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MPs duped by fake foreign firm were acting ‘within the rules', says Gove

Former health secretary Matt Hancock was caught up in the Led By Donkeys sting (Jacob King/PA)
Patrick Daly, PA Political Correspondent

MPs offering advice to a fake Korean company for as much as £10,000 per day were acting “within the rules”, a senior minister has said.

But Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove called on MPs to “reflect” on the sting operation, saying elected officials needed to ensure they were doing “everything they can to put public service first”.

It comes after former health secretary Matt Hancock told a bogus foreign company that his daily rate for external consultancy was £10,000.

Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove
Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove defended MPs taking on work outside of Parliament (Jeff Overs/BBC/PA)

Conservative former chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng indicated to a fake employee of the pretend outfit that his monthly rate for such an advisory position would be no less than five figures.

Mr Kwarteng went on to suggest he could “work with” the firm’s offer of paying him between £8,000 and £12,000 for each of the six annual meetings of its non-existent international advisory board.

The hoax company set up by campaign group Led By Donkeys was asking MPs to supposedly give it political advice on how to expand into the UK and European markets, with some of the sessions allegedly due to be held in South Korea.

Mr Gove defended MPs taking on work outside of Parliament as long as it was transparently noted in the register of MPs’ interests, the publicly available document where politicians declare any earnings on top of their £84,144 Commons salary.

He pointed to the example of Tory women’s minister Maria Caulfield, who continues to practise as a nurse, as a way of balancing MP duties with other employment.

Speaking to Sky News’ Sophy Ridge On Sunday programme, Mr Gove said: “On this occasion, I think it is pretty clear that things that were offered and considered were within the rules.

“But inevitably all of us will reflect on this and think the first duty of a Member of Parliament is towards their constituents.

“And ultimately, the really important thing is, is an MP delivering for their constituents, is a Member of Parliament doing everything they can to put public service first?”

Conservative Party Conference 2022
Former chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng said he did not ‘need to earn a king’s ransom’ (Aaron Chown/PA)

He said it was for the individuals caught up in the sting operation to explain any due diligence they carried out on the sham company before holding talks.

Mr Gove later told the BBC it was for constituents to use their vote to decide whether they wanted their MP to hold a second job.

Led By Donkeys, an anti-Brexit group, said it created a company called Hanseong Consulting, setting up a website which included made-up testimonials and paying for a so-called “fake virtual office” in the South Korean capital Seoul.

It said, after consulting the register of interests, that it approached 20 MPs from different parties asking if they would join the phoney firm’s international advisory board.

According to its preview video posted on social media on Saturday, campaigners said 16 of the MPs contacted were Tory, two Labour, one a Liberal Democrat and the other an independent.

Five of those were said to have progressed to an online interview stage, including Mr Hancock and four Tories: Mr Kwarteng, former defence secretary Sir Gavin Williamson, former minister Stephen Hammond and Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee, an influential backbench body.

There is no accusation of wrongdoing, with MPs permitted to seek employment outside of Parliament.

Mr Hancock, asked whether he had a daily rate during an online “interview”, said: “I do, yes. It is 10,000 sterling.”

The West Suffolk MP, who was stripped of the party whip by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak after he was announced as a contestant in last year’s series of ITV reality programme I’m A Celebrity … Get Me Out Of Here!, later said he had an hourly rate of “around £1,500”.

Mr Kwarteng, whose mini-budget in September sent the value of the pound tumbling and mortgage rates soaring, said he did not “need to earn a king’s ransom” before adding: “But I wouldn’t do anything less than for about 10,000 dollars a month.”

Upon being told the fake firm was considering paying between £8,000 and £12,000 per board meeting, Mr Kwarteng replied: “OK yes, we’re not a million miles off. We can work with the numbers.”

Sir Graham, according to the video, said he was “thinking something like £60,000 as an annual rate” for assisting the company.

Conservative leadership bid
Sir Graham Brady said he made clear any external employment had to be transparent (Victoria Jones/PA)

Mr Hammond is seen in the video published on Saturday, but no details of what was said has been aired.

Led By Donkeys said Sir Gavin turned down the opportunity to take discussions any further.

MPs are permitted to have second jobs on top of their role representing constituents.

But external employment opportunities for those in Westminster have come under the spotlight in recent years, following former Tory cabinet minister Owen Paterson’s suspension from the Commons for breaching lobbying rules in 2021.

He later quit Parliament following a furore after Boris Johnson’s administration attempted to rip up the standards body that dished out the punishment.

A spokesperson for Mr Hancock, who is due to quit the Commons before the next election, said he “acted entirely properly and within the rules”.

“It’s completely untrue to suggest any wrongdoing and therefore absurd to bring Mr Hancock into this story through the illegal publication of a private conversation,” the spokesman added.

Sir Graham, who is also due to stand down as an MP, said: “I made it clear that any arrangement would have to be completely transparent and that whilst a Member of Parliament, I would only act within the terms of the Code of Conduct.”

Gavin Williamson
Former defence secretary Sir Gavin Williamson turned down the opportunity to take discussions further, Led By Donkeys said (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Mr Kwarteng, Mr Hammond and Sir Gavin have been contacted for comment by the PA news agency.

Labour has called for those Tory MPs caught up in the hoax to be stripped of the whip by Mr Sunak.

Shadow culture secretary Lucy Powell said she was “pretty appalled and sickened” by the revelations, with Labour pledging to ban MPs having second jobs.

She said MPs should be “fully focused” on helping constituents rather than “pursuing other commercial ends”.