Spelman’s Nanny State

I doubt very much that Dizzy’s commentary on Caroline Spelman’s state-funded nanny situation will be making the ‘Daley Dozen’ today or any day soon, after all Dizzy has taken the eminently sensible view that its never a good idea for a blogger to be drawn into defending the indefensible, unlike Iain Dale who’s slavishly following the party line for all he’s worth.

Dizzy is, I think, quite correct in suggesting that there’s something about the press statement ‘issued’ by Spelman’s former nanny, Tina Haynes, that doesn’t ring true. In fact there seems to several matters that raise rather more by way of questions than answers. For example. Haynes’ statement includes the claim that:

My roles and responsibilities were general administration which entailed tasks such as posting of letters, answering phone calls at the home address, faxing or posting documents to Mrs Spelman whilst she was in London, this was performed during the hours that her children were at school.

Hence the six hours a day that Haynes allegedly worked for Spelman in a secretarial capacity and for which she appears to have been paid from Spelman’s parliamentary allowances.

Except, of course, that the youngest of Spelman’s three children was, according to her Wikipedia entry, born in December 1994 and would have been, what, about two and half years old at the time she entered parliament? So, Spelman’s got a full time nanny and her youngest is attending a nursery school for six hours a day, six months before most kids would start at a nursery school for a mere three hours or so a day – that’s not beyond the bounds of possibility but it does seem, well, a little profligate.

It’s also interesting to note that while Haynes’ statement makes reference to some of the questions she was asked by Michael Crick in her statement:

I answered the questions asked of which a few are listed below.

Did I do secretarial work? to which I answered Yes,

Was it political? to which I answered No (my understanding of this was that he was asking was it party political work)

Did I do Nannying / Childcare for her? to which I answered Yes.

She completely fails to address the issue of the account of the actual nature of her work given to Newsnight

But when asked by the BBC’s Newsnight about the extent of her secretarial duties, Ms Haynes said she only posted letters and “took the odd phone call” and passed on messages “once or twice a week”.

There is, in all this, something of an element of misdirection surrounding the apparent confusion over whether she misunderstood Crick’s question regarding the ‘political’ nature of her work. This is an issue but not the only one of relevance.

If one draws a direct parallel with the case of Derek Conway, the charge against him was not that his children carried out work for him that fell outside the remit of the allowances from which they were paid but rather that Conway was unable to provide evidence to show that they’d actually carried out sufficient work to justify the payments they’d received. Spelman, it seems to me, is in much the same situation as Conway if its shown that Haynes’ first, pre-spin doctored, account of her workload is anything like accurate. Posting a few letters, taking the ‘odd phone call’ and passing on messages a couple of times a weeks does not make for 30 hours worth of secretarial work a week no matter how formal or informal the arrangements under which she was apparently employed in that roll.

In short, and in the absence of evidence showing that Haynes’ workload was sufficient to justify the payments she received for carrying out ‘secretarial’ duties, it is difficult not to take the view that the main function that the arrangement between Spelman and Haynes served, in practice, was that of enabling Spelman to offset some of the cost of employing a full-time nanny against her parliamentary allowances.

Interestingly, the BBC’s report also add this to the description of the arrangement between Spelman and Haynes:

Once the children came home from school, she said Ms Haynes took on a nannying role for which she received board, lodging and use of a car at the MP’s personal expense.

All of which seems to imply that the only money that changed hands in this arrangement may have been the money paid to Haynes for her ‘secretarial’ work while, in return for her nannying duties, Haynes received only payments in kind; board, lodging and use of a car.

Now that may or may not be an accurate reflection of the actual situation that existed ten years ago, but if it is the case that the only money paid to Haynes came from Spelman’s parliamentary allowances and that Spelman’s only material contribution to the cost of employing Haynes was made by way of providing the in-kind benefits then that is only going to strengthen the general impression that there is something more a little bit fishy about this whole story.

Spelman’s own statement also raises some interesting questions. She claims, for example, that on becoming an MP she was faced with ‘quite a backlog of correspondence’ as a result of the untimely death of her predecessor:

My predecessor Ian Mills had suffered an untimely death about six weeks before the general election so there was quite a backlog of correspondence and therefore I accepted the opportunity to have part time administrative secretarial help from Tina Haines because I had advertised my home my consistency office, as there was no other office that Ian Mills had, nor staff in the constituency.

Spelman’s predecessor, IAIN Mills, died on 13th January 1997, a little over three and half months before the 1997 General Election although as parliament was dissolved on 17th March by John Major and it was ten years ago, we’ll give her a bit of leeway on the timings and assume that her ‘about six weeks’ reference relates to the start of the general election campaign and not its conclusion on May 1st.

However, one has to wonder quite where this backlog of mail came from given that Iain Dale fills out Spelman’s statement with the following claim:

Her statement today explains that because her predecessor died six weeks before the 1997 election there was a huge backlog of mail. There was no constituency office. There was no secretary to deal with it.

So, if there was no constituency office, one can only presume that whatever backlog of mail Spelman did face, it was waiting for her at her parliamentary office and not in her constituency, where Haynes worked, and nothing in Haynes’ statement or comments to Michael Crick seems to indicate that her ‘secretarial duties’ included dealing with any of Spelman’s parliamentary business. One has to wonder just how much correspondence Spelman might have had back in her constituency given that the her predecessor’s lack of a constituency office seem to suggest that he, like the late Eric Forth, saw his elected role as being very much that of a parliamentarian and not a social worker, as Forth would occasionally (and disparagingly) liken the role of MPs who saw constituency casework as part of the bread and butter of their role.

Dale also offers this comment in Spelman’s defence:

Caroline Spelman had never worked in Parliament before she was elected. She wasn’t a career politician who knew the ways of Westminster. It was, of course, up to her to find out what rules she had to follow. The fact that the chief whip had to have a word indicated she had fallen foul of the spirit, if not the letter, of the rules. Remember, this was ten years ago – the Fees Office rules were not as clear and detailed as they are today and were easy to misinterpret. She took the advice of the chief whip and corrected the situation.

All of which may well be true – although she did contest the seat of Bassetlaw in 1992 and couldn’t, therefore, be thought a complete novice.

Nevertheless, Dale’s comments do, perhaps, provide a measure of insight into hat may be the as yet unspoken story here.

If we take Dale’s characterisation of Spelman at face value, i.e. a basically honest and decent human being but one who was rather a parliamentary novice, one has to wonder quite where the idea of paying her nanny out her parliamentary allowances for a bit of unspecified secretarial work originated. It seems just a tad unlikely that Spelman would have cooked up such an idea all on her own and run with it without bothering to check that it was within both the spirit and letter of the rules for near enough a year, until she eventually ran it past the Chief Whip and was advised to end the arrangement.

Remember we’re talking about a new MP in a party that’s just gone down to a crushing electoral defeat on the back of, amongst other things, a stream of very public problems with allegations of ‘sleaze’ and against that kind of background you’d presume that any new MP would be doubly careful to check the rules for fear of finding themselves on the wrong end of such an allegation.

So why enter into an arrangement that looks to be of such a dubious provenance?

That answer, I suspect, is that Spelman’s current difficulties may tell use rather more about the prevailing culture of Westminster at the time than they do about Spelman’s personal character.

It strikes me that there may well be a useful analogy to be drawn here between Spelman’s current predicament and the classic, and fondly remembered, TV comedy ‘Porridge’. Much as at least the first series of Porridge centres on the relationship between Fletcher and Godber, the experienced old lag teaching the naive first-timer the rope of prison life, so one can easily imagine that similar kinds or relationships are likely to form between novice MPs and the parliamentary ‘old lags’, experienced backbenchers who informally pass on to new MPs many of the unspoken conventions and social mores of parliamentary life. It’s not difficult to imagine Spelman, as a novice MP, discussing her trials and tribulations with an ‘old lag’ only them to be advised that she could make her life that bit easier by setting up the arrangement she had with her nanny and being assured that it was not only within the rules and unlikely to be questioned that that such arrangements were, broadly speaking, no more than common practice.

Dale concludes his remarks by asserting that:

Those who are effectively calling Caroline Spelman a crook would do well to reflect on the damage they are doing – not just to a decent, likeable and trustworthy politician, but to the political process itself.

It seems to me that the real villain of the piece here is actually the political process itself, or rather the parliamentary process and its outdated affectations of personal honour and integrity, affectations that are no longer sustainable not simply because its apparent that they’ve been abused so often but simply because, like so many other institutions in British life, parliament no longer either commands or deserves the degree of deference it once enjoyed as if by right.

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