Downing Street confirms Rishi Sunak has never paid a tax penalty to HMRC, hours after the prime minister’s press secretary declined multiple times to give a direct answer on the matter.
Parliament’s reputation is being put at risk by groups of MPs that can be funded by lobbyists, according to a rare joint letter from the Speakers of both the House of Commons and Lords.
Parliament’s two most powerful figures called for a major overhaul in the way All-Party Parliamentary Groups operate in parliament, in a letter written on the day a Sky News revealed the scale of business influence directed at these groups and published today.
Sir Lindsay Hoyle and Lord McFall have made an unusual joint intervention to try and stop the number of All Party Groups – which already tops 700 – from proliferating further.
They also want to make it tougher to set one up, since APPGs at the moment they can be created with minimum effort.
They want them to publish accounts and more donation information than available at present.
They warn that following coverage earlier this month by Sky News as part of the Westminster Accounts about the issues with the way APPGs are currently regulated.
They say: “The current system has not prevented reputational risks to parliament or the proliferation of APPGs.
“We consider our proposals would ensure that APPGs really commanded support from members and would increase transparency without overly increasing the burdens on APPGs, which can provide a valuable means for members to learn and engage on topics they consider are important.”
All-Party Parliamentary Groups have received over £20m worth of funding from external organisations since the 2019 general election, with registered lobbying agencies dominating the ranks of biggest benefactors.
MPs would have to approve any further to the rules governing APPGs, and it’s unclear whether they might resist further reforms.
Chair of the Standards Committee Chris Bryant said that they are determined to do another report on the issue by Easter.
APPGs are informal interest groups of MPs and peers that facilitate cross-party work on an issue, a country or a sector, but Lord Pickles, the former cabinet minister and the chair of one of Westminster’s ethics watchdogs has told Sky News they could represent “the next big scandal”.
Lobbying industry insiders have defended the role of APPGs in the democratic process as a “force for good” – but one conceded to Sky News “there are bad ones”, while another said a “minority” are funded by organisation “trying to unfairly influence parliamentary decisions”.
In the letter Sir Lindsay and Lord McFall called for one person to be given the power to block new APPGs.
“We reiterate the view that there should be a defined gatekeeper role for such groups; Mr Speaker has previously suggested that the Chairman of Ways and Means could usefully perform this role in the Commons, though there could also be a place for joint Lords involvement in performing this function.”
They said the Gatekeeper would make sure a new APPG would not duplicate existing groups before it is allowed to be constituted.
“It is of central importance that at the same time the applicant should also explain how and by whom the APPG would be funded. There should be more rigour about the AGMs of APPGs.
“We consider it should be a requirement that AGMs are chaired by a Member of the Panel of Chairs (or potentially a Lords equivalent) from outside the APPG itself.
“We consider there are sufficient personnel available to undertake this task, and to ensure the proper conduct of Annual General Meetings.
“AGMs should consider an annual report from the Officers, as well as the accounts of the organisation.
“AGMs should not be considered valid if these were not available, and APPGs failing to meet this requirement should consequently be struck from the register.”
They add: “We recognise that an increased level of scrutiny before APPGs are established could potentially give rise to an impression that the activities of a particular APPG are then ‘endorsed’ by both Houses of Parliament.”
An audience of Northern political leaders – here in Manchester to demand a greater share of government funding, and a commitment to enshrine the principle of regional equality – in law.
Facing them on stage, two senior politicians from opposing parties – each pitching a very different interpretation of levelling up.
Michael Gove is the Conservative with the current mandate to deliver on a commitment which was such a central plank of Boris Johnson’s 2019 election winning manifesto.
His opposite number – Labour’s Lisa Nandy – believes the government has entirely failed to deliver on that promise.
Last week the government announced the winners of the latest round of levelling up funding – dishing out £2.1bn to projects around the country.
But the fund was heavily oversubscribed, and many who left out felt very hard done by – particularly when analysis showed London and the South East had benefited more than the North East (the government argues overall spending per person is greater in the North).
Ms Nandy described it as a “Hunger Games -style” contest, pitting communities against each other.
Even the Conservative mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street, decried the “begging bowl culture” of the fund, urging the government to provide regional leaders with longer term devolved funding settlements instead.
Michael Gove’s speech was in one sense his attempt to hit back at this criticism, and a declaration of faith in the principle of levelling up – which he argues is a “moral and economic imperative”.
He told delegates the north/south divide is a profound weakness, arguing that while the success of London makes it a “priceless asset”, the country should not rely so entirely on one region.
“Like a football team with one star striker, even Lionel Messi can’t do it alone,” he joked. “The strength of the country depends on strength and depth.”
It’s unlikely anyone in the audience disagreed with this analogy – but there were certainly rumblings of disquiet from delegates leaving the hall later in response to Mr Gove’s decision to evoke the spirit of Margaret Thatcher as an inspiration for levelling up- with the successful 1980s regeneration of London’s docklands.
Those hoping for any major announcements were disappointed, although there was a promise of more power over affordable house building and £30m towards housing improvements for the mayors of Greater Manchester and the West Midlands, as well as a third, simplified, round of levelling up funding to be announced after the March budget.
Mr Gove also pledged that every area that wants a devolution deal will get one by 2030.
His speech was 40 minutes long and packed full of detail. Ms Nandy’s was shorter, but punchier.
Labour, she said, would change the whole “broken” political system, arguing that the country’s ability to deal with problems “all come back to one thing – the fact we have written off the talent and potential of most people in this country”.
Her quip that Northern Powerhouse Rail would already be up and running if it had been handed over to northern leaders to deliver earned her a loud cheer (the audience of course predominantly made up of the very northern leaders in question).
Ms Nandy went on to pledge that a future Labour government would rewrite the way local funding is allocated, so that the national finances would follow behind local funding needs.
Clearly, Labour’s vision for levelling up goes much further than what the Tories have in mind.
Fundamentally however, with Rachel Reeves and Sir Keir Starmer insisting that all Labour funding pledges will be fully costed, it doesn’t seem there would be any new funding available to Ms Nandy to dish out, if she ever becomes the secretary of state in future.
And while the leaders of the North will be glad their calls for greater power are being heard – the question of how much difference these big administrative changes will ultimately make to the lives of millions of local people without a huge boost in investment remains to be seen.
Rishi Sunak has never paid a tax penalty to HMRC, Number 10 has said.
It comes hours after the prime minister’s press secretary declined multiple times to say whether Mr Sunak has ever paid a tax penalty.
She was asked the question in light of the settlement Conservative Party chairman Nadhim Zahawi reached when he was chancellor last summer.
“You wouldn’t expect me to get into the prime minister’s tax affairs, they are confidential,” she said in the wake of PMQs earlier today.
“The tax affairs of an individual, irrespective of who they are, are confidential.”
The PM will publish his tax return “in due course”, she added.
British Transport Police say a man has been arrested on suspicion of assaulting Matt Hancock, the former health secretary.
“We received a report of a man being assaulted and harassed at Westminster Underground station at 8.47am yesterday morning (January 24),” the BTP said in a statement.
“A 61-year-old man has been arrested on suspicion of common assault and a public order offence and remains in custody.
“Enquiries into the incident are ongoing.”
It is understood that the MP for West Suffolk, who recently came third in the most recent series of I’m A Celebrity…Get Me Out Of Here!, was unhurt in the incident.
The incident is understood to have begun at the station before continuing on a Tube train.
A spokesman for Mr Hancock said it was an “unpleasant encounter”.
“Both Transport for London staff and the British Transport Police were fantastic and the man has since been arrested,” they said.
He added “this sort of behaviour is a rare occurrence” and stressed the “importance of shutting down baseless misinformation which causes so much harm”.
“Matt wants to put on record his thanks to TfL and the British Transport Police for their extraordinary work,” the spokesman added.
The North of England receives one of the lowest levels of investment among advanced economies, a think tank has said.
Greece would be the only OECD nation to see less public and private investment, if the region was a country, according to a new IPPR North report.
Researchers found the UK as a whole ranks 35th out of the 38 OECD countries in terms of receiving the least investment.
Slovakia, Poland and Hungary all enjoy more investment than the UK.
If the OECD average was applied to the UK for 2017 to 2020, £397bn more would have been invested.
The report said the UK and the North are being held back by “vast inequalities” and “systematic underinvestment” in research and development, social infrastructure and transport.
Read more from political reporter Alix Culbertson below…
He arrived in the UK aged 11, unable to speak a word of English – but after going on to hold some of the most powerful roles in the government, he is now under the spotlight for the wrong reasons.
This is what you need to know about Nadhim Zahawi as he faces pressure over his tax affairs:
Rishi Sunak and his cabinet will decamp to Chequers for an away day on Thursday as the government continues to face questions about the tax affairs of Nadhim Zahawi.
Downing Street has said the outing to Chequers, which has been the official country residence of British prime ministers since 1921, will focus on the prime minister’s political priorities.
Mr Zahawi is expected to join the gathering at the country retreat, against a backdrop of an ethics inquiry into the Conservative Party chairman and former chancellor.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer grilled Mr Sunak in the Commons about the controversy on Wednesday, accusing him of being too weak to sack his embattled party chairman.
Mr Sunak suggested it might be “politically expedient” to sack Mr Zahawi, but told MPs it was important for “due process” to be followed.
Downing Street offered few details about what the away day would entail.
However, the PM’s official spokesman said cabinet ministers would be “focused on the five priority areas that the prime minister talked about in his speech, both in terms of getting an update on progress on those five goals and what more can be done”.
The government of the United Arab Emirates, one of the world’s biggest oil producers, will do a “superb job” of hosting this year’s COP28 climate negotiations, a government minister has said.
Many observers fear the Gulf petrostate is the wrong fit for the job of hosting the global climate talks, which agree the collective next step towards tackling climate change.
But Lord Zac Goldsmith, an influential environmentalist and Foreign Office minister, told an audience on Tuesday evening that he had been speaking “very regularly” with UAE ministers working on COP28 and was “very optimistic about it”.
The success of a COP depends largely on the nation holding the presidency, which should drive the direction of the talks, build consensus and hold laggard governments to account.
Some environmentalists have questioned whether oil-producer UAE, which has close ties to others like Saudi Arabia, will lack ambition in getting the world off fossil fuels, preferring to focus on solutions rather than causes.
You can read more from climate reporter Victoria Seabrook below…
Chief political correspondent Jon Craig explains the controversy surrounding Nadhim Zahawi’s finances – and why there is mounting pressure for the former chancellor to resign.
Video produced by Jasmine Kaur, digital politics producer
Former prime minister Boris Johnson and the leader of the Labour Party Sir Keir Starmer have both wished the Ukrainian president a happy birthday.
Volodymyr Zelenskyy has been leading the efforts against Russia since February, when Vladimir Putin launched his months-long attack.
Mr Johnson has since visited Mr Zelenskyy in Kyiv numerous times, the most recent being last week, shortly after it was claimed the BBC chair had helped him secure an £800,000 loan.
Writing on Twitter, the former PM said: “Happy birthday @ZelenskyyUa.
“Your heroic leadership is an example to the whole world. I wish you all the best today and always. Slava Ukraini!”
Shortly afterwards, Sir Keir shared his own warm words.
He said: “Sending @ZelenskyyUa best wishes on your birthday.
“Your leadership through the most devastating of times is admired around the world.
“The Labour Party, and the United Kingdom stands firmly with Ukraine, united against Russian aggression.”
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