Cox denies breaking rules on Commons office useon November 10, 2021 at 12:47 pm
The Tory MP is coming under fire for apparently carrying out extra paid work on parliamentary premises.
Conservative MP Sir Geoffrey Cox has said he did not break parliamentary rules by carrying out paid legal work in his House of Commons office.
The ex-attorney general, who has made almost £900,000 in the last year as a barrister, apparently took part in a virtual meeting there on 14 September.
MPs cannot use public resources, including parliamentary offices, for “personal or financial benefit”.
Sir Geoffrey said it was up to voters to decide whether he remains an MP.
Labour has referred his case for investigation by the independent Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.
Last month, Conservative MP Owen Paterson was found to have broken rules by lobbying the government on behalf of companies who were paying him – and for using his Commons office for business meetings, which is prohibited.
His case has raised questions about the extra work some MPs do on top of their parliamentary jobs.
MPs are allowed to do extra jobs – for example, as doctors or lawyers, or writing books or giving speeches – but they must declare their additional income along with gifts and donations.
Sir Geoffrey, 61, the MP for Torridge and West Devon since 2005, has continued to practise as a barrister.
His work includes advising the British Virgin Islands government inquiry into alleged corruption.
Video footage from September is available online of Sir Geoffrey participating in a virtual hearing for the inquiry from what appears to be his Commons office.
At one point he gets up from his chair, returning to it around half an hour later. His absence occurred at about the same time as MPs, including Sir Geoffrey, were voting on the government’s health and social care funding reforms.
At a later point, he excuses himself for the rest of the hearing, saying: “Would you forgive me for not being present this afternoon? I’m afraid I have compelling other commitments…
“Forgive my absence during some of the morning. I’m afraid the bell went off.”
This appears to be a reference to the division bell, which rings when MPs are summoned to the Commons to vote.
A statement on behalf of Sir Geoffrey, posted on his website, says: “He does not believe that he breached the rules but will of course accept the judgement of the Parliamentary Commissioner or of the Committee [on Public Standards] on the matter.”
“Sir Geoffrey regularly works 70-hour weeks and always ensures that his casework on behalf of his constituents is given primary importance and fully carried out,” the statement also says.
And it adds: “Sir Geoffrey’s view is that it is up to the electors of Torridge and West Devon whether or not they vote for someone who is a senior and distinguished professional in his field and who still practises that profession.
“That has been the consistent view of the local Conservative Association and although at every election his political opponents have sought to make a prominent issue of his professional practice, it has so far been the consistent view of the voters of Torridge and West Devon. Sir Geoffrey is very content to abide by their decision.”
Sir Geoffrey is also under fire for voting from the British Virgin Islands, while working there during the period when MPs were permitted to vote by proxy, or remotely, because of the pandemic.
In his statement, he says he consulted the Conservative chief whip “specifically on this issue and was advised that it was appropriate”.
Torridge and West Devon Conservative Association chairman John Gray said: “Geoffrey Cox is a superb constituency MP.
“He combines a strong ethos of public service with an astonishing work ethic and valuable legal expertise.”
Sir Geoffrey’s lengthy statement is a clear attempt to offer a thorough defence of his actions.
He makes the point that he’s never sought to hide his highly paid work as a barrister and that voters in his constituency have so far not seen it as a problem.
Local Tories talk in glowing terms about the “astonishing work ethic” of their “superb” MP.
But Labour won’t let this go and have zeroed in on Sir Geoffrey’s reported use of his office while undertaking additional paid work.
On that he seems to believe he’s done nothing wrong.
Interestingly, he draws into this drama a couple of government figures whose approval he sought along the way.
The Conservative chief whip Mark Spencer, who Sir Geoffrey says he consulted about voting by proxy while abroad and was told it was “appropriate”.
And the Attorney General Suella Braverman whose office advised there was no conflict of interest around his work in the British Virgin Islands.
The code of conduct prohibits:
- Paid lobbying (attempts to alter policy) of government or other public bodies
- The use of “public resources”, including parliamentary premises, for work not carried out as an MP or minister
MPs must also declare:
- Any “relevant” outside interests when speaking in debates or taking part in other parliamentary activities
- Individual payments of more than £100 from an outside source
- Gifts totalling £300 or more from a single source in the course of a year
Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner said: “A Conservative MP using a taxpayer funded office in Parliament to work for a tax haven facing allegations of corruption is a slap in the face and an insult to British taxpayers.
“The prime minister needs to explain why he has an MP in his parliamentary party that treats Parliament like a co-working space allowing him to get on with all of his other jobs instead of representing his constituents.”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has himself earned more than £100,000 from legal work since he became an MP in 2015, performing some legal work while he was a shadow cabinet member. He stopped in 2019 when he stood to be party leader.
Asked about MPs working outside Parliament, Sir Keir said Labour wanted consultancies and partnerships ruled out, but that some types of employment, such as doctors working in hospitals, should be allowed.
He said the independent Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards should be the person to decide which jobs were allowed, saying: “I think there has to be a bit of common sense on this, which side of the line cases fall.”
For the government, Health Secretary Sajid Javid told BBC Breakfast: “For any MP, if they do have external interests, they should of course be open and transparent about that. They should be following all the rules all the time, including no lobbying.”
“If you have an external interest, I can’t see why you would be using anything that is funded by the taxpayer… I think that would include your office space,” he added.