Derek Conway, the Tory MP who used his office allowance to pay generous salaries to his two sons during their student days, has been told he must hand back nearly £4,000 and make a written apology.
It is the second humiliating public rebuke for the man who was once one of the Tory party's most feared backstage operators. He was told that he was guilty of a "serious lapse" by overpaying his older son, Henry, for the occasional work that he did helping to run his father's parliamentary office.
But he was cleared of the more serious accusation that he had handed over the money without requiring his son to do any work at all, after other employees said that they remembered seeing Henry Conway in the office.
Mr Conway, MP for Old Bexley and Sidcup, said yesterday that he would comply with the ruling, but accused the Commons Standards and Privileges Committee of making a "subjective opinion, made with hindsight".
He has already had to apologise to the Commons, and repay more than £13,000 for employing his younger son, Freddie, now 23. He also had the Conservative whip removed, which means that his 30-year political career will come to an end at the next election.
Mr Conway hired Henry in 2001, and kept him on his parliamentary staff for three years, paying him a total of £35,744 for working 18-hour weeks during that time. After a complaint from the public, John Lyon, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, opened an investigation.
That included an interview with Henry Conway, who said he did routine duties such as opening the post, reading emails and conducting internet research for his father.
Mr Conway's secretary said that Henry, now 26, sometimes came into the office several times a week, and sometimes a week went by without his being there at all. She did not know he was being paid until she read it in the newspapers. "I was surprised he was earning a salary for what he was doing," she told Mr Lyon. "But maybe he did do 18 hours a week."
The Standards and Privileges Committee said in its report on the affair, published yesterday, that Henry Conway's salary was "unnecessarily high", and ordered his father to repay £3,757.83. The report said: "No documentary or hard evidence of the work carried out by Henry Conway has survived. Mr Conway sent the commissioner a photograph of Henry Conway with a foreign ambassador taken on the parliamentary estate. We do not regard this as hard evidence of work carried out."
During the investigation, Derek Conway wrote the commissioner a letter complaining his family had suffered more than they deserved from the affair. "The vitriol Henry had been subjected to in the media focused on his sexuality and what the homophobic Daily Mail frequently described as his exotic lifestyle," he said. "What Henry does now and how he styles himself should be of no concern to anyone."
He added: "The premature end to my parliamentary career, and the irretrievable damage to my reputation, after 30 years in elected office, is a disproportionate punishment."
Tough questions: Son in the spotlight
Excerpts from the meeting between John Lyon (JL), Parliamentary Commisisoner for Standards, and Henry Conway (HC) on 21 May 2008.
JL Did you feel this was a big step up, from school activities to working to support your father?
JL Can you give me an example of the sort of report you produced? Was any background research required?
HC I can't remember specific cases; it is seven years ago. I might flick through things. I would use internet tools.
JL Were there any policy points you would make at the end of your note or was it just a factual summary?
HC It was a summary only. I would draw attention to issues with Post-It notes or verbally.
JL When did you speak to your father about these?
HC There was no set time for briefings.
JL How did you produce a foreign briefing?
HC I would do it on an A4 sheet. I had an outline: economic issues, social issues, political – which I was familiar with from my geography A-level. At the end was protocol. I remember Anglo-Moroccan issues—Morocco is one of my interests – and the Arab nations: an interest of my father's.
JL How did you cover economic, social and political issues on one sheet?
HC It wasn't always one sheet. There was no great detail; just this is an issue, that is an issue, eg trade with Britain. Then social issues.
JL Is it the facts, or 'There is a problem with child poverty'?
HC It all depends if I came across a figure.
JL Where did you get the information?
HC All major British and international newspapers have websites. I would Google them: the FT, The Independent, embassy sites, tourism sites, sometimes official and sometimes not. I did not use the House of Commons library, which is thorough but does not deliver an instantaneous response.
JL What feedback did your father give you about this work?
HC It was verbal... sometimes 'Well done'. Sometimes he would ask questions. I wasn't making detailed briefs; it was an overview only.
JL Can you remember your first pay increase in March 2003, backdated one year? Your salary increased from £8,000 pa to £10,000 pa. Did your father tell you what that was for?