Derek Conway: MPs don't get paid nearly enough money

We should get a pay rise of up to £40,000, says shamed Conservative as he claims: 'I have done nothing wrong'

Brian Brady
Sunday 03 February 2008 01:00

The MP condemned for paying members of his family thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money insisted he was no crook last night – and claimed MPs should get a rise of up to £40,000.

Derek Conway responded to a week of humiliating revelations about his use of taxpayers' money to fund his private office, with a defiant declaration that he had done nothing wrong in employing his sons, Henry and Freddie, as researchers.

And he tried to deflect criticism about his conduct by claiming that many more MPs were now worried that details of their employment practices could be laid bare.

The Old Bexley and Sidcup MP announced last week that he will stand down as an MP at the next election, after David Cameron withdrew the Tory whip following a scathing Commons committee report on Conway's employment of Freddie, a university student.

He now faces a possible second inquiry into his decision to employ his elder son, while Scotland Yard is considering a demand for a police probe to examine allegations of fraud.

But, in his first interview since the report from the Commons Standards and Privileges Committee which sparked his downfall, Mr Conway told The Mail on Sunday: "I am not a crook. I still believe I have done nothing wrong."

Mr Conway denied that MPs were overpaid for their work, noting that he took a cut in salary when he left the £80,000-a-year post of chief executive of the Cats Protection League to return to the Commons in 2001 and will receive a pension of £24,000 when he retires.

He claimed instead that a fair salary for a backbench MP would be £80,000 to £100,000, rather than their current £60,000.

Mr Conway added: "An MP is paid less than the sous chef at the Commons. Many people may think 60 grand is the right level for an MP – most MPs would not."

The committee report said there was no record of Freddie performing any work in return for the £40,000 he received over three years and he was "all but invisible" at Westminster. The arrangement was "at the least an improper use of parliamentary allowances" and "at worst, a serious diversion of public funds".

But Mr Conway insisted that both Freddie and Henry – whom he employed earlier – did the work for which they were paid. Freddie, 22, would regularly make the three-hour journey back from Newcastle to go through his father's post and emails at home in London, as well as working for him during the long university holidays, he said.

The reason Freddie and Henry, 25, seemed invisible at Westminster was because they worked from the Conways' flat in nearby Victoria, he said. Mr Conway said his son would "fillet post, scrutinise emails and stuff envelopes".

In a telling insight into how this has affected the family, Mr Conway denounced as "homophobic" media reports that have referred to Henry's sexuality and his work as a party promoter. "We have known that he has been gay for a long time," the MP said. "We aren't ashamed of it, he's a lovely boy and we have always supported him."

The Old Bexley and Sidcup MP said he could understand public outrage at reports of him using taxpayers' money to employ family members. "The public believe all politicians have their snouts in the trough," he said. "I just have to cope with it."

But he said he suspected some of his parliamentary critics had ulterior motives. "This is a febrile time. Labour was anxious to take the heat off itself because of pressure on Gordon Brown over Alan Johnson and Peter Hain," he said.

"This was a golden opportunity – clearly supported by some Tories, some of whom may well have had their own agenda."

Mr Conway's wife, Colette, who is his Commons secretary, was supportive of her husband and sons. Asked if she thought they had done anything wrong, she replied: "Not at all. No."

And she added: "As a wife and mother, you come out supporting your chicks. I am as fierce as anybody over my family."

Mr Conway's explanation received short shrift from former MPs' standards watchdog Sir Alistair Graham. "If he did nothing wrong, why couldn't he convince his colleagues on the committee when they were so anxious to be persuaded?

Conway's week

Monday Derek Conway is forced to apologise "unreservedly" after the Commons Standards and Privileges Committee found he misused his staffing allowance while employing son Freddie, then a student at Newcastle University.

Tuesday David Cameron withdraws the whip from the Tory MP.

Wednesday Mr Conway announces that he will stand down at the next election. The payroll revelations extend to his elder son, Henry (see 'Daily Mail'), as rivals urge police to investigate.

Thursday MPs vote to suspend Mr Conway for 10 days and order him to return £13,161 of payments made to his son. A close friend of Henry's is also on the payroll.

Friday Party leaders urge MPs to declare all family members working in their offices. It emerges in the 'Daily Mail' that Mr Conway cut his secretary's salary while paying his sons thousands of pounds in bonuses.

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