LONDON — A number of British lawmakers have been using parliamentary trips abroad as an opportunity for the covert use of sex workers and for raucous, excessive drinking, according to MPs, peers, diplomatic and parliamentary officials who spoke to POLITICO.
One former Conservative MP, now a member of the House of Lords, asked hosts for directions to the nearest brothel when he traveled to Southeast Asia on a visit with an all-party parliamentary group (APPG), according to another parliamentarian who was present.
Another Tory MP and former minister used to stay on after the MPs’ delegation had returned home in order to pursue his “interest in [local] women,” two former colleagues said.
“He showed an interest in pretty young girls,” said one. “He routinely stayed on after these visits and linked up with young women in the place in question.”
A senior Labour MP displayed a fondness for “Russian girls” during trips overseas, according to a foreign diplomat, who said local officials felt powerless to intervene because they worried about preserving their influence in Westminster.
Particular concerns have been raised over the activities of “country APPGs” — backbench cross-party groups made up of MPs and peers with a focus on a single country or a group of countries. The groups are subject to less stringent rules than the House of Commons’ better-known select committees, but are still able to use parliamentary premises for their meetings. These groups’ focus on foreign countries mean they tend to make regular trips abroad, funded by overseas governments or private companies and often on parliamentary time.
As part of an ongoing investigation, POLITICO spoke to more than a dozen government officials and lawmakers in the U.K. and overseas who verified claims of drunken, lewd or sexual misbehavior by certain MPs and peers on such trips.
Numerous MPs claimed that while some colleagues were quietly pursuing a genuine and valid interest in relations with these countries, others treated the trips as “a jolly” for essentially recreational purposes.
MPs’ relations with British overseas territories were raised repeatedly, with local officials telling POLITICO some MPs had taken part in parties organized by diplomatic representatives at which young men and women were “supplied” for the purpose of engaging in sexual activities.
Certain MPs were often proactive in asking foreign governments for a full, expenses-paid trip overseas, the same local officials said, sometimes going as far as floating their preferences for champagne and large meals.
Overseas representatives have grown wary of such approaches, one said, and some have resorted to packing MPs’ agendas with as many visits and meetings as possible in order to reduce “free time” for potential misbehavior. “There’s been a process of disappointment,” they added.
A former British parliamentarian said the government of one such territory held “deep frustrations” over the behavior of visiting U.K. MPs “who see themselves as celebrities in their own lunchtime — they drink and behave badly and arrogantly. They’re patronizing to fellow politicians, never mind the people around them, the people from [the host country] and unfortunately waiting staff. It’s boorish behavior.”
APPGs are allowed to use U.K. parliamentary premises for meetings and a special portcullis logo, but are not official parliamentary bodies and are largely unregulated.
Unlike select committees, there is no formal system for deciding their membership and they usually do not have dedicated staff unless provided by an external body such as a private company or a charity.
MPs do not receive any salary for attending APPGs, and trips undertaken by MPs as part of their APPG activities must be declared in the register of interests. However, the trips are not subject to any formal reporting process.
A female member of several country APPGs said the groups were traditionally dominated by “Labour backbenchers and Tory backbenchers coordinating with each other — the male ones, usually — to control the all-party groups that went to nice places.”
While the gender balance had improved over the last decade, she added, many APPGs still bear the legacy of the “stitch-up” between like-minded male MPs.
A report by the House of Commons standards committee earlier this year warned that the potential for inappropriate influence provided by APPGs could “represent the next great parliamentary scandal,” but did not comment in detail on foreign trips.
The standards committee recommended a reduction in the number of APPGs and the introduction of a “gatekeeper” to oversee them. The government set out its broad support for these proposals just before Boris Johnson left office, but there has been little movement since.
Allegations of inappropriate behavior are not restricted to APPG visits, however.
A former Conservative MP procured the use of a sex worker on a visit to China, which other MPs referred to jokingly as “getting a bouquet of flowers sent to the room” for the rest of the trip, according to one of those present.
On a separate committee visit to a nearby European country, three MPs failed to turn up to a breakfast meeting organized by the embassy after heavy drinking the night before. On the same trip, a Tory MP raised his voice at a member of diplomatic staff in a sustained tirade.
The former Labour MP Christian Matheson was forced to stand down last month after a complaint of sexual misconduct was upheld against him. A former member of his staff claimed he had invited her on a secret trip to Gibraltar, which the independent panel on MPs’ conduct found had been sexually motivated. Matheson denied the claims against him, and there is no suggestion he engaged in any inappropriate behavior separate from the upheld complaint.
Gibraltar has been the focus of previous misconduct allegations, after two opposition MPs were accused of becoming heavily intoxicated on a visit arranged by the Parliamentary Armed Forces Scheme. They dismissed the claims as “Tory smears.”