A Conservative MP has been suspended from Parliament for five days for breaching the lobbying rules and failing to accurately declare interests, the Standards Committee found.
Andrew Bridgen also questioned the integrity of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, the cross-party group found. As previously reported by NationalWorld, in 2020 the MP for North West Leicestershire registered an advisory role with Mere Plantations, a UK-based firm involved with the growing of teak wood in Ghana.
While the role was listed as paid for approximately 18 months, Bridgen later updated the register of members’ financial interests to say he had never received payment for the job.
The MP had previously solicited a donation toward his general election campaign and had a trip to Ghana funded by the firm. Throughout this period, Bridgen contacted ministers and public officials about Mere Plantations in what has now been found to have been a breach of paid lobbying rules by the standards committee.
While Bridgen never accepted payment for the advisory role, which he says he did not carry out, an investigation by the standards commissioner found that Bridgen was offered and signed a contract to carry out the role for £12,000 per year.
In a statement, Bridgen said: “Whilst I am extremely disappointed with the recommendations of the committee, I accept them and will comply with them as required to do so.” The House of Commons will now vote on his suspension.
What was Andrew Bridgen’s relationship with Mere Plantations?
After being introduced to Mere Plantations through a constituent with a direct working relationship with the firm in September 2018, Bridgen “made several approaches to Ministers and public officials, in person and via email, between November 2018 and August 2021,” the commissioner found.
Mere Plantations paid for flights and accommodation for Mr Bridgen to visit their plantation in Ghana between 4-7 August 2019 at a cost of £3,251.51, and later donated £5,000 to Bridgen’s local Conservative Association, registered in January 2020.
On 29 April 2020, Bridgen accepted an offer to act as an adviser to Mere Plantations and signed a contract on 6 May 2020 which stated that he would be paid £12,000 per annum.
This role was declared in the register of members’ financial interests on 17 June 2020, despite Bridgen telling the committee that he had decided not to receive payment for the rule in late May or early June.
Initially, the register entry stated that Brigen would serve as a director of Mere Plantations, though this was later corrected, on 22 December 2020, to state that he was an adviser - though it was not amended again to reflect that the role was unpaid until 17 November 2021.
Bridgen had said that he never took payment from Mere Plantations and that he never undertook the duties in the contract so the role never started. The committee noted that Bridgen never revoked the contract, and that the MP “fulfilled several of the conditions of the contract”.
Speaking to NationalWorld last year, Mere Plantations’ CEO Mark Hogg said Bridgen had never been paid to provide the firm with advisory services and that “somebody’s made a mistake” in relation to media reports suggesting he had.
Asked why Bridgen himself seemed to be under the assumption for over a year that he was being paid to offer advisory services to Mere Plantations, Hogg said he had “no idea”.
Hogg said: “Mr Bridgen has helped and supported [Mere Plantations] as a proper MP, he hasn’t done private work, he wasn’t paid for private work, he hasn’t billed for private work, he’s just been a thoroughly decent, supportive person and MP.”
He added: “I’ve got no issue with Andrew Bridgen at all, he’s been superb.”
Did Andrew Bridgen lobby on behalf of Mere Plantations?
During a period in which the committee found Bridgen was bound by lobbying rules, due to his relationship with Mere Plantations, the MP made numerous approaches to ministers and public officials which were found to have conferred a financial or material benefit on the firm, in breach of the rules.
His approaches to ministers related to two separate issues, one of which was raised with Bridgen by a constituent, relating to the tax treatment of Mere Plantations. The committee found that he was exempted from lobbying rules in these cases due to an exemption which allows MPs to raise issues on behalf of their constituents.
However, the committee found that in a number of further approaches, relating to carbon offsetting, Bridgen “sought…to confer a financial benefit on Mere Plantations,” by trying to facilitate a contract between the firm and government, and later by trying to “enhance Mere Plantations’ access to markets for trading carbon credits”.
As the issue was not raised by a constituent, the committee found he was acting in pursuit of Mere Plantations’ interests and therefore breached the rules on paid advocacy.
Did Andrew Bridgen accuse the standards commissioner of corruption?
While the committee recommended that Bridgen be suspended from the House for two sitting days as a result of his breaches of rules around registering interests and paid lobbying, he was also found to have committed a “completely unacceptable attack upon the integrity of the commissioner,” for which it recommended he be suspended for a further three days.
Bridgen said he considered the complaint against him to be “politically motivated” and that the commissioner’s investigation was deficient. He also wrote to the commissioner on 20 September 2022, after the investigation had largely concluded, expressing his concern that the commissioner was to be offered a peerage in exchange for “arriving at the ‘right’ outcomes when conducting parliamentary standards investigation”.
He said: “Clearly my own travails with Number 10 and the former PM have been well documented and obviously a small part of me is naturally concerned to hear such rumours”.
The committee described this email as “an attempt to place wholly inappropriate pressure on the Commissioner,” adding that it was “completely unacceptable behaviour”.