The chair of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments has raised concern that former ministers do not sufficiently understand the standards they are required to abide by after an ex-minister broke the rules.
Steve Brine, a former minister in the Department of Health and Social Care, secured a private pharmaceutical company direct access to the minister in charge of the UK’s vaccine rollout without declaring his involvement with the firm.
Acoba chair Eric Pickles said Brine – paid £19,992 a year by Sigma Pharmaceuticals for 96 hours of work – had failed to seek advice from the revolving-doors watchdog on the role until after he took the job as an adviser, breaching the government’s business appointment rules.
"I am growing increasingly concerned that not all former ministers of the crown are sufficiently clear on the various standards of behaviour, rules and legislation that are incumbent on them,” Lord Pickles said, in a letter to Cabinet Office minister Steve Barclay published by Acoba on Monday.
Brine, a former DHSC minister, had asked Nadhim Zahawi – who was vaccine minister at the time – to take part in a webinar in February 2021 that was organised by Sigma and hosted by Brine. Zahawi accepted the invitation.
Two months later, Sigma won a £100,000 contract to deliver lateral flow tests to pharmacies.
Pickles said Brine’s contact with Zahawi “raises a reasonable concern” that Sigma only had access to the minister as a direct result of his previous DHSC role.
Apologising in a letter to Pickles, Brine said the delay in consulting Acoba was an “admin error” but added that he did not use his ministerial contacts to influence government policy or secure business on behalf of Sigma.
He said he did not attempt to hide the contact with Zahawi, publishing it in the Register of Members’ Public Financial Interests, with the Office of the Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists later concluding that he had not carried out “unregistered consultant lobbying”.
However, the government’s business appointment rules make it clear that ministers must seek before accepting or announcing a new role.
Pickles said he had “no doubt” that Brine believed his contact with Zahawi was appropriate, but said the MP had “confused” the rules by not seeking advice from Acoba before working for Sigma.
“As a former minister it is your personal responsibility to understand any other rules and regulations you may be subject to in parallel with your obligation to seek advice from Acoba under the government's rules,” Pickles said in reply to Brine.