A Conservative MP is set to be paid £125 an hour by a timber company that he lobbied government ministers and Britain’s high commissioner in Ghana to help, sparking calls from transparency campaigners for an investigation.
Andrew Bridgen, a leading member of the European Research Group of pro-Brexit MPs, is to receive £12,000 a year for working just eight hours a month for Mere Plantations, a company that owns a reported £500million worth of teak forest in Ghana.
The MP has been declared as a director of the company since May, according to Parliament’s Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
Mere Plantations also donated to Bridgen’s 2019 general election campaign and paid for the MP to visit its Ghanaian teak plantation after he arranged a meeting for the company with a government minister. Bridgen later arranged a meeting for Mere Plantations to lobby a minister for “more appropriate UK tax treatment” for those investing in teak.
The House of Commons has strict rules on MPs lobbying for businesses that they are either paid by or could “expect to be” paid by in the future.
Transparency International said that an investigation into Bridgen should be “a matter of priority”. Opposition MPs criticised the arrangement.
Bridgen has been declared as director of Mere Plantations for more than six months on the parliamentary register, but has not been listed on the firm’s entry at Companies House. The Conservative MP said that he had been erroneously registered as a director rather than as an adviser.
“I have spoken to my staff. I am not a director of that company. I have told them to get it corrected,” Bridgen told openDemocracy.
Parliament’s code of conduct states that MPs are responsible for registering their own financial interests, “including when breaches may have been caused by the actions of a member of staff". Bridgen has added to his entry at least twice since he was registered as a director of Mere Plantations.
When there is clear evidence of a parliamentarian failing to comply with the ban on paid advocacy the Commissioner for Standards should be able to investigate as a matter of priority.
Bridgen said that he had broken no rules and that he had not yet received any money from Mere Plantations. “I haven’t put any bills in. They have not paid me anything,” he said. “I have been very busy doing other stuff, I have not had time to do anything.”
openDemocracy has also learned that its Freedom of Information requests about a meeting between Bridgen, Mere Plantations and a minister at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in May 2019 were forwarded to Cabinet Office’s controversial Clearing House. The secretive unit provided advice as to how the Department for International Development (DfID) and the FCO should respond.
UK tax treatment
Mere Plantations owns vast teak plantations in Ghana valued, as of last year, at almost £500 million. The British company’s owner, Mark Hogg, has said that he sees the African wood as an important sustainable resource: “With a rapidly expanding global population, the global demand for timber is unlikely to reduce,” he said earlier this year. “The only way to accommodate everyone is to simply grow more.”
Tree planting schemes have been cited in tax avoidance cases in the past. In July 2019, the Times reported that, following a complaint from Mere Plantations, the pensions regulator took down a critical judgment from its website details that alleged that unscrupulous middlemen had persuaded savers to invest money into Mere Plantations as part of a £14 million pension scam. There were no allegations of wrongdoing against Mere Plantations.
Bridgen said that he had first been alerted to Mere Plantations by a constituent who was concerned that the company was being unfairly treated by tax authorities. “You mention planting trees in Africa and people say automatically ‘that sounds like a scam, planting trees in Africa’,” Bridgen said. “[But] It’s a UK company registered in the UK paying tax in the UK.”
I went and had a meeting at our High Commission in Accra and asked why I had to fly out there and sort out something that the business attaché should sort out.
In March 2019, Bridgen requested a meeting with Harriett Baldwin MP, previously the Minister of State for Africa at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Two months later, Baldwin met with Bridgen, a number of board members of Mere Plantations, and the director of a company based in Bridgen’s constituency, the Curious Guys, which describes itself as a “tax planning” service whose interests include teak.
The group was invited to present their work on the teak plantation in Ghana, according to a blog post on the Curious Guys’ website. openDemocracy's Freedom of Information requests to DfID about the meeting with Baldwin were passed to the Cabinet Office’s controversial Clearing House.
Very good trees
In August 2019, Mere Plantations paid £3,300 for Bridgen to travel to Ghana to visit the teak plantations. “They flew me out to show me the trees. I saw 10,000 acres of very good trees,” Bridgen said.
“I went and had a meeting at our High Commission in Accra and asked why I had to fly out there and sort out something that the business attaché should sort out,” he added. The trip to Ghana was apparently endorsed by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Trade.
Mere Plantations participated in a roundtable convened by Andrea Leadsom to “discuss EU Exit” in October 2019, according to transparency logs. The following month, Bridgen’s North West Leicestershire Conservative Party accepted a £5,000 donation from the timber company.
In January 2020 according to documents released under the Freedom of Information Act, Bridgen wrote to then international development secretary Alok Sharma, saying “Further to our discussion, could we arrange a meeting with Mark Hogg of Mere Plantations at your earliest convenience.”
In the meeting with Sharma in February 2020, Hogg requested DfID’s help to approach HMRC “to ensure more appropriate UK tax treatment for this kind of investment”. DfID noted that investors are currently taxed at 45 per cent.
“Alok Sharma offered Mere money. They don’t need money,” Bridgen told openDemocracy. “This is a very sustainable business.”
“They employ 700 Ghanians. They have built a school, a creche, a medical centre. All paid for by Mere out there. They have not had any aid money. No money from our government. Indeed they have had nothing but not help from our government and that’s what is wrong and that’s why I went out [to Ghana in August 2019].”
In May 2020, according to his entry in the Register of Members' Financial Interests, Bridgen became a director of Mere Plantations, adding: “I will be paid £12,000 a year for an expected monthly commitment of 8 hrs.”
Bridgen’s incorrect listing as a director of Mere Plantations has been on the register for six months. Under the House of Commons Code of Conduct, MPs must register any relevant interests "conscientiously".
The code also states that Members of Parliament must not engage in lobbying which would have the effect of conferring a financial benefit to an organisation from which the MP has received – or expecting to receive - a reward or consideration. The only exception for this rule is if an MP has “evidence of a serious wrong or substantial injustice.”
“Parliament’s rules are clear that MPs should scrupulously avoid any arrangement in which they lobby in return for remuneration. Those elected to the House of Commons are there to serve as representatives of their constituents, not lobbyists for companies,” said Transparency International’s senior research manager Steve Goodrich.
“When there is clear evidence of a parliamentarian failing to comply with the ban on paid advocacy the Commissioner for Standards should be able to investigate as a matter of priority.”
Labour’s Shadow Cabinet Office minister Helen Hayes said: “This is a deeply troubling story – but unfortunately it is just another page in this government’s catalogue of cronyism and opacity.
“We need urgent improvements in transparency and answers from the government on how they will restore public trust and confidence and address conflicts of interest - both real and perceived.”
SNP MP Martin Docherty-Hughes said: “This sort of thing is happening all too often, and it seems increasingly like we are entering into a new golden age of clientelism and cronyism – whether it be in planning, PPE procurement, or plantations.”
A veteran Eurosceptic, Bridgen also said that he would not back a Brexit deal if it had to be voted on before the end of the year.
“There is no way I am going to be trying to digest a thousand pages of legal text and vote on it by January 1. That is not going to happen.”
Bridgen added that there “was not any time to get a deal through” before the Brexit deadline and instead suggested that both the UK and the EU could agree to ratify any agreement in the New Year.
In an email exchange last week, Mere Plantations’s boss Mark Hogg said he could not respond to openDemocracy’s questions by the stated deadline as he was in Ghana. Andrew Bridgen denies any wrongdoing.