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Wednesday, Feb 08, 2023

UK MPs defend accepting ‘lavish’ Qatari gifts before World Cup

UK MPs defend accepting ‘lavish’ Qatari gifts before World Cup

MPs argued trips to Qatar were an opportunity to raise human rights concerns with the government.
British MPs have defended taking gifts paid for by the Qatari government as a corruption scandal in Brussels shines the spotlight on lobbying by the country ahead of the World Cup.

The Qatari government spent more than £260,000 in gifts, hospitality and travel on British MPs since October last year. 

Human rights campaigners have criticized the access afforded to the Qatari government following the arrest of European Parliament Vice President Eva Kaili and three others in connection with an alleged illicit influence campaign by Qatar. A series of raids by the Belgian federal police resulted in the detention of five people they said had committed “alleged offenses of criminal organization, corruption and money laundering,” and yielded €600,000 in cash, plus phones and computers.

All the trips by MPs were declared in accordance with parliamentary rules but human rights campaigners have questioned their legitimacy. 
Sacha Deshmukh, Amnesty International UK’s chief executive, said: “No politician should be taking money or lavish trips from Qatar. Instead, they should be speaking out against the regime’s extensive human rights violations.”

Rose Whiffen, research officer for Transparency International U.K., said: “MPs should ask themselves why governments with poor human rights records are offering them paid foreign trips before deciding whether it is right to accept them.”

While there is no evidence of bribes to U.K. MPs, some MPs who received benefits from the Gulf state currently hosting the FIFA World Cup have been criticized for initiating debates in which they praised Qatar’s record on human rights in the House of Commons. 

Alun Cairns, a former Cabinet minister and chair of the Qatar all-party parliamentary group (APPG), put forward a debate about the country in the House of Commons in October in which he hailed its progress on human rights in a lengthy speech. He cited Nelson Mandela’s words that “sport can change the world” and spoke of “the importance of bringing together cultures to better understand, influence and progress” so that “each nation respects, sees and supports human rights.”

Analysis by POLITICO as part of a wider investigation into APPGs showed Cairns visited Qatar twice in 2022 on trips worth a total of £9,323 including flights, accommodation and meals.

David Mundell, another former Cabinet minister and vice-chair of the Qatar APPG, said in the same debate, referring to criticism of Qatar’s record on gay rights: “Many of the people who have voiced opinions on this issue should also focus their energies on the handling of LGBT issues in professional football in the U.K.”

Mundell made one visit to Qatar last year worth more than £7,000.

Lisa Cameron, an SNP MP who is another vice-chair of the Qatar APPG, said that “understanding of [mental health issues] is progressing right across the world, including in Qatar.” She made one visit this year worth £3,865.

In total, 36 MPs have accepted the hospitality of the Qatari government since October last year, with three MPs receiving benefits worth more than £13,000 each. The average trip was worth £5,922.70.

Deputy Commons Speaker Nigel Evans received the largest total, despite his position which precludes him from speaking in any debates or putting forward questions. 

These MPs rarely voiced criticism of Qatar. Conservative Mark Pritchard raised questions about their funding of the Eritrean regime back in 2010 before he began accepting their hospitality, and Labour’s Chris Bryant has condemned the decision to hold the World Cup in Qatar after saying he regretted taking their money.

Analysis of the APPG records showed the group was composed of only six to ten parliamentarians from 2015 to 2021, when membership increased to 14 and then again to 17 this year. 

Eight MPs in receipt of benefits from the Qataris are members of the APPG, while several others declared “APPG business” as the reason for their visits despite not being registered members of the APPG. 

MPs who responded to requests for comment defended their actions as a way of holding Qatar to account.

Doyle-Price said: “It is precisely to challenge them on their human rights record that we go on these trips … If we are going to moralize at Qatar we should be a bit more honest with ourselves about our own shortcomings.”

Furniss said she went there “in order to have full and frank discussions with political leaders on their human rights record” and added she was “disappointed by the lack of progress.”

Bryant noted that MPs attended a center for Afghan refugees and that they “forcefully put our human rights concerns to the Qatari authorities.” However, he added that “they didn’t want to listen and it all felt wrong,” which led him to conclude he should not have gone.

The MPs’ code of conduct stipulates they may not initiate any parliamentary proceeding that “would have the effect of conferring any financial or material benefit on a foreign government … which has, within the previous six months, funded a visit they have undertaken or provided them with hospitality.”

Cairns’ initiation of a debate on Qatar in October after his visit in March appears to fall just outside the six-month rule. He did not respond to a request for comment.

Earlier this week MPs backed proposals to strengthen the code of conduct including a requirement to “avoid placing themselves under any obligation to people or organizations that might try inappropriately to influence them in their work.”

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and Sport and Equalities Minister Stuart Andrew have attended World Cup games in Qatar, though there is no suggestion their trips were funded by the organizers.

In the U.K., declarations by MPs setting out gifts they have accepted and their business interests can be completed up to 28 days later and so the rules have not required MPs accepting hospitality during the World Cup to declare it yet.
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