Esther McVey’s trip to the races shows why MPs’ private lives are public

Should we be worried that an MPs’ actions are influenced by who they’re dating?

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In March this year, Work and Pensions Minister Esther McVey went to the Cheltenham races with her long time on-and-off romantic interest Tory MP Philip Davies. The tickets and hospitality were provided for free by bookies William Hill, and worth a total of £540.

Fast forward to last week’s cabinet meeting, and the Times reported McVey “strongly objected” to government plans to reduce the maximum stake for fixed odds betting terms (FOBTs) from £100 to £2. Not unreasonably, some people are looking at McVey’s day at the races and her objection in cabinet, and asking if one led to the other.

She personally did not declare the free hospitality in her register of members interests, though Davies did.

So is it a problem that McVey took free tickets from a gambling firm, and then vociferously protested against the regulation of FOBTs? And if so, how much of a problem?

As BuzzFeed pointed out, neither her own register of financial interests nor her department’s list of ministerial gifts and hospitality mention the tickets. There’s no suggestion she’s broken the parliamentary rules by not declaring the tickets herself, but there is an important matter of transparency here.

Parliamentary rules state: “Members must register benefits, such as tickets to sporting or cultural events, received by another person together with or on behalf of themselves as if they had received them in person.” So, if Davies has registered them, then surely she needs to?

The catch here is that gifts and hospitality only need be registered if they account for more than one per cent of an MP’s salary (£76,011 at the time) which is £760. The reason why Davies declared that £540 was that he actually received £1,540 worth of tickets and hospitality from William Hill over the course of the last year, pushing it way over the threshold. For McVey, assuming she didn’t attend the other two races paid for by William Hill, she doesn’t need to declare them on the register.

So she has not technically broken any rules, but it could be argued she’s broken them in spirit. Parliamentary rules state the main purpose of the register is “to provide information of any financial interest or other material benefit which a Member receives which might reasonably be thought by others to influence his or her actions, speeches or votes in parliament, or actions taken in his or her capacity as a Member of Parliament.”

It’s hard to see how this clause can be interpreted in a way that doesn’t have at least some implications for McVey. One of the unaddressed problems here is what happens when your partner is receiving such hospitality which you’re benefiting from or affected by.

This comes back to a perennial question: as an MP, does it matter who you’re romantically involved with? In this case, yes it does. While it would be a mistake to assume that everyone agrees with their other half, it’s not unreasonable for the average person to think that going to an event with your partner doesn’t have some commonality to it.

If your significant other was getting free tickets to expensive events from a company, and you were making a decision that could jeopardise that relationship, would your partner factor into that decision? It obviously depends on the specifics of your relationship, but it’s not far-fetched to assume that your interests will be to at least some extent defined by the interests of your partner.

These murky grey areas are hard to lay down in parliamentary rules, not least because defining the impact of such relationships would be basically impossible. Still, it would be naive to assume there is no impact at all.