Blink and you might have missed it, but this week the Scottish Parliament says they are to ban MSPs from employing relatives, in the wake of the Westminister expenses scandal. This may seem a rather innocuous decision in light of the egregious abuses of this system that have recently been revealed, but like every story, it has two sides.
Traditionally, parliamentary politics was the arena of the wealthy elite, voted for by a few other rich men. Sitting in Parliament was a privilege that brought significant financial, social and political advantage to the MP and his family, and so no wage was paid. Over the nineteenth century, the franchise was extended and with it the men eligible to sit in Parliament. However, it was still unpaid (although various experimental attempts to pay MPs were suggested and implemented at various points for short periods) and the benefits of the working the system were difficult without good connections, which meant that men from ordinary backgrounds found it hard to afford to sit in Parliament. By 1911, the implications of this for democracy were becoming realised and MPs were given wages. At the same time, it was suggested that perhaps some expenses should be covered, such as postage and travel, but it wasn't until the 1960s that this was really formalised or utilised in a significant way. It wasn't until 1969 that a budget was officially created for secretarial staff.
So who, you might ask, did all the work needed to support an MP, to manage constituents, and to create the publicity campaigns required to get MP's elected? Well, no prizes for guessing here, it was the wives and families of the (mostly male) MPs. Family, but especially wives, were responsible for a considerable amount of free labour required to support the democratic system. And, furthermore, the system operated on this understanding. Traditional notions of the family wage still permeated the public imagination, so that an MP's wage was not his own, but a family wage. Therefore, if the family had to help earn it, then this was perfectly socially acceptable. [And, yes, this did put female MPs at a significant disadvantage as if they were married they were frequently married to working men, who could not offer the same support to their roles.]
By the 1960s, with the resurgence of middle-class women back into the workforce, increasing numbers of female MPs, and a questioning of the concept of the 'family' wage, it became recognised that this 'free labour' from MP's families might actually border on exploitation. Furthermore, this free labour was quickly drying up as the middle-class women who were married to (still mostly) middle-class MPs looked for paid work, or, as the case often was, many women suddenly found themselves with the double-burden of their own careers and the many responsibilities of the political wife. Secretarial expenses, paid to family members, paid women for work they were frequently doing anyway for free, discouraging them from working in other areas. And, it was a system that parliament continued to benefit from, as unlike a non-related paid employee, your wife didn't go home at 5pm if the work wasn't done.
Now, it could be argued in the 21st century where most Scottish women work, and so few work for their MP husbands, and where there is less expectation that 'political wives' work for free, that getting rid of paid expenses for family members prevents corruption and does little harm. Yet, a comment by the MSP Sandra White, who employs her son, perhaps shows that the system hasn't changed that much:
"We are being punished for what's happened in Westminster by some greedy MPs who did rip off the system. If you ask anyone who employs members of their own family, you'll find the trust and the availability of them being able to work extra hours is something that we actually treasure." [My bold]
The exploitation of family members for free (even for those who are paid a wage) continues to be a significant part of the democratic system. And, the concern that banning family members from political work raises, is that rather than seeing the family removed from politics, we go back to a system where the family is exploited for no reward. Furthermore, there are a number of MPs who met their spouses on the job, marrying their aids or other members of staff; are we now suggesting that staff (and who's to bet it would be female staff!) step down from their jobs on marriage? Are we heading back to the 1920s?
Now, I am as concerned with the exploitation of the expenses system as the next person and I even concede that it may be time for the 'political wife' to finally get a divorce. But, a ban on employing family members, that doesn't at the same time recognise that the exploitation of family members is part of the system and try to rectify it, seems problematic. Furthermore, in a system where MP's staff are employed by individual MPs, rather than by the state, there is little room for staff to be moved around if they marry an MP, or even for family members for whom politics is THEIR career. They are instead dismissed from their jobs, as if they had no value, and have to hope they get employment elsewhere. It seems to me that this legislation is a step backwards, rather than a step towards fixing a problem.