The Derek Conway Affair was the political scandal that emerged at the end of January 2008 to obliterate the political career of one Derek Conway, the Conservative member for Old Bexley and Sidcup.
Let us begin by noting that, in addition to a salary currently in excess of £60,000 per annum, members of the British House of Commons also receive a variety of expense allowances, including what is known as the parliamentary staffing allowance of £90,600 which is provided in order to fund the cost of staff employed in their parliamentary and constituency offices. Although members are reminded in the rules that the allowance is only "available to meet the costs wholly, exclusively and necessarily incurred on the provision of staff to help you perform your Parliamentary duties." It is however fairly common practice for Members of Parliament to employ their wives as secretaries (or indeed their husbands where applicable), and not unknown for them to employ other members of their families. Whilst such arrangements have often been the subject of criticism, unfortunately the Great British Public are not permitted to know the extent to which their elected representatives are using public money to employ members of their family, since although MPs are required to disclose the total amount spent on employing staff, they are not required to reveal who they employ or how much they are paid. A request for this information to be made public was made under the Freedom of Information Act in 2006, and although it was expected that the Information Commissioner Richard Thomas would rule in favour of disclosing this information, the request was then blocked by the Speaker of the House of Commons Michael Martin on the grounds that such disclosure was likely to "prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs".
Of course the fact that the public lacked the right to such information did not mean to say that there were not ways in which it could leak into the public domain. A case in point was on the 27th May 2007, when the Sunday Times published a story under the headline 'MP hires son on expenses' which identified that the aforementioned Derek Conway had employed his son Frederick Conway as a researcher whilst he was a full-time student at Newcastle University. In this case it was later claimed by the Evening Standard that this information had "first came to light" as a result of the entries made by young Freddie "on the social networking website Facebook", although the Daily Telegraph suggested it was Bebo. When questioned about his son's employment, Derek Conway was rather unforthcoming on the subject and told the Sunday Times that "It's not something that I am going to be drawn into talking about ... I'm not talking about individuals and you must print what you want to print. I am not going to comment."
The Sunday Times duly noted that Mr Conway had previously attracted criticism for the level of his travel expenses, as well as the fact that he was claiming the cost of running a second home in London in addition to his constituency home, despite the fact that his constituency of Old Bexley and Sidcup was within an easily commutable distance of eighteen miles from Westminster. As it happened the Sunday Times didn't have that much to say about Conway's employment of his son, and any sense of impropriety appeared to rest entirely on the implication that someone couldn't possibly be both a full-time student and a parliamentary researcher. At the time it did not appear to be the most damning accusation ever directed at a Member of Parliament and all might well have been soon forgotten, were it not for the determination of a retired policeman by the name of Michael Barnbrook who, apart from being one of Mr Conway's constituents, had stood against him as the United Kingdom Independence Party candidate in Old Bexley and Sidcup in 2005 (he came fourth with 2,015 votes), although he later defected from UKIP to the British National Party.
On the 3rd June 2007 Michael Barnbrook duly lodged a complaint with the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, a process with which he was entirely familiar as he had previously lodged a similar complaint in 2003 against Clive Betts, the Labour member for Sheffield Attercliffe, for "misleading voters over details of his relationship with a Mr Jose Gasparo", and another with the Metropolitan Police regarding the expenses erroneously claimed by Michael Trend, the Conservative member for Windsor. Mr Barnbrook might therefore be described as a "serial complainer", which is certainly is how Conway later referred to him. Nonetheless Philip Mawer, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, took the matter seriously and duly carried out a detailed investigation into the amounts paid by Derek Conway to his son Frederick.
Mawer's investigations showed that Derek Conway had employed his son Frederick as a part-time research assistant between the 1st September 2004 and the 24th August 2007, during which time Frederick was paid a basic salary of £11,173 for working an allotted seventeen hours per week, and that he was additionally paid bonuses of £2,000, £5,000, £1,300 and £1,766. It turned out that Freddie's duties largely consisted of sitting down at his father's computer at home or at a computer in the Newcastle university library and searching the internet for briefing material relating to his father's interests. It appeared that Freddie did "not prepare analyses or summaries of the material" he had collected, and so these 'briefing extracts' simply "consisted of print-outs of information on economic, political and defence material gathered from the web". There are many who might well think that it was a little generous to pay someone the full-time equivalent of £25,970 per annum for simply copying and pasting material from the internet, which is indeed the conclusion reached by Philip Mawer, who noted that he was "dubious about the real substance" of much of Freddie's work, which he described as "pretty low-grade in character", and decided that he had been paid "substantially more than an appropriate rate for the job he was doing". He also determined that some of the bonuses paid to Freddie were excessive as they exceeded the 15% of salary laid down in the rules.
This was perhaps bad enough, but the real problem arose from the fact that Derek Conway was not in the habit of keeping papers once the "immediate need for them had passed", and he was therefore unable to produce any examples of his son's work. Neither had he kept any other records of either the actual work that Freddie had done for him, or indeed of the work that he was required to carry out, all of which gave rise to the suspicion that perhaps Freddie hadn't really been doing anything at all. Although Mawer concluded that "on the balance of probabilities, that Freddie Conway did do some work", this was hardly the most ringing of endorsements.
Philip Mawer finished his report on the 21st December 2007 and delivered it to the Committee on Standards and Privileges. They duly considered the matter and having expressed their astonishment that Derek Conway failed to keep any records of the work carried out by his son, pronounced that "this arrangement was, at the least, an improper use of parliamentary allowances; at worst, it was a serious diversion of public funds. Our view is that the reality may well be somewhere between the two". They concluded that this was a "serious breach of the rules" and proposed that Mr Conway should be required to repay the sum of up to £13,161.05 and suggested that he be suspended from the House for ten days. (Said punishments being later confirmed by the House of Commons on the 31st January.)
When the Committee's report was duly published on the 28th January 2008, Derek Conway issued a statement in which he unreservedly apologised to the House of Commons for his "administrative shortcomings" and the "misjudgements" that he had made. It was entirely possible that Conway believed that his apology together with a willingness to accept the suggested punishments would be the end of the matter; unfortunately the general coverage of the affair in the press was almost uniformly hostile to him. Indeed apart from Roger Gale, the Conservative member for North Thanet, who appeared on BBC Radio 4's Today programme to insist that Conway was a "good constituency member of Parliament and an honourable man" who was now the subject of a "witch hunt", no one came forward to speak in his defence. In fact, the press appeared to be more interested in twisting the knife even deeper. The Daily Mail had sight of what was referred to as "leaked documents", and reported that the entire Conway family had benefited to the tune of to £1,535,717 over the years since 2001. Derek Conway himself had collected a cumulative Parliamentary salary of £1,161,315, his wife Colette had "legitimately earned" another £291,616 as his secretary, whilst in addition to the £50,068 received by Freddie, his elder brother Henry had received £32,717. As it happened the fact that Freddie was simply carrying on from where his elder brother Henry Conway had left off was something that Philip Mawer had noted in his report, but he hadn't considered the payments to Henry in detail since that was not the subject of the complaint. John Mann, the Labour member for Bassetlaw promptly remedied this deficiency and submitted his own compliant to the new standards commissioner John Lyon about the payments made to Henry Conway. Some Conservative MPs then immediately retaliated and put in a formal complaint over Mann's own failure to report the financial support he received from the GMB union to the Electoral Commission.
It only remained for Duncan Borrowman, who happened to be the Liberal Democrat prospective parliamentary candidate for Old Bexley and Sidcup, decided to get his name in the papers by writing to Scotland Yard to ask them to look into the matter. A Metropolitan Police spokesman confirmed that they had received the letter and noted that "It will take time to look at the contents." Which either means that it was a particularly long and detailed letter or more likely because they believed that it was all a waste of time.
As far as the Leader of the Conservative Party was concerned, the Committee on Standards and Privileges had ruled on the matter and that was that and he was not minded to take any further action; the official word from Central Office being that the "appropriate punishment is being administered". However once he'd had the luxury of sleeping on it, David Cameron changed his mind. Whether it was because the intervening twenty-four hours gave him the opportunity to actually read the report, or whether it simply allowed him the opportunity to note the level of abuse now being heaped upon Mr Conway's head and contemplate the public relations disaster in progress, might well be a matter of speculation. In any event it appeared that Cameron dispatched his Chief Whip, Patrick McLoughlin, to quiz Mr Conway about his second son's role and was apparently not satisfied with the explanation given. On the 29th January Cameron therefore emerged to note that whilst "normally these things are dealt with by the House of Commons", he had now, "having reflected on it ... judged that is not enough" and decided to withdrawn the whip from Conway. The withdrawal of the whip, that is exclusion from the Conservative Parliamentary Party, is often a temporary punishment, with the offending member later being readmitted once they are deemed to have learnt their lesson. However in this case Cameron remarked that Conway had "an awful lot of road to make up" before being restored; said remarks being interpreted as meaning that Conway might never have the whip restored, and that he would therefore not be able to stand as the Conservative candidate at the next General Election.
For his part Conway viewed Cameron's judgement as "understandable, if not inevitable", and after also taking the opportunity to consider the matter overnight, on the 31st January he issued a formal statement through Conservative Central Office, which announced that "I have advised the Chief Whip and the chairman of my local Conservative Association that I shall not seek to continue as the Conservative Party candidate for Old Bexley and Sidcup at the next election." At which point many might
sympathise with the words of Michael Barnbrook; "It's all his silly fault".
The whole Derek Conway affair came as a relief to many Labour MPs who, after three months of unrelenting bad news, finally had some dirt to throw back at their Conservative opponents, although strangely enough there was only silence to be heard from the ranks of the Labour frontbench on the matter. During the morning press briefing on the 29th January 2008, the Prime Minister's official spokesman would only say that as far as Gordon Brown was concerned "it was a matter for the House and the House authorities and it was not something that he would comment on", whilst there was no mention of Mr Conway whatsoever during Prime Minister's Questions on the 30th January. As Nick Assinder of BBC News explained, there was "no profit in it for either side at the moment", and theorised that the respective whips had put the word out to discourage any over-enthusiastic backbenchers from jumping in with both feet.
The issue here being that the original Sunday Times article back in May 2007 was written in the context of an increasing level of concern over the level of MPs expenses and the lack of transparency thereof, with particular regard to the fact that ten days previously the House of Commons had voted in favour of a bill that would exclude Members of Parliament from complying with the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act. (And therefore provide MPs with an excuse not to disclose anything much at all about their expenditure.) Indeed the Sunday Times referred to Derek Conway as merely the "latest MP to stand accused of exploiting the expenses awarded to parliamentarians". The authors also saw fit to mention the Liberal Democrat MP Malcolm Bruce, and the Labour MPs Stuart Bell and Nick Ainger, all of whom employed their wives in some capacity. (Although each one of them insisted that they had acted properly and complied with the rules, and there was no suggestion otherwise.) However the paper did note the case of the government minister Barry Gardiner who "had claimed mileage allowances last year equivalent to driving his family car to Delhi and back, even though he is a London MP with an official government car".
In the aftermath of Conway's disgrace the Daily Telegraph reported that there were thirty-eight other MPs who had publicly admitted that they were employing members of their immediate families, whilst there were possibly as many as a couple of dozen more doing the same thing but were being rather coy on the subject. The paper also noted that the Committee on Standards in Public Life was "said to be poised to launch an inquiry into MPs' expenses", although their previous attempt to launch just such an inquiry in 2007 was blocked by Jack Straw as Leader of the House of Commons "on the basis it would embarrass backbench MPs". And therein lies the rub, as there remained the widespread belief, perhaps best expressed by Steven Glover in the Daily Mail that Derek Conway was "only one of the worst among many", and whilst it was perhaps not a case of 'they're all it', there were probably a number of other MPs out there with who had adopted a similarly unrigorous approach to their expense claims. Thus whilst it was a Conservative member forced to fall on his sword this time round, it might equally well be the turn of a Liberal Democrat or Labour MP to be 'embarrassed' next time round, and there is a general unwillingness amongst the inhabitants of this particular glass house to hurl too many projectiles about the place.
Based on reports from BBC News, The Guardian, The Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The Evening Standard, The Daily Mail in the period between the 28th January and the 31st January, together with the following sources;
- Robert Winnett and Holly Watt, MP hires son on expenses, The Sunday Times May 27, 2007
- Morning press briefing from 29 January 2008
- House of Commons Committee on Standards and Privileges
Conduct of Mr Derek Conway, Fourth Report of Session 2007-08
HC 280 Published on 28 January 2008 by authority of the House of Commons London: The Stationery Office Limited