Boris Johnson today warned Tory MPs that politics must be their ‘primary role’ as former attorney general Geoffrey Cox came under mounting pressure over a second job based in the Caribbean.
Downing Street said today that the Prime Minister would not back an ‘outright’ ban on MPs having other forms of employment, as he battles a sleaze row engulfing Westminster.
Sir Geoffrey who has earned around a million pounds from legal work over the past year, took advantage ofrules to cast votes in the Commons by proxy as he worked 4,000 miles away during the pandemic.
The eminent QC and former top UK government legal adviser was facing calls to quit as MP for Torridge and West Devon after it was revealed he is advising the government of the British Virgin Islands, earning £400,000 to work up to 41 hours a month.
A spokesman for the Prime Minister said Mr Johnson believed an ‘MP’s primary job is and must be to serve their constituents and to represent their interests in Parliament’.
He said: ‘They should be visible in their constituencies and available to help constituents with their constituency matters.
‘If they’re not doing that, they’re not doing their job and will rightly be judged on that by their constituents.’
The Prime Minister himself is no stranger to second jobs, having at one point earned £250,000 a year as a newspaper columnists on top of being MP for Uxbridge when between ministerial jobs.
Labour has called on the Prime Minister to launch an urgent investigation into Sir Geoffrey role in advising the tax haven in a corruption probe.
Party chairwoman Anneliese Dodds said: ‘The people of Torridge and West Devon must be wondering if Geoffrey Cox is a Caribbean-based barrister or a Conservative MP.’
Geoffrey Cox pictured with his wife Jeanie. He has been paid almost £900,000 by an international law firm over the past year and received more than £130,000 for other legal work
Dominic Raab insisted it is ‘legitimate’ for Geoffrey Cox, an eminent QC and former attorney general, to advise the government of the British Virgin Islands
Cox once ‘too busy’ working in Dubai to declare £400,000 income – but claimed 49p expenses for a pint of milk
Geoffrey Cox has been critisised for his legal career before.
In 2016, he was forced to apologise to the House of Commons for failing to declare £400,000 of outside income.
He hit the headlines as one of the highest earning politicians in 2014, reporting an income of more than £800,000 from his legal work.
But he referred himself to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards in October the following year after it emerged he had repeatedly missed the 28-deadline for reporting outside earnings.
Between January and August 2015 he received 11 payments of more than £400,000 in total, but did not register them until the end of September when he became ‘fully aware of the scale of my oversight’.
Parliament’s Standards Committee found that the QC had committed a ‘serious’ breach of rules, but accepted he had not ‘intended to hide’ the payments.
The Conservative MP for Torridge & West Devon spent just one minute apologising to his colleagues in the Commons chamber and blamed the oversight on being too busy launching ‘an entirely new international law chambers based in Mauritius and Dubai’.
He told the chamber: ‘I fully acknowledge that this was not acceptable and I have taken all necessary steps to ensure that it does not happen again.’
The oversight was surprising as Sir Geoffrey has a keen eye for accounting. In January 2016 he blamed his staff after it emerged he had claimed for a 49p bottle of milk on expenses.
The claim was rejected by Commons authorities, as was a £2 claim for teabags in his constituency.
Earlier Deputy Prime Ministerdefended Sir Geoffrey, insisting it was ‘legitimate’ for him to take a second role .
But Mr Raab said ‘voters will decide’ whether their MP is spending enough time on parliamentary duties.
Mr Raab said: ‘I think it’s first of all important to say that all of… any outside interests have to be properly declared.
‘In relation to the British Virgin Islands, I was the foreign secretary that commissioned a commission of inquiry, given the allegations of misgovernance and very serious ones, including criminal wrongdoing.
‘Now, I’m not going to get dragged into what individual MPs do, but actually having the former attorney general – and it wasn’t my decision, he was hired by the government of the BVI to advise them on how to correct and deal and address those allegations – actually, is a legitimate thing to do as long as it’s properly declared.
‘And of course, it’s quite important in that Parliament, which is responsible residually for some areas of our relationship with the overseas territories, we’ve got some knowledge of what’s going on in those territories.’
In her letter Ms Dodds told Mr Johnson: ‘It appears that your former Attorney General is profiting from advising an administration accused of corruption and tax avoidance.’
She added: ‘The irony is not lost on me that he arrived in the Caribbean on the day that those MPs who actually feel a sense of duty to their constituents were debating global anti-corruption standards.’
Mr Raab told BBC Breakfast that ‘there are very strict rules’ on second jobs and that it was ‘respectable and legitimate’ for MPs to hold other roles.
‘I think that people do want to see MPs and politics have exposure and experience that comes (from) outside the political world,’ he said.
He insisted the latitude ‘makes sure we don’t become ever more secluded and out of touch with the priorities of what’s going on in the world outside the House of Commons’.
However, Mr Raab said: ‘Ultimately, voters will decide on their MP and whether they’re spending enough time doing the job for them as their constituents.’
Asked on Radio 4’s Today programme whether he was comfortable with Sir Geoffrey’s outside work, Mr Raab said: ‘As I made very clear, it’s not for me to get comfortable or otherwise with it.
‘It’s for the voters in any individual constituency to look at the record of their MP and decide whether they got the right priorities.’
Devon Tories back absent Sir Geoffrey
Conservative Party councillors in Geoffrey Cox’s Torridge and West Devon constituency have said they have no concerns over reports that their local MP was paid up to £900,000 to work in the British Virgin Islands.
The former attorney general was hired to defend the islands in an inquiry launched by the Foreign Office.
But Tory councillors in his constituency spoke up in support of him and said they are not concerned.
Debo Sellis, who represents Tavistock on Devon County Council, said she has worked ‘very closely’ with Sir Geoffrey and described the work he does for local residents as ‘phenomenal’.
She said: ‘I can say that I have contact with the majority of people in my area and it is quite remarkable how many single mums will say they are voting for Geoffrey because he has helped them.
‘I have stood in for him at his surgeries and there is a lot of people that go there with many sensitive and tricky cases. What he can do for them is phenomenal. He is very passionate about the community.’
Bere Ferrers ward councillor Peter Crozier added: ‘Sir Geoffrey is excellent with his constituents. He is visible for those in need of help and is probably one of the best MPs with his constituents, and that’s probably why he increases his majority every time. I doubt the reports will affect the by-election.’
However, Steve Hipsey, Independent councillor for Tavistock North, told the PA news agency he has concerns about the amount of time Sir Geoffrey spends in Parliament.
He said: ‘The only times I have had anything to do with him was before I was a councillor and I asked him about his attendance in Parliament, where he gave me a ”dog ate my homework” answer, and then during lockdown about the spread of Covid from tourists.
‘If I have any beef with him at all it is about the time he spends in Parliament representing his constituents. As a local councillor I am very concerned that we seem to be getting so little value for money out of him in Whitehall. I have no real gripe with him in terms of constituents.’
The revelation about Sir Geoffrey is likely to prompt fresh calls for reform of the regulations surrounding MPs’ second jobs.
It came as Boris Johnson was accused of ‘running scared’ after he snubbed a fiery Commons debate yesterday following the row over the Government’s botched attempt to block the suspension of disgraced Tory MP Owen Paterson.
Sir Geoffrey, who is known for being the highest-earning MP, spent up to a month in the British Virgin Islands working for Withers, an international law firm, while voting by proxy in the Commons, a source said.
He has been paid almost £900,000 by Withers over the past year and received more than £130,000 for other legal work.
He is thought to have been in the BVI in April and May this year. He was recorded as arriving on April 26, while the Commons was debating global anti-corruption sanctions.
A press release on the BVI government website for that day stated that Sir Geoffrey was ‘currently in quarantine’ but ‘intends to hold a series of meetings with government ministers in the next few weeks’.
He was listed among MPs eligible for a proxy vote that day.
There is no suggestion that Sir Geoffrey has broken any rules.
A Whitehall insider told the Daily Mail: ‘While he should have been in the UK working for his constituents he’s been over in the British Virgin Islands doing his second job working as a barrister and advising those accused of trousering cash for their mates.’
The register of financial interests shows he received £156,916.08 from Withers for work undertaken between April 29 and May 31, 2021, totalling 140 hours.
Sir Geoffrey, who was sacked as attorney general last year, has been representing the government of the BVI, a British Overseas Territory, in an inquiry into the governance of the islands.
It was launched in January by the Foreign Office to establish whether there was evidence of ‘corruption, abuse of office or other serious dishonesty that has taken place in public office in recent years’.
The inquiry has heard allegations of unaudited spending and contracts being handed out to politically-connected people.
The hearings have exposed tensions between the BVI’s local government and its governor, who is appointed by the UK.
A senior Whitehall source accused Sir Geoffrey of ‘pocketing hundreds of thousands of pounds to help stop the exposure of corruption in a Caribbean paradise’.
At the time, coronavirus restrictions meant MPs could participate in Commons debates via Zoom and vote by a proxy – meaning they did not have to come to Westminster.
Sir Geoffrey was hired by Withers in September last year as its ‘consultant global counsel’ to advise on private and overseas government clients, according to the firm’s website.
A post announcing his appointment noted that he remained MP for Torridge and West Devon and a privy counsellor, and would still practise as a barrister at Thomas More Chambers in London.
According to a source Sir Geoffrey, who is known for being the highest-earning MP, spent up to a month in the British Virgin Islands working for Withers, an international law firm
Sir Geoffrey is advising the government of the British Virgin Islands, a tax haven accused of corruption
Appledore in Geoffrey Cox’s Devon constituency. The Tory MP yesterday revealed he has earned more than £1million from outside legal work over the past year on top of his £82,000 salary as a backbencher
The British Government is funding the ‘core cost’ of the commission of inquiry in the BVI, but will not pay the fees associated with legal counsels appointed by individuals or organisations.
Liberal Democrat chief whip Wendy Chamberlain said she was ‘gobsmacked’ by the claims about Sir Geoffrey.
‘Why was a Tory MP apparently spending time on the other side of the world advising a known tax haven instead of supporting his constituents?
‘For the Justice Secretary to defend this behaviour as legitimate is frankly astonishing.
‘The bigger irony here is that the government has ordered an inquiry into corruption and political cronyism in the British Virgin Islands, while refusing to carry one out at home.’
Labour MP Karl Turner said yesterday: ‘How does Geoffrey Cox find time to do his job as a constituency MP?’
It comes amid growing calls for MPs to be banned from having second jobs that involve consultancy work. Sir Geoffrey was providing legal work, but many of his colleagues take on paid positions as consultants.
Sir Geoffrey did not respond to a request for comment last night.
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