What is the attraction of the Westminster offices for MPs' wives? Is it the dual advantage of being able to keep a close eye on spouses when scandalous extra-marital parliamentary dalliances are so often in the news - and being paid handsomely at the same time? Not at all, according to indignant MPs and their spouses; far from sitting back in their neo- Georgian armchairs and willingly accepting a wedge of the £42,000 annual parliamentary office costs allowance, in fact parliamentary wives think long and hard before taking on the job of office secretary.
Many find that no matter how efficient their other half's secretary is, they are doing the work anyway. "I found that there was just endless typing anyway and as soon as you put supper on the table the telephone would ring and you would have to answer it and take a message for your husband," says Christine Heald, wife of Oliver Heald, Tory MP for Hertfordshire North. "This just went on and on, until eventually it seemed mad not to get paid for it."
Even so, just because Mrs Heald happens to take her husband's phone calls, is she worth the kind of salary commanded by a trained non-related secretary? In fact, all the MPs' spouses I spoke to had either trained as secretaries in their teens, or, if they hadn't, they went and did courses, before taking on the job. "You have to remember," says Elspeth Campbell, secretary and wife of Menzies, the Liberal Democrat member for North East Fife "that MPs' wives are usually highly intelligent people. They are not going to volunteer for a job, if they are not up to it." (Mrs Campbell recently gained a first class degree in English literature).
Jane Banks, wife of Matthew Banks, Tory MP for Southport, actually worked in the Commons long before her husband did. "There are a lot of us who met our husbands because we were already secretaries here," she says, citing Christine Hamilton, wife of Tory MP Neil, and Judy Hurd, wife of the Foreign Secretary. "I don't know anyone who is not up to the job. The idea that the money is a consideration is a complete anathema."
But is it? Elspeth Campbell admits that the travel allowances she gets as a secretary (nine free plane trips to and from her husband's constituency in Scotland) means that she can just whip down to do "nice things such as dinner at the American Embassy or dinner with Betty Boothroyd". "Otherwise," she says, "I probably couldn't afford to do them. But the workload means I can't stay down for more than a night. We get 100 letters a day, so if I'm not back first thing in the morning things get on top of me."
If anything, MPs' wife-secretaries feel slightly hard done by by the Commons pay system. Margaret Ashton, wife of Labour MP Joseph, became his secretary in 1969 because "in those days the allowance was so tiny he couldn't afford anybody else".
"The work is so amazingly hard and the remuneration so little," said one wife, "that if you didn't enjoy it, quite simply I don't think you could do it." Even Leo Beckett, Margaret's 68-year-old husband, whose secretarial skills are probably not up to those of Jane Banks, says that he is very underpaid.
Wives who were high-flyers in their own right may even find that working for their husbands involves a considerable sacrifice. Marian Williams, wife of Dr Alan Williams, the Labour member for Carmarthen, had to give up her own career. "I was a practising chemist," she explains, "and earning a much-needed income, but eventually I just found that as a result of both our careers we weren't seeing each other. If I had had children I would have stayed in Wales, but as it was when the opportunity came up I decided to join him in London. I put the marriage before the pay." Though Mrs Williams is reluctant to speak about the details of her pay, it is clear that becoming her husband's secretary involved taking a considerable drop in income.
So if money isn't the reason, why do they do it? Mainly, it seems, to maintain the marriage - and that goes for wives who go for the position of constituency secretary just as much as those who accompany their husbands to the Commons. "I speak to my husband four or five times a day," says Elspeth Campbell who runs the constituency office in Edinburgh. "I know exactly what he is doing and I feel part of it. I think otherwise I might feel terribly lonely and cut off - and so might he. When we first decided to do this my daily said to me, `Oh, Mrs Campbell, how can you bear to see that handsome Mr Campbell going off to London?' `Well,' I replied, `how can he bear to go off and leave me here?' But in fact we both feel terribly involved in each others lives."
These days, constituents expect a charming wife as part of the electoral package. "When Oliver was interviewed for the job," says Christine Heald, "they said `You [and, very emphatically] and your family will move to the constituency, won't you?' I basically fulfill all his roles such as opening schools and attending events on his behalf when he's not here. People often say `Oh, I'll never get Oliver, so we'll get Christine instead.' It's a full-time job for which it is quite right that I am paid. I certainly don't sit around having a manicure."
Hard-working though they may be, the secretary-spouses seldom forget the unspoken overriding motive for their careers - to keep an eye on their men. No matter how they gloss it up - "I want to know which bit of red tape he is breaking", or "I need to be able to answer the constituents letters on his behalf" - the bottom line is they are keeping a careful guard. After all, the number of parliamentary extra-marital affairs is enormous. "If a man's going to have an affair he's going to have an affair. There's not much you can do to stop it," says Elspeth Campbell. "But if he's going to have an affair with his secretary, then clearly the sensible thing to do is to become his secretary."Reuse content