China cash link to top Labour MP
£180,000 fund for pro-Beijing shadow minister
A shadow minister is being funded by a law firm with links to the Chinese state, an investigation by The Times has established.
Barry Gardiner, shadow international trade secretary, has received more than £180,000 in staff costs from the firm that acts as chief legal adviser to the Chinese embassy.
At the same time Mr Gardiner, 59, has been employing the son of the firm’s founder in his Westminster office. Parliamentary records show that the donations partly fund the son’s salary.
Mr Gardiner has generally taken a pro-Beijing stance in his shadow portfolios. In his previous role as shadow energy secretary, he supported Chinese involvement in Britain’s nuclear power industry. He has spoken out strongly in favour of the Hinkley Point power station, which is being built in financial partnership with a Chinese state energy giant.
Although the payments to Mr Gardiner from the law firm Christine Lee & Co were declared and there is no suggestion of impropriety, Labour sources expressed disquiet last night at the arrangement. They warned that it could give rise to allegations of a conflict of interest. “When you are in that kind of [shadow cabinet] role it is problematic,” one MP said. “Basically this woman is paying for her son to have a parliamentary pass.”
Sir Alistair Graham, former chairman of the committee on standards in public life, said: “It is very bizarre and there are clearly questions to be answered. You lay yourself open to the charge that you have got too familiar with one of the key players in an area where you are supposed to be representing the wider public interest.”
Mr Gardiner told The Times that Christine Lee’s son, Daniel Wilkes, had volunteered in his office for several months before he was paid and there had been “an open appointments process” in which Mr Wilkes was “appointed on merit”. The money is being used to fund Mr Wilkes, who is in his 20s, and another researcher in his office.
Mr Gardiner said that he had never been “improperly requested by, or influenced by” the law firm “in relation to the conduct of my parliamentary and shadow ministerial duties”. The Times contacted Ms Lee for comment but had not received a response at time of publication.
Mr Gardiner has been an enthusiastic supporter of the Chinese community in Britain. A Labour source said that he strongly opposed internal party criticism of Chinese involvement in the Hinkley Point project. He has also called on Theresa May to tell Beijing that Britain wanted strong Chinese investment in infrastructure projects.
The donations for staff costs began shortly after Mr Gardiner was made shadow minister for energy and climate change in September 2015. They carried on as he was promoted to shadow energy secretary and then became shadow international trade secretary. Since November 2015, he has declared non-cash donations of £182,284. Before this, his constituency party received cash donations from Christine Lee & Co of £22,500 between 2009 and 2015.
Ms Lee’s Birmingham-based firm is one of the leading solicitors representing Chinese companies and individuals who want to invest in Britain. It has offices in Beijing, Hong Kong and Guangzhou.
Ms Lee, 53, is an overseas member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and a legal adviser to the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office. Her website shows her meeting President Xi of China. When Mr Xi visited Britain in 2015 Ms Lee’s firm paid for the security company G4S to provide 30 staff for “personal protection” for her staff during demonstrations in the Mall in favour of the visit.
In the same year The Times reported that military and intelligence figures had warned ministers that plans to give China a stake in Britain’s nuclear power industry posed a threat to national security. Mr Gardiner’s predecessor as shadow energy secretary, Lisa Nandy, took a hawkish line. The following year Ms Nandy resigned and Mr Gardiner was given her job as shadow climate change and energy secretary.
Theresa May then announced that she was putting the Hinkley deal on hold. Mr Gardiner issued a press release backing the Chinese ambassador’s warning over the suspension and accusing her of “closing UK Plc down”.
Last night Mr Gardiner said he was “certainly not a lone voice” in condemning the “politically foolish action” of delaying the Hinkley deal. He added: “I have spoken openly and critically of the Chinese government on many occasions, in particular with reference to illegal logging, forestry and land use change in Africa.”
He said he was aware that Christine Lee co-conducted “legal work for the Chinese embassy” but added his understanding was that this was “in relation to visa and immigration work, not in respect of trade relations”.
Parliamentary rules do not specifically forbid Mr Gardiner’s relationship with Christine Lee & Co, or the employment of Ms Lee’s son, but he could still be in breach of the MPs’ code of conduct. Mr Gardiner said: “I do not consider that I have ever put myself in a position where any outside individual or organisation might influence me in the performance of my public duties.”
The Times (paywalled)
I have no idea why anybody would be worried about China investing in UK energy infrastructure, especially nuclear power industry. The UK is free to do the same in China after all. Oh wait ...