Tory MPs paid £100,000 of public funds to party’s in-house web designers

<span>Jeremy Hunt, Liz Truss, Sajid Javid and Gillian Keegan.</span><span>Photograph: Various</span>
Jeremy Hunt, Liz Truss, Sajid Javid and Gillian Keegan.Photograph: Various

More than 120 Conservative MPs, including Jeremy Hunt, Liz Truss, Sajid Javid and Gillian Keegan, paid £100,000 of taxpayers’ money to the Conservatives’ in-house web design services, it can be revealed.

The MPs used the Bluetree website service to design their websites. When billed by Bluetree, they would pay for the sites then claim back the costs from the public purse via expenses, prompting a complaint to parliament’s expenses watchdog about the practice.

Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ) has denied Bluetree is wholly owned by the party and says it is a separate organisation, but repeatedly refused to deny the party receives income from the company, saying it has “commercial arrangements with CCHQ”.

Records show more than 330 invoices from Bluetree to Conservative MPs, including Hunt, Truss, Javid and Keegan, for web design services. Other high-profile Conservatives who have expensed services from Bluetree include Ben Wallace, Tobias Ellwood, Mark Francois and Helen Whately.

The company – which describes itself as the “Conservative party UK official website platform” and says it is run “inside the party” – has an address that is the same office as CCHQ and has been paid £100,695 in taxpayers’ money since 2019.

The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa) has said it would not allow websites to be funded if it was clear they were being used for party political purposes – regardless of the services offered by the company. It said if any evidence was found that rules had been broken then it would work with the MP to make amendments or repay expenses.

Senior transparency campaigners said they were alarmed if MPs were using taxpayer funds that could end up with the Conservative party. Tom Brake, the director of Unlock Democracy, said the money should be repaid if any surveys from the website were used to give MPs information for campaigning.

“The rules are clear. Taxpayers’ money cannot be used by MPs for party political campaign purposes. Yet Bluetree’s promotional material about their websites makes it clear that that is their intended purpose,” Brake said.

“Running surveys on a website, paid for with public money, which elicit information about likely voting intention constitutes a breach of the expenses rules. Unless these activities have been separately funded by the MP, any MP using taxpayer’s funds in this way should be required to reimburse them immediately.”

Rose Whiffen, a senior research officer at Transparency International UK, said: “There are rightly strict rules governing what MPs can and cannot claim on expenses, including using public money for political purposes.

“Any allegations that MPs have used their taxpayer-backed expenses to fill the coffers of their respective political parties should be investigated. MPs should carefully avoid any expenditure that could be seen to be misusing public money to the benefit of their respective parties.”

The Labour councillor James Walsh made the complaint to Ipsa. He is running against Hunt in the Godalming and Ash constituency, though the Lib Dems are favourites to take the seat.

Walsh said the authority should investigate the expenses. “There would be nothing intrinsically wrong with any of the above if these website services were something the individual MPs or the Conservative party were paying for out of their own funds, but for those costs to be charged to the taxpayer in the form of Ipsa expense claims strikes me as an outrageous misuse of taxpayers’ money,” he wrote.

A Conservative party spokesperson said: “Bluetree is an independent organisation but is a preferred supplier of the Conservative party. MPs using Ipsa money for a website to promote constituency activity is compliant with Ipsa rules. Bluetree works closely with Ipsa to ensure guidelines are followed.

“Bluetree and the Conservative party have made it clear to candidates who were MPs that they should not be using any Ipsa-funded website during the election.”

The party said Bluetree was part of a registered company separate from the Conservative party but would not say what that company was. All contact details for Bluetree on its website are directed to CCHQ and Bluetree does not have a separate Companies House registration.

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MPs have frozen their websites during the election campaign to avoid breaking rules on using the taxpayer-funded sites.

The website of Bluetree promotes features to be used by campaigners. It says it has “the only software designed to provide Conservative MPs with the features to campaign effectively online throughout the election cycle” and that “candidates who use Bluetree consistently receive a higher vote share than those who don’t”.

It says: “We have spent more than a decade working inside the party to provide tools that you simply cannot get elsewhere.” It also promises a site that is “compliant with Ipsa, the UK, Scottish and Welsh parliaments, the Electoral Commission and the information commissioner”.

The site directs any queries about sites designed by Bluetree to CCHQ and contains the Conservative imprint: “Promoted by Alan Mabbutt on behalf of the Conservative party.”