The Big Question: Should MPs' expenses and allowances be subject to tighter controls?

Why are we asking this now?

Derek Conway, the Tory MP who stands accused of abusing the expenses system by over-paying his two sons for research work, has had the party whip withdrawn from him by David Cameron. Yesterday, with his career in ruins, he said he would not stand for re-election in his Old Bexley and Sidcup constituency. Mr Conway has apologised, but that has not stopped fresh complaints about a lack of transparency in how MPs run their offices. Some critics have called for tighter checks on how MPs use their expenses entitlements, which remain a mystery to much of the public. The chairman of the Committee for Standards in Public Life has even mentioned the idea of a total ban on MPs employing relatives.

What is Mr Conway accused of?

The current rules do not ban relatives of MPs from carrying out secretarial or research work for them, as is the case in the United States. The real problem for Mr Conway was that the Commons Standards and Privileges Committee could find no record of the work his youngest son Freddie had done to earn his £11,173 a year. He has also come under pressure for paying his eldest son Henry £10,000 as a part-time researcher, working just 18 hours a week. Some have defended Mr Conway, though. His fellow Conservative MP, Roger Gale, said that he had been the victim of a "witch-hunt", as Labour MPs latched on to the incident to deflect criticism of their own party over a spate of funding scandals.

What exactly can MPs spend on staff?

The current limit on spending on their office staff is £87,276. It has risen quickly, though. That's £10,000 more than two years ago, and it is set to rise further. Soon, they will have another £10,000 added to the maximum budget for secretaries and researchers, with the limit rising to £96,630. On top of the salary for their staff, they can also claim some of their travel costs.

Is Mr Conway alone in employing family?

No. Employing a wife, husband or child to work in their office is not uncommon among MPs. While that may sit uncomfortably with some taxpayers, even critics of the system suggest that the practice should not necessarily be ruled out altogether. Liberal Democrat MP and anti-sleaze campaigner Norman Baker, said: "It would be perverse to rule people out of doing a job. The issue is not who they are, but whether or not they are doing the job that they are being paid to do."

So as long as they're doing the job, is it ok?

Perhaps the practice of employing a wife (or husband, in the case of Margaret Beckett) as a secretary is accepted, but some see handing a close relative the job of researcher as a little more problematic. Being an MP's researcher is often a way of climbing the first wrung on the slippery political ladder, and the positions are much sought after by ambitious, young political minds. That places a greater need for transparent selection based on merit. Among those to have risen from the lowly researcher ranks is New Labour architect Peter Mandelson, now an EU commissioner. He had a stint as researcher in the office of Labour's transport spokesman, Albert Booth, in the early 1980s.

So what else are MPs allowed to claim?

Money allocated for employing office staff is the biggest bulk of an MP's allowances, but there are a number of other expenses that they can claim when entering Westminster. MPs from outside central London get an "additional cost allowance" to pay for staying away from their main home. It's effectively a second home subsidy, and is up to £22,110. Those with a constituency in London get a supplement to their income of up to £2,712. A few fortunate souls qualify for both schemes, though payments are not necessarily at the maximum end of the scale.

MPs also enjoy a number of other perks, such as an "incidental expenses provision", which covers costs such as office equipment, travel costs and accommodation. There is a reimbursement scheme for car use and trips to EU institutions. They can also ask for up to two printers and a maximum of five computers, but these are "on loan" to them. All those costs are designed to allow MPs to take care of their Westminster and constituency responsibilities. Without them, they argue, there would be no way they could represent their constituents properly.

Do MPs need to top up their salary?

With their latest 1.9 per cent pay increase, the annual salary for MPs will rise from £60,675 to £61,820. The increase was in line with the rest of the public sector, but the process of setting the level of pay is often criticised as MPs are effectively in charge of their own pay increases. Undoubtedly, though, they could earn more elsewhere in private business, and many argue that they have a huge workload. That doesn't stop some MPs earning considerable sums outside the House.

Who monitors how MPs use expenses?

MPs regulate themselves, under the guise of the Commons Standards and Privileges Committee, which examines any breaches in the parliamentary code of conduct. Some argue that such a self-regulating system has now been proved to be too weak. The independent Committee on Standards in Public Life, set up by John Major in the wake of a number of sleaze scandals, is limited in its power as it does not look into individual cases. Specific rules governing the employment of people within the offices of MPs have also been challenged. MPs are under no obligation to declare who is working in their constituency offices, or how much their staff are being paid.

Will the rules be altered?

Sir Christopher Kelly, chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, has said that the employment of relatives is an area in need of reform, even saying a total ban "could be the right thing to do". Norman Baker believes something could be done immediately. He wants to see the National Audit Office introduce "spot checks" on the offices of MPs, which would allow them to find out who is working there and whether they are carrying out the work that they are paid for doing. He suggested the random inspections should be made to five per cent of the offices each year. The Senior Salaries Review Body has also recommended that expenses claims without a receipt should be capped at £50. The current maximum is £250.

It is unlikely Gordon Brown will make any snap decisions over a rule change, but with so many people advocating a tightening of the rules, reforms might well emerge sooner rather than later.

So is reform necessary?

Yes...

* Derek Conway is not the only MP to employ family members, and the practice is banned in some countries

* MPs do not currently have to declare who they are employing in their offices

* The system is not independent enough, with MPs largely left to regulate themselves

No...

* Many spouses who work in offices have a very heavy workload and know the job better than anyone else

* The expenses system might seem generous, but MPs have a lot of travelling and extra outlay because of the nature of their work

* MPs could earn far more in private business, and further regulation into how they run their office could put more off the job

Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special
Could Mrs Brown's Boys take the lead for second year running?
News
news
News
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
Arts and Entertainment
tvChristmas special reviewed
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
Life and Style
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi showing a small mascot shaped like a vagina
art
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald in the Doctor Who Christmas special
tvForget the rumours that Clara Oswald would be quitting the Tardis
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
The Queen delivers her Christmas message
newsTwitter reacts to Her Majesty's Christmas Message
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all