In March 2019, Bridgen requested a meeting with Harriett Baldwin MP, previously the Minister of State for Africa at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Two months later, Baldwin met with Bridgen, a number of board members of Mere Plantations, and the director of a company based in Bridgen’s constituency, the Curious Guys, which describes itself as a “tax planning” service whose interests include teak.
The group was invited to present their work on the teak plantation in Ghana, according to a blog post on the Curious Guys’ website. openDemocracy’s Freedom of Information requests to DfID about the meeting with Baldwin were passed to the Cabinet Office’s controversial Clearing House.
Very good trees
In August 2019, Mere Plantations paid £3,300 for Bridgen to travel to Ghana to visit the teak plantations. “They flew me out to show me the trees. I saw 10,000 acres of very good trees,” Bridgen said.
“I went and had a meeting at our High Commission in Accra and asked why I had to fly out there and sort out something that the business attaché should sort out,” he added. The trip to Ghana was apparently endorsed by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Trade.
Mere Plantations participated in a roundtable convened by Andrea Leadsom to “discuss EU Exit” in October 2019, according to transparency logs. The following month, Bridgen’s North West Leicestershire Conservative Party accepted a £5,000 donation from the timber company.
In January 2020 according to documents released under the Freedom of Information Act, Bridgen wrote to then international development secretary Alok Sharma, saying “Further to our discussion, could we arrange a meeting with Mark Hogg of Mere Plantations at your earliest convenience.”
In the meeting with Sharma in February 2020, Hogg requested DfID’s help to approach HMRC “to ensure more appropriate UK tax treatment for this kind of investment”. DfID noted that investors are currently taxed at 45 per cent.
“Alok Sharma offered Mere money. They don’t need money,” Bridgen told openDemocracy. “This is a very sustainable business.”
“They employ 700 Ghanians. They have built a school, a creche, a medical centre. All paid for by Mere out there. They have not had any aid money. No money from our government. Indeed they have had nothing but not help from our government and that’s what is wrong and that’s why I went out [to Ghana in August 2019].”
In May 2020, according to his entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, Bridgen became a director of Mere Plantations, adding: “I will be paid £12,000 a year for an expected monthly commitment of 8 hrs.”
Bridgen’s incorrect listing as a director of Mere Plantations has been on the register for six months. Under the House of Commons Code of Conduct, MPs must register any relevant interests “conscientiously”.
The code also states that Members of Parliament must not engage in lobbying which would have the effect of conferring a financial benefit to an organisation from which the MP has received – or expecting to receive – a reward or consideration. The only exception for this rule is if an MP has “evidence of a serious wrong or substantial injustice.”
“Parliament’s rules are clear that MPs should scrupulously avoid any arrangement in which they lobby in return for remuneration. Those elected to the House of Commons are there to serve as representatives of their constituents, not lobbyists for companies,” said Transparency International’s senior research manager Steve Goodrich.
“When there is clear evidence of a parliamentarian failing to comply with the ban on paid advocacy the Commissioner for Standards should be able to investigate as a matter of priority.”
Labour’s Shadow Cabinet Office minister Helen Hayes said: “This is a deeply troubling story – but unfortunately it is just another page in this government’s catalogue of cronyism and opacity.
“We need urgent improvements in transparency and answers from the government on how they will restore public trust and confidence and address conflicts of interest – both real and perceived.”
SNP MP Martin Docherty-Hughes said: “This sort of thing is happening all too often, and it seems increasingly like we are entering into a new golden age of clientelism and cronyism – whether it be in planning, PPE procurement, or plantations.”
A veteran Eurosceptic, Bridgen also said that he would not back a Brexit deal if it had to be voted on before the end of the year.
“There is no way I am going to be trying to digest a thousand pages of legal text and vote on it by January 1. That is not going to happen.”
Bridgen added that there “was not any time to get a deal through” before the Brexit deadline and instead suggested that both the UK and the EU could agree to ratify any agreement in the New Year.
In an email exchange last week, Mere Plantations’s boss Mark Hogg said he could not respond to openDemocracy’s questions by the stated deadline as he was in Ghana. Andrew Bridgen denies any wrongdoing.
This post was originally published on Radio Free.