A new front opened up in the Westminster expenses scandal last night after it emerged that MPs are travelling around the world on hundreds of trips a year paid for by the taxpayer and foreign governments.
Research by The Independent on Sunday has uncovered details of nearly 200 fact-finding missions and study tours to more than 60 countries in the past two years – equivalent to two trips for every week of the year.
The visits, many of which are paid for by public funds, are over and above the overseas work of select committees, which already takes MPs around the globe. Those not funded by the taxpayer are offered as "freebies" by foreign governments, whose guests often fly business class and stay in luxury hotels.
Some of the tours clearly have serious aims, including MPs paying visits to Israel and Palestine and Iraq to learn about the conflicts in those countries. But others appear to be more questionable, including junkets organised by the hundreds of all-party parliamentary groups created for the sole intention of forging links with different countries – including destinations such as the Cayman Islands and the Maldives.
There are 140 all-party country groups in Parliament, allowing their members to organise visits to to "forge links" with governments. The all-party Maldives group, for example, says its purpose is to "work as a forum for those parliamentarians who wish to better understand the Maldives".
While none of the MPs has broken any rules, the perception that hundreds of them are accepting free junkets risks further damage to the electorate's trust in Parliament. Where host nations are spending the money, often it is during parliamentary term time, effectively on taxpayers' time.
Visits by all-party groups, which are not funded by the taxpayer but rely on sponsorship and funding by the governments of the nations they visit, have to be declared in the MPs' register of interests. But there are a number of organisations MPs use to travel abroad which are paid for out of public money and do not have to be recorded in the register. They include the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) and the UK branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and cost the taxpayer £3.3m a year. Both are decades old and are used to forge links with politicians from around the world with exchange trips.
Yet reports written by IPU members give a hint of the comfortable lifestyle some of our MPs are enjoying at taxpayers' expense, including:
t Sir John Butterfill, the Tory grandee who claimed for "servants quarters" on the taxpayer, led an IPU delegation of MPs and peers to Iceland last year, which included bathing in the volcanic springs of the Blue Lagoon.
t Margaret Moran, the Labour MP who is standing down after claiming £22,500 for dry rot at her fiancé's house, led a delegation to Thailand which included a lavish reception hosted by the British ambassador.
Sir Peter Viggers, the Tory MP who is standing down after trying to claim on expenses £1,645 for a duck house, has been on four trips in two years, including a taxpayer-funded IPU visit to Saudi Arabia. A report of the trip boasts of how the MPs were treated to a "number of lunches, dinners and receptions" by their hosts.
Hundreds of MPs are members of the all-party country groups, which are separate from, but sometimes funded by, the IPU. While their members have not necessarily visited those countries yet, the groups effectively provide an open door to a free visit.
Many of the country groups have laudable aims, such as many in Africa and other developing countries.
The register of all-party groups shows Labour MP John Austin is a member of 52 groups, followed by Tory MP Nigel Evans on 44. Julie Kirkbride, who is standing down as Tory MP for Bromsgrove at the next election after public fury about her expenses, is a member of 26, the fifth highest of all MPs.
Hugo Swire, a former Tory frontbencher and chairman of the Conservative Middle East Council, was among several Tory MPs visiting Dubai last year. The register shows he did not declare the visit, but Mr Swire said he had declared everything with the Electoral Commission, and usually recorded trips in the register. "I would be very surprised if it has been missed off," he added. "The Conservative Middle East Council tries to expose what is going on in the Middle East. Not a penny piece of taxpayers' money is spent on our trips."
Three MPs have gone on six parliamentary trips in the past two years, according to the register of interests: Mr Evans, MP for Ribble Valley, Andrew Rosindell, Tory MP for Romford, and Jim Sheridan, the Labour MP for Paisley and Renfewshire.
Roger Berry, Labour MP for Kingswood, said: "The job of the IPU internationally is to promote good relations between parliamentarians which is a good way to promote democracy, peace and security between countries. As with inward trips, we meet parliamentarians, ministers, NGOs and others to listen and learn."
Lindsay Hoyle, Labour MP for Chorley, said of his July 2008 trip to the Cayman Islands: "It was in recess and it didn't cost the taxpayer anything. It was paid for by the Cayman Islands, who had invited us to talk on democracy and the environment."
Independent and former Conservative MP Bob Spink said of the trip to Thailand in 2006 led by Ms Moran: "I spent a lot of time on that trip urging Thailand to take firm action with the Burmese military junta relating to Aung San Suu Kyi. I'm not sure if taxpayers would consider this value for money but I think British MPs have a duty to fight for justice and freedom."
Alun Michael, defending his role in a trip to Brazil for the Internet Governance Forum in 2007, said: "Have you ever been to Brazil in November? It's like Cardiff on a wet November day."
Labour MP Howard Stoate, defending a visit to India in February 2008, said: "This trip was really important for forging long-term economic links with one of our main trading partners, which I think will benefit Britain in the future. While I don't advocate such trips if they are a regular occurrence, they can be extremely useful."
Alan Duncan, Conservative MP for Rutland and Melton, said: "Many Arab countries are taking very important steps towards more democratic structures. They wish to learn from us and we often have a lot to learn from them."
Additional reporting by Emmeline Saunders
MPs' travels around the world
Bahrain 6-11 September 2007
David Ruffley (C), Nigel Evans (C), Michael Fallon (C). For meeting on Iraq and the situation in the Gulf. Flights and accommodation paid for by the government of Bahrain.
Brazil Two trips, including: 11-15 November 2007
Alun Michael and Margaret Moran (both L) to attend the Internet Governance Forum, representing All-Party Groups including Pitcom (Parliamentary Information Technology Committee) and Eurim (European Information Society Group). Travel and hotel costs funded by Eurim with the support of Nominet.
Cayman Islands 23-28 July 2008
Nigel Evans (C), Lindsay Hoyle (L) and Michael Fallon (C), as part of All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Cayman Islands. Cayman Islands government paid for flights and hotel. Mrs Fallon was on the trip but paid for her flight.
China Eight visits, including: 6-16 September 2007
Ben Chapman (L), Mark Simmonds (C), Ian Stewart (L), David Lidington (C), Michael Mates (C), Madeleine Moon (L), James Paice (C), Jeff Ennis (L). The All-Party Parliamentary China Group, to discuss bilateral relations. All internal travel and some food costs in China were met by the National People's Congress. Flights from London to Beijing and accommodation costs were met from the funds provided by the registered sponsors of the All-Party Group.
Cuba 9-14 November 2008
Ian Taylor (C) in capacity as co-chair of the Cuba Initiative organisation, which works to strengthen UK-Cuban trade relations. Flights and accommodation provided by the Caribbean Foundation, a charity, through the Cuba Initiative. Local hospitality provided by the Cuban government.
Egypt Three trips, including: 31 March-6 April 2006
Sir Peter Viggers (C), with UK-Egypt All-Party Parliamentary Group, to further political relations between the UK and Egypt. He was accompanied by his wife and the visit was made at the invitation and expense of the Egyptian government.
Finland 4-8 May 2009
Sir Alan Beith (LD), Sir Patrick Cormack (C), Ann Winterton (C). British-Finnish All-Party Parliamentary Group, to meet Finnish MPs for discussions on issues affecting both countries and the Finnish prison service relating to the training of prison officers. Accommodation, hospitality and local travel within Finland were provided by the Finnish parliament. Travel to Finland was funded under the House of Commons European Travel scheme, paid for by the taxpayer.
Ghana 7-12 February 2008
Stephen Hepburn (L), Jim Sheridan (L), Anthony Wright (Great Yarmouth, L), Russell Brown (L), John Leech (LD). To play a football match against the Ghanaian parliament at its invitation to celebrate its 50th anniversary of independence, to visit an SOS Villages project and a refugee camp at the invitation of Play Ghana, and to attend the African Nations Cup final, with accommodation, food and local transport provided by the parliament of Ghana and a contribution towards the air fare provide by our club sponsors National Grid, which also helped to provide a charitable donation to SOS Villages.
19-22 May 2008
Sir John Butterfill (C), David Wilshire (C) and three peers. Sir John led a delegation of the taxpayer-funded IPU to Reykjavik. A report includes details of 'excellent lunch', a sight-seeing tour of Reykjavik, and a trip to the Blue Lagoon 'for bathing in the hot springs'.
India Six trips, including: 10-17 February 2008
Stephen Pound, Howard Stoate, Stephen Ladyman (all L), to Chennai, Hyderabad and Delhi, to meet state and national ministers, industrialists, academics, representatives of business organisations and a visit to a DfID-funded project. All transport, accommodation and meals provided by Indian government.
Japan Three trips, including: 27 June-1 July 2008
Graham Stuart (C), Eric Joyce (L) and Stephen Byers (L), to attend the Globe (Global Legislators Organisation for a Balanced Environment) Tokyo G8+5 Legislators Forum. Business-class return travel, five nights' accommodation and all meals were provided by Globe International.
Kenya Three trips, including: 13-21 February 2009
Claire Ward (L) as speaker at the Sigma Independent Retail Pharmacists Conference, accompanied by husband. Flights, travel, accommodation and hospitality were provided by Sigma Pharmaceuticals (Watford), which received sponsorship for the conference from a large number of generic drug and retail pharmacist companies.
Maldives Two trips, including: 24 August-2 September 2008
Brian Binley (C) to meet parliamentarians and advise on good practice in election procedures, as a member of the All-Party British-Maldives Parliamentary Group. Flights and hotel paid for by the Maldives government.
Monaco 18-19 May 2009
Nigel Waterson (C) to address retirement planning summit. Money Marketing paid for costs.
Montenegro 15-18 February 2009
Roger Berry (L), David Chaytor (L), Nigel Evans (C), Stephen Hepburn (L) and one peer, a delegation of the taxpayer-funded IPU. A report of the trip states: 'The delegation's first duty was to visit the world-famous Plantaze winery. We could not have received a better welcome!'
Nigeria Four trips, including: 30 November-6 December 2008
Michael Connarty, Stephen Hepburn, John Robertson, Anthony Wright (all L). All-Party Parliamentary Group on Nigeria on a fact-finding visit. Costs met by Virgin Nigeria Airways and Shell.
Norway Five trips, including: 26-28 August 2008
Anne Begg and Dari Taylor (both L) to Stavanger to visit Offshore Northern Seas (ONS) conference and exhibition on joint visit by the British Offshore Oil and Gas Industry All-Party Parliamentary Group at Westminster and the Oil and Gas Cross Party Group at Holyrood. Overseas flights, hotel accommodation, local transport and hospitality sponsored by Oil & Gas UK, Shell, Chevron, Statoil Hydro, Wood Group, Conoco Phillips, Exxon Mobil, the Norwegian embassy and OLF.
Oman Three trips, including: 30 October-3 November 2008
Alan Duncan and Keith Simpson (both C), cross-party group, as part of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Oman. Travel paid for by the State Council of the Sultanate of Oman.
Qatar Two trips, including: 14-16 April 2008
Derek Wyatt (L) and David Lidington (C) to attend the eighth Doha Forum on Democracy, Development and Free Trade. Travel and hotel paid for by the government of Qatar.
Romania 31 August-5 September 2008
Jim Dobbin and Eric Martlew (both L) with the All-Party Parliamentary Rail Group, to look at rail freight systems sponsored by the Rail Freight Group.
Saudi Arabia Two trips, including: 17-20 April 2006
Ian Davidson (L), Sir Peter Viggers (C), Huw Irranca-Davies (L), Graham Brady (C) and two peers, delegation of the IPU to meet the President and ministers. Included a 'number of lunches, dinners and receptions'.
Sweden Four trips, including: 10-12 August 2008
Ashok Kumar, Jamie Reed, John Robertson, Jim Sheridan (all L) and Bob Spink (Ind C) to Oskarshamn, to visit nuclear power and nuclear waste research and storage facilities with the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Nuclear Energy. The costs of the trip were met by E.ON.
Taiwan Five trips, including: 28 September-5 October 2007
Andrew Stunell (LD), Jim Dowd (L), Gordon Prentice (L), with a group of parliamentarians from the All-Party British-Taiwanese Group and All-Party Parliamentary Rail Group, as guests of the Taiwanese government.
Thailand 12-16 February 2006
Margaret Moran (L), Robert Goodwill (C), David Borrow (L), Bob Spink (Ind C), as part of a taxpayer-funded IPU trip. Including a visit to the River Kwai bridge and death railway and a reception hosted by the British ambassador.
Turkey Four trips, including: 18-22 March 2007
Stephen Hepburn, Lindsay Hoyle and Bob Laxton (all L) with the All-Party British-Turkish Parliamentary Group. Flights, accommodation and in-country costs were met by the Turkish government.
United Arab Emirates Two trips, including: 14-19 November 2008
Philip Dunne, Adam Holloway, Julie Kirkbride, Andrew Mackay and Hugo Swire (all C) to Abu Dhabi and Dubai, described as an 'all-party' delegation to meet government representatives, as guest of the government of the UAE, although no other parties seemed to have gone. The costs of flights and accommodation were met by the government of the UAE.
USA 17 visits, including: 24-31 August 2007
Stephen Ladyman (L), John Robertson (L), Robert Walter (C), Michael Connarty (L) and Nigel Evans (C) to Atlanta and Pittsburgh to visit some nuclear power facilities with the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Nuclear Energy. The costs of the trip were met by Westinghouse Electric Company.
And... 4-7 May 2008
John Robertson (L) as chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Nigeria, to Washington to consult with US policy and law-makers on Nigeria. Flights, accommodation and other costs were met by Chatham House, a non-governmental organisation.