Linda McDougall: The politician's wife - lay off or we'll charge you

Betsy, Cherie and I are old-style parliamentary wives. Betsy married an army officer, Cherie a barrister. My husband was a university teacher and TV star manqué.

For all of us it was some years on, late at night in a chilly town hall far from home, that everything changed for ever. A mayor in full fig proclaimed, "I, the Returning Officer ..." In minutes our husbands were metamorphosed into Members of Parliament.

We all woke up the next morning exhausted and bleary-eyed to begin our very first parliamentary duty, a triumphal tour of the town waving and smiling. We eagerly bestowed on the voters full licence to observe us, criticise us and whisper words of advice on how we and our husbands should behave for the rest of our political lives.

In those days Members of Parliament were regarded by everyone as Honourable Gentlemen. They were paid a small salary and an even smaller allowance for staff, stamps and stationery. This they doled out as they wished, no receipts required.

As wives, we were expected by everyone from the Speaker to the local party to do everything we could to help. We bought heavily mortgaged second homes in the constituency, hired people to mind our babies at odd hours and became the only person in all our houses who ever answered the phone. Cherie and I had careers, we were self-proclaimed feminists and earned a living. I soon discovered that this meant huge chunks of my salary were diverted to pay for the staff and child care that my husband couldn't afford on his meagre wage and even more meagre allowances. His office in Grimsby was our dining-room table.

Betsy Duncan Smith spent the first 11 years of her husband's parliamentary career as his secretary. If you didn't have a glamorous and highly paid job of your own, it was the only way a parliamentary family without a private income could survive. The aristocratic Mrs Duncan Smith had to buy her clothes in charity shops. The family sold their London home and stayed with a relative until Betsy's parents moved out of their ancestral pile to free it up for the Duncan Smiths. Fortunately, in 1997 things changed for ever. Over half the sitting MPs either retired or were defeated, and a new breed of people arrived at Westminster, of whom 120 were women. Most new members were beginning careers as professional politicians. They looked with horror at the conditions we old-style wives endured. They demanded offices at Westminster and in their constituencies. They wanted computers and faxes and copiers and shredders, and wanted the Government to pay. Most of all they wanted to spend time with their partners and families, and many saw the opportunity to turn the MP's job into a small family business with their partners employed as their senior secretarial helper and adviser. This has worked well for many members, often women with husbands who have given up their own careers to support their MP wives and their children.

These days every member gets paid a proper salary and sufficient allowances to cover office costs, a second home and travel. Those of us with incomes of our own have found them restored, and wives such as Betsy Duncan Smith have, if they wished, been able to stop claiming for the work they do.

The contributions of parliamentary wives, paid or unpaid, are simply unquantifiable, as Michael Crick, Vanessa Gearson and a host of oh-so-modern office managers are about to discover. There are plenty of new Stalinists around (and not only in New Labour) who think that MPs should be banned from employing any family members at all.

"It's our money," proclaimed Daisy Sampson of the BBC on The Daily Politics last week, suggesting that taxpayers should have a veto on how MPs spend their allowances. This is a ridiculous solution to a non-problem. If husbands and wives, mums and dads, sons and daughters, paid or unpaid, are prepared to add a bit of value to the overworked and often lonely, peripatetic lives of members, then the taxpayer should shut up and be grateful.

So lay off Betsy Duncan Smith or the taxpayer gets it! Wives like me who have spent an unpaid lifetime in your service will start submitting bills for our work. You owe me hundreds of thousands.

Linda McDougall is the author of 'Cherie: the Perfect Life of Mrs Blair' and 'Westminster Women'. She is married to Austin Mitchell, MP for Grimsby

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