Dark Money Investigations: News

Revealed: MPs’ staff bankrolled by climate sceptics and gambling industry

Exclusive: Campaigner warns of ‘conflict of interest’ over donors who gave £1m to fund MPs’ staff and offices

Andrew Kersley
23 January 2023, 11.00pm

Labour’s shadow health secretary, Wes Streeting, and shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, have both accepted donations from figures linked to the gambling industry

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PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Private donors including gambling firms and climate sceptics are bankrolling MPs’ staff and offices, handing over more than £1m in just one year, openDemocracy can reveal.

Other donors include banks, property firms and evangelical Christians, leading anti-corruption campaigners to warn of “major conflicts of interest” in “giving certain interest groups privileged access to influential MPs”.

The wages of staff employed by MPs are normally paid via the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA), which regulates expenses and business costs. But private companies and wealthy individuals can fund additional staff, helping MPs to expand their teams and build their public profile.

In total, 24 MPs declared receiving private donations for additional staffing and office costs in the year to November 2022, according to the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

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The true value of privately funded political advisers is likely to be far higher because MPs are not required to specify if their donations are used for these purposes – meaning those who did declare did so voluntarily.

Almost half of the £1m spent by private donors on MPs’ staffing and ‘office costs’ went to just four Labour frontbenchers

The figures also do not include money from charities or trade unions, or pro bono legal work offered as donations by law firms.

Almost half of the £1m spent by private donors on MPs’ staffing and ‘office costs’ in the year from November 2021 went to just four Labour frontbenchers: Rachel Reeves, Yvette Cooper, David Lammy and Wes Streeting. Together, they received a total of £475,000.

Reeves alone accepted nearly £248,000, far more than any other MP. Her donors include Neil Goulden, the former chairman of gambling giant Gamesys, who gave £20,000 to “support the shadow chancellor’s office”.

Gambling industry donors are a repeat fixture for Labour. The shadow health secretary, Wes Streeting, took £5,000 from Red Capital Ltd, which is owned by former lobbyist and Labour peer Jon Mendelsohn, who is chair of gambling giant 888 Holdings, the company behind William Hill.

In total, Streeting received more than £95,000 of private funding for extra staff. This included money from a mysterious company called MPM Connect. Reports recently claimed that MPM Connect has no staff, no website and is registered at an office where the secretary has never heard of it.

Streeting is one of three Labour MPs who have faced calls to return the “dark money donations” from MPM Connect, along with Dan Jarvis and Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary.

Streeting also took donations from a campaign group called Labour for the Long Term, whose connections to the controversial Effective Altruism movement faced questions last month.

Cooper and shadow foreign secretary David Lammy received £71,000 and £62,000 respectively, but the identity of some of their donors is unclear. Some individuals donated under their own name but with no other identifying information, making it impossible to be sure who they are if they have common names.

Labour has faced increasing strains on its finances. An exodus of nearly 100,000 members in 2021 caused the party’s annual deficit to grow to £4.8m in 2021, forcing it to make almost a quarter of its staff redundant.

‘Privileged access’

Records show that five MPs have staff whose salaries are paid by PR firms that have represented and lobbied for the likes of Amazon and outsourcing giant Serco.

In one case, communications business Weber Shandwick paid for a member of staff to be seconded to work for former shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds, at a cost of £55,800 for just over half a year. Weber Shandwick has lobbied for companies such as British Gas, KPMG and Rupert Murdoch’s News UK, as well as having reportedly worked for the Egyptian government’s state intelligence services, which are infamous for their use of torture to suppress dissent.

Labour MP Bridget Phillipson has taken £15,000 from a former Labour minister, Jim Murphy, whose PR firm Arden Strategies promises to help its corporate clients to “understand” Labour and get the party to “understand” them.

Nine other MPs also had staff costs paid by developers or those connected to the property industry. They include Labour’s Rosena Allin-Khan, who received £26,000 from private donors such as development firm Henley Homes. The company was criticised in 2019 when it reportedly tried to “segregate” the playground at a housing development in south London by blocking poorer children in socially rented accommodation from playing in it.

Allin-Khan’s colleague, Jonathan Reynolds, had a parliamentary assistant on secondment from NatWest at a cost of more than £15,000. NatWest has accrued at least £703m in fines since 2010, for offences ranging from foreign exchange market manipulation to failing to stop money laundering – making it the UK’s third most fined firm, according to the Violation Tracker website.

Meanwhile, several Tory MPs received staff and office funding from wealthy donors who have previously expressed scepticism about the science of climate change.

In one case, backbencher Steve Baker took £5,000 from Neil Record, the chairman of climate science-denying group Net Zero Watch. Record is also chair of the Institute of Economic Affairs, the BP-funded think tank that was behind many of Liz Truss’s doomed economic policies.

Susan Hawley, executive director of campaign group Spotlight on Corruption, told openDemocracy: “MPs need fully impartial advice to properly advance their constituents’ interests and maintain their trust. Channelling donations through the subsidy of advisers’ salaries risks giving certain interest groups privileged access to influential MPs and could result in major conflicts of interest”. 

She added: “The public needs to be assured that these advisers are acting in their best interests – not the interests of the donor signing their paycheques.”

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