|It’s Not Political, It’s Personal|
Ann Keen MP talks exclusively to Emma Brophy
We all have bad days, bad weeks and, hopefully no more than once in a life-time, bad months but for Brentford and Isleworth MP Ann Keen much of 2009 can only be described as a personal nightmare.
Having for years suffered brickbats in the local arena for claiming for a second home in Westminster, she found herself thrown into the national frenzy of condemnation that greeted the publication MPs’ expenses.
Events took a turn when it emerged that her Brentford home had been unoccupied for a prolonged period prompting enquiries from the Council as to its availability for Council housing. Coverage of this issue alerted squatters who entered the property and the Junior Health Minister found herself watching strangers in her home courtesy of BBC and ITV news crews.
Yet despite her immolation by the press which included reports of her elusiveness, she was happy to grant my request for an interview. Given her recent experiences and her own party’s reputation for spin, it was unexpected to arrive at Portcullis House to be greeted by just Ann and her PA rather than a team of ‘The Thick of It’ style press officers.
When I express my surprise, Ann explains, “As a Member of Parliament I never had a need for an experienced press office because in the main the news that you want to give to your constituents is about where you’ve been that week.
“Those days of course don’t exist now. There has been a total change in the role of how the local MP is presented. People want to hear about you in many different ways so when you have a situation that has become like this has for me,” she pauses to find the right words. “The people who work with me work on constituency case work and would have the experience to manage normal press releases but this isn’t normal.”
Surely there’s a spin-doctor somewhere in the Party ranks that could be called upon?
“As an MP you operate your office independently, like your own small business so the responsibility of everything is yours. If you worked for a large business, which Parliament is, you would assume that there would be some protection. It is very very difficult to ascertain any duty of care, who would support me? I have to support myself. Of course you can start employing people to look after you in a particular way, and there are MPs that do that.”
Is that why your husband Alan was quoted in the papers defending you?
“That was because he was asked! Alan was asked by the journalist himself.”
So no-one has approached you for comment?
“They may have approached my office. It is certainly not a case of my ‘husband is defending me’, I’m sure he was talking about himself at the same time. You don’t make it to Parliamentary Secretary of State for Health Services with your husband defending your honour. I was selected for this seat in 1985 for the 1987 election. I stood in 1987 and I stood in 1992 and I won in 1997, I can assure you that I can stick up for myself.
“I was the first nurse ever to be a candidate in the country but I am only of interest to people who want to portray me in a light that people who know me don’t recognise. Very intimidating, very bullying and I have had that most of my elected time. Alan gets none of it. It’s not about oh poor woman, it just happens to be fact.
“At this moment we are just gaining back our private life at our home but we have issued through the Press Association many statements on the situation and have tried to answer questions when they have been put, but they haven’t always been put.
“You have to remember that the BBC and ITV news have filmed inside my house, they didn’t even tell me they were going there so what can I do about that? How do I deal with that? I am watching the news and I am watching the inside of my house.”
Hounslow Council wrote the Keens stating that they would consider taking over the property if the couple could not explain its continued lack of use. Their response was that they had been let down by their builders.
“We decided to start renovations because we have three children and five grandchildren [the fifth was born just a few weeks ago] and we wanted them all to be able to stay with us, at Christmas in particular. It’s a two bedroom end of terrace house which most of the time for us has always been fine but now it isn’t especially if we wanted people to stay. So we thought we’d bite the bullet and have a loft extension.”
Work was halted after the Keens became aware of the level of bad workmanship that had been carried out. The builder subsequently went into liquidation. They have now appointed a second builder who was due to start work on the Monday but the squatters got there first.
“That front door was knocked on so many times when I was nursing and we helped people in the community. This isn’t anything to do with anything else, that is our home and that is why this investigation will be a very serious investigation.”
Ann is referring to the ‘leaking’ of a letter dated 15th June sent by Hounslow Council which Alan Keen’s office received on 22nd June a number of days after the contents appeared in Hounslow Chronicle. The letter, which she shows me, asks the couple to give evidence that the Brook Road South property was not unoccupied. Another letter shows that the Keens have been in contact with Hounslow’s Chief Executives.
“We have now asked for investigations to take place at the highest level of the Council.”
Talk of the house led us inevitably onto the squatters and in particular an image of one of them playing the piano in the basement of the Brook Road South house.
“That was exceptionally hurtful because I bought the piano for Alan for his birthday. I was nursing at West Middlesex Hospital at the time and there was a piano shop in Chiswick. It’s no longer a piano shop now but it was in one of the side streets. I went in one day and put a deposit on it and then over a period of a few months paid for the piano and it was delivered as a surprise. The whole family have been hurt by this; the children have been very hurt by this.
“Again, courtesy of ITV news, the squatters said they were going to have a leaving party, a bit of a rave which they did have and they did more damage. I am also aware of allegations that a woman was sexually assaulted. That’s tells you an awful lot about the responsibility of the media”.
The squatters left with Police escort following the assault allegations on Saturday 11th July leaving personal belongings behind them.
“On Sunday the police asked me could they have them back. It was a Dell laptop computer, sound systems, I-Phone chargers and benefit forms. Poor little rich kids eh? What went on there is totally unacceptable.”
Surely when you put yourself into the public arena you must accept the rough with smooth?
“I was brought up in a family with my dad as a steel worker and my parents were in the Labour party. The house was always a committee room and on Election Day from when I was little I would be running backwards and forward with the numbers. My first big negotiation with my father was over the fact that he would agree to let me have posters of the Beatles or The Rolling Stones up in my bedroom provided that for a period of a few weeks I’d have a poster of Harold Wilson in my bedroom window. I was absolutely unbelievably embarrassed! I’ve always been part of it and I’ve enjoyed it.
“As an MP you are a target I suppose. I never set out to be an MP I qualified as a nurse in 1976 and was a nurse tutor at West Mid Hospital when I was asked by a newspaper editor at the time, a woman called Margaret Lyons. And now I’m a Minister and I’m proud of that. If I was director of nursing anywhere now, I would now be earning more than I do as a Minister. So how ridiculous is this situation that I went in it for the money? No I did not. And that’s why most MPs especially in opposition parties have made their money before they come into politics because being an MP doesn’t make you any money.”
Ann begins to talk about expenses before I have the chance to ask.
“My terms and conditions of employment in 1997 were that I could claim to live close by to Parliament and I can see why because for the first five years you went through the night, certainly until 3, 4, 5 in the morning so often I didn’t see it as anything odd to be allowed to have somewhere close to where I worked.
“I can see and I can understand people’s anger and frustration now but I really genuinely did not think that that was odd. But if your employer is offering an option that you don’t have to do that and you haven’t got children at a local school why would you assume that what you are doing is going to get people into such an angry state? Because there is no indication at that time that that would be the case.
Like Alan said, you couldn’t do your job and commute?
“The truth is that I don’t know exactly what he said, I wasn’t there. But most people don’t do 7.00am until midnight everyday and then on the Saturday and Sunday go and do constituency work. But if you were to try to explain this to a live audience you would be shouted down because everyone would say ‘but we work hard too, we work long hours too’. Absolutely right, which is why I sat up all night on the Minimum Wage Committee.”
I ask about the recent of series of articles published in the Daily Telegraph, ironically instigated by one of her constituents Henry Gewanter.
“The printed version of the unredacted papers which the Daily Telegraph received had names, national insurance numbers, bank details, sort codes, signatures, dates of birth – they got all of that. There are people that have your full identity right down to your national insurance number because all of that has to go on expense claims.
"That I think should have been investigated.”
She explains in detail about how the unredacted – not blacked out - papers that the Telegraph was given contained detailed personal information of not only her but of interns and office staff. Details she believes would have irrevocably disproven a number of subsequent stories including one that about her claiming for consultations in a private hospital.
Even if the full facts had been available, she believes that experience has shown it wouldn't have stopped certain newspapers - including The Daily Mail which she calls "the greatest source of evil in the country" - printing allegations.
July 19, 2009