Nepotism for beginners

Katy Lee 7 February 2008

Oh, to be one of the Conway boys! Until recently, the two sons of Derek Conway MP seemed to have found the perfect way to avoid the average student’s financial quandaries. If you’re struggling with your own debts, take a leaf out of Freddie and Henry’s book: convince one of your parents to run successfully for Parliament. Then get them to employ you as a “research assistant”, generously sponsored by the taxpayer, while you study. You’re worried about Cambridge’s ban on term-time jobs? This needn’t be an issue. Conveniently enough, MPs are currently not required to prove how much work their employees are actually doing.

Too many of my friends have reacted to the Conway scandal with instinctive indifference. Nepotism is a fact of life in Cambridge. Phrases like “old boys’ club” and “it’s not what you know, but who you know” are part of our everyday lexicon. This is depressing. How many of us know someone relatively stupid but well-connected who has clinched an amazing internship for this summer? And then there’s getting into Cambridge in the first place. We’ve all heard stories about dads paying fat donations to cash-strapped Oxbridge colleges pre-interview.

This sort of thing is unsurprising and unavoidable. In every case, the fact that your dad has loads of money or that your interviewer is friends with your mum may be completely irrelevant, or it may be a factor that wins you a place here – there’s no way of knowing. But however we get here, at least once we are here we’re all on an equal footing, right?

Cambridge is a marvellous place where all of us, regardless of background, have the same opportunities to turn themselves into employable, coveted young graduates. In a lot of cases, this is true. But sometimes it isn’t, and that’s what makes the whole thing doubly unmeritocratic. Upon arrival in Cambridge, people like me, sadly devoid of powerful uncles, come for the first time into contact with people who have them – and realise how splendidly helpful such uncles

can be.

We are introduced to the concept of “networking” – nepotism re-branded with a friendlier edge – as a necessary activity. And even if we’re crap at networking, many of us may inadvertently find ourselves beneficiaries of what is indeed a preference for old boys and girls, just because our CVs have the word ‘Cambridge’ on them. Recruiters should not take ‘Cambridge’ to be a synonym for ‘competent’. Whether the candidate is favoured on the basis of their personal contacts or simply by virtue of being from the interviewer’s alma mater, this kind of off-the-record bias ensures that the most deserving people don’t always make it into the right jobs.

But where we can most limit the damage caused by nepotism, surely, is Parliament. There is currently nothing stopping MPs from employing members of their own families. What’s clear is that Derek Conway’s recruitment policies only attracted the wrath of the Committee on Standards in Public Life because he was milking it even by Westminster standards; his colleagues have condemned him for overpaying young Freddie for the work he did, not for paying him altogether. Though he may later face a police investigation for his behaviour – which might be described as “fraud” in any other sector – he has so far only earned the light punishment of the removal of his party’s whip, an order to return a paltry £13,161 of Freddie’s earnings, and a ten day suspension.

More than 170 MPs have family members on the payroll. Lots have argued that as long as their relatives’ work is up to scratch, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t employ them.

Now that Conway has inconveniently shone a light on this widespread practice – and on the fact that, apparently by chance, the rules governing how MPs spend their staffing allowances are vague and poorly enforced – some of them are reluctantly admitting the need for greater transparency over who they hire and for how much. But, naturally, they’re loath to bring in a full ban on the employment of family members. Sir Christopher Kelly, chair of the committee that exposed Conway in the first place, bleated that this would be “a rather harsh answer to the problem”.

This is not good enough. Family members will inevitably receive automatic preference as long as this practice is allowed, and though their work might be deemed ‘adequate’ there is no reason to assume that having a personal relationship with the boss invariably makes them the best workers. A ban could curb the damage to their collective image, which is increasingly one of a grasping bunch of bluffs undeserving of the name “honourable members”. The problem is that it won’t happen. MPs may make a grand gesture of restricting their own ability to abuse this familial perk, but they are not going to vote themselves out of it altogether.

Katy Lee