Lobbyists and pressure groups fund MPs' £1.5m foreign trips

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The Independent Online

Backbench MPs have gone on more than £1.5m of all-expenses-paid trips handed out by foreign governments, pressure groups and companies in little over two years, i can reveal. Several MPs have spent months out of the country on foreign trips, sometimes while Parliament is sitting, while many of those funding the visits have a vested interest in lobbying MPs. After the trips, a significant number of MPs have made speeches in the House of Commons supporting the political positions of the governments and countries they have visited.

i's analysis reveals that 242 MPs have declared "fact-finding missions" and visits worth an average £6,500 to countries including Sri Lanka, China and former Soviet States since the last election.

The highest-claiming MPs include the former Labour Foreign Secretary David Miliband who, since losing the Labour leadership to his brother, has gone on 14 foreign trips costing £47,600 and taking up 47 days – mainly to give speeches and attend conferences.

The foreign trips taken by Mr Miliband, who declared in the aftermath of his leadership defeat that "South Shields comes first", have helped him earn £400,000 in addition to his MPs salary.

The furore over Nadine Dorries' participation in I'm A Celebrity... has thrown a spotlight on MPs taking time away from their constituencies and Parliament. Mark Hendrick, the Preston Labour MP who chairs the all-party China group, has spent over four months out of Britain since 2010, accepting seven foreign trips costing £43,211. Barry Gardiner, the MP for Brent North, has accepted £52,071 in foreign trips since the election, spending a total of 73 days out of the country as vice- president of Globe International – a group representing Parliamentarians.

i has also established that a significant number of other MPs have used knowledge gained on trips to ask parliamentary questions and make speeches, often supporting the political positions of countries they have visited. The MPs concerned stressed that these statements are unconnected to the hospitality they received and point out that accepting foreign travel is one of the few ways for Parliamentarians to educate themselves on international issues.

But critics claim some of the trips are inevitably "one-sided" with MPs only seeing what their hosts want them to see. Sir Alistair Graham, former chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, said that "serial" trip takers needed to be looked at for the sake of constituents and because of "legitimate concern" around the possibility of MPs who have been on trips then using their Parliamentary position to push particular policies.

A spokesman for David Miliband said a number of his visits were fitted around Parliamentary commitments over weekends or during recesses. Mr Hendrick said that all his visits were of a political and economic nature and took place predominantly when Parliament was in recess. Mr Gardiner could not be contacted for comment.