Seventy MPs keep jobs in the family

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The precise level of payments by MPs to their wives will not be revealed when details of their expenses are published for the first time next year.

About 70 MPs employ their wives, husbands, children or partners as secretaries or researchers. These include Margaret Beckett, the Environment Secretary, who has employed her husband, Leo, as an assistant, and Robin Cook, whose wife, Gaynor, works for him as his secretary.

But the House of Commons has resisted informing the public how much of an MP's £70,000 staff budget his or her relatives receive.

Next year all MPs will be forced to reveal how much of their parliamentary allowance they spend on staff and travel.

But the House of Commons Commission - a body of senior MPs including the Speaker of the House, Michael Martin - believes it would breach MPs' privacy to disclose how much secretaries are paid.

"We have to balance the privacy of the individual with the public interest," a spokesman for the commission said.

Last night, the Labour MP Alan Simpson said MPs should reveal how many staff they employ. "In the past lots of MPs were employing people at way below the going rate and some MPs were paying the entire amount to their partner and that was an abuse," Mr Simpson said. "It is legitimate for there to be disclosure of the staff positions that MPs have."

Details of how much is earned by ministers' special advisers is published, including the scale of payments made to Jonathan Powell, the Prime Minister's chief of staff.

Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes, supported the right for staff to keep their pay levels private but said MPs should be more open on how they spent tax-payers' money.

"There is a need to balance legitimate confidentiality for staff with the public's right to know how [its] money is spent," he said. "I think we should go slightly further and publish how many staff we have got."