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Politics / Tory MP’s paid role in Shetland space project shows ‘rot at the heart of Westminster’

Garnier is paid £2,500 a month – but could rule change force him to step aside?

West Midlands Tory MP Mark Garnier's paid position with Shetland Space Centre is under mounting scrutiny.

THERE IS mounting scrutiny over the role of a West Midlands Tory politician who is paid £2,500 a month to chair Shetland Space Centre’s advisory board as Westminster’s standards committee looks to tighten rules governing what jobs MPs can take outwith parliament.

A sleaze and corruption scandal has enveloped the UK Government following its botched attempt to protect disgraced ex-Conservative MP Owen Paterson. Last week Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he wanted to see a ban on second jobs involving political lobbying to prevent MPs from “exploiting their position”.

Wyre Forest MP Mark Garnier has been chairman of Shetland Space Centre’s advisory board since 1 October 2020. According to his register of members’ interests the role takes up approximately 10 hours per month, equating to £250 an hour, and in addition he “may receive share options”.

He is also a member of the advisory board for Laser Light Communications and his declaration lists an extra £90,000 a year from the two consultancy roles in addition to his MP’s salary of £81,932. In March this year he took on a third space-related role, as an unpaid director of Satellite Finance Network.

Garnier, who is vice-chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on space, has spoken 22 times in the House of Commons since November 2019. Three of those contributions – the most recent on 4 February this year – saw him call for greater government support for the space sector.

Alex Armitage of the Shetland Greens said the fact the space centre found it worthwhile to spend £2,500 a month employing the MP “demonstrates the rot at the heart of Westminster politics”.

“A large part of Mr Garnier’s value to the space centre lies in his ability to influence government decision-making by the back door,” he said.

“Too many decisions that affect us are made behind closed doors in the smoking rooms of private gentlemen’s clubs in Whitehall. Greens believe that our politics should be founded on transparent decision-making based on open, public-facing discussion.

“Shetland has democratically elected parliamentarians who should be speaking up for our interests. Mr Garnier should devote his time [to] representing the residents of Wyre Forest.”

Johnson wrote to the Commons speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle last week stating he wanted to see a ban on certain second jobs. “An MP’s primary role is, and must be, to serve their constituents and to represent their interests in parliament,” the Prime Minister wrote.

It is unclear how many MPs would be affected by such a ban. Garnier’s name has featured prominently in national media coverage highlighting those most likely to fall foul of any change in the rules.

Frank Strang of Shetland Space Centre Ltd.
SaxaVord Spaceport CEO Frank Strang claimed MP had been taken on due to his investment banking experience as well as knowledge of the space sector.

The standards committee, chaired by Labour MP Chris Bryant, will publish a report on the matter in the next few weeks.

‘It smacks of Tory sleaze’

The SNP’s Highlands and Islands list MSP Emma Roddick said it was clear Garnier at the very least had questions to answer over the role.

 

“Mr Garnier can scarcely claim his advocacy for government support of the UK space industry is a constituency matter when his Worcester constituency is 600 miles from Shetland,” she said.

“It smacks of Tory sleaze and Mr Garnier must, at the very least, be called on to explain himself to Westminster’s standards watchdog.”

However, Northern Isles Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael said that, while taking on such a role was “not something that I have ever done as an MP”, he felt Garnier’s conduct was “within the rules”.

Carmichael said lobbying such as speaking in debates, where “every word is recorded and published in Hansard – you don’t get much more transparent than that!”, was not the problem when it came to tackling sleaze and corruption in politics.

“The Commons has passed a motion this week about the rules around paid lobbying and the standards committee, chaired by Chris Bryant, will come forward with a report on this before Christmas,” he said.

“I anticipate that a lot of the rules will change on this pretty soon. At the very least we need to see much more transparency in this. If MPs are to be allowed to continue having outside earnings then there must be a limit placed on the amount of time given to them.”

Former standards committee chairman Sir Alistair Graham told Sky News earlier this month he also felt Garnier had not broken the existing rules, but taking on the role posed question-marks over his priorities.

Graham, who “very much” supports “fairly severe restrictions” preventing MPs acting as consultants or strategic advisors to companies, said: “He knows – as long as he stays elected – that he is going to get his £80,000 [MP’s] salary. So what are his priorities – is it his job as an MP or his job in safeguarding the space sector?”

When contacted by Shetland News to ask whether Garnier would continue in the role, both the MP and SaxaVord Spaceport (formerly Shetland Space Centre) said they had “nothing to add” to a previous statement.

SaxaVord Spaceport CEO Frank Strang referenced Garnier’s “extensive experience from his 17 years as an investment banker, his 10 years as an investment manager, and his wider experience in the space sector” and described the MP as a “highly valued” member of its team.

In an interview with BBC Radio Hereford and Worcestershire last week, Garnier was clear Paterson’s conduct had been wrong, but defended his own extracurricular roles.

“You cannot under any circumstances, and the rules could not be clearer, ever use your position as an MP to benefit somebody from whom you are being paid cash,” he said. “And that is what Owen Paterson has done and that is not what other people are being accused of. It is a difficult area.”

Pressed on why he took up additional roles, Garnier said he had a “particular interest in the space sector” and “like anybody else, I have got a mortgage –  ultimately, I’d quite like to pay off my mortgage before I retire”.

In addition to his MP’s salary of £82,000 – more than two and a half times the UK median income – and lucrative space consultancy positions (he declares annual income of £60,000 from Laser Light Connection and £30,000 from Shetland Space Centre), Garnier’s wife Caroline is also paid £35,000 a year to manage his office.