MPs’ staffing and expenses: setting the bar higher

I continue to be amazed, not only at Derek Conway’s appalling behaviour, but by the relatively limited measures that MPs are proposing to put in place in response.

It’s time for a higher standard.  I’m genuinely surprised by how many MPs employ family members.  It feels like a throwback to an earlier age. It’s hard to see how this would happen if they used a properly open and fair recruitment process, open to all and selecting only on performance related criteria.

I don’t think it’s enough to wait for ‘the authorities’ to sort this out – and I also don’t think that improved reporting alone is enough. This is an area where MPs should be taking a lead. In practice, even the measures they propose leave them far behind many companies in the private sector.

There is a code of conduct for MPs: in many ways it’s less demanding than many of those in the private sector (see this one from Procter & Gamble for example [PDF]).  For example, business employers normally expect you to avoid any conflict of interest in recruitment, not just report it.

In short, behaviours need to change – not just be made public.

To try and cut through all this, and ahead of any new policy coming from the Committee on Standards in Public Life or the Speaker’s Review, here are the pledges I intend to keep if elected as MP for Winchester:

  • I will not employ any family members at public expense.
  • I will advertise all publicly-funded jobs in the local papers. All jobs, whether in London or Winchester, will be advertised in the main local Winchester and Chandler’s Ford newspapers, including the Hampshire Chronicle and the Daily Echo. Anyone will be able to apply.  
  • I will consider all applicants equally for any job. People will be chosen on the the basis of merit, measured against objective job requirements, which I will publish on my website. I will not discriminate based on age, sex, marital status, disability, sexuality, race, colour, or ethnic origin.
  • I will publish a list of all employees on my website. I will also publish the total salary bill. To respect individual privacy, I will not publish individual salaries. (I recognise that this can be a tricky issue for some current MPs, particularly those that have had any problems with security, since their staff may not have been employed on the basis that their names would be made public).

The second area of interest is expenses.  I’m amazed that some MPs are claiming to get their groceries paid for in London.  I’m horrified by these stories of MPs buying iPods on expenses due to the requirement to provide receipts only for purchases over £250. In the private sector, these people would be fired.

It seems incredible that only a few months ago, some MPs were arguing that they should be exempted from Freedom of Information legislation – and it’s good that now the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives at least are arguing for much greater openness.

Again, this is an area where I think MPs should take a lead – not just in reporting – but also in the standards they set themselves. To this end:

  • I will publish details of my expenses annually on my website
  • I will not claim any expenses without a receipt
  • I will get my accounts independently verified
  • I will only claim where I’m incurring genuine extra cost at the service of Winchester constituents. Even if there are rules that might permit me to claim for groceries and similar items when staying away from home, I won’t.  I will only claim for costs that are both extra and unavoidable.

Finally, I don’t think it’s enough to report a conflict of interest.  MPs should, wherever possible, avoid them.

  • I will not accept any gifts, gratuities or entertainment from lobbyists and anyone else who might be seeking to influence my opinion.

Is this enough?  Personally, I see it as pretty much a minimum.

I’ll be interested in any comments – whether suggesting higher standards – or looser ones!  And I’ll be interested to know if any other candidate or MP, from any party, thinks these standards are worth signing up to.

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5 Responses to MPs’ staffing and expenses: setting the bar higher

  1. As the person that has reported Derek Conway to the Police, and asked for a fresh investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner, I would actually disagree on one small point. I would not say “never” on employing family members. I have witnessed a number of cases where a members spouse runs their constituency office, and in my view has been the best person for it. Working more than full time for many years. Balancing commitments and ensuring domestic escape. I think many of them are the best qualified for the job.

  2. Martin says:

    I agree that there are a lot of MPs’ partners who work hard and do a good job.

    My problem is to do with the fairness of the job appointment process. Is it really possible for an MP to fairly assess whether a close relative is the ‘best qualified for the job’?

    Working for an MP is a publicly funded role.

    In the roles you mention, did individuals who aren’t related get an equal shot at finding out about the job, applying for the job and being assessed for the job?

    Is it possible for someone to make a fair and neutral choice between their life partner or their child and another applicant for a particular role?

    In much of the private and public sector, people are removed from any decision that involves a conflict between their family relationships and their professional role. I recognise that’s not how it’s been with MPs and I’m not asking that this gets applied retrospectively. However, from this point on, I do believe that this kind of standard should apply.

  3. Julian says:

    “I will not discriminate based on age, sex, marital status, disability, sexuality, race, colour, or ethnic origin.”

    Not least because you would be breaking the law (I assume the anti- Sex/Race/Disability rights laws actually apply to MPs) if you did so discriminate 😉

  4. Martin says:

    Julian. Good point – although I’ve noticed that many employers still mention it on their application forms.

    I suspect one reason is to make sure that people who may have thought they might be disadvantaged (irrespective of the legal situation) are reassured that they won’t be.

  5. Kelsie Learney says:

    Re discrimination – it is fairly normal to mention it on applications and in job adverts to encourage applications. Incidentally it is legal to positively discriminate in favour of disabled persons.

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