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Former Attorney General Sir Geoffrey Cox has defended his legal work outside Parliament and denied he breached rules which prevent MPs from using their House of Commons offices for second jobs.
Sir Geoffrey, the Conservative MP for Torridge and West Devon, is under growing pressure after Labour called for an investigation into whether he “brazenly” used his MP’s office to participate in legal hearings representing the government of the British Virgin Islands (BVI).
Video footage, first reported by The Times, appears to show Sir Geoffrey taking part in a virtual hearing from his House of Commons office on September 14.
A statement published on his website on Wednesday morning said Sir Geoffrey consulted the Attorney General on his work with the BVI, which will earn him over £800,000 between April this year and next November. It added that he also sought the approval of the Conservative Party’s Chief Whip Mark Spencer on voting by proxy while he was in the Caribbean who told him it was “appropriate”.
On the question of whether he used his Commons office to represent the government of BVI in a virtual hearing, the statement said Sir Geoffrey “understands that the matter has been referred to the Parliamentary Commissioner and he will fully cooperate with her investigation. He does not believe that he breached the rules but will of course accept the judgment of the Parliamentary Commissioner or of the Committee on the matter”.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday signalled his displeasure with Sir Geoffrey with his spokesman warning MPs that they should prioritise their parliamentary work.
But the statement said Sir Geoffrey, a leading QC, makes “no secret” of his professional activities and ensures work for his constituents is always prioritised.
“Sir Geoffrey regularly works 70-hour weeks and always ensures that his casework on behalf of his constituents is given primary importance and fully carried out,” the statement said.
“Throughout this period, he continued to have online meetings with organisations, businesses and individuals within the constituency and it made no difference where he was for that purpose since it was not practicable or desirable at that time to meet face to face.”
The statement added: “It is up to the electors of Torridge and West Devon whether or not they vote for someone who is a senior and distinguished professional in his field and who still practices that profession.”
Earlier on Wednesday the Health Secretary Sajid Javid added to the pressure on Sir Geoffrey by warning fellow MPs they shouldn’t use their parliamentary offices for second jobs.
Asked on Sky News whether MPs should be able to use their office in the Commons for non-parliamentary work, Mr Javid said: “No”, before adding that any allegations of misuse of facilities or property should be investigated by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Kathryn Stone.
“Whether it’s your parliamentary office, parliamentary stationery, anything that’s funded or supported by the taxpayer, of course that should not be used.”
Any decision by Ms Stone on whether to investigate Sir Geoffrey could take weeks, although Chris Bryant, the Labour chair of the cross-party Committee on Standards, said the rules were clear that MPs could not use their offices for outside commercial interests.
He told BBC Breakfast: “You might end up occasionally meeting other people in your office but you’re not meant to run a commercial operation out of your taxpayer-funded office either in Parliament or in your constituency — it’s a really important, I’d have thought, kind of basic rule.”
Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner said the alleged use of the office appeared to be “an egregious, brazen breach of the rules” and has written to Ms Stone asking her for “guidance on beginning a formal investigation on this matter”.
Article 16 of the MPs code of conduct states: “Members shall ensure that their use of public resources is always in support of their parliamentary duties.” Former Conservative Attorney General Dominic Grieve said it is “quite clear that if one is regularly using one’s office at the House of Commons for purposes of work then that must be wrong. It shouldn’t be your base for doing other work outside the House of Commons.”
The Commons Committee on Standards is looking at introducing tighter restrictions on MPs’ second jobs including a ban on acting as paid advisers and consultants to companies.
The row over second jobs blew up after the Government forced Tory MPs to back a move to block former Cabinet Minister Owen Paterson’s Commons suspension while a wider review of the parliamentary standards watchdog was carried out. Ministers U-turned 24 hours later and Mr Paterson announced he was quitting as an MP.
Mr Javid faced questions over his own work as an adviser to the bank JP Morgan before he returned to the Cabinet this year. The Health Secretary admitted he may have taken phone calls relating to his work for JP Morgan while in Parliament but insisted he did not use House of Commons facilities to carry out that work.
“I might have received phone calls,” he said. “But did I use parliamentary computers or something like that, I didn’t do that.” He added: “The principle is if you have an external interest I can’t see why you would be using anything that is funded by the taxpayer...that would include your office space.”
Tory MP Andrew Bowie last night resigned as vice chair of the Tory party, insisting he wanted to spend more time in his West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine constituency. Critics and party insiders said it was difficult not to see his quitting as a protest against sleaze.
Mr Bowie said that “over the last few months, I have come to the decision that I need to take a step back from the demands of the role to focus on representing my constituents.”