A powerful group of northern Tory MPs are being scrutinised by the parliamentary expenses watchdog after a Sky News investigation into the way they use public money.
The investigation found nearly two dozen MPs received political donations from a private donor to help them with campaigning – weeks after they joined the Northern Research Group (NRG) and authorised thousands of pounds of taxpayer-funded expenses to be spent on its work.
This raises questions about whether MPs authorised public funding to be spent on the NRG because they knew they would be rewarded with a campaign donation.
The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA), the expenses watchdog, is examining whether the group “contravened the rules surrounding direct payment of subscriptions from MP business cost budgets”.
One Tory MP who received the money told Sky News they signed up to the NRG, putting public money towards it, because they knew they would get a donation.
“There was a deadline. That’s why so many did at same time. You knew there’d be money at the end of it,” they said.
Public money is given to MPs to fund staffing and building costs, and its spending is tightly controlled. Political donations come with far fewer restrictions and, importantly, can be used to fund re-election campaigns.
The donations were organised by the NRG founder Jake Berry and came from northern broadband firm IX Wireless. Mr Berry denied a link between the donations and the use of public money for the NRG.
In 2021 and 2022, 24 MPs received money from IX Wireless; 22 of those MPs have previously diverted public money to the NRG.
In the case of Matt Vickers, Tory MP for Stockton South, he authorised £2,500 from his office allowance to go to the NRG in mid-June 2021. Three weeks later, he was the recipient of a £2,500 campaign donation from IX Wireless. Mr Vickers did not respond to a request for comment.
However, in an interview, Mr Berry denied a link between the donations and public funding decisions, as did other Tory MPs who spoke on camera to Sky News.
Mr Berry said: “It is completely wrong when businesses want to go out and support northern MPs who are transforming the business community for them, for those businesses then to be trashed in the media for doing something completely legal and straightforward.
“There is no connection between your membership and receiving political donations.”
Westminster Accounts at a glance: use the table below to see how much money has gone to parties, MPs and APPGs in the form of donations and earnings since the 2019 election – and the individuals or organisations behind the funding.
This is part of a broader examination by Sky News of the use of public money to fund party political research groups like the NRG and the European Research Group – which played a key role in the Brexit debate over the past decade – and the Socialist Campaign Group.
Tens of thousands of pounds of public money goes to these organisations to fund research under a parliamentary arrangement that has existed for decades.
For the first time, Sky News can reveal the sums of public money received by these research groups since the last election:
• Parliamentary Research Unit – £3,050,972
• Parliamentary Research Service – £1,724,924
• SNP Research Team – £1,475,278
• Parliamentary Support Team – £208,854
• Northern Research Group – £139,760
• European Research Group – £96,000
• Socialist Campaign Group – £67,500
• Common Sense – £6,000
In a statement to Sky News, IPSA said: “In light of research by Sky News, IPSA has started an assurance review to assess whether the NRG has contravened the rules surrounding direct payment of subscriptions from MP business cost budgets.
“IPSA’s remit is the use of taxpayer funding, not the receipt of other sources of income by MPs, and has therefore informed the Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards of its action.
“IPSA will also conduct assurance reviews of the other new pooled services to check that they are meeting the requirements for IPSA funding, which they commit to in writing, and of the rules regarding pooled services.”
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An IX Wireless spokesperson said: “As a North West-headquartered company we want to ensure the region truly benefits from the government’s Levelling Up agenda. This includes ensuring all areas across the North see an increase in their standard of living so that each area can reach its full productivity potential.
“To do this, we have backed the Northern Research Group, which aims to ensure that the voices of people across the region are heard by the government while also boosting employment, productivity and growth.
“Our support of the NRG is on public record. The funds to the NRG will help support MPs to focus central government for more spending across the North, boost infrastructure such as improved roads and rail, and support northern institutions.
“The funds will also support MPs, many who were new to the role, with training and support.
“As a northern company that is delivering gigabit capable broadband services to the communities across the region, we want to see the interests of those same communities represented at a national level via the NRG.”