Leading article: Public money for private purposes

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The convenient timing – for the Government – of the accusations against Derek Conway should not detract from the potential seriousness of the charges. For an MP to divert part of his allowance to a family member for work that did not exist, or at least in nothing like the quantity that was paid for, amounts to a disgraceful misuse of public money. There can be no ifs or buts about this.

After the Commons Standards and Privileges Committee had found that Mr Conway had overpaid his younger son for research assistance, David Cameron had little choice but to act. Withdrawing the party whip was the most immediate sanction open to him. He was quite right – after what he described as a period of personal reflection – to use it.

Not to have done so would have allowed the accusations to fester with the risk that they would taint the party as a whole. As Gordon Brown's hesitation in dealing with Peter Hain and the handling of donations to his deputy leadership campaign showed, any perception of procrastination inflicts damage.

There, though, any parallels end. Those who donated to Mr Hain's campaign, like those who donated to the other candidates, did so willingly. They knew what their money was to be used for. The faults, if such there turn out to be, related to rule-breaking and misrepresentation. These are not trivial matters. The rules were set by the very government whose members apparently flouted them and Mr Hain could find himself facing prosecution. But what he was not doing was helping his family to money from the public purse.

Some will detect a possible grey area here. Many MPs employ a relative, often a spouse, to assist them, and pay them from their MP's allowance. Criticisms can be made of such arrangements: even if they help to save marriages, they severely narrow the pool of recruits to what can be the first step on the political ladder. They also invite the suspicion that MPs do not run their offices as accountably as they should do. To counter this, the MP has to show that there is sufficient work to do and that the employee has done it. Both were lacking in the case of Mr Conway's son.

Mr Conway, who accepted the findings of the Commons committee, agreed that he was responsible for administrative shortcomings and misjudgements – which is putting it mildly. Paying one, and perhaps two, student sons from a publicly funded allowance intended for his MP's work goes considerably beyond misjudgement.

It is the use of taxpayers' money for a purpose that other parents have to fund out of their taxed income. At very least, it is clear that Mr Conway must repay the money. A police investigation and prosecution – if warranted – should not be excluded.

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