A millionaire Tory MP has been forced to apologise for failing to declare £400,000 of income – but blamed the blunder on him being too busy setting up his law firm in Dubai and Mauritius.
Geoffrey Cox, a practising barrister and the highest earning MP in Parliament, stunned colleagues by also suggesting that he simply hadn’t noticed the money coming into his account because his clerk had fallen ill.
Standards watchdog Kathryn Hudson published a scathing report today on Mr Cox’s failure to register his full earnings, declaring he had committed a serious breach of the Code of Conduct for Parliament.
But the Commons Standards Committee – which Mr Cox used to sit on and was forced to resign from – decided only to ask him to apologise. No further sanction was applied.
The controversy reignites the explosive issue of MPs’ second jobs, not least as a bumper 10% pay rise increased their annual salary from £67,060 to £74,000 last year.
It will also fuel claims that MPs ‘protect their own’, as the Standards Committee refused to impose severe sanctions on the Tory backbencher, such as censure or suspension from the Commons.
Mr Cox is earns his huge extra income as a QC, but he partly blamed his failures on the distraction of having to set up new chambers in oil-rich Dubai and the Indian ocean island state of Mauritius.
Speaking in the Commons with an apology that lasted less than a minute, Mr Cox admitted he had failed to give a proper record of his true income “for a prolonged period”.
"The House has a right to expect its members, and particularly those on the Standards Committee as I was, that they will uphold its rules to the fullest extent," he said.
"For this reason I have stepped down from the Standards Committee and I hope the House will accept my sincere and full-hearted apology for my failure to observe this important rule."
Ms Hudson, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, said in her report: “I do not consider that the breach was minor since it involved eleven late registrations with a total value of over £400,000.
“The length of time during which Mr Cox failed to give this matter due attention was at least nine months, during which time as a member of the Standards Committee, he had the opportunity to consider a formal memorandum from me about late registration by another Member, and to receive periodic confidential updates about registration matters more generally.”
In his defence, Mr Cox had claimed he had a particularly intense schedule in the run up to the General Election, and referred to “the sheer pressure of my legal practice, parliamentary and constituency responsibilities”.
He explained that this had included “the final planning and launch during recess of an entirely new international law chambers based in Mauritius and Dubai.”
Ms Hudson, with a waspish verdict, wrote in her report today: “He told me, and I can only agree, that he ‘failed to give this matter the due thought and priority it required’.”
The standards chief pointed to Mr Cox’s defence that he had failed to keep his register of interests upto date because his long-standing clerk, who usually alerted him to when income from cases had arrived, had fallen ill.
It emerged that the Tory MP had “relied on the head clerk of his Chambers to draw the receipt of payments to his attention, thereby prompting the registration of such payments”. The illness and subsequent retirement of the head clerk had led to the breakdown of this system.
“One weakness in the arrangement Mr Cox has described is that it was customary for the head clerk to ‘draw the receipt of payments to [Mr Cox’s] attention on an ad hoc basis, acting as a prompt for registration’,” Ms Hudson wrote.
The Parliamentary Commissioner noted the MP had already apologised for his error and had referred himself to her for investigation. But she concluded: “Nevertheless, this was a serious breach of the House’s rules and the Committee may wish to consider whether any other action is necessary.”
The Commons Standards Committee agreed it was a serious breach but recommended no other action than an apology.