March 7, 2009 12:05 am

A third of MPs employ relatives

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Almost a third of MPs employ at least one family member in their offices at a total cost to the taxpayer of up to £5.8m a year, according to Financial Times research.

Since registration was made mandatory in the autumn, about 50 more MPs have stepped forward to declare staff, bringing the total number of relatives on the public payroll to 219.

Just three out of the 200 MPs contacted by the FT said they had advertised the post now occupied by their family member. On average, the household income of MPs hiring wives, partners or husbands rises by up to a third, excluding expenses.

The disclosures will raise further questions over working practices in the Commons that are markedly out of step with other UK public bodies and some parliaments overseas. MPs argue that hiring spouses is widespread because their job involves unorthodox hours, lots of travel and time away from home.

Many MPs spend much of the week in London while maintaining a home and office on the other side of the country. Spouses are often more tolerant of working at weekends and evenings on behalf of their MP partner.

But the parliament’s approach appears increasingly isolated, as hiring relatives is outlawed in several other national assemblies, including the US Congress and German Bundestag.

The issue became contentious in Britain last year after Derek Conway, a former Conservative MP, was censured for misusing public funds to pay his son too high a salary for research work.

But a committee of MPs examining the issue in the wake of the scandal found against a ban. Nick Harvey, a committee member, argues the case for restriction rests on the assumption that all relatives are “bogus and not doing any work”.

“The fact is that they are often completely over-qualified people, working long hours at below the market rate,” the Liberal Democrat MP said. “Why should they be excluded?”

The relatives are paid from staff allowances set aside for the offices of the 203 MPs. The jobs range from “executive secretaries” – who are paid up to £40,000, more than half an MP’s salary – to “caseworkers” given a minimum of £13,566.

The FT estimated the total cost using recommended salary ranges. The 96 “part- time” family members were assumed to be working half the week. The total earnings are £3.1m to £5.8m.

The household income of the MPs hiring spouses and partners is increased by a total of £2.4m to £4.6m.

In the survey of 200 MPs employing family members, 14 said they had not advertised, many because they had been too busy to do so.

The vast majority of MPs did not reply to the FT’s questions. Some explained their reasons: “You will see I did not make my wife my secretary, I made my secretary my wife ... We now work even more closely and my constituents benefit.”

Among those employing relatives are Jacqui Smith, home secretary; Hilary Benn, environment secretary; Caroline Flint, Europe minister; and Chris Grayling, shadow home secretary. Margaret Beckett, housing minister, employs her husband Leo, now in his 80s. Peter Hain, former welfare secretary, hired his mother in April 1991, paying her £5,000 a year.

Thirteen MPs use their allowances to pay two family members. Laurence Robertson, shadow Northern Ireland minister, employs both his estranged wife and his current partner as secretaries.

The Democratic Unionist party emerges as having the highest proportion of family members on the payroll, with seven out of nine MPs taking on at least one relative. Peter Robinson, the DUP leader, and his wife Iris, who is also an MP, have between them employed their son, daughter, daughter-in-law and son-in-law.

Ian Paisley, the DUP founder, is the only MP with three relatives on staff. His two daughters manage his office and diary while his son Ian Paisley Junior – who is a Northern Ireland assemblyman – is a part time parliamentary assistant.

Martin Bell, the former MP and ethics campaigner, said it was time the practice was banned. “I never used to take a hardline view of this because I had in mind someone like Neil Hamilton, who married his secretary, but I think it should be reviewed at a time when being an MP is the only recession-proof career,” he said.

“We should do the same as other countries, which ban this. The MPs set the rules, they enforce the rules, they police the rules – I think there should be an overhaul.”

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