The conflicted BBC royal correspondent at The Normandy Memorial Trust

  1. BBC royal correspondent Nicholas Witchell is the founding trustee of The Normandy Memorial Trust (NMT), a charity he set up in 2016 to build a memorial in Normandy, France to the 22 442 British men and women killed in 1944 during the D-Day landings and the Battle of Normandy. As part of the events to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day on 6 June 2019, the official inauguration of the site of the British Normandy memorial will take place. Both the UK prime minister and French president are expected to attend the ceremony, says the NMT website.
  2. The board of trustees delegates the charity’s “day-to-day activities” to Mr Witchell, according to the latest trustees’ annual report, made up to 30 June 2018. Thus the BBC royal correspondent has a key role at NMT. Which makes his conflict of interest as a trustee even more problematic.
  3. The conflict arises in two ways.
  4. First, as a BBC journalist Mr Witchell needs to be objective and impartial. Yet Prince Charles is the royal patron of NMT. Thus Mr Witchell’s role at the charity risks undermining his independence as BBC royal correspondent.
  5. Second, on 5 March 2017, the government awarded the charity £20m from the LIBOR fund. I and others have shown there are several military charities that received large grants from the LIBOR fund, only to spend the money profligately. Military charities like Veterans Council, for example (see 25 February 2018 post and references therein). Further, The Police Arboretum Memorial Trust, which I exposed on 13 June 2017, is another charity that was gifted a large sum from the LIBOR fund. Thus it’s in the public interest to scrutinise how NMT spends its grant. Nevertheless I fear that Mr Witchell’s role at the charity could discourage the BBC and its journalists from examining critically both the charity and his involvement there.
  6. On 8 September 2017, the National Audit Office (NAO) published the findings of its investigation into the management of the LIBOR fund. At September 2017 the government had committed £933m from the LIBOR fund, but couldn’t confirm to the NAO that the recipient charities had spent all grants as intended! A clear oversight failure. Further evidence of the need to scrutinise how NMT actually spends the £20m LIBOR grant, therefore.
  7. On the first point, Mr Witchell said in an email: “The BBC has been and is fully aware of my involvement with The Normandy Memorial Trust. My obligation to provide impartial, fair and – if necessary – robust coverage as one of the BBC’s royal correspondents will always take precedence over any other consideration.”
  8. While on the second point, the BBC royal correspondent wrote in the same message: “The Normandy Memorial Trust does not see itself as a ‘military charity’. Its focus is to provide a memorial in Normandy to the 22 442 men and women under British command who lost their lives in Normandy in the sumer [sic] of 1944 in pursuit of European freedom. The trust’s board of trustees headed by Lord Peter Ricketts exercises robust financial oversight precisely to ensure that the public money from LIBOR is spent responsibly. The trust welcomes proper scrutiny.” Mr Witchell finished: “The BBC would never permit the involvement of one of its staff in a charity to influence decisions about editorial coverage.”
  9. I wrote back mainly about his last sentence. I agree, I said, that’s what the public should rightly expect from the BBC. However, we mustn’t forget the Jimmy Savile scandal.
  10. In December 2011, the BBC notoriously axed producer Meirion Jones’ Newsnight investigation into BBC star Mr Savile. Thus the organisation instituted a cover-up. This intervention by the BBC shows it can – and did – undermine the editorial independence of its news journalists.
  11. Mr Witchell replied the same day, but didn’t comment on my response to the last sentence in his first email.

Why the Gambling Commission’s new strategy to reduce gambling harms means the health minister’s staff member deserves scrutiny

  1. On 25 April 2019, gambling regulator the Gambling Commission launched its new national strategy to reduce gambling harms: a public health approach to reducing gambling harms. This public health approach requires, among other things, collaboration between “health bodies, charities, regulators and businesses”. Thus the NHS and Public Health England are key partners in the new strategy.
  2. This public health approach to reducing gambling harms means a member of health minister Stephen Hammond’s staff at parliament, Louise Stevens, deserves scrutiny. In two posts on 30 March 2019, I revealed Ms Stevens’ gambling-related other roles and links. Back then Mr Hammond became obstructive when I asked legitimate questions about his staff member. He quickly told me not to email again about Ms Stevens.

Excessive costs at the John Hartson Foundation

    1. The John Hartson Foundation (JHF) is a grant-making charity that supports other cancer-related charities only. In 2016, it spent £178.8k – but just £1.9k (1.1 per cent) went to other charities. This wasn’t a one-off, either.
    2. Registered as a charity with the Charity Commission on 21 March 2013, JHF has so far published five sets of accounts (Table 1). The proportion of expenditure going to other charities was highest in the second year, 2015, when it was 46.1 per cent (£132.0k of £286.3k). The maximum figure was still below 50 per cent, therefore. Putting it another way, in each year to date MOST of the money spent hasn’t reached other charities.
Table 1. The John Hartson Foundation 2014-2018 (GBP k)
Year Spending Donations made Per cent of spending
2014 141.1 26.6 18.8
2015 286.3 132.0 46.1
2016 178.8 1.9 1.1
2017 117.9 5.0 4.2
2018 126.7 42.0 33.2
    1. 2017 wasn’t much better than the previous year: JHF donated merely £5.0k (4.2 per cent) of £117.9 to other charities. Nevertheless things improved last year: the proportion was 33.2 per cent (£42.0k of £126.7).
    2. Ex-professional footballer John Hartson, who survived testicular cancer after diagnosis in 2009, founded JHF. As well as making grants to cancer-related organisations, the charity aims to raise awareness of testicular cancer – its slogan: “grab life by the balls”.
    3. Although Mr Hartson isn’t a trustee, his wife, Sarah Hartson, is and has been one from the outset. Ms Hartson is sole “person with significant control” (PSC), too, according to Companies House records.
    4. JHF organises regular fundraising events led by its eponymous founder. On 30 April 2019, the charity will again hold its annual golf day at Trump Turnberry in Scotland, for example. Putting on high-profile fundraising events obviously incurs costs.
    5. JHF is set to surpass £1m funds raised later this year, its website proudly proclaims. A commendable achievement. Nevertheless income is only one aspect of performance. More important is how a charity actually spends its money: how much – or how little – reaches the good cause in whose name funds are raised. Here JHF is evidently failing. Its costs are excessive.
    6. Last year JHF made a change that reduced costs: it had no paid staff, the accounts show. The charity employed two people in all other years. Despite this, however, the 2018 accounts don’t comment on the change. In short, JHF still needs to do more to increase efficiency.
    7. JHF didn’t respond to emailed requests for comment.

ACOBA is wrong: senior Tory MP’s new job is linked to former role as minister

  1. Former minister Sir John Hayes recently bagged another outside job – his fourth! As of 5 January 2019 the Tory MP is “non-executive director” to Esharelife, an organisation he describes as “a charitable foundation” on the register of MPs’ financial interests. Sir John is paid £6k per quarter to “promote Esharelife’s charitable work”, which will require “an estimated maximum of 1.5 days per month”. The Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA) gave its blessing to the MP taking up the new appointment. The new job had no connection, said ACOBA in its advice letter, with Sir John’s last ministerial role at the Department for Transport. The committee “particularly noted” the ex-minister “had no prior dealings” with Esharelife. Here I show ACOBA appears to have overlooked the pre-existing association between Sir John and Dr Maurizio Bragagni, founder and chair of Esharelife (full name: Esharelife Limited), as well as sole “person with significant control” (PSC).
  2. Italian Dr Bragagni is chair and chief executive of Tratos (UK) Limited, the UK arm of his family’s global cable-manufacturing business, Tratos Group. Dr Bragagni and his firm were linked to Sir John while he was transport minister from July 2016 until January 2018. Below follows four pieces of evidence for the association back then.
  3. First, the then transport minister gave the welcome address at the Port Equipment Manufacturers Association (PEMA) AGM 2017, which took place in London in February 2017 (screen shot in Figure 1). Tratos was the event’s main sponsor. The company website says it was Dr Bragagni who invited Sir John to attend in his capacity as transport minister (screen shot in Figure 2). At the time Dr Bragagni was also PEMA vice president.

    Figure 1. Then transport minister Sir John Hayes speaking at the Port Equipment Manufacturers Association (PEMA) AGM 2017: Tratos website at 28 February 2019

    Figure 2. Dr Bragagni invited then transport minister Sir John Hayes to speak at the Port Equipment Manufacturers Association (PEMA) AGM 2017: Tratos website at 28 February 2019

  4. Second, later in 2017, Tratos donated £6k to Sir John’s local constituency Conservative association, South Holland and The Deepings. (At date of publication Tratos has given £238k to the Tories, nearly all to the central party. Dr Bragagni has also individually donated £182k, again almost all to the central party.)
  5. Third, Dr Bragagni is “principal patron” of the Westminster Italian Conservative Group (screen shot in Figure 3). Tratos sponsored its reception on 3 October 2017 at the 2017 Tory party conference in Manchester (screen shot in Figure 4). As you can see, the then transport minister was one of the advertised “special guests”.

    Figure 3. Dr Bragagni is “principal patron” of the Westminster Italian Conservative Group: website at 28 February 2019

    Figure 4. Westminster Italian Conservative Group reception at the 2017 Tory party conference in Manchester: Facebook at 28 February 2019

  6. Fourth, in February 2018, Dr Bragagni published a book, “Brexit, Business and A Better Britain”. There in the acknowledgements he thanked Sir John “for his consistent support for Tratos’ push for higher industry standards” (screen shot in Figure 5).

    Figure 5. Dr Bragagni thanks Sir John Hayes in his book: PDF at 28 February 2019

  7. Incorporated on 19 February 2016, Esharelife (Esharelife Limited) itself warrants scrutiny. Here I make two points.
  8. First, at date of publication the self-proclaimed “charity foundation” (screen shot in Figure 6) isn’t registered as a charity with the Charity Commission. The last publicly available accounts, made up to 31 December 2017, say the registered charity number is “to follow”. Those accounts, its second set, were filed at Companies House on 26 September 2018. Yet the organisation still isn’t on the commission’s online public register of charities.

    Figure 6. “Charity foundation” Esharelife homepage at 28 February 2019

  9. Second, given Dr Bragagni is sole PSC of Esharelife, it and Tratos are related parties. Besides sole PSC and director Dr Bragagni, the “charity foundation” has three other directors. All three are either existing or former directors of Tratos, according to Companies House records! Unsurprisingly, Tratos appears prominently on the Esharelife website (screen shot in Figure 7).

    Figure 7. Tratos on the Esharelife homepage at 28 February 2019

  10. This is only the latest instance of ACOBA complacency and incompetence I’ve exposed (see 27 December 2018 and 25 February 2019 posts).
  11. Sir John didn’t respond to emailed requests for comment.
  12. There’s no suggestion that anyone has done anything illegal.

Imperial Corporate Capital PLC responds on Carl Francis

  1. On 21 March 2019, I gave six reasons investors should avoid Imperial Corporate Capital PLC (ICC). One was the fact that Carl Francis, whom ICC refers to as “one of the world’s leading architects”, isn’t a registered architect. The property developer and investor hadn’t responded to emailed requests for comment on the matter by publication time. It has now.
  2. On 29 March 2019, ICC wrote: “Carl Francis is no longer an architect engaged by us and we have not worked with him since we were made aware of this on 23rd August 2018, as per the attached letter we received from ARB.”
  3. ARB is the Architects Registration Board, the UK regulator of architects (see 21 March 2019 post). It has confirmed that the ARB letter ICC sent is genuine.
  4. So ICC only became aware Mr Francis isn’t a registered architect upon receipt of the ARB letter in August last year! Mr Francis was a “non-executive director” of the firm at the time. An astonishing due diligence failure by ICC.
  5. Meanwhile, at date of publication ICC videos featuring “architect” and “non-executive director” Mr Francis remain on YouTube (see 21 March 2019 post).

Inconsistencies in interpretation of a rule for the register of interests of MPs’ staff

  1. A government minister claims I have a “misunderstanding” of the register of interests of MPs’ staff. I’m wrong to infer, he says, that his staffer’s second job as disclosed on the register is “advantaged” by his [staff member’s] possession of a parliamentary pass. The minister goes on: “I … disagree that this declaration is some kind of confession of benefit.” Rather, “the sole reason for declaration is for transparency”. Thus not only does the minister appear to contradict what his fellow minister, Stephen Hammond MP, told me separately about the register (see first post on 30 March 2019). But also the minister’s position seems to be inconsistent with a key rule that governs the register.
  2. The register introduction is clear. It says MPs’ staff must register “any occupation or employment for which you receive over £385 from the same source in the course of a calendar year, IF THAT OCCUPATION OR EMPLOYMENT IS IN ANY WAY ADVANTAGED BY THE PRIVILEGED ACCESS TO PARLIAMENT AFFORDED BY YOUR PASS [my emphasis].”
  3. Nadhim Zahawi MP has been minister for children and families since January 2018. Parliament’s then latest (at 11 July 2018) register of interests of MPs’ staff showed Matthew Clark working for Mr Zahawi. (register at 11 July 2018) There Mr Clark disclosed a second job as “parliamentary liaison” for Elected Technologies (ET), a tech company producing software “solutions” for “elected representatives, individuals and political parties seeking elected office”, according to its website. Mr Clark – actually just “Matt” – appeared as “parliamentary liaison” on the ET website then as well (screen shot in Figure 1). The company website said nothing about what “parliamentary liaison” involves, however. There’s a lack of clarity and transparency around what Mr Clark is doing for the firm. I therefore emailed him at ET for comment, twice. I received nothing.

    Figure 1. “Matt”, “parliamentary liaison”: Elected Technologies website at 16 August 2018

  4. So I wrote to Mr Zahawi in August 2018. In his response, the minister said that “part-time researcher” Mr Clark doesn’t work in his parliamentary office. Rather, he works “remotely”. Mr Zahawi continued: “This work could conceivably require occasional access to me in parliament, which is why he is listed as a passholder. However, in reality, Matthew has not been to parliament in 2018 [at August 2018].” He finished: “His work with me is in no way related to, affected or impacted by his entirely separate, full-time job with Elected Technologies, and vice versa.”
  5. The address shown on the ET website for its UK office is within Mr Zahawi’s constituency, Stratford-on-Avon. It’s the firm’s registered office address as well, according to Companies House records.
  6. I then emailed the minister again, saying that, despite the lack of clarity and transparency around what Mr Clark is doing for ET, we do know that possession of a parliamentary pass is advantageous to Mr Clark’s role at ET: otherwise he wouldn’t have registered his job with the firm on the register of interests of MPs’ staff (here I cited “register introduction”). In another point, I said it’s a matter of record that the chief executive and founder of ET, Simon Smethurst-McIntyre, used to work in his parliamentary office. Therefore, I went on, it’s reasonable to ask whether he might want to help former employee Mr Smethurst-McIntyre and his firm. Authorising a parliamentary pass for Mr Clark is one way the minister could help ET (or it could reasonably be perceived as such).
  7. In his second email, Mr Zahawi wrote: “I believe that you have a misunderstanding of the register of Member’s [sic] staff interests. Members [sic] staff are required to register any outside employment for which they receive more than £385 a year. Registration is not linked to any benefit, which seems to be the false basis of your allegations. The sole reason for declaration is for transparency.” The minister continued: “… Any suggestion that I have authorised a parliamentary pass to benefit Elected Technologies, or anyone else, is libellous. As I explained before, Matthew Clark has a parliamentary pass because he works part time for me, and therefore might need to access me in parliament in order to complete the work I employ him for.” Mr Zahawi concluded: “He has not used his parliamentary pass in conjunction with his work for Elected Technologies, or indeed for anything other than his work with me, and to suggest otherwise would also be a libellous accusation.”
  8. For the avoidance of doubt, I didn’t and don’t intend to libel anyone or any organisation. I had asked Mr Zahawi a reasonable question given the chief executive and founder of ET formerly worked in his parliamentary office. Thus there’s a connection between the MP and the firm in his constituency that predates that due to Mr Clark. Another reason it was and is a reasonable question is Mr Clark, too, previously worked in Mr Zahawi’s parliamentary office.
  9. In my final message to the minister, I said I disagree that I have a “misunderstanding” of the register of interests of MPs’ staff. This time I explicitly quoted the relevant rule from the register introduction. That Mr Clark has registered his job with ET on the register indicates, I went on, his other role is “advantaged” by his possession of a parliamentary pass. Then I made a new point: we mustn’t forget Mr Clark’s role at ET is “parliamentary liaison”. It’s reasonable to suggest from job title alone, I wrote, that a parliamentary pass would be helpful to the ET employee. Finally, I highlighted the fact that Mr Clark has now changed his registration in relation to ET – after I first wrote to both of them, of course. Thus he’s ditched “parliamentary liaison”, instead putting “head of marketing” on the then latest (at 22 August 2018) register. (register at 22 August 2018)
  10. On 11 September 2018, the minister replied. Mr Clark informed him, said Mr Zahawi, that “following a restructuring, and new staff hires, his job position was changed to head of marketing at the end of July. His job remains much the same, even though the title of ‘parliamentary liaison’ appears to have inspired a very different image in your mind of what his job involves. This nominal change meant he was obliged to update his register, as is required. The register is published on a 6 weekly basis and reflects that change.”
  11. As I say, Mr Zahawi’s last message was on 11 September 2018. Yet the next day Mr Clark – sorry, “Matt” – still appeared as “parliamentary liaison” on the tech company’s website! (screen shot in Figure 2) I don’t know what the “parliamentary liaison” role involves, of course; and have never claimed to do so. Nevertheless it’s parliament-related, by definition. As such, then, it’s reasonable to suggest from job title alone that a parliamentary pass would be helpful to the ET employee. As I say, this is a legitimate point about the job title only – nothing more. (On 13 September 2018, I noticed the ET website showed “Matt” as “head of marketing”.)

    Figure 2. “Matt”, “parliamentary liaison”: Elected Technologies website at 12 September 2018

  12. Turning to the register, the minister wrote: “I urge all of my staff to be whiter than white with their declarations of outside interests, and disagree that this declaration is some kind of confession of benefit. As I stated before, this is in the interests of transparency. I too declare everything on my register of interests.” Mr Zahawi finished: “I believe the above is a full, honest and complete declaration of the situation. If you have any evidence of any benefit to support any allegations you wish to make about this or anything else please submit that evidence to me, and I would advise you to also submit anything to Elected Technologies that affects their own reputation. Unless you have any other evidence that you can put forward to me, I would personally view continued baseless accusations as libellous. If you continue to suggest anything else, with no further evidence, in any form or using any medium, that is how I shall have to treat your further communications.”
  13. Again, for the avoidance of doubt, I didn’t and don’t intend to libel anyone or any organisation. There’s no malice involved. Nor is this work politically motivated. Equally, it has been done in good faith. None of my emails to Mr Zahawi and Mr Clark was abusive in any way. Rather, each time I sought comment on issues I raised. Right of reply is important. The emails were reasonable journalistic inquiries.
  14. The register of interests of MPs’ staff is published online and publicly accessible. The disclosures there and their interpretation are legitimate matters of public interest. I have a long-term interest in the register, first writing about problems with it on 15 February 2016. On 9 November in the same year, meanwhile, I exclusively revealed how the register of interests of MPs’ staff is always incomplete at any time because not all staff with parliamentary passes are included. Then on 22 November 2017, I exposed how a staffer had erroneously declared a relevant unpaid role on the register, without making clear it was unpaid – holders of parliamentary passes as MPs’ staff are required to disclose paid roles only on the register.
  15. Mr Clark no longer possesses a parliamentary pass, as he doesn’t appear on the latest (at 22 March 2019) register of interests of MPs’ staff. Meanwhile, at date of publication Mr Clark remains on the ET website, still simply as “Matt”, “head of marketing”.
  16. There are many problems with the register of interests of MPs’ staff. Here I show there’s an urgent need for clarity on a key rule that governs the register. Inconsistencies in interpretation of the rule, including, it seems, between ministers Mr Hammond and Mr Zahawi, risk undermining public trust and confidence in the register and its contents.
  17. There’s no suggestion that anyone has done anything illegal.