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LONDON (AP) — British lawmakers have defended accepting gifts paid for by the Qatari government as a corruption scandal in Brussels highlights the country’s lobbying ahead of the World Cup.
The Qatari government has spent more than £260,000 on gifts, hospitality and travel for British MPs since October last year.
Human rights activists have criticized the access granted to the Qatari government following the arrest of the Vice President of the European Parliament, Eva Kaili, and three others in connection with an alleged campaign of illicit influence by Qatar. A series of raids by Belgian federal police resulted in the arrest of five people who they said had committed “alleged crimes of criminal organisation, corruption and money laundering”, throwing away 600,000 euros in cash, as well as phones and computers.
All the parliamentarians’ trips were declared in accordance with parliamentary rules, but human rights activists have questioned their legitimacy.
Sacha Deshmukh, Executive Director of Amnesty International UK, said: “No politician should be given money or luxury trips from Qatar. Instead, they should speak out against the regime’s extensive human rights violations.”
Rose Whiffen, research officer at Transparency International UK, said: “MPs should ask themselves why governments with poor human rights records offer them paid trips abroad before deciding whether it is right to accept them.”
While there is no evidence of bribery of UK MPs, some MPs who received benefits from the Gulf state currently hosting the FIFA World Cup have been criticized for launching debates praising Qatar’s human rights record in the House of Commons.
Alun Cairns, a former cabinet minister and chairman of Qatar’s All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG), launched a debate on the country in the House of Commons in October, praising its progress on human rights in a lengthy speech. . He quoted Nelson Mandela’s words that “sport can change the world” and spoke of “the importance of bringing cultures together to better understand, influence and progress” so that “every nation respects, sees and supports human rights”.
Analysis carried out by POLITICO as part of a broader investigation into APPGs showed that 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 president of Qatar’s APPG, said in the same debate, referring to criticism of Qatar’s record on gay rights: “Many of the people who have expressed opinions on this issue should also focus their energies on handling LGBT issues in professional football in the UK”
Mundell paid a visit to Qatar last year worth more than £7,000.
Lisa Cameron, an SNP MP and also a vice-chair of the Qatar APPG, said that “the understanding of [mental health issues] it is progressing all over the world, including in Qatar.” She paid a 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 had a value of £5,922.70.
The Vice President of the House of Commons, Nigel Evans, received the largest total, despite the fact that his position prevents him from speaking in any debates or asking questions.
These MPs rarely criticized Qatar. Conservative Mark Pritchard raised doubts about his funding of the Eritrean regime in 2010 before it began accepting his hospitality, and Labor Chris Bryant condemned the decision to hold the World Cup in Qatar after saying he was sorry for taking his money.
Analysis of APPG records showed the group was made up of just six to 10 MPs between 2015 and 2021, when membership rose to 14 and then again to 17 this year.
Eight MPs who receive benefits from Qataris are APPG members, while several others stated “APPG business” as the reason for their visits despite not being registered as APPG members.
MPs who responded to requests for comment defended their actions as a way to hold Qatar to account.
Doyle-Price said: “It is precisely to challenge them on their human rights record that we make these trips… If we are going to moralize in Qatar, we should be a little more honest with ourselves about our own shortcomings.”
Furniss said she went there “to have full and frank discussions with political leaders about her human rights record,” adding that she was “disappointed by the lack of progress.”
Bryant noted that the parliamentarians attended a center for Afghan refugees and “vigorously raised our human rights concerns with the Qatari authorities.” However, he added that they “didn’t want to listen and it all felt wrong,” leading him to conclude that he shouldn’t have gone.
The parliamentarians’ code of conduct stipulates that they may not initiate any parliamentary procedure that “would have the effect of conferring any financial or material benefit on a foreign government… which, within the preceding six months, financed a visit they made or provided with hospitality.”
Cairns’ launch of a debate on Qatar in October after his visit in March appears to fall outside the six-month rule. He did not respond to a request for comment.
Earlier this week, MPs endorsed proposals to strengthen the code of conduct, including a requirement to “avoid placing yourself under any obligation to individuals or organizations that may attempt to inappropriately influence your work.”
Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and Sports and Equality Minister Stuart Andrew attended the World Cup matches in Qatar, although there is no indication that their trips were funded by the organisers.
In the UK, declarations by MPs setting out the gifts they have accepted and their business interests can be completed up to 28 days later, so the rules do not yet require MPs who accept hospitality during the World Cup to declare this.
Graham Lanktree contributed reporting.