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Mon 29 November 2021

Sam Bright digs into the latest declaration of ministerial interests

A Government minister held shares in the medical firm AstraZeneca while it has been benefitting from the policies of Boris Johnson’s administration, Byline Times can reveal.

The Government released its latest record of ministerial interests on Wednesday, showing that Foreign Office Minister Amanda Milling owns a “small shareholding in AstraZeneca”. The last declaration of ministerial interests, released in May, did not show this shareholding.

Byline Times understands that the AstraZeneca shareholding has now been declared because Milling was appointed as Minister for Asia in September – previously serving as Conservative Party co-chair and a ‘Minister without Portfolio’ – and the financial interest is now deemed to be relevant.

It is believed that Milling first acquired the shares more 20 years ago, and has sought advice on whether it is proper to retain the shares given her ministerial position.

AstraZeneca announced a partnership with the University of Oxford in April 2020 to develop and distribute a vaccine for COVID-19 – weeks after which the Government invested £65.5 million into the project. The vaccine was approved by the Government on 30 December that year, and was rolled-out over the subsequent months – primarily alongside a vaccine developed by BioNTech and Pfizer. By July 2021, every UK adult had been offered a first dose of a COVID vaccine, the Government reported.

The British Medical Journal reports that the Government agreed to pay $3 per dose for the AstraZeneca vaccine, and has so far ordered 100 million doses. The National Audit Office revealed in December that the UK was expecting to spend a total of £2.9 billion on the procurement of COVID vaccines.

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Between May and November, the firm’s share price has increased considerably – from £76.30 per share to £94.20 – an increase of some 20%. The UK donated 415,050 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to Vietnam in August. Milling, in her role as Minister for Asia, has praised the support offered to Vietnam.

Given that Milling procured the shares two decades ago, there is evidently no suggestion that she used privileged information – details about planned Government decisions in relation to the COVID vaccines – in her decision to acquire the AstraZeneca shareholding. There is also no evidence or suggestion that Milling placed any pressure on the Government to use AstraZeneca as a supplier.

However, there is an ethical and democratic issue of public interest with regards to ministers potentially profiting from their private interests in firms that have directly benefitted from government decisions – even during the period when they have been in consultation with propriety and ethics advisors.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson told Byline Times: “The minister has complied with the ministerial interests process to the satisfaction of the Independent Advisor on Ministers’ Interests, who oversees the compilation of the published list.

“The Ministerial Code sets out the process by which ministers should declare and manage their interests, working with their permanent secretary and the Independent Advisor. The minister has not had any role in procurement decisions.”

These questions are particularly pertinent this week, given the lobbying scandal that has embroiled Conservative MP Owen Paterson and the Prime Minister. An investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Kathryn Stone, last week judged that Paterson had “repeatedly” used his position as an MP to benefit two firms – Randox and Lynn’s Country Foods – that employed him as a consultant.

Stone concluded that Paterson should be suspended from Parliament for 30 days – before Conservative MPs voted to scrap the decision and appoint a new committee to both assess the case and redraft the rules in relation to MPs’ standards. The Conservative MPs who led the charge to save Paterson boasted second jobs with private companies cumulatively worth more than £1 million, Byline Times revealed.

After all opposition parties declared that they would boycott the new committee, the Government reversed its decision and Paterson has now declared that he will be standing down from Parliament.

Yet, although Paterson hasn’t avoided the consequences of his actions, the scandal has ignited a debate about the relationship between private companies and the work of MPs. Given the intimacy and complexity of these relationships, it is likely that this debate will rumble on for some time to come.

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