If ever there was a bad time for any MP, let alone a Tory, to get hauled over the coals by the Parliamentary Standards Committee then surely this is it…
A complaint that Tory MP Derek Conway wrongly paid his son MP allowances has been upheld by MPs on the Commons Standards and Privileges committee.
Mr Conway is accused of paying his son Freddie to work part-time as a researcher while at university.
The committee recommends that the MP is suspended for 10 Commons sitting days.
Mr Conway told the committee that his son worked an average of 17 hours a week for him and that he did not infringe the staffing allowance rules.
Leafing through the full report of the Standards Committee throws up some rather interesting details, including a few items that bear further examination.
So far as the complaint against Conway is concerned, it all starts with an article in the Sunday Times on May 27th 2007:
A SENIOR Tory MP is paying his son to act as his parliamentary assistant even though he is still a full-time undergraduate at university.
Commons records reveal that Frederick Conway was paid at the rate of £981 a month from the parliamentary staffing allowance handed to his father Derek, a former government whip.
Derek Conway’s wife, Colette, is also on the payroll and is paid £3,271 a month as another of his registered parliamentary assistants, according to the returns for November last year.
The same article also notes some other interesting expense claims:
Conway, now MP for Old Bexley and Sidcup in southeast London, has previously attracted criticism over his expenses. In 2005-6, he claimed £4,072 for car mileage, which can be claimed for journeys between home, Westminster and the constituency, and for travel up to 20 miles outside of an MP’s seat on local business. Conway’s claim would equate to about 1,000 trips between Westminster and his constituency.
He also claims the full allowance for the costs of running a second home for those who need a constituency and a central London base.
For the last full year (2006-7), Conway claimed £22,060 for a second home in London plus a total of £6537 in travel expenses (£3936 in car allowances, £239 rail fares and £2308 for European travel); this from an MP whose constituency office in Sidcup is, according to the AA, a matter of 13.4 miles from the House of Commons where, according to data from They Work For You, he is pretty unremarkable backbench MP – about average when it comes to speaking in debates and submitting written questions and well below average when it comes to showing his face in lobbies on divisions.
Where the real entertainment starts is with Conway’s initial reaction to the story in the Sunday Times when quizzed about it by his local paper, the ironically titled Bexley Times, in which he was quoted as stating that:
Mr Conway said: “My comment is that he is a student and he did some part-time holiday work for me, which was fully sanctioned by parliament. It is all down on the parliament internet site.
“It’s a one-minute story and that’s all I’m going to say on the matter.”
Unfortunately, as the Standards Committee discovered, that’s not quite a true or full picture of Conway’s arrangement with his son:
Mr Conway replied promptly to my initial approach. He wrote on 8 June, enclosing a copy of his son’s contract of employment.This showed that Freddie Conway had been employed by his father since 1 September 2004 as his part-time research assistant. His initial contract had shown his hours of work as “as arranged” with no specific expectation as to the number of hours he would work, but this had subsequently been amended (probably following the Department’s scrutiny of the initial contract—see paragraph 16 below) to specify seventeen as his expected net weekly working hours. The hours themselves were to be worked “as arranged”, that is there were no hours during which he was specifically required to work, so that, provided he worked seventeen hours in any one week, his duties could be undertaken flexibly as his father’s requirements and his own other commitments (including as a student) allowed.
Not just holiday work, then a part-time contract than ran right the way through ‘Freddie’s’ time as a full-time student studying geography at Newcastle University who, one suspects, will hardly be too enamoured of Conway’s comments on the demands this course allegedly placed on his son’s time:
to describe his son’s university course as ‘full-time’ was misleading. His son’s course had not been particularly time-demanding. Many undergraduates undertook part-time work, which did not necessarily detract from their studies;
Of course, not too many students get to combine their studies with a job as a researcher for an MP on a full-time equivalent salary of £25,970 per annum, which is rather more by way of hourly rate than any the usual student staples of flipping burgers, serving drinks or stacking supermarket shelves.
This is where Conway really starts to run into problems. For starters, while the salary paid to his son in within the recommended range for a researcher:
The current pay range for a research assistant (Freddie Conway’s job type) was between £13,705 and £33,018, though the recommended minimum salary for staff in London was higher.
In practice, the full-time equivalent salary offered to Freddie turns out to be considerably more than what would be recommended for someone of his age and (lack of) experience:
Currently this recommended London minimum was £18,689: in 2004, when Freddie Conway had started to work for his father, it had been £16,614 (for a full-time employee).
Especially in view of the advice given to MPs in regards to appropriate levels of researcher’s pay:
“We [DFA] recommend that new staff outside London with little relevant experience should be paid at the bottom of this range, particularly if pay rates in the locality are low. But you may want to pay a little more for a new employee with some relevant experience, and to staff based in London or other areas where pay rates are higher. We recommend that new starters should only be paid in excess of recommended starting pay if they are fully experienced—for example, a researcher with many years’ experience transferring from another Member.”
So Freddie was pulling down, as a full-time equivalent, somewhere between £8,000 and £10,000 above the usual rate for a junior researcher joining an MP straight out of college with no real experience. Oh, and let’s not also forget that he was getting a very generous 10% pension contribution on top – to put that in perspective, most local authority final salary schemes pay, at most, a 9% contribution.
Still, there would be nothing necessarily amiss with any of that provided that the Conway’s could evidence the work that Freddie was doing for his father…
I [Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards] wrote to Mr Conway on 24 July pointing out that the figures given indicated that by the time his son left his employment at the end of August as was then expected, he would have been paid a total of some £45-50,000 from public funds [this includes four ‘bonus’ payments totalling £10,065.94 on top of a salary of £11,733 per year for a 17 hour week – my addition] . I noted that Mr Conway had not been able to give me:
* any indication of the hours worked by his son
* specific examples of work actually done by his son
* the name of any person, other than himself and his son, who would have been in a position to see the work done by his son.
In regards to what Freddie was actually doing to earn his [upper] crust, the most succinct explanation in the report is to be derived from notes relating to an interview between the Commissioner and Freddie Conway:
30. An agreed note of my meeting with Freddie Conway is at WE 11. The picture he presented of his work was consistent with the explanation given by his father. His duties had centred mainly around computer and camera technology; internet research; cutting out press articles on topics of interest to his father; and general administrative support. He had the necessary skills and could fit the work in with his undergraduate course. Much of the work had been done at home in London, even during term-time (he had spent most weekends at home). Whilst at university in Newcastle, he had used the computer in the university library to search the internet for briefing material (relevant press articles, etc) relating to his father’s interests; in London, he had used his father’s computer at home. He had rarely visited his father’s Parliamentary office, even during vacations.
31. Apart from his parents, he had not related much to anyone else in carrying out his work. Nor had he mentioned the fact that he was doing work for his father to any of his university friends: it was a matter between his father and himself. The ‘briefing extracts’ he had prepared for his father had consisted of print-outs of information on economic, political and defence material gathered from the web relating to, e.g., countries to be visited by his father. He would assemble a hard copy of the material, highlight passages of likely interest and sometimes add a manuscript explanatory covering note. When at university he would then post the material off to his father. He would not prepare analyses or summaries of the material, or prepare other documents on a word processor.
So that’s the full-time equivalent of £26k a year in return for spending much of his time cutting and pasting material from the internet, all of which led the Commissioner to conclude, in the absence of any substantive evidence of the work carried out or records of the time spent earning this salary, about the size of which the Operations Director of the Department of Finance and Administration (DFA) had this to say:
Without solid documentary evidence it would not be possible to form a view of the responsibility level at which Freddie Conway had been operating. Nevertheless he had been paid from the outset above the median pay level as well as above the mid-point of the range.
And it also turns out that there was something of a problem over Freddie’s bonus payments as well:
As to the additional payments made to Freddie Conway, the Director said that since it now appeared that the first three as well as the last of these had been bonus and not, for example, overtime payments, he considered that these three had breached the cap on such payments. He calculated that Freddie Conway had received a total bonus overpayment of £4,620 (net £3,439).
All of which resulting in the Director forming a very interesting opinion:
Given the relatively high starting salary paid to Freddie Conway, I had also asked the Director to offer a view on the extent to which it might be argued that Freddie had been overpaid for what he was known to have done. The Director said that, using the 2006-07 median pay figure as a proxy for a fair and appropriate salary throughout the period (suitably adjusted for earnings changes) it would be possible to contend that an excess salary payment of some £5,400 (gross) had occurred during Mr Conway ‘s entire employment. If this proxy salary was applied it would increase the level of bonus overpayment and result in a total gross overpayment of £10,900 (approximately £7,300 net) plus a pension overpayment of some £1,000. I emphasise that the overpayment of bonus noted in paragraph 49 is an actual overpayment: the sum of £10,900 is a theoretical figure based on a notional calculation of an average salary plus the actual overpayment of bonus.
Nice work if you can get it… and there’s more to come.
You see Freddie is Derek Conway’s second son – he has an older son, Henry Conway, who is building something of a profile for himself, these days, as ‘fashion writer and socialite‘, helped no doubt by his having had the benefit of the right kind of ‘old school tie’ – Harrow.
Old Harrovian Henry Conway thinks he epitomises the modern Sloane. He is a fashion writer and journalist, who organises Thursday nights at the nightclub Mahiki.
“I don’t know whether I was an old Sloane. I suppose my background was. At 15 and 16, I sloped up and down the King’s Road but quickly got bored and moved on.”
Not to mention the same kind of work experience scheme as his younger brother:
Secondly, following references made by Mr Conway at my meeting with him on 29 November to his previous engagement of his elder son, Henry, and his practice in respect of bonus payments to all his staff, I asked the DFA for pay and bonus information in respect of Mr Conway’s other staff. This showed that:
a) Mr Conway’s elder son, Henry, had from March 2003 been paid at approximately the same rate (£10,000 pa, in Henry’s case for 18 hours work per week) at which the younger son, Freddie, had initially been employed (in Freddie’s case, for a contracted 17 hours a week);
b) the research assistant who had succeeded Freddie had been paid slightly below the level paid to Freddie for the same hours of work;
c) all the above payments had been within the permitted pay ranges for the research assistant grade;
d) the bonuses paid by Mr Derek Conway to members of his own family were , in absolute and percentage terms, substantially in excess of those paid to staff who were not family members.
Henry is cited, in the article from ‘This is London’, dated Feb 2007, as being aged 24 years of age, which put him as being aged around 20-21 during his time working for his father as a researcher (into quite what given his chosen career its not entirely clear) and which also dates his spell of ‘sloping up and down the King’s Road’ to around 1998/9, which is interesting as this is also the period during which his father was outside parliament (having lost his previous seat – Shrewsbury and Atcham – at the 1997 general election) and earning a living as the Chief Executive of the Cats Protection League, for which he was estimated (within a £10k range) of pulling down a salary of around £75,000 a year in 2000, which is not a huge sum from which to cover the costs of a Harrow-educated son ‘sloaning’ it up down the Kings Road on top his school fees.
Still, in amongst all the uncertainties, one can rest assured that some things do look consistent – about the time that young Henry found his way onto the Conway parliamentary payroll. Conway’s claim for staff allowances went up from £54,491 (81st amongst MPs) to £72,310 (joint 1st).
In all, and on the back of the limited information I’ve been able to uncover (which amounts to almost nothing pre-1997 in terms of registered interests because these are not provided on-line) Conway presents an interesting little set on conundrums.
His background is, to say the least, pretty unremarkable – his biography on Wikipedia has him down as the product of a state school in Newcastle, Beacon Hill boys school, for which there’s insufficient information to determine whether it was a comprehensive or secondary modern, followed by Gateshead Technical College and Newcastle Polytechnic.
From there he appears to have gone directly into politics; City councillor (and deputy Conservative group leader) at 21, staying on until 1987, four years after being elected to parliament in Shrewsbury and Atcham in 1983. He also served as a councillor on Tyne and Wear County Council from 1977 to 1983, during which period he was Conservative Group leader from 1979 to 1982. The Shrewbury ‘gig’ ran through to 1997, during which period he never rose above being a bog-standard party whip, so he would have pulled down the standard MPs salary plus whip’s allowance (and if the two were roughly at the same relative level then as they are now then we’re looking at about a premium of around 40% over a standard MPs salary throughout), which was followed by his stint at the Cat’s Protection League (£75k a year in 2000) and then back in parliament as a backbencher in 2001.
So what we have is someone from a mundane background who’s spent pretty much his entire working life in politics and who, without information on any outside interests he may have had during his spell as MP for Shrewsbury and Atcham, has what looks to be his best (verifiable) financial period between 2001 and 2003, where he was getting paid both as an MP and as Chief Executive of the Cats Protection League (so around £135-150K a year top whack in 2002) and who appears to have succeeded in putting his two boys through one of the UK’s most expensive public schools (and there’s a daughter unaccounted for as yet to go on the bill).
Somewhere in all this, the 1980s/90s must have been pretty good to Conway, that or he’s a model of personal thift – I’ve obviously missing some important piece of information here (a ‘killing’ on the stock markets during the 80s/90s and/or a well-paid directorship or three, or maybe his kids were scholarship boys) but one way or another the information on the record about Conway’s finances post-1997 doesn’t appear to add up to putting two boys through Harrow (plus the, as yet, unspecified daughter wherever it is that she’s being educated), at least not during the period in which he was outside parliament and relying on a single salary (and okay, there’s nothing I can find on what kind of financial ‘muscle’ his wife may have brought to the kitchen table)
Whatever – I’m just a bit curious that’s all, but what we do know is that it been recommended that Conway repay £13,000 of the monies paid to his younger son and serve a 10 day suspension from the Commons. In addition you’d have to wonder quite where he stands in terms of his current committee positions; he’s a member of the Chairman’s panel (i.e. one of number of backbenchers eligible for appointment as committee chairmen/women) and, perhaps embarrassingly, a member of the Commons administration committee, which serves to:
“consider the services provided for and by the House”. In practice this means services provided for Members of Parliament, as well as services provided by the House of Commons for others, such as visitors to the House.
Although I suppose he may be well placed to put the argument for more assistance for MPs in setting researchers’ salaries and monitoring their work performance.
And, of course, no good tale of parliamentary misdeeds would be complete without its dose of schadenfreude which, in this case takes us back to an embarrassing episode involving John Prescott:
Mr Conway today tabled another question to Mr Blair asking what advice he gave ministers about the presence of civil servants at election time. Mr Conway said: “This relates to Ms Temple’s presence on Mr Prescott’s battle bus.”
Mr Conway has asked Mr Prescott to explain what role he played in appointing and allocating staff duties in his office, as well as writing to cabinet secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell, also about the code of conduct and the fact that Mr Prescott was having an affair with a subordinate in the civil service.
But then Conway’s an expert on appointing and allocating staff duties in his office.
One last little curio – who, I wonder, are Vera B Hughes and Vera F Hughes, both of whom were registered on the electoral register at the same address as the Conway family between 2002 and 2006? I suppose the obvious answer may well be down the lines of housekeeper and nanny (and mother and daughter?), something of that order, (elderly relatives might be a possibility as well, although two with near identical names is quite a coincidence) although its a little odd that both appear to disappear entirely from 192.com’s records after 2006?
Just a little curious, that’s all…