Earlier this year, Laurence Robertson, Conservative MP for Tewkesbury, accepted hospitality from leading gambling trade body the Betting and Gaming Council (BGC). Mr Robertson now also works for BGC – while serving as chair of the betting and gaming all-party parliamentary group (APPG). This represents a hitherto unrecognised conflict of interest.
The register of MPs’ financial interests shows Mr Robertson received £900-worth of BGC hospitality, shared with his wife and a friend, one day at this year’s Cheltenham Festival in March (see 18 April 2020 post).
The MP as of 1 October 2020 has another job, with the one-year-old BGC. The gambling trade body pays him £2k per month for what he “expects” to be 10 hrs per month. Mr Robertson styles his new role as “parliamentary adviser on sport and safer gambling”.
Meanwhile, the MP is chair of the betting and gaming APPG.
The “About Us” page of the APPG website says: “Above all the Group wishes to engage with the stakeholders in the UK gambling industry, learn from them to educate the debate, while maintaining an independence of views.” (screen shot in Figure 1)
Mr Robertson’s other job with BGC means he’s conflicted as chair of the APPG – at least in terms of what his group proclaims on the “About Us” page of the website. Working for BGC means Mr Robertson’s view as both an MP and chair of the APPG is no longer independent.
The MP has a long history of accepting hospitality from both gambling firms and the horseracing industry, according to his registered interests. But his new paid role with BGC is a step further – and a new conflict of interest.
Mr Robertson didn’t respond to requests for comment.
On 13 November 2020, former Treasury special adviser Sonia Khan announced on the FDA union website she had reached a settlement with the Treasury – and so had withdrawn her employment tribunal claim for unfair dismissal (screen shot in Figure 1).
In August 2019, Dominic Cummings notoriously sacked Ms Khan and ordered police to escort her out of Downing Street.
In her statement, Ms Khan thanked her current employer, political lobbyist Cicero/AMO, “for their wholehearted backing in the last year” (Figure 1).
On 21 May 2020, PR Week reported Cicero/AMO’s hiring of the ex-Treasury spad.
Cicero/AMO is registered with the PRCA Public Affairs Board (PAB). As such the firm is required to disclose on the PAB public register both staff involved in lobbying and the clients for whom it acts.
The current register covers from 1 June 2020 until 31 August 2020. Nevertheless Ms Khan isn’t shown in Cicero/AMO’s entry there (screen shot in Figure 2). (For the avoidance of doubt, the lobbying firm is listed as Cicero Group.)
Iain Anderson, executive chairman of Cicero/AMO, is shown as contact on the register. On 16 November 2020, Mr Anderson acknowledged the omission in an email: “You are entirely correct.” He finished: “I have asked my team to remedy this immediately with the PRCA Public Affairs Board.”
A high-profile horseracing charity with no employees pays a trustee for providing services to the charity. (Most charity trustees are unpaid.) The sum paid to the trustee has increased significantly by year, according to the last five years of accounts. The accounts fail to explain this rocketing trend, however.
The Sir Peter O’Sullevan Charitable Trust, whose trustees include former star jockey Sir AP McCoy and well-known racehorse owner John McManus, is a grant-making charity. Its main source of income is an annual fundraising event, an award lunch held every November. This year’s lunch, scheduled for 19 November, had to be cancelled due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
Set up in 1999 by the “voice of racing”, broadcaster Sir Peter O’Sullevan, the charity gives grants to charities concerned with the welfare of animals, particularly horses.
Trustee Nigel Payne is also administrator of the charity. The latest accounts, made up to 30 April 2019, reveal the charity paid “fees, expenses and VAT” of £90.0k to two businesses connected to Mr Payne.
In 2018, the sum was £63.9k; 2017: £43.8k; 2016: £28.2k; and 2015: £13.4k.
In other words, Mr Payne’s businesses received nearly seven times more in 2019 than 2015, with the amount ratcheting up each year.
It might be expected the charity would justify this spiralling expenditure in the accounts. It doesn’t.
One thing is clear: the business model – fundraising via an annual award lunch – remained the same over this period. The charity didn’t set off in a new direction.
In 2016, income soared due to receipt of a £8.16M legacy from the late Sir Peter, who died in July 2015. The 2016 accounts make clear the legacy was an “exceptional item”.
The legacy has allowed the charity to increase the grants made by year. In 2019, the charity paid £1.53M grants.
In 2018, the total was £0.98M; 2017: £2.30M; 2016: £0.32M; and 2015: £0.30M.
When asked for comment, a spokesperson (not Mr Payne!) for the trustees said in an email: “You have compared the management and administration fees in 2015/16 to 2018/19 which have increased.”
He went on: “Following the death of Sir Peter O’Sullevan in July 2015, in 2016 more substantial funds became available to the Charity and the Trustees agreed on a plan to distribute these funds in accordance with the benefactors [sic] wishes and subject to unanimous approval by the Trustees. The amount the Trust distributes has therefore increased during the same time. The Trust now distributes over £1m pa (£1.3m in year ending 30. 4. 19) to many recipients rather than approx. £30k – £40k pa each to 6 regular recipient charities as in 2015/2016. The Trust also receives a huge amount of enquiries for funds and these again generate much more work which has to be done.”
The spokesperson finished: “This increase in the workload of the charity’s managers [sic] and administrators [sic] generates a commensurate increase in the fees paid and explains the increase which you noticed.”
The PRCA Public Affairs Board (PAB) calls itself “the voice of the public affairs and lobbying industry”. Among its roles, the PAB “enforces high standards through a unified Public Affairs Code”. In other words, the public affairs and lobbying industry regulates itself via the PAB. The PAB’s unsatisfactory handling of my complaint about the conduct of ex-lobbyist Paul Bristow MP shows self-regulation is no regulation.
Before becoming an MP for the first time on 12 December 2019, Mr Bristow was founding chair of the PAB.
Neha Khatwani is secretary of the PAB.
In mid-July 2020, I asked “the voice of the public affairs and lobbying industry” via an email to Ms Khatwani to comment on the conduct of Mr Bristow, referring to an investigation I published earlier this year as a series of four posts on the blog. There I showed Mr Bristow breached the MPs’ Code of Conduct and then covered it up.
Ms Khatwani confirmed the MP is a member of the PRCA, as well as a PRCA Fellow. She also confirmed the Public Affairs Code still applies to the conduct of Mr Bristow, although as an individual he no longer appears on the PAB register. As such I could make a complaint about him to the PAB in relation to the Public Affairs Code, according to its secretary.
On 31 July 2020, I emailed Ms Khatwani a letter of complaint about the conduct of the MP, which she acknowledged by same-day reply.
Since then I heard nothing from her or the PAB about the complaint.
On 9 October 2020, I therefore emailed Ms Khatwani to ask what the PAB has done with the complaint.
In her same-day response, the secretary of the PAB wrote: “… I have spoken to colleagues internally after reviewing the information you submitted and we don’t think the Public Affairs Board disciplinary procedure is the right avenue for this. As an MP, Paul Bristow does not conduct public affairs therefore it might be difficult to make an assessment of his code [sic] under the PRCA Public Affairs Code.”
Ms Khatwani also stated: “Apologies for not getting back to you on this, I’m afraid my email to you was stuck in my outbox.”
The secretary of the PAB’s response would be laughable if it wasn’t so serious.
As I say, prior to submission, Ms Khatwani clearly confirmed in emails that the Public Affairs Code still applies to the conduct of Mr Bristow, although as an individual he no longer appears on the PAB register. She invited a complaint to the PAB about the MP.
Also, as I say, prior to submission, the secretary of the PAB was fully aware of my four-part investigation on the blog into the conduct of Mr Bristow.
Therefore, it’s simply not credible for Ms Khatwani to change her position after submission. Her volte-face undermines the credibility of the PAB.
What’s more, “the voice of the public affairs and lobbying industry” seems to have lost its voice. I brought the above series of events to the attention of Liam Herbert, chair of the PAB. Mr Herbert didn’t respond to the emails.
Val Savage writes a weekly column in the Daily Mirror newspaper (“Val’s week”).
Last week she plugged yet again Tena Ladies. Because of the increasing frequency of her doing so, I asked whether the columnist will promote the brand every week (see 24 October 2020 post).
A week later and today’s (31 October 2020) column contains a further unnecessary mention of Tena Ladies, under the headline “Mess with my essentials at your peril” (screen shot in Figure 1). Ridiculous.
Former Tory MP James Wharton was the first northern powerhouse minister, under prime minister David Cameron (see 27 December 2018 post). Now Lord Wharton of Yarm, he’s an “adviser” to, among others, law firm Squire Patton Boggs (SPB), according to the register of lords’ interests.
SPB recently recruited another ex-northern powerhouse minister: Jake Berry, Conservative MP for Rossendale and Darwen (screen shot in Figure 1). Before being appointed northern powerhouse minister by prime minister Theresa May in June 2017, MP Mr Berry had another paid job – as a “consultant” with SPB from September 2016 until June 2017. Welcome back!
In February 2020, Mr Berry stepped down as northern powerhouse minister, leaving Boris Johnson’s government. The backbencher now leads the new Northern Research Group, a group of northern Tory MPs whose name clearly echoes the European Research Group of pro-Brexit Conservative MPs.
The Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA) gave its blessing to the MP taking up the new appointment with the law firm. Published on 5 October 2020, the ACOBA advice letter dated June 2020 says to Mr Berry: “You stated you did not have any contact with SPB whilst you were in ministerial office”. Yet this is false: as northern powerhouse minister Mr Berry continued to speak at events in Manchester sponsored by the law firm he also worked for as an MP.
The register of MPs’ financial interests shows as of 17 September 2020 Mr Berry receives £3.5k per month from SPB in Manchester to “provide strategic corporate advice”. The “expected commitment” is “15-20 hours a month”.
On 15 January 2017, I exclusively revealed the MP, who is a solicitor, spoke at an event in Manchester on 10 November 2016 sponsored by SPB – while also working for the law firm. Back then SPB paid Mr Berry £2.5k per month. (Clearly, it pays to have ministerial experience!) Mr Berry speaking as an MP at the event constituted a conflict of interest (see 15 January 2017 post). Worse, it was an avoidable conflict of interest.
Neither the MP nor SPB responded to requests for comment before publication of the 15 January 2017 post.
No longer on SPB’s payroll, as northern powerhouse minister Mr Berry popped up on 3 November 2017 at another Manchester event sponsored by the law firm, “M60 Breakfast Reaching for the Skyline” (screen shot in Figure 2). A year later the minister spoke at its “The Power of the North” event, which took place at SPB’s offices in the city on 12 October 2018 (screen shot in Figure 3).
There’s a reasonable concern about minister Mr Berry’s decision to continue his link with SPB in Manchester this way.
The ongoing link risks the perception that, as a former employee, Mr Berry is giving special treatment to the law firm. Such actual, potential, or perceived special treatment by a minister is unacceptable.
In December 2018, I emailed the minister twice for comment. He didn’t respond.
Back to the ACOBA advice letter dated June 2020 to Mr Berry. Another problem is it refers to the MP’s role with SPB as “legal consultant”. Yet on the register of MPs’ financial interests Mr Berry says he “provides strategic corporate advice” to the law firm, which suggests he’s an adviser. For the avoidance of doubt, there the MP doesn’t disclose his job title at SPB. Further, the law firm announced on 21 October 2020 the MP’s new role as “senior advisor [its spelling] in its public policy team” (Figure 1).
Then there’s the fact “the Committee noted this is not directly related to your time in office, and is you returning to your former career, in law”. Really? Someone should tell SPB.
The law firm’s announcement states Mr Berry “will work with the firm’s partners on the provision of strategic advice and support to clients on a range of issues, including Brexit and international trade, as well as providing his insight on Northern Powerhouse initiatives.” (Figure 1)
Nothing to do with his old ministerial job, then.
What’s more, the MP appears to be particularly keen to get cracking on the northern powerhouse with his new employer: on 8 September 2020, Mr Berry chaired an SPB event entitled “Progressing the Powerhouse: The Next Phase” (screen shots in Figure 4-5). Just days before the start date Mr Berry discloses on the register of MPs’ financial interests, therefore.
Employed again by SPB, the event on 8 September 2020 raises the same question about the capacity in which Mr Berry participated – my unanswered question to the MP about the law firm’s event in Manchester on 10 November 2016 (see 15 January 2017 post). In other words, was the former northern powerhouse minister there as MP for Rossendale and Darwen – or as an employee of SPB (soon-to-be or not)? Mr Berry is again conflicted.
There’s no suggestion Mr Berry has done anything illegal.
On 25 October 2020, The Mail on Sunday newspaper’s Anna Mikhailova referred to the outcome of the inquiry by the House of Lords Commissioner for Standards into Ben Rich, sole staffer to former health secretary Lord Lansley at the House of Lords (screen shot in Figure 1).
It was my complaint to the Commissioner that prompted her to open the inquiry (see 23 October 2020 post).