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UK Politics

When does sexual relationship cost MP's assistant a job?

Bedroom police will be needed to check up on MPs who might be having illicit affairs with their staff if the ban on employing close relatives is to be enforced fairly, the husband of a senior Labour MP said today.

More than three dozen wives and husbands employed by MPs as office managers, personal assistants or constituency workers are facing the sack if the report by Sir Christopher Kelly, published tomorrow, is implemented in full.

Phil Cole has been employed by his wife, Caroline Flint, since she was elected Labour MP for Don Valley in 1997. They lived together for ten years before they married in 2001. That belated decision to marry is now likely to cost Mr Cole his job.

“What if an MP begins a sexual relationship with a staff?” he asked. “At what point does it become a formal relationship under the Kelly rules? Are we going to have bedroom policing?

“We are going to have a dual set of rules, one for single MPs, or gay MPs who have not been through a civil ceremony, and one for those who are married or have been through a civil ceremony. Would my position be different if Caroline and I were still living together but were not married?”

Mr Cole, who is 49, gave up a job with Burson Marsteller, one of the world’s biggest PR agencies, to move to Don Valley and run his wife’s constituency office. Previously, he had worked for years as a party organiser.

“The biggest concern in 1997 was the issue of MPs having undisclosed connections to the lobbying industry, so I took a decision that I would give up my job so that Caroline would not have a partner who was a lobbyist. I didn’t make that move for the money. Anyone will tell you that you can make more in international PR than you can on the standard salary scales set by Parliament.

“It’s very well known in the constituency that I work for Caroline, and I cannot recall ever having a letter or a word of complaint about her employing her husband.”

Sally Hammond is also likely to have to suffer for making a career choice to be with her husband, the Tory MP Stephen Hammond. She has worked in Parliament far longer than her husband, having started as a Tory MP’s secretary in 1984.

Her last employer, the Tory MP Richard Page, stood down at the general election in 2005. His successor, David Gauke, offered to keep her on, but on that same day her husband took Wimbledon off Labour, so she decided to work for him. Now she faces the sack.

One possibility is that her husband will do a ‘wife swap’ with a fellow Tory, so that each employs the other’s wife.

“I’m not very happy about the wife swap issue, but I will have to find another job,” she said. “I wouldn’t mind if somebody said to me ‘reapply for your job’. I could easily get it because I’ve got lots of experience, and I know the constituency, but I find the thought of being sacked for being married very distasteful.”

Another idea mooted in Parliament – in jest, rather than as a serious suggestion – is that wives could get a ‘quickie’ divorce so that they can keep working for their husbands. Eve Burt started working for her Tory husband Alistair Burt when he was first elected in 1983, took time off when they had small children, and has worked for him full time since 2001.

She joked: “Alistair said to me ‘what if I make you my living doll, darling?’ and I said ‘I don’t want to be anyone’s living doll at my age’.”

Some MPs have argued that working together makes it easier to stay married, in a profession where anti-social hours contribute to a notoriously high divorce rate.

Jean Hamilton, who the Midlothian constituency office for her husband, David, said: “I can understand that because it’s a very stressful job but if I told you that we have had our 40th wedding anniversary you’ll know that we’re in it long term.”

Sally Ainger, who runs the constituency office in West Carmarthen for husband Nick said: “When Nick has been in meetings all day he rings me at eight or nine about some constituency matter. I do weekend surgeries with him on Friday afternoon through to the evening, and Saturday morning. He wouldn’t want to ask somebody else to work those hours.

“There have been very few people who have abused the system to pay family members. It’s a classic case of the few spoiling it for the many.”