Westminster Accounts part 1: who is funding Devon’s MPs?

Screenshot of a page from the Sky/Tortoise Westminster Accounts project

On Jan 8, Sky News launched its new Westminster Accounts project with Tortoise Media. Together they have created an interactive database which makes the information reported to the Register of Members’ Interests more easily accessible so that we can really see who is receiving what sums and from whom, whether it’s in the form of donations or salary for second or even third jobs. Westminster Accounts presents this information as a set of data visualisations, and a nifty tool that allows you to put in your MP’s name and explore all their reported income sources since the December 2019 election. You might be shocked to hear that more money flows into the UK parliament from outside than in MPs salaries. What on earth can be wanted in return?

The Sunday headlines were grabbed by two former prime ministers – May and Johnson – both making hay from the lucrative speaking opportunities that follow an exit from Number 10. But the top of the income chart is Devon’s own Sir Geoffrey Cox KC, MP for Torridge and West Devon, with earnings of an astonishing £2.1m. £1.8m of this – the largest payment to a single individual rather than a party – was earned from legal firm Withers LLP with whom he took up a role as ‘consultant global counsel’ in September 2020. This appointment followed a £32,500 warm up in the form of work for the mysterious “Messrs HMA” within a matter of days of his sacking as Attorney General.

Devonshire league table

It’s no great surprise to find Sir Geoffrey at the top of the list, but how do the other Devon MP’s compare?

Sir Gary Streeter, MP for South Devon, clocks up a whopping £89,500, £87,500 of which represents three years of earnings from Rentplus, a private UK company operating a rent-to-buy model in the social and affordable housing sector. Sir Gary is a director.

Next up is Totnes’s Anthony Mangnall at £47,590. This is all in the form of donations towards his 2019 election campaign, much of it reinforcing his place at the heart of the elite. The South Devon/Totnes MP received money from the pick of the financial establishment: Alexander Darwell, the millionaire fund manager and landowner who is currently challenging the right to wildcamp on Dartmoor, Dominic Johnson, of Jacob Rees Mogg’s firm Somerset Capital and now elevated to the House of Lords for services to his party, as well as a gift from Lizie de la Morinière, widow of the late Rothschild banker Comte Hervé de la Morinière.

Plymouth Moor View MP Johnny Mercer’s £42,130 total is a mixture of earnings and donations. His benefactors include Aamer Sarfraz – another Tory donor elevated to the Lords by Boris Johnson, the Cayzer Trust – which manages the family wealth of Caledonia Investment founders, and Dunchurch Lodge Stud which is also headquartered with Caledonia at Cayzer House.  Another dollop of high-end establishment cash.

Selaine Saxby received £24,630, the bulk of which consists of earnings from North Devon District Council where she remains a councillor three years after becoming an MP. A less egregious second job than some, but rather bewildering that she finds the time.

As another new MP, East Devon’s Simon Jupp registers £16,500 in the form of five donations towards his campaign to succeed Hugo Swire. Two of them come in different guises from the Carter family, owners of a number of local enterprises including Ladram Bay holiday park and the Greendale empire, who also donated to Mangnall via a further company.

At the lower end of the Devon league come the non-Tories with far less shady funding. For Labour’s Plymouth Sutton and Devonport MP Luke Pollard (£9740) and Exeter MP Ben Bradshaw (£2,900) almost all this was in the form of donations from unions. Richard Foord, the new Lib Dem MP for Tiverton and Honiton, registered £6,800 made up of party funding for his July 2022 by-election campaign and earnings from his paid employment at the time of his election.

There are no results for Anne-Marie Morris (Newton Abbot), Kevin Foster (Torbay) or Mel Stride (Central Devon) or, indeed for 62 other Tory MPs who have not registered any information since 2019.

Perhaps the telling conclusion from brief study is that those who are well established in safe seats don’t need donations and the safer the seat the easier it is to spend time on second jobs.

Using the Westminster Accounts tool

Westminster Accounts makes looking at this information far more visual and user-friendly than browsing reams of individual PDF files that make up the full register, published on a fortnightly basis on the House of Parliament website. However, there is some lack of detail to the Sky/Tortoise project which can mean the point is sometimes missed. Take a look at the full register and you can see exactly what the donation or gift was and whether cash or in kind. That additional detail is often important. For example, in the case of Anthony Mangnall the gift from Lizie de la Morinie was specified as being in the form of accommodation in November 2019 to enable our man to blow in and site himself in the area he wanted to represent.

The Westminster Accounts data does not include all categories listed in the Commons Registers, notably excluding property income and shareholdings. So, while Newton Abbott MP Anne Marie Morris showed no results, on inspection of the full register she has in fact declared property, shares and some unpaid directorships. This is not the place to establish your MP’s vested interests when they vote on matters relating to tenancies.

However, what Westminster Accounts does neatly is to look across how many MPs and interest groups an individual has donated to. Selaine Saxby received a donation from the Stalbury Trust who also funded 28 other Tories across the country – multiple small donations adding up to a significant sum. It is quite interesting to see who sits in each largescale donor’s recipient peer group. It is to be hoped that Sky’s reporting will make further revelations about political influence as they probe this data crossways.

Transparency? Or just a fig leaf?

Ultimately this project raises a whole set of new questions about transparency. The Register of Members Interests has existed since the 1970s and the reporting requirements were expanded in 1996 following the cash for questions scandal. As a result we’ve been able to find nuggets of information about individual MPs or donations, but putting the pieces together has been a time-consuming endeavour. Technology has moved on and our public offices should be able to present information better.

The Westminster Accounts project captured and rationalised the 650,000 entries that made up the register’s raw data into something we can more easily read but you can’t help thinking that while the government shrieks about the importance of data science and AI and more maths for all, perhaps it’s expedient that a lot of the information about them is not that easy to access or interrogate the way a science superpower would really approach the task.

There is so much more to explore through this tool and there are further registers which could also be added: lobbyists, ministers, Lords, as well as data from ACOBA (the advisory committee on business appointments) regarding post-ministerial roles. As questions raised about dubious procurement practices during the early months of the pandemic lead to missing phones or use of personal email accounts, standing up for transparency in public life has never been so important. Well done, Sky and Tortoise – keep up the good work!