Editor-At-Large: All aboard the MPs' gravy train for a tour of self-serving sleaze

We cannot keep paying our politicians to employ relatives on lavish salaries. Their marital harmony is not our problem
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The scandal started with Derek Conway, the Tory MP who employed his son Freddie as a researcher – but Freddie didn't seem to do anything for the money. Then it transpired that his brother, Henry, had also been paid handsomely for doing bugger all. His best friend, Michel Pratte, a student, is also on the payroll at £11,500, as is mum – slaving away as secretary and pocketing £39,250 a year. If you're related to an MP, it's statistically proven that you are more likely to be working for them than someone who doesn't have those vital genes.

Forget qualifications, this really is a case of keeping it in the family. The icing on the cake was the news that Peter Hain, he who overlooked having received more than £100,000 in donations, employs his 80-year-old mum. Apparently she works in his constituency office and for all we know she may be very good at her job; but for a man with such an inefficient deputy leadership campaign behind him, it hardly looks great.

Mr Conway was suspended from the Commons for 10 days and has to repay the £13,161 he paid Freddie. There was no mention of the balance of the £50,000 the son received altogether or the £32,700 paid to Henry. Mr Conway has announced he will stand down at the next election, and friends, like Tory MP for Thanet North Roger Gale, declared the episode was a "media witch-hunt". If you log on to local news websites around Britain, and read the comments of ordinary people, the saga of MPs employing their relatives at inflated salaries has gone down like the proverbial cup of cold sick. To quote just two disgusted voters: "Nepotism rules – OK" and "Show me an honest MP and I'll show you a flying pig".

The salary bill for MPs' staff is a whopping £53m a year, the current limit per MP shortly rising to £96,630. That's a lot of help by anyone's standards. On top of that there are travel and housing allowances, and generous expenses.

By Friday party leaders were stumbling over themselves to declare a new era of transparency. At 9.30am Mr Cameron announced that everyone on the Tory front bench would have to declare any family members on their payroll from the start of the next financial year. By midday the PM announced that by 1 April all Labour MPs would have to declare family members on their staff.

Not good enough. We want to know why MPs are not compelled to advertise the jobs they offer, like all other public sector posts. What is problematic about writing a job description, stating hours and the required qualifications? They use taxpayers' money.

The reason MPs are reluctant is not hard to fathom: they are notoriously thin-skinned about their pay, and employing relatives increases the family wage via the back door. The guff they spout about being a special case, justifying employing their spouses as a way of keeping their marriages strong! Linda Gilroy, the Labour MP for Plymouth Sutton, who employs her husband, is a particularly nauseating example, telling a local paper that MPs should be able to employ their spouses "for the good of the relationship... there is a very high divorce rate among MPs".

Not only are these jobs not advertised, the salaries paid are completely arbitrary: Sir Stuart Bell, Labour MP for Middlesbrough, employs his wife at £35,000 a year – a huge salary for a managing director's PA in the North-east. Malcolm Bruce, Lib Dem MP for Gordon pays his wife £28,500 – more than executives earn in Selkirk or Hawick. Some MPs' secretaries earn £40,000 – more than senior nurses or teachers. Ms Gilroy's telling contribution to the recent debate states that "the gap between what our staff do for us and what we are able to reward them with... is considerable. The idea of being on the gravy train and inflating some personal allowance is ridiculous." She whinged that her staff (ie her husband) had to spend hours every week dealing with emailed information "which takes hours to print out". Join the 21st century, love!

With public respect for politicians at an all-time low, Parliament should set MPs' secretaries' and researchers' pay according to a clearly defined structure and insist that EU rules concerning fair selection are enforced. MPs should not rely on office romance –funded by us – to keep their marriages afloat.

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We love Nigella's image. Pity it's not real

A magazine survey has declared Nigella Lawson the role model most thirtysomethings aspire to emulate – she's rich, glamorous, intelligent, happily married and doesn't see eating as a sin. Thoroughly feminine with a seductive, yet shy manner. In short, a class act, the polar opposite of, for example, Amy Winehouse, currently languishing in hospital, dangerously dehydrated.

Britney's mum pitched up last week to section her daughter for her own safety while Amy's dad managed to edge his daughter into rehab. But how real is the Nigella you see on telly? Her shows are contrived froth, implying that life's too short to spend hours cooking when you could be having fun.

The sad thing is that women bought that myth: the show that pretended to be in her swanky Eaton Square home was filmed in a warehouse. The dining companions who seemed like friends were mostly paid extras. Nigella is a tough businesswoman who cleverly exploits her screen persona. Amy doesn't know how to set any boundaries. That's why she's in a mess.

McA-levels are not the answer for teenage illiterates

Last week the Government gave approval to qualifications – the equivalent of A-levels – issued by McDonald's, Network Rail and the airline Flybe, based on in-house training schemes. McDonalds is offering a "basic shift manager" course.

While it's easy to sneer at McA-levels – there's no doubt that anything which equips non-academic young people to embark on a rewarding career is to be welcomed. Nevertheless, it's hard to be optimistic about the quality of the training these young people will receive. It will hardly be rounded, will it?

The Government seems reluctant to grasp one simple fact: every single child should leave primary school able to read and write. Statistics released last week reveal the shocking truth that 85 per cent of white boys from lower-income families in poor areas leave school without achieving five basic GCSEs. Coming up with sticking-plaster solutions like McDonald's qualifications is no answer. These boys are illiterate at 15 – and we wonder why many of them go on to commit petty crime? The fact is, they should have been hothoused from the moment they entered secondary school.

Gordon Brown thinks that second-rate qualifications are better than none, and the Government seems keen to ensure that in the interest of fairness everyone gets a certificate in something, even if it's just in the ability to flip a burger.

The Prime Minister wants to expand on-the-job vocational training, but what he first has to ensure is that schools are given the support and staff to teach these boys the three Rs. Without them, they are going nowhere.