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Sun 5 December 2021

The unelected minister’s summit with a Conservative backer is another example of a broken system of ministerial meetings, reports Sam Bright

Tory Government minister and House of Lords member Lord Zac Goldsmith met with a Conservative Party donor who invests in plant-based proteins to discuss the future of the industry, official records show.

Newly-released documents from the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) note that Lord Goldsmith met with Coller Capital on 24 May this year – to discuss “sustainable, plant-based protein and alignment of agricultural finance with climate and nature”.

Lord Goldsmith is Minister for Pacific and the Environment at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and DEFRA.

Byline Times understands that Coller Capital in fact had no role in the meeting and that the owner of the firm, Jeremy Coller, met with Lord Goldsmith in a personal capacity.

Jeremy Coller made a personal donation of £15,000 to the Conservative Party in 2015, while former Conservative MP Jo Johnson – brother of Prime Minister Boris Johnson – was reportedly commissioned to ghostwrite a book for Coller, in a deal worth £85,000.

Coller also runs CPT Capital – the venture arm of his private family office. The CPT Capital website states that the firm is dedicated to investing in “alternative protein” and other scientific advancements that will “[disrupt] the food system”.

“Our mission is to drive the food and materials technology revolution by replacing animals in the supply chain,” the CPT Capital website says. “CPT Capital partners with visionary companies using cutting-edge technologies to shape the future of protein.”

CPT Capital has invested in at least 26 alternative protein and cell culture companies, according to the firm’s portfolio.

The minutes of the meeting between Lord Goldsmith and Coller have not been released by the Government – even though the summit raises legitimate conflict of interest questions.

Is it judicious for a minister to meet with a private investor, who has donated to the governing party, to discuss the sector in which they invest? Moreover, should these political and commercial interests be declared when the details of the meeting are released? Currently, such information is not published by the Government.

Byline Times asked DEFRA and CPT Capital whether Coller secured a meeting with Lord Zac Goldsmith based on his relations with the Conservative Party and/or Conservative politicians, but did not receive a response.

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Coller is a keen environmental campaigner and has clear expertise in matters relating to the future of food. He is a member of the Good Food Institute, for example, a non-profit organisation that seeks to address the negative impacts of global animal agriculture, while promoting plant- and cell-based alternatives to animal products. Coller has also rallied against the attitude of policy-makers towards factory farming, claiming that they are beholden to the “vested interests” of the sector.

However, despite Coller’s environmental zeal, this meeting further demonstrates the lack of transparency surrounding the relationships between private companies, investors, and politicians.

Throughout the Coronavirus pandemic, Byline Times has been reporting on the private meetings held between Department of Health and Social Care ministers and private firms – many of which had connections to the Conservative Party and its MPs. None of these political interests were declared when the records of the meetings were released. In fact, the minutes taken during some of these summits have now mysteriously gone missing. Several of the companies involved were awarded contracts worth hundreds of millions, often without competition.

The meeting between Lord Goldsmith and Coller differs from these cases, due to the absence of emergency Government contracts. However, it does raise the possibility of future public sector work, or Government policy, being influenced by an individual who has private, financial interests in the sector – while the Government withholds details of these interests from the general public. A similarity also exists in the fact that many of the Department of Health and Social Care meetings were attended by Lord James Bethell – who, like Lord Goldsmith, served as an unelected Government minister.

These issues are heightened by Lord Goldsmith’s influence in Government. The House of Lords member – who was appointed to the upper chamber after losing his Commons seat in the 2019 General Election – is currently a minister for both the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, and DEFRA. He is also reportedly close to Carrie Johnson, the Prime Minister’s wife, who shares his passion for environmentalism and worked for Lord Goldsmith’s unsuccessful campaign to succeed Boris Johnson as London Mayor in 2016. Lord Zac Goldsmith also allowed the Johnsons to stay in his luxury resort in southern Spain last month free of charge.

Ben Goldsmith, Lord Goldsmith’s brother, similarly sits as a non-executive board member of DEFRA – having been appointed in March 2018 – while simultaneously chairing the Conservative Environment Network.

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