice to be an MP. They shouldn’t have to be for their needs to be heard. If they do then that’s the problem that should be addressed.

    This also touches on the attitude to benefits – should a single mother with small children be accomodated as much as possible by the state to leave them in someone elses care? For someone else to do the mothering? And if not, if mothers are being pushed out to work in call centres and stacking shelves, then why bend over backwards for the public purse to give 10 times the money for a mother to work as an MP? Remember, you don’t need any qualifications to be an MP, look at Winterton, look at Nadine Dorries – anyone can do the job.

    That means I’m vastly over qualified but would take on the job tommorow as I have no party affiliations, no private cause or ambition. And that would make them nervous – I’m not one of them, not a member of any club. So I wouldn’t ever be given the chance. I would represent my constituents and wouldn’t glow at the sight of Cameron or Brown. I would never be any kind of ‘Blair Babe’. Ugh! You couldn’t have dragged me onto that photo. And because I’m not any kind of career politician I wouldn’t be any kind of politician.

    We don’t need a parliament full of men who don’t need to work, but neither do we need the kind of career politician that has become so prevalent in todays parliament. We used to have people with a wide range of experience and that is fast becomming a thing of the past. And I really question if we need so many MP’s in todays political reality?

  8. Susannah Davey

    Asa mother of three young children I would think very hard before applying for a job which would require me to work extended hours and spend long periods away from home. I wouldn’t expect Parliament to be reorganised for my benefit; I would just put my political ambitions on hold until the youngest goes to university. And I would hope that my husband would do the same thing.

    Why the desperation to become an MP so early? Would it really be the end of the world if candidates waited until they have raised their own family at their own expense before telling the rest of us how we should be bringing up our children?

  9. An MP’s job is not like a job in the real world – and I’m not being sarcastic. If we want a proper parliamentary democracy we need MPs who have the correct environment to do their job. The MPs expense scandal is a smokescreen for a system that has not been well managed for years.

    Philipa, I think your offer to swap jobs may have been a bit hasty. I’m am absolutely sure that your job is very demanding, especially when coupled with the demands of family. However, we need women in parliament, but we need ‘ordinary women’. We have to accept that women have to have a different set of requirements from men if they are to be MPs. We must find a way to attract the right people into parliament whether male or female.

    We don’t need men who don’t need to work, nor do we need men who are sponsored by Unions, nor do we need parliament to become a nest of special interest groupings.

    For centuries we have had a parliament that has been the envy of the world. What we are facing is political melt-down. We are in grave danger of throwing the baby out with the bath water, which will be a great dis-benefit to all of us.

  10. John Moss

    MPs should get a single fee to cover all their pay, pension and expenses.

    Their “pay” should be based on their primary place of work being Westminster, where they represent their constituents in Parliament and to Government.

    In addition they should get staff, travel and accommodation allowances based on the rent for a 2 bed flat in their constituency. Live close to London and happy with one house, fine, draw it as salary and have it taxed. Need to have two homes? Fine, that’s a proper business expense. A sort of automatic London weighting.

    Pension contributions? Pay that out of the “profit” left over after you have paid your staff, run your office, travelled to and from and stayed in your constituency and drawn your salary. (And wind up the existing scheme for ALL MPs from the end of this Parliament.)

    The whole thing can then be put on a tax return and vetted by HMRC, saving the £6+million that IPSA will cost us and making MPs operate just like a small business.

  11. 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.

    Good. Many peoples journey to work takes an hour or more. And I think other options should be discussed such as a proper dedicated accomodation suite like people used to stay at their club in London, rather than rent.

    A woman 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

    So maybe she should have put her marriage and children first?

    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?”

    You are kidding me?! As a single mum with two children living on benefits it would be a breeze. Then again I don’t shop at John Lewis or have a moat but we both get paid from the public purse. How many single mums do you think her wage would fund and do we really need all those MP’s when most of our laws come from Brussels anyway?

    People need to wake up to the fact that being an MP is not a well paid job

    Compared to what? And how abundant do you think jobs are? Have a chat with the workers from the midlands whose manufacturing base has been severely hit. I think Chase Midland went into recievership and this from Sky news: “Manufacturing giant GKN is axing nearly 600 jobs and closing three factories in the Midlands and Burnley“. This in addition to the truck manufacturer that went bust. I know of a couple, with two children, the husband broke his arm, quite badly. He drove a van. She worked in a call centre. They weren’t rich. They hardly saw each other. When he came home she went to work. He was off work long enough for them to lose the house. A modest little house. Their home.

    I would swap roles with an MP tommorow and do their job, as long as I could have their wage. And the Quango job afterwards, obviously. Or maybe a seat in the house of Lords or at the very least a seat on the panel of Question Time. Yes, count me in.

  12. It resulted in the biggest political scandal in living memory because of a flawed system, rather than greed.”

    No greed? Can’t say I agree with you there, there are some MP’s who are squeeky clean and didn’t flip their houses in a clear attempt to scrat as much money as possible from the public purse. They didn’t rent houses put in their childrens name. That wasn’t the fault of the system that was just plain greed.

    Working 80 hours a week leaves very little free time to spend with family, if the family has not broken up

    Do you think MP’s are the only people who do this? I know plenty of people who work 80 hours a week and if they didn’t they wouldn’t have a job. And they don’t get second houses and costs towards cleaning their moat.

    “it’s important to remember the unusual circumstances our MPs work under”

    Which are what? Plenty of people have to travel regularly with their job.

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