A tale of private morals and public money

Can we really believe that IDS could not find someone better qualified to carry out tasks in his office?
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The Independent Online

In a way, the most interesting aspect of Betsygate, as the affair of Iain Duncan Smith's uxorious choice of secretary is now enchantingly called, is the unfeigned outrage produced by those most nearly concerned. How dare they question the propriety of Mrs Duncan Smith working for her husband? How dare they ask what her duties were? And, most of all, is it not utterly impertinent to ask what she was paid, and what she did for her money?

This last question is particularly amusing, and will have raised an eyebrow or two across the public service. The salaries of public officials are made easily available, and if we are curious, we can readily find out from printed sources what the salary of every member of the House of Commons is; how much every official is paid in every branch of the public service, from permanent secretaries of huge departments right down to porters, junior secretaries and security staff.

There is a reason for this, and a very good one: their salaries come out of public funds. It is not because they occupy public positions, or that they are peculiarly important; it is simply that we pay their salaries, and, like the shareholders in a company, we must know how much we are paying them.

The private staff of Members of Parliament, however, occupy an anomalous position. They, too, are paid out of public funds, but their salaries are entirely opaque. Instead, Members of Parliament are given access to an annual office allowance, out of which they must fund all their parliamentary activities: pay secretaries, researchers, buy office equipment and so on. This sum of money is not handed over at the beginning of the year and then forgotten about by the authorities. Rather, it must be claimed by means of individual items of expenditure, up to a maximum ceiling.

In this situation, any Member of Parliament who sees that the office expenses are likely to fall short of the maximum must be tempted to take measures to benefit from the full sum. He or she cannot simply keep the extra money, or award it to him- or herself. Nevertheless, there is nothing to stop a member employing a son or daughter as a researcher, or a spouse in some capacity in the office, and paying them a salary with, no doubt, end-of-year bonuses, from which the member will directly benefit.

When I worked in the House of Commons as an official, the public side of the service regarded this widespread practice as frankly questionable, and it still seems a dubious way of handling public money. It is a hangover from a previous political era, in which wives - almost always wives - were regarded as useful helpmeets in some surprising public situations.

Well within living memory, late into the 1980s, it was very common for members of select committees to bring their spouses with them on overseas trips, and an enormous nuisance they were, too. Of course, their travel expenses were not met from public funds, but in many cases they came along with a semi-holiday in mind, turned up at all sorts of receptions and lunches, and effortlessly reduced the usefulness of the member concerned to nearly zero.

That was put a stop to, but in party political areas the role of the spouse is still extremely prominent. He, or more usually she, is nice to constituents, turns up at conferences, is pushed forward at photo-calls, and occupies a semi-public position. Many Members of Parliament would argue that, whether the spouse wants to or not, he or, more usually, she, is undertaking a full-time public job, helps the member 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and can quite reasonably be put on the payroll.

There is something in that, and certainly observation shows that some political spouses do indeed earn whatever they are paid by the House of Commons Establishments Office. Margaret Beckett's husband works in her office, and certainly earns his living very efficiently. Many political spouses, indeed, work as secretaries to members before they marry one, and simply continue in that role. Christine Hamilton, for instance, was a member's secretary for many years before marrying Neil Hamilton, and certainly did not take a back seat after her marriage, but there are very many similar examples.

It would make no sense simply to forbid members to employ their spouses in their private offices. But anyone can see that the situation is horribly open to abuse. These days, I dare say that most such people do turn up at the House of Commons or the constituency office, and work in the way that any secretary would.

But there is no doubt that until very recently there were also many people who were put on the payroll whose duties largely consisted of answering the telephone at home and suggesting that the caller get in touch with their husband's House of Commons office before settling down to watch the lunchtime edition of Neighbours. There was, and is, very little to stop that.

In the case of Mrs Duncan Smith, the parliamentary commissioner will come to his own conclusions, but I have to say that it doesn't look very professional at all. Until very recently, we were constantly being told that she was someone who detested public life, who devoted herself to her homes and her family, who would never stoop to dealing with journalists. Now, we are expected to believe that she played a vital and prominent part in her husband's office.

What did she do? Well, her duties mainly required her attendance at their house in the country rather than, say, his office at the House of Commons. Funny, that. What were her duties? She "oversaw his diary". My partner, too, occasionally says to me "Don't forget we're having dinner with X tonight"; it would be agreeable to be able to reward that sort of thing with £15,000, but I don't see how it could be arranged.

It all looks most peculiar to me. Can we really believe that, for £15,000 over 16 months, the Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition could not find someone rather better qualified to carry out a wider range of tasks in his office? If so, why, exactly, was he employing this person in particular? Could it be something to do with her surname?

The distasteful thing about the present arrangements, which may or may not have been grossly abused by Mr and Mrs Duncan Smith, is that hardly any of them are open to public scrutiny. Nor does the Establishments Office, which pays the salary, have any real means of asking what is being achieved by the recipients of its largesse.

This is a bizarre and almost unique situation. The body paying out the money cannot inquire into the efficiency of much of its payroll, because they are not regarded as their employees. It is a completely unsustainable position, and it makes no distinction whatever between those who work extremely hard on a member's behalf for very little money, and those - I have no doubt that they still exist - whose purpose is largely to mop up the office allowance.

First, the salaries paid by individual Members of Parliament must be made public as a matter of routine. Second, the duties assigned to staff, and their working practices, should be a matter of specific interest to the House of Commons authorities. Some mutterings were made about the importance of "respecting private arrangements" in this area. But, with great respect, private arrangements are funded by private means. This is certainly our business, and the subject of our detailed concern.