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Climate-Sceptic MP ‘Failed to Declare’ Ties to Controversial Net Zero Watch

Two of Craig Mackinlay’s staffers have had close ties to the Global Warming Policy Forum (now Net Zero Watch) and its wholly-owned charitable wing report Josiah Mortimer and Max Colbert

Craig Mackinlay, the Conservative Party MP for South Thanet, campaigning in 2015. Photo: Reuters/Alamy

Lobbying SCandal latestClimate-Sceptic MP ‘Failed to Declare’ Ties to Controversial Net Zero Watch

Two of Craig Mackinlay’s staffers have had close ties to the Global Warming Policy Forum (now Net Zero Watch) and its wholly-owned charitable wing report Josiah Mortimer and Max Colbert

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A right-wing Conservative MP who campaigns against flagship green policies faces allegations he failed to declare that his staffers have close ties to a controversial climate-sceptical think tank. 

Questions have been raised about a possible breach of rules surrounding declarations in the Register of Interests of Members’ Secretaries and Research Assistants, misuse of parliamentary passes, and a potential breach of the parliamentary Code of Conduct by Craig Mackinlay MP. 

Mackinlay appears to have failed to declare the interests of two staffers – a former researcher who worked for a bank while he sat on the Public Accounts Committee (and who is now a peer) and a current researcher of his who is head of public affairs for the controversial campaign group Net Zero Watch (NZW). That’s despite the right-wing MP speaking in several debates opposing tough action on climate change. 

NZW is a campaigning group based in Tufton Street, launched and managed by the Global Warming Policy Forum, and set up by the late Conservative chancellor Nigel Lawson. It does not reveal its funders, though states it does not receive gifts from energy companies. However, an openDemocracy investigation last year found links to “dark money” donors to the group’s charitable arm, with millions of dollars in oil and coal investments. 

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The findings cast fresh light on the proximity of lobbying groups to Parliament, through All Party Parliamentary Groups, staff employed by MPs, and Members taking on paid advisory work on behalf of certain industries. Last Wednesday, Conservative MP Scott Benton had the whip removed after an undercover investigation revealed him offering to lobby on behalf of the gambling industry. 

Responding to our findings, Green MP Caroline Lucas told Byline Times: “Craig Mackinlay appears to have been caught red-handed – it’s time for him to come clean on his links to Net Zero Watch. Climate-delaying and denying influences should be nowhere near the party of Government – we must kick fossil fuel interests out of politics for good.”

As previously reported, Craig Mackinlay, chair of the Net Zero Scrutiny Group (NZSG), which campaigns against the government’s Net Zero measures, has employed two staff members linked to Net Zero Watch/Global Warming Policy Forum – now-Baroness Ruth Lea, and Harry Wilkinson. The pair have both been listed as research assistants to Mackinlay, and both have held positions within the Foundation (officially a charity) or Net Zero Watch. 

The separate Net Zero Scrutiny Group, a collective of around 20 backbench MPs which blames the government’s green policies for much of the cost of living crisis, has numerous institutional links to GWPF and uses research produced by it. It was established by Steve Baker MP who between May 2021 and September 2022 was a GWPF trustee. 

Net Zero Watch Policy Chief

Harry Wilkinson has a pass as a “researcher” for Craig Mackinlay MP. He is also head of policy at the Global Warming Policy Forum, which now operates as ‘Net Zero Watch’. 

Wilkinson has repeatedly denied or downplayed the severity of the climate crisis. Criticising IPCC research on TalkRadio, he said that “They have low confidence in any trends in drought globally; flooding the same low confidence, if anything flooding might be getting less likely than before”, and that children born today are “the luckiest ever generation” and “less at risk from extreme weather than ever before”. 

Wilkinson had previously worked, until February 2022, as an aide to the late Lord Lawson, the founder of the GWPF who passed away this month. Upon leaving he almost immediately took up a position with Mackinlay. On 16 February 2022, he tweeted: “After 5 years of working as a Researcher for Lord Lawson, I am pleased to be able to take a position in Craig Mackinlay’s office. I look forward to supporting his work alongside continuing my role with Net Zero Watch.”

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Harry Wilkinson declares his employment as Head of Policy for both the Global Warming Policy Foundation and the Forum (NZW) on his register of interests as a passholder. Craig Mackinlay does not declare that one of his staff members also works for Net Zero Watch. There is no allegation of wrongdoing on Wilkinson’s part. 

While Craig Mackinlay has mentioned his role as chair of the Net Zero Scrutiny Group in contributions to the House, he hasn’t mentioned that he benefits from one of his staff members being paid by an outside organisation with a focus on climate-related topics during relevant debates, which could be in breach of the Code of Conduct for Members of Parliament. 

According to the Code, members shall: “Always be open and frank in drawing attention to any relevant interests in any proceeding of the House or its Committees, and in any communications with Ministers, Members, public officials, or public office holders.”

The declaration of interests states that “members may also declare, if they think it appropriate, non-financial interests which are not registered but which they consider meet the test of relevance”, which relates to whether those interests “might reasonably be thought by others to influence his or her actions as a member”. Relevant interests must be declared ‘in the Chamber and in general committees’ and ‘when speaking in a debate’. 

Members of "Steve Baker Watch" hold a vigil outside the offices of the Conservative Association in High Wycombe over the MP's opposition to Net Zero policies
The Global Warming Policy Forum – now rebranded as Net Zero Watch – rails against renewable energy and policies that reduce reliance on fossil fuels. Photo: Maureen McLean/Alamy Live News

Interests to Declare 

Steve Goodrich, Head of Research & Investigations at Transparency International, told Byline Times: “When MPs or their staff fail to declare benefits from outside organisations it gives the impression something is awry. It is paramount that those with privileged access to Parliament are fully open and transparent about anything that could present a conflict between their public role and private interests.”

When referencing his work with the Net Zero Scrutiny Group and the UK’s reliance on natural gas on 15 March, a time that Wilkinson would have been employed by him, Mackinlay declined to mention that one of his staff was employed by a think tank closely linked to the NZSG – Net Zero Watch – which lobbies on behalf of the same issues as the ones reflected in his contributions. Mackinlay has also declined to mention these links when speaking on similar topics, such as fracking, which Mackinlay supported

When speaking about the appointment of Wilkinson, Mackinlay stated that his outside employment with the GWPF “is fully disclosed according to parliamentary rules applying to MPs’ employees and his depth of knowledge acquired there is invaluable to my interest and work on the net zero issues”. According to parliamentary rules, passholders must “genuinely and personally provide parliamentary secretarial or research assistance to the sponsoring Member”.

Politico reported at the time of the appointment that Wilkinson was “expected to receive two salaries: one from the taxpayer as a parliamentary aide and one from GWPF”. 

Banking on the Baroness 

Baroness Ruth Lea, a political economist and former civil servant, has a long-standing relationship with the right wing think tank collective based out of Tufton Street. She is a former trustee and director of the (charitable) Global Warming Policy Foundation, holding the position between 2019 and 2021. She’s also held positions at the Centre for Policy Studies, Taxpayers Alliance and Institute of Economic Affairs, and was a co-founder of the Eurosceptic Global Vision campaign group. 

She’s made multiple statements rejecting the consensus on climate change over the years, referring to ‘climate alarmists’, ‘flawed analysis’ of rising temperatures, and stating that ‘there seems to be little scientific agreement that mankind’s fossil-fuel burning is the major reason for climate change’. She has written a pamphlet for the GWPF which claims the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) ‘forecasting record has been poor, overestimating the degree of global warming’. 

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In October 2022, it was announced that she would receive a life peerage as part of Boris Johnson’s political honours, and was created Baroness Lea of Lymm that November. 

Mackinlay previously confirmed to Politico that Lea, prior to her elevation to the Lords, had been issued with a parliamentary pass between August and September 2021 through association with his office since 2016. 

Speaking of the appointment, he said that “She has never been paid and has assisted me primarily across Brexit, Treasury, and economic issues”, and that her work with the GWPF “was wholly unconnected to her original appointment with me and is not related to her continuation as a passholder now”. 

However, between 2007 and 2022, Lea was also employed by the Arbuthnot Banking Group, spending nine years as a non-executive director, and a further seven years, up to March 2022, as an economic adviser to the bank, also writing a column for them (the last one dated May 2022), which is not declared on her register of interests. Arbuthnot are majority owned by Conservative donor and former party treasurer Henry Angest. 

Holders of photo-identity passes as Members’ secretaries or research assistants are required to register “any occupation or employment for which you receive over £420 from the same source in the course of a calendar year” if it is “in any way” advantaged by the privileged access to Parliament afforded by a parliamentary pass.

Not only was her employment with Arbuthnot not registered, but during the time she held a parliamentary pass, as an economic advisor to a bank, Lea’s sponsor Craig Mackinlay MP also sat on the Public Accounts Committee, which ‘holds government officials to account for the economy, efficiency, and effectiveness of public spending’. 

55 Tufton Street, Westminster - home to the Global Warming Policy Foundation - and Net Zero Watch. Photo: Fred Mack/Alamy
55 Tufton Street, Westminster – home to Net Zero Watch and its charitable arm, the Global Warming Policy Foundation. As well as many right-wing think tanks. Photo: Fred Mack/Alamy

“Perfectly Transparent”

Mackinlay held the position on the committee between 2 March 2020 and 25 October 2022. Speaking to Byline Times, Baroness Lea stated that during her employment with Arbuthnot she was ‘remunerated as self-employed’, and that her links to the bank and unpaid work with the GWPF were ‘perfectly transparent’. 

She added: “I was not paid at all when I had a pass with Craig Mackinlay and my contacts with Mr Mackinlay were highly informal.” 

As per the most recent register of secretaries interests, up until her resignation from Arbuthnot, she had not declared her employment. Nor did Craig Mackinlay appear to mention that one of his researchers was being paid as an adviser for a bank – rather than paid by his office – while he sat on the Public Accounts Committee. 

Under the rules for registration, Members must register support which has a value of more than £1,500 from the same source over the same year. This includes support in kind including “the services of staff or interns” and covers support given “either free or at concessionary rates”. 

Ruth Lea’s position as a trustee of the GWPF also was not declared, and while she had resigned in March 2021, prior to working with Mr Mackinlay, this work still fell within the same calendar year, and wasn’t declared. 

Baroness Lea told Byline Times she did not need to declare this and this had been confirmed by parliamentary authorities. We are unable to verify that claim but are awaiting a response from the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner. Steve Goodrich of Transparency International said: “Parliamentary rules state that passholders should report any substantial outside income for public inspection.”

Wrongdoing Denied

Given that the work undertaken by Ruth Lea as a “researcher” for Craig Mackinlay was unpaid, one parliamentary expert told Byline Times it could be perceived as a gift, and as such declarable. 

Craig Mackinlay did not respond to specific allegations, and instead told Byline Times: “You are incorrect across all points that you raise and can only recommend that you look more closely at declarations made and indeed the rules upon which you seem to be holding yourself out as an ‘expert”. 

Liberal Democrat Spokesperson for Climate Change, Wera Hobhouse MP, said: “If these allegations are true, it just adds to the endless sense of sleaze that has engulfed the Conservative party. The Tories’ delight in cosying up to climate deniers and delayers represents a serious problem. There is no place for climate scepticism in Parliament.

She added that groups like Net Zero Watch have “long been spreader[s] of disinformation in the climate change discourse.”

“They have placed doubt upon the need to tackle the greatest threat facing the planet. The rot the GWPF has caused to positive climate action cannot be understated. They must be called out on it and their influence cast out of politics for good,” the Lib Dem MP said.

Doug Parr, Policy Director for Greenpeace, added: “No wonder the government is meeting science deniers ‘all the time’, as they admitted last week. There seem to be quite a few of them working in Westminster. Undeclared, apparently, but then anyone who thinks the laws of physics don’t apply to them is hardly likely to follow parliamentary procedure.”

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