MPs are taking advantage of their parliamentary status and membership of foreign country APPGs to receive free trips abroad for themselves and their spouses, according to Tortoise analysis.
In September 2018, the Conservative MP for Morecambe and Lunesdale David Morris declared that he and his “parliamentary assistant”, who is also his partner, Emma Smith took an £8,966 six-day trip to the Maldives.
The trip was paid for by the Maldives Election Commission to enable Morris and Smith to join an international delegation monitoring the country’s presidential election.
It was one of five registered overseas trips the couple took in 2018. They also visited:
- Turkey in March to “meet with business people, politicians and visit a refugee camp”. Cost: £2,415.
- Azerbaijan in April to observe the presidential election of authoritarian leader Ilham Aliyev. Cost: £3,700
- Gibraltar in September as part of the Gibraltar APPG, for the country’s National Day. Cost: £2,186.
- Armenia in October to attend the Investment and Trade Roundtable in Yerevan funded by the Prosperous Armenia Party. Cost: £3,796.
In total, the couple spent 31 days out of the country together in 2018 at a cost of £21,563. A few days after they returned from Armenia, Morris announced on Facebook that they were engaged. A year later, on 21 September 2019, they were married, a few weeks after visiting Turkey again with a delegation of Conservative MPs.
Since 2016, Smith has taken 13 trips abroad with Morris – the most overseas travel of any staffer according to the House of Commons’ Register of Interests. Most staffers who have declared any foreign trips have taken only one.
On top of these trips with Smith, Morris has taken another 16 since 2016 with his trips totaling a value of more than £45,000. He has been a member of 16 of the 144 foreign country and region APPGs. One MP described Morris to Tortoise as David “Airmiles” Morris.
Although foreign governments, companies and individuals are unable to donate directly to MPs and parties, overseas trips are a “permissible” loophole as long as they are of “reasonable cost”.
There are legitimate reasons for MPs to travel overseas and take staff with them, but Morris and his wife are not the only conspicuously well-travelled Westminster couple. The partners and staffers of Conservative MPs Sheryll Murray, Martin Vickers and Bob Blackman have also racked up air-miles, taking at least 37 trips between them since 2016.
Sheryll Murray MP
- Employed Robert Davidson in her office since 2010, and married him in 2019.
- Murray and Davidson have visited San Marino, Cyprus, Jersey, Israel as well as Gibraltar multiple times since 2016 totalling 45 days of travel. Cost: £16,347.
- The couple joined Morris and Smith on trips to Turkey and Armenia in March 2018 with the countries’ APPGs.
- Murray shares her Westminster office with Morris and is godparent to his and Smith’s daughter.
Martin Vickers MP
- In August 2018, Vickers took a £5,636, four-day trip to the Cayman Islands with his wife, who is employed as his part-time junior secretary. £1,000 of that claimed cost was attributed to meals and hospitality.
- In July 2017, with the Taiwan APPG, Vickers took a £5,423 trip to Taiwan with his wife to discuss political, trade and cultural links between the UK and Taiwan.
- In September 2018 they visited Cyprus on a trip funded by the Cyprus House of Representatives. Cost: £723.
- In November 2018 they travelled with the APPG for Lebanon “to further develop the working relationship” between the two countries. Cost: £1,342.
- The couple have visited Gibraltar for the country’s National Day three times since 2016 at a total cost of £5,980.
Bob Blackman MP
- Employs his wife Nicola Blackman as Office Manager.
- Blackman is known as a “Friend of India” and the couple have taken three separate trips there since 2016 totalling over £21,000 in value and 26 days of travel.
- They also visited Albania and Azerbaijan in 2018 and 2019 respectively. Total cost: £5,560.
MPs elected since 2017 can no longer hire family members as staffers, but in 2021 one in seven MPs still had partners, spouses or children on the public payroll earning up to £60,000.
There is no formal advice against partners and spouses, employed or not, joining MPs on visits outside the UK or receiving other hospitality or gifts.
Parliament’s director of security, Alison Giles, told the House of Commons’ standards committee when it was investigating APPGs last year that she believed they were “particularly attractive routes of access to parliamentarians” and were “very easy to engage with”.