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Research carried out by OpenDemocracy show that current Conservative Cabinet members Michael Gove, Sajid Javid, Andrea Leadsom, Penny Mordaunt and David Gauke have each billed the taxpayer for between £1,950 and £2,000 on their parliamentary expenses to pay ‘subscription’ fees to the European Research Group (ERG).
The ERG are a group created to lobby the government on implementing a hard Brexit, and are described by Open Democracy as ‘a ruthlessly organised faction within the Conservative party, funded by a mix of taxpayer cash and dark money’. The secretive group are currently headed up by Jacob Rees-Mogg and have reportedly spent 25 years pushing to transform Britain into an offshore tax haven.
The numerous expenses claims made by serving Tory Cabinet Ministers appear to contravene Parliamentary rules which strictly prohibit serving Ministers from being ‘associated with non-public organisations whose objectives may in any degree conflict with government policy’.
Furthermore, as OpenDemocracy reported in September, the funding of the ERG has now come under severe scrutiny as IPSA rules also prohibit MPs from claiming taxpayer’s money for research or work ”done for, or on behalf of a political party.”
Despite being funded through huge sums of taxpayer’s money, the ERG have consistently refused to publish a list of its members, and are said to operate through an encrypted Whatsapp group in order to avoid scrutiny under Freedom of Information laws.
The current ERG chair, Suella Fernandes, told Channel Four News last year that despite being funded by hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayer’s money, the secretive group should not be forced to release any details of what it actually does or how it operates.
And now a number of opposition MPs have demanded transparency, calling on parliamentary authorities to ‘urgently investigate’ the matter.
Labour MP and former Foreign Office Minister Chris Bryant called the situation a ‘clear conflict of interest’, and the Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas describing the revelations as ‘deeply concerning’.
SNP MP Deidre Brock was also scathing of the government, telling OpenDemocracy that:
If Theresa May had control of her government we would be expecting these ministers to be sacked… but it’s clear from her failed reshuffle that she has no control. Her ministers are off attending dodgy parties in London hotels and, it’s now clear, paying public money to a private lobbying organisation that’s trying to change the direction of the government they’re part of.
The Prime Minister won’t act so the parliamentary authorities should. This is a disgraceful misuse of public money and IPSA should be calling them in on it, the rules have to change to stop this happening in the future and these MPs should be paying the money back
However, the government insisted that the payments did not in fact breach Parliamentary rules and that serving Cabinet Ministers were free to be members of the group, with a spokesperson telling OpenDemocracy that:
This is a party political research group which provides briefings to Conservative MPs relating to the UK’s relationship with the European Union. Such research groups are perfectly normal practice amongst political parties and we do not consider this a ministerial code issue.
The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority has found that this spending is entirely within the rules. The research group provides briefing material for parliamentarians, and it is in the public interest for MPs, including ministers, to be able to receive briefing material from a wide range of organisations.
But Labour MP Ben Bradshaw disagreed, arguing that Theresa May – who was forced to make a dodgy deal with the DUP after disastrously losing her majority in the summer – was effectively being held to ransom by the group, telling OpenDemocracy that:
Under a functioning government, anyone who had allegedly broken the ministerial code could expect – at best – a difficult conversation with the prime minister. The fact that this almost certainly won’t happen shows quite how much Theresa May is in hock to the radical right of her party.
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