I remember when Caroline Spelman was first elected. I didn't know her, but I heard quite a lot about her. I remember hearing that her first few months in parliament were an absolute hell for her. I remember she had an Association which was trying to deselect her. I remember various MPs telling me at the time that she was finding it incredibly difficult balancing her family life with her new life as an MP. 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. As a new MP she didn't have an office until a couple of months after the election. So she did the best she could. But she was drowning. That's not to plead sympathy for her, it is a statement of fact. This is what she had to say today...
I thought it might be helpful if I provided a little bit of background to the events when I was first elected MP for Meriden 11 years ago in 1997. 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. Tina would answer the telephone for me and open the post and sort it for me and arrange it into files, and as a working mother that offered a practical solution because she could deal with the secretarial side whilst the children were in school and then after school provided child care for my kids. And to me that seemed a good solution and at the time I thought that was entirely within the rules.
The chief whip then made me aware that such an arrangement could be open to misinterpretation and whilst within the rules such misinterpretation is not helpful, therefore I put a stop to the arrangement. Tina Haines then ceased to work in any secretarial capacity and I engaged another person locally to work for me on the constituency administration.
My prime concern was to make sure my constituency needs were rapidly attended to as a new MP. Now at the time I thought those were still within the rules and that is still my belief but I will refer this series of events to the parliamentary standards commissioner and invite him to examine them and I will seek an early opportunity on Monday to meet with the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner for that purpose.
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.
There are lessons here for politicians of all parties who find themselves elected to national office. Take every measure you can to make sure you are not overwhelmed by the enormity of what you have taken on. The House of Commons authorities know that a Member of Parliament is going to be elected. It is inexcusable that new MPs have to wait two months for a new office. It happened to Caroline Spelman in 1997. It happened to David Cameron in 2001. It happened to Nick Clegg in 2005. It must not happen to Priti Patel or Helen Grant in 2010. The rules of conduct may now be clearer, but the House of Commons still seems unable to cope with the consequences of the election of more than 100 new MPs. They've got two years to plan it.
I have only ever met or spoken to Caroline Spelman three times. But I know a decent, honest woman when I see one. If she did wrong here - and by referring herself to the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner she obviously knows she has a case to answer - she will do whatever she has to do to rectify the situation. But let's have less of the baying mob sanctimony which I have read in other places over the last hour. Why? Because imagine other women out there who look at Caroline Spelman and think to themselves: well if they treat a nice woman like her like this, why would I want to go into politics? 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.
PS I'm going to disallow anonymous comments on this thread due to the scandalous comments posted on this subject by anonymous cowards during the course of today.