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Wed 29 September 2021

David Hencke and Sam Bright report on the ever-growing number of Conservative-linked figures who are filling senior roles in Government departments and bodies

Growing numbers of Conservatives are filling key positions in Whitehall – taking decisions that could affect the lives of millions of people, Byline Times can reveal.

The growth of Conservative insider appointments was foreseen last May when Boris Johnson appointed Alex Hickman – a former director of the Vote Leave EU Referendum campaign – as a Downing Street special advisor for business, appointments and honours. It is a position that allows him to seek out like-minded individuals for public roles.

At the same time, the Conservative Party central office increased its support for Conservatives seeking appointments, which are advertised daily on the Conservative Home blog.

This is now paying off. The latest annual report of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) reveals that two of the most important quango appointments were awarded to Conservatives or people sympathetic to the Conservative cause.

The most blatant was the new chair of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), a body responsible for the safety of millions of workers in industry and for policing the safe use of dangerous substances. The post went to Sarah Newton, who stood down as a Conservative MP in 2019 and was until then Minister for the Disabled at the DWP. She was appointed to the HSE in August – nine months after ceasing to be a minister.

The second appointment – officially classified as ‘non-political’ – went to Stephen Brien, policy director of the Legatum Institute, a think tank part-funded by the Dubai-based Legatum Investment Group. He has been appointed as the chair of the Social Security Advisory Committee (SSAC) – the statutory body that scrutinises benefits regulation changes that affect millions of people. He declared in his application that “I am not now, and have never been, politically active”. The Legatum Group is an investor in the right-wing channel GB News.

Brien formerly worked for the right-wing think tank founded by ex-Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith, the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), and is seen as the inventor of Universal Credit – a benefit that was loathed by many people until it was uprated during the Coronavirus pandemic. He will now be scrutinising changes to this benefit.

Appointed alongside Brien to the committee was Charlotte Pickles. She also started her policy career at the CSJ, before working as the expert special advisor to Duncan Smith when he ran the DWP. More recently, Pickles was ‘capitalism editor’ and columnist, and then managing editor, of the right-wing publication UnHerd. The website was co-founded by Paul Marshall, who has also invested heavily in GB News. Pickles is a member of the NHS Assembly, a national forum that advises the boards of NHS England and NHS Improvement.

Another key appointment was Sir Ashley Fox. He is now the chair of the Independent Monitoring Authority (IMA), which acts as a watchdog to ensure that the rights of EU citizens seeking permanent settlement in the UK are protected. Sir Ashley was previously the leader of the Conservative group in the European Parliament, serving as a Conservative Member of the European Parliament from 2009 to 2019.

When he appeared before the Commons’ Justice Committee at a pre-appointment hearing, it was revealed that Sir Ashley had failed to disclose that he had been on the board of the Conservative Party, had made the shortlist to be the Conservative MP for Devizes, and had been on the nomination list for North Dorset at the 2019 General Election.

Another appointment that has raised questions is that of Andrew Cayley QC in April as chief inspector of the Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate. MPs questioned the fact that Cayley had given a £10,000 donation to the Conservative Party during the last general election campaign.

Cayley told MPs that that he was a card-carrying Conservative Party member, while claiming that he is free to give donations to political parties and that it doesn’t influence his judgement. He added: “I lived in a country in south-east Asia where you wouldn’t even be interviewing me unless I was a signed up member of the ruling party, thank God we don’t live in a country like that.”

A spokesman for the Independent Monitoring Authority told Byline Times that Sir Ashley Fox did not want to comment and that the Commons’ Justice Committee was the appropriate authority to comment.

A spokesman for the Department for Work and Pensions first referred Byline Times to Conservative central office – until it was pointed out that it was Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey who appointed the relevant individuals, not the Conservative Party. The department then refused to comment, saying that it was a matter for the Health and Safety Executive and the Social Security Advisory Committee.

Byline Times approached both but they refused to comment – saying that this newspaper should approach the Cabinet Office, a department which is not officially responsible for the appointments catalogued in this article.

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The Government has been coming under increasing pressure over its appointment of Conservative-affiliated individuals to departments and official bodies. One former Government non-executive director told the Financial Times that “there has been a lot of placement of political cronies” and that “Number 10 has taken a close interest in it for the past year-and-a-half”.

This cronyism crisis crystallised in the story that toppled Matt Hancock from the Cabinet last month, when a tabloid exposé revealed that the former Health and Social Care Secretary was having an affair with Gina Coladangelo – who he had appointed as a non-executive director at the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), with an annual pay packet of an estimated £15,000.

Byline Times has further revealed that businessman Wol Kolade, who has donated more than £630,000 to the Conservatives since 2015 – including a £10,000 donation to Hancock in July 2019 – has seen his non-executive director position at the DHSC extended for another year. The department has also extended the role of Lord Patrick Carter, who is the chairman of a firm that has won some £60 million for the provision of PCR testing services during the pandemic.

Drawing on the work of Byline TimesopenDemocracy has revealed at least 16 allies of the Conservative Party who have been given non-executive director roles in Government departments and agencies. Byline Times revealed last December, for example, that Jacob Rees-Mogg’s business partner – also a former Conservative Party vice-chair – had been appointed as a non-executive director of the Department for International Trade. He was appointed alongside Douglas Carswell, a former Conservative MP and a senior figure in the Vote Leave EU Referendum campaign.

Other Government non-executive directors include Ben Goldsmith, Conservative donor and brother of minister Lord Zac Goldsmith; Gisela Stuart, co-chair of the Vote Leave campaign; and Nick Timothy, a former advisor to Theresa May and a Telegraph columnist. Byline Times has also revealed that most departments have failed to keep their list of non-executive directors up-to-date, thereby breaching official guidance.

Sue Hawley, senior director at Spotlight on Corruption, told openDemocracy that the appointment of politically-connected individuals to non-executive director roles “risks allowing political capture of whole government departments”.

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