Dark Money Investigations: News

Revealed: MPs claim £1m on expenses for private spin doctors

PR firms are raking in taxpayer cash, as Westminster regulator admits it doesn’t check if rules are followed

Martin Williams Andrew Kersley
26 February 2023, 10.00pm

140 MPs used taxpayers’ cash to outsource PR work.


Olavs silis / Craig McAteer / Alamy Stock Photo. Composite by openDemocracy

MPs have claimed more than £1m on expenses for private spin doctors and PR agencies, openDemocracy can reveal.

Lucrative contracts have been swept up by a band of little-known media firms in Westminster, some making almost all of their income from MPs’ expenses.

They include companies that enjoy close personal ties to MPs themselves, with lax rules allowing contracts to be awarded without competitive tender.

In the past three years, at least 140 MPs have used taxpayers’ money to outsource media and communications work to private firms, totalling £1.1m. This comes on top of the budget available to every MP to employ their own official advisers, which starts at £222,000 a year.

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Rules state that expenses can only be used for “parliamentary functions” and taxpayer cash must not be used to help MPs win elections. But we found evidence that expenses claims are not being checked thoroughly – and that regulators are not even clear about what is permitted.

It leaves open the possibility that expenses could be improperly used to help promote sitting MPs in the next election. Several MPs who have billed taxpayers for private media services have gone on to post social media content promoting Conservative Party policies and supporting Rishi Sunak’s leadership campaign.

One PR firm that has received thousands of pounds in public money boasts that it can boost MPs’ “incumbency”. Another says it helps politicians with “fighting local and national campaigns”.

‘Personal brand’

One of the biggest agencies, Millbank Creative, charges up to £1,250 a month to enhance the “personal brand” of MPs – and says that payments can be “taken automatically” from MPs’ expenses.

The company was set up during the pandemic while its founder, Stuart Graham, was moonlighting as an adviser for a Conservative MP – although it was not listed in his parliamentary register of interests.

Graham and recently departed account director James Clark have a long-standing relationship with the Conservative Party: Graham is a serving Tory councillor in west London, while Clark previously worked for the party’s HQ and had two failed bids to become an MP.

Records show that at least £81,000 of fees to Millbank Creative were put on expenses by Conservative MPs in the three years up to July 2022.

But the true amount could be far higher, as some politicians don’t provide company names in their spending returns. Instead, the details of many claims are hidden in receipts and invoices that are not routinely published by the parliamentary regulator and are only available individually under the Freedom of Information Act.

It is important to remember (particularly if you are a new MP), you also need to be building your personal brand

Millbank Creative’s website

Millbank’s website suggests that other clients have included the foreign secretary, James Cleverly, while tech minister Paul Scully was the guest speaker at its Christmas party.

Explaining why MPs should use Millbank Creative, its website says: “It is important to remember (particularly if you are a new MP), you also need to be building your personal brand”, and that the agency will help MPs to build “personal name recognition and, as a result, incumbency”.

Expenses have also been used to pay a Cardiff-based communications firm called Cathod Du.

Founded by a former Labour adviser, Luke Holland, it has maintained a cosy relationship with figures in the party. Records show that at least eight Labour MPs have used expenses to pay the company over the last three years, to the tune of more than £149,000.

Cathod Du’s biggest clients include Christina Rees and Shabana Mahmood, who have together paid the firm more than £110,000 using their expenses. Both MPs are personally close to Holland, having previously employed him as an adviser. Rees even used a parliamentary speech to congratulate Holland on the birth of his daughter.

But none of the Labour MPs who have used Cathod Du – whose name is Welsh for ‘black cats’ – appears in a list of clients on the company’s website. And neither Rees or Mahmood responded to questions about their expenses.

Under the expenses system, MPs are banned from paying money to a “connected party”, such as family or businesses owned by the MP. But there is nothing to stop them from channelling money into firms run by close friends, political allies or donors.

A spokesperson for Cathod Du said: “If IPSA rules or guidance were to change in any way, we would work to those with the same diligence that we work to current arrangements.

“No work provided to elected members via IPSA payment is ever outside the parameters set down by IPSA themselves. General election campaigning work would clearly fall outside of these parameters. There has never been any IPSA payment for such work.”

The spokesperson added: “The support our team provides covers a wide range of areas and platforms, from subtitled clips of speeches and parliamentary questions through to news releases and articles; graphics and social media for advice surgeries and community events through to Christmas card competitions and campaigns on local issues and awareness days.”

Another PR agency, ByAndLarge Ltd, helps politicians in “fighting local and national campaigns”. It was set up by Daniel Large, a former staffer in Conservative Party HQ who now works as a political adviser to MP Edward Timpson.

In the last three years, ByAndLarge Ltd has been paid at least £44,684 to help with communications for at least two Conservative politicians, Robert Largan and Katherine Fletcher. Largan has known Large since at least 2010, when the pair ran in local council elections together in west London.

A spokesperson for Largan said that spending was compliant with the rules and had been approved by the regulator. Daniel Large could not be reached for comment.

‘Parliamentary purposes’

The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA), which regulates expenses, says that MPs “may only claim for expenditure for parliamentary purposes”. It says using the money to support a political party is banned.

A spokesperson said: “MPs are permitted to claim for professional and consultancy services… However this is only allowed where such services are for parliamentary purposes, which is checked at the time of the claim being paid.”

But records obtained by openDemocracy suggest that only limited checks are made.

Using the Freedom of Information Act, we asked to see copies of the evidence submitted by MPs to prove their claims were legitimate. In almost every case, the only documents provided were standard invoices that contained no detail about the content of videos and social media posts created by the PR agencies.

When questioned by openDemocracy, IPSA admitted it only requires invoices from suppliers – and does not look at the outputs from them. This means it would be impossible to tell if the content created by PR firms, such as videos and social media posts, is for parliamentary purposes, or for a party political campaign.

The watchdog said it took a “targeted and risk-based” approach because the majority of claims “do not require excessive amounts of inspection”.

Without clear guidelines, it is impossible to independently verify which media content from MPs has been funded by expenses

But IPSA’s regulation is also obstructed by an even more fundamental flaw: there is no agreed definition of what “parliamentary purposes” actually means. Instead, the rules only specify things that the watchdog does not consider to be parliamentary, adding that politicians should have “discretion to carry out their roles in the way they see fit”.

A spokesperson said: “It is not feasible to do this with every social media post as the resource required would be disproportionate, but we will look carefully at any complaints and could refer the matter to IPSA’s compliance officer if there was a serious concern.”

Without clear guidelines, it is impossible to independently verify which media content from MPs – including videos, blogs, tweets and Instagram posts – has been funded by expenses.

For instance, records show that Conservative MP Jo Gideon used her expenses to sign up to Millbank Creative’s “communications support package”, which includes graphic design and social media support. But it is not clear what content was produced by the firm.

Both Millbank and Gideon insist that the contract was only used for parliamentary activities – and not for party political purposes.

During last year’s Conservative Party leadership campaign, the MP posted two graphics that appear to resemble elements of Millbank’s house style, with a white signature over a dark background and a block of text featuring Gideon’s full job title underneath. The first supported Tom Tugendhat's campaign, while a later graphic supported Rishi Sunak.

A spokesperson for Gideon said they were not produced by Millbank Creative “or via any other company using IPSA expenses”, but did not say where they came from. Without a paper trail, it is impossible to find this out independently.

Similarly, Tory MPs Chris Clarkson and Darren Henry also posted the same style of graphics on social media to promote nationwide Tory policies. Both MPs have paid at least £23,000 in expenses to Millbank Creative over the last three years.

And backbencher Jacob Young – who has also been a Millbank client – posted a video of himself giving a speech in which he praised Boris Johnson for delivering Brexit. The video contained the same trademark sign-off style seen on Millbank Creative’s website. Young did not respond to openDemocracy’s questions.

There is no suggestion that Millbank Creative or any of the MPs have broken rules. But IPSA’s failure to scrutinise claims means there is no paper trail behind these posts, and no explanation of where they fit within the regulation.

Jo Gideon told us she had not broken any rules, adding: “IPSA requires sight and sign-off of all promoted social media content, and all mass printed/mailed literature.” But records seen by openDemocracy show that Gideon claimed expenses for Millbank Creative without submitting any content to IPSA.

A day after we contacted the company, Millbank Creative took its website down for a “makeover”. A spokesperson told openDemocracy: “We have stringent approval procedures in place meaning we will never produce or publish any content for MPs which can be deemed to be party political under agreements made through Members’ IPSA budgets. This includes graphics and any other content we may be asked to produce.”

They added: “Our team are kept fully abreast of the IPSA rules at all times. Our service is strictly designed to assist MPs with Parliamentary communications and ensures best value for money for the taxpayer when compared to hiring a dedicated staff member.”

Darren Henry confirmed that he had used Millbank Creative to “share information with constituents” and “mark days of national importance”, but said he had ended his contract last year. Meanwhile, Clarkson and Young did not respond to a request for comment.

The use of communications firms in Westminster has exploded in recent years. Some MPs have even outsourced their speechwriting, with a range of private PR firms offering to draft contributions to important parliamentary debates.

Among them are the shadow business minister Seema Malhotra, who hired a private contractor to “support with research and speech writing for parliamentary bills”.

The Labour Party launched an attack earlier this month on what it termed a “scandalous catalogue of waste” from government expenses claims.

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