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Party donations: The next expenses scandal, or storm in a teacup?

13 January 2023
| by Field Team

MP's finances have been back in the spotlight this week, with the publication of a database of second jobs and donations. But will the revelations have the same cut-through the expenses scandal had, or is it all just part of the messy Westminster system?

Sam Coates probably couldn’t believe his luck. First thing on Monday morning, the Sky News political editor found himself travelling to Hertfordshire, cameraman in tow, to knock on the door of an unassuming house in Broxbourne, Hertfordshire. This suburban dwelling is the registered address of MPM Connect Limited, an organisation which it transpires has been the third largest donor to MPs of any party since December 2019. The information around money flowing into Westminster has always been on the public record, but this week a group named Tortoise Media has launched the Westminster Accounts project, a collation of MPs’ second jobs earnings and donations into one easily accessible database. 

MPM Connect have donated £345,000 to just three Labour MPs: Wes Streeting, Yvette Cooper and Dan Jarvis. When questioned on Monday, Jarvis and Streeting called MPM Connect an “investment company in the employment sector” – although the company has no website, has not invested in an office, and doesn’t appear to employ anybody. A spokesperson on behalf of Cooper pointed out that the donations were fully declared and compliant with all the rules, which is correct – yet some scrutiny has naturally ensued, given the company’s accounts do not disclose where it receives its funding, what it does, why it donates so heavily, nor why it donates to these three MPs in particular. 

For Sam Coates, the fun didn’t stop there. Next up was a train from London to visit IX Wireless, a broadband company in Blackburn who have donated to 24 MPs, all Conservatives. Once again, there came no reply from the registered address. None of this is to imply that any rules have been broken: in fact, all 24 of these Conservative MPs, like Jarvis, Cooper and Streeting, could easily prove that they have complied with the laws around donations entirely. Nevertheless, Sam Coates’ trek around the country was an excellent piece of journalism, and made for good viewing. How low must the bar be set, and how can our laws around financial transparency be anything other than inadequate, if following the trail of money back from politicians leads you to a literal dead end?

Yet as with many of the scandals arising from the financial hygiene of our politicians, the hysteria may not be entirely justified. Tortoise Media gathered their data by collecting and analysing thousands of donations, yet the sums on their colourful graphics are the sum of many different types of handout: a conflation of election donations, the value of hospitality received, outside earnings and the support provided to All Party Parliamentary Groups into one figure. This is not an especially helpful way of looking at MP donations, yet all these sums of money have been added up, big and small, and each MP given a figure next to their name, as if to quantify their level of avarice, or rank them by their tendency to accept shady backhanders. 

For MPs who have served for ten years or more, the memory of the expenses scandal will loom large in their financial planning. The public despise two things above all else: the concept of MPs being paid a salary, and the idea that MPs are spending their taxes unwisely. Hence the eyebrows raised in tabloids when MPs expense even the most reasonable purchases: milk for their constituency office, video editing software, or a newspaper subscription. Of course, donations from shady private firms and individuals is the natural solution to this, the public can choose whether they want the private sector to fund MPs’ paperclips, or if they want to do it themselves. 

We could go down the route of MP’s having to entirely fund themselves out of their own pockets, yet given the constant outcry over those as wealthy as Sunak and Zahawi going into politics, this seems unlikely. Or perhaps MPs could simply become more resourceful, and attempt to run their offices using whatever scrap materials they can find in the bins around SW1, like a legion of suited Wombles. Until we settle on a solution though, you can guarantee that MPs’ declarations of registered interests will continue to show the odd grand here and there from unexplained sources. The system we have is not a perfect one, but it is still the system for now. MPs are allowed to exist within it, until someone can suggest a better one. 

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