Geoffrey Cox: Tory MP who worked for tax haven argued against closing money laundering loopholes

Geoffrey Cox said it was ‘beneath the dignity of this parliament’ to crack down on British Overseas Territory tax havens

<p>Former attorney general Geoffrey Cox</p>

Former attorney general Geoffrey Cox

The Tory MP whose work for a tax haven sparked a sleaze scandal argued in parliament against measures to close money laundering loopholes, it can be revealed.

Geoffrey Cox earned nearly £1 million from his second job representing the British Virgin Islands (BVI) in a corruption and money laundering inquiry set up by his own Conservative colleagues in the UK government.

But in a 2018 parliamentary debate on the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill Sir Geoffrey said it was "beneath the dignity of this parliament" to try and close loopholes being exploited by territories like the BVI.

The Conservative MP argued that British overseas territories had been given "responsibility for the governance of their financial and economic affairs" and that the UK should not interfere.

The revelations raise questions as in 2018 Sir Geoffrey did hundreds of hours of legal work for unknown clients, including through firms based in the Cayman Islandsitself.

His current work for the BVI government through the firm Withers LLP started later, in 2020, according to the Commons register of register of interests.

But his in the register of interests from the time says he received £40,000 for 60 hours of work between September 2017 and February 2018 from Messrs Travers, Thorp, Alberga, Attorneys, based on Grand Cayman island.

Additionally, he was paid £3,135 by Bradys Attorneys-at-Law, also registered on Grand Cayman, for 25 hours of work between January 2016 and July 2017.

The MP alluded to the payments during the 2018 debate, telling the Speaker: “I should have made it clear … that I have on occasions practised in some of the Caribbean countries that formed the basis of our discussion in my capacity as a member of the Bar. I have done that for more than 20 years and I have a familiarity with those jurisdictions as a result.”

Sir Geoffrey, who on Tuesday night was accused of breaking Commons rules by using his office in the course of a second job, commented for the first time on the issue on Wednesday.

A statement issued on his behalf defended the second job and said it had "not been to 'defend' a tax haven or, as has been inaccurately reported, to defend any wrongdoing but to assist the public inquiry in getting to the truth".

The statement added: "No evidence of tax evasion or personal corruption has been adduced before the Inquiry and if it had been, that person would have been required to seek their own representation."

But Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner said: “You can be an MP serving your constituents or a barrister working for a tax haven - you can't be both and Boris Johnson needs to make his mind up as to which one Geoffrey Cox will be.

"A Conservative MP trying to prevent a crackdown on tax avoidance in tax havens at the same time as taking money from companies linked to tax avoidance in tax havens is a glaring conflict of interest and an insult to British taxpayers.

"Labour would crack down on tax havens so our schools and hospitals get every penny they need. This Conservative government has failed to crack down on tax avoidance and these glaring conflicts of interest suggest many in the Conservative Party are very happy with that."

On Wednesday morning Ms Rayner wrote to the parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and urged an investigation into claims Sir Geoffrey had used his office for the second job, branding it "a brazen breach of the rules and an insult to taxpayers".

Sir Geoffrey's statement said he would "fully cooperate with her investigation" and that "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".

In the 2018 debate about tax loop holes Sir Geoffrey asked a Labour MP what she would say to "the 50,000 or 60,000 inhabitants of the Cayman Islands, who were given a constitution in which the responsibility for the governance of their financial and economic affairs was solemnly conveyed to them by this Parliament?"

He argued that "the measure she is supporting will require that constitution to be amended so that the section that conveys on them the power to make their own orders in these affairs will have to be removed". Like BVI, the Cayman Islands are a British overseas territory often used to handle money.

Sir Geoffrey went on to add: "In 2009, we gave the people of the Cayman Islands a solemn pledge in this House. We said, 'We will not legislate for you in these areas of public responsibility without your consent.' By this measure today, we are breaking that promise to them, and it is beneath the dignity of this Parliament to do away with that promise and that pledge of good faith."

The QC earned £900,000 in the past year working for law firm Withers, representing the British Virgin Island government in an inquiry into governance and possible corruption. He also earned around £130,000 from other legal work on top of his £82,000 MPs' salary.

The MP is understood to have spent some of April and May in the tropical region – with his register of interests showing that he earned £156,916.08 for 140 hours' work between April 29 and May 31.

He reportedly arrived in the Caribbean on April 26 - the same day as the Commons held a debate on global corruption.

A press release on the BVI government website for that day says Sir Geoffrey was "currently in quarantine" but "intends to hold a series of meetings with government ministers in the next few weeks".

Conservative deputy prime minister Dominic Raab, who is also in charge of Justice and who set up the inquiry into the BVI, said Sir Geoffrey's actions were "legitimate thing to do as long as it is properly declared".

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