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Pro-Israel lobby group is biggest donor of free overseas trips to MPs

Exclusive: Conservative Friends of Israel funded 155 trips in a decade, more than any other group or government

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Jenna Corderoy Martin Williams
12 December 2022, 1.00pm

Tory peer Eric Pickles on a trip to Israel for UK parliamentarians funded by the Conservative Friends of Israel, July 2022

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CFI

A pro-Israel Tory lobby group has taken British MPs on 155 free trips over the last ten years, in an unprecedented charm offensive to promote the country in Westminster.

An investigation by openDemocracy has revealed that the Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI) paid for MPs to go on more overseas trips than any other donor. Records show the group fully or partially funded trips with an overall value of £367,000 since 2012.

It is part of a £8m splurge from a range of donors to fly MPs abroad, often including wining and dining with foreign diplomats and dignitaries. Overall, 713 current or former MPs have accepted more than 3,100 all-expenses-paid trips.

As the most frequent donor, CFI has paid for dozens of MPs to visit Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). The group exists “to ensure that Israel’s case is fairly represented in Parliament” and has previously been described as “the most well-connected and probably the best funded of all Westminster lobbying groups”.

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In 2017, the CFI’s honorary president Lord Polak personally arranged a dozen meetings for Priti Patel when she was the government’s international development secretary – including one with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It later emerged that Patel had failed to inform the prime minister about the trips, and was she forced to step down.

This year alone, CFI paid for three delegations of MPs to visit Israel, with 24 Conservative MPs declaring the visits in the registers of interests. According to its website, the delegations are an “integral part of CFI’s work” and aim to let Conservative MPs “see the facts on the ground in the region”.

Labour’s equivalent group, the Labour Friends of Israel, has funded 62 trips to Israel for MPs in the last decade, either in whole or in part.

Amnesty International has called Israel an apartheid regime for its continued oppression of Palestinian people, including “massive and cruel” seizures of their homes and land, and the building of illegal settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. This year is on course to be the bloodiest in the West Bank since the United Nations started keeping records in 2005, with at least 132 Palestinians killed by Israeli forces, while Israeli police received international condemnation earlier this year for attacking the funeral procession of a Palestinian journalist thought to have been killed by Israeli fire.

A spokesperson for the Conservative Friends of Israel told openDemocracy: “CFI is a not-for-profit organisation that relies upon the generosity of its supporters. The organisation receives no funding from the state of Israel.”

Foreign governments

Analysis by openDemocracy reveals that more than a quarter of all MPs’ trips abroad were paid for – in full or in part – by foreign governments, including many with terrible human rights records.

They include the government of Qatar, which spent almost £440,000 flying MPs out to the repressive Gulf state in the decade leading up to the World Cup.

Over the last ten years, MPs have made at least 78 trips to Qatar that were funded by the country’s Foreign Ministry or its embassy in London.

Qatar has faced criticism for its poor human rights record. Homosexuality is illegal and LGBT+ people are arbitrarily arrested and detained. Last year, the Guardian also revealed that 6,500 migrant workers from Asia had died in Qatar since it won the bid to host the World Cup.

Labour MP Chris Bryant, who travelled to Qatar last year as part of a delegation, admitted during a parliamentary debate on foreign lobbying: “I wish I had not gone on that trip.”

He added: “Some countries forbid members of their legislative body from taking any form of hospitality of any kind, let alone several thousand pounds-worth of trips abroad, from a foreign state. We should consider that.”

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has also funded British MPs on 63 trips during the same period, at a total value of £251,000. This is despite the country being accused by Amnesty International of “serious human rights violations”, including “arbitrary detention, cruel and inhuman treatment of detainees, suppression of freedom of expression, and violation of the right to privacy”.

MPs also took 60 trips that were fully or partially funded by branches of the Israeli government, including the country’s embassy in the UK.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s government has helped fund 62 trips taken by MPs that were worth a total of £393,000.

And the Bahraini government has funded 57 trips at a total of just over £195,000.

Overall, however, Gibraltar funded a higher number of MPs’ trips than any other foreign government, bankrolling at least 121 visits since 2012.

All-Party Parliamentary Groups

Rules allow MPs to go on all-expenses-paid trips funded by practically any donor – including private companies, individuals, lobby groups and foreign governments.

They often travel as part of a delegation organised by informal interest groups called All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs), which have been described as a “back door for lobbyists”.

Earlier this year, openDemocracy revealed that APPGs took more than half their funding from the private sector, including health and tobacco firms and big tech.

Records show that out of more than 3,000 overseas trips taken by MPs since 2012, at least 658 were arranged in relation to APPGs.

These include a visit to the Maldives in 2016, which sparked controversy when attendees subsequently spoke positively about the Maldivian government, at a time when the country was being heavily criticised for its poor human rights record.

Tory backbencher Bob Blackman, who is the chair of the APPG on Azerbaijan, has been flown out to the country six times over the last ten years by a number of donors, including the Azerbaijani embassy.

Earlier this year, openDemocracy revealed that Blackman had boasted about being “fed” propaganda by the embassy and used it to lobby the UK government. He said: “On a regular basis I put down positions on behalf of our good friends in Azerbaijan.”

Blackman is one of the top beneficiaries of overseas trips – and is one of just ten MPs who are together responsible for accepting almost 10% of all such donations over the last decade.The former Conservative minister Liam Fox went on the most trips, having declared 42 visits to countries including the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Azerbaijan, with a total value of £132,147.21. Some of his USA trips were funded by the conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation.

Second was Conservative backbencher David Morris, who declared 38 trips, including to Egypt and Azerbaijan. Third was Mark Pritchard, who declared 34 trips, including to Armenia, Qatar and Israel.

Out of the ten MPs who declared the most trips, eight were Conservative.

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