Concern over DHSC's 'secret' appointments of lobbyists as advisers sparks call for review

CIPR sounds alarm after revelation Portland Communications chair had advised DHSC during coronavirus pandemic
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The government is being urged to review its use of lobbyists to provide policy advice, after it emerged the Department of Health and Social Care had appointed lobbyists to advise it on coronavirus communications and had not disclosed the appointments.

The Chartered Institute of Public Relations called for the government to include the use of lobbyists as advisers in an upcoming review of lobbying legislation. The Labour Party has meanwhile called for an inquiry into the matter.

The CIPR’s call came after the Sunday Times reported that consultancy firm Portland Communications was providing advisers to DHSC – and that its former chair, Lord Feldman, now a lobbyist, had also been quietly appointed to provide advice.

Portland’s chair, George Pascoe-Watson, and one of its consultants, Lord O'Shaughnessy, have both served as advisers to DHSC during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The consultancy went on to share specific information with clients on national policy matters related to the pandemic, according to the report.

The department appointed Pascoe-Watson as an unpaid adviser on 9 April, during the first wave of coronavirus, but did not announce the appointment.

The lobbyist was part of “daily strategic discussions” chaired by test and trace minister Lord Bethell for six months, the Sunday Times reported.

Pascoe-Watson is also understood to have participated in calls with health secretary Matt Hancock and Baroness Dido Harding, chair of the NHS Test and Trace programme, about how to communicate announcements and policy.

Civil servants are understood to have raised concerns about his role.

The newspaper revealed Pascoe-Watson had gone on to share information that had not been announced publicly with paying clients. In an email to clients last month, he said he had been “privately advised” that recently-introduced coronavirus restrictions would remain in place in London until spring 2021, adding: “Decision-makers have told me personally.”

Portland partners also wrote to clients telling them the prime minister was considering a national lockdown – three days before the announcement was leaked to newspapers. The communication said Boris Johnson was likely to “announce next week that he is prepared to ‘sacrifice November to save December’”.

Pascoe-Watson told the Sunday Times the information shared in the two emails “was in no way connected to the test and trace calls, in which I was no longer a participant”.

He added that he had “fully declared” his role and responsibilities at Portland Communications to DHSC.

Sir Alistair Graham, former chairman of the committee on standards in public life, described Pascoe-Watson’s appointment as “incomprehensible”. He said: “I think the public interest requires that appointments to public office should go through a public process.”

The newspaper also revealed Lord Feldman, a lobbyist and former Conservative Party chair, had advised Bethell between March and May, in a second undisclosed lobbyist appointment.

O’Shaughnessy, a Conservative peer, was paid as an “external adviser” to DHSC until August. The Sunday Times noted he had taken part in a phone call with Bethell and Boston Consulting Group, a Portland client that has since received more than £20m in government contracts.

O'Shaughnessy said he had declared the role on his register of interests.

In a statement, the CIPR noted that neither Pascoe-Watson nor O'Shaughnessy – a former health minister – are members of the professional body and that Portland is not on the voluntary CIPR-run UK Lobbying Register. 

Its chair, Rachael Clamp, said it was welcome that the government was turning to external communications in a “time of national emergency”, but said “it is not right that those in positions of lobbying the government for their clients are brought in to provide advice to the government”.

“At this time, access to information shouldn't be a commodity or something to be used for commercial advantage. The advice provided may well have been done so within the rules and it is precisely for this reason why a review of the lobbying legislation is required as, currently, the public is offered very little protection or information on these matters,” she said.

'Deeply insulting'

The Labour Party has written to cabinet secretary Simon Case asking him to launch an urgent inquiry into how lobbyists and their clients had been able to benefit from information about the pandemic, including about lockdown plans, before it was announced.

The probe must examine how lobbyists were appointed, what information they had been given access to, and whether they had signed confidentiality agreements, deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner said.

It should also aim to determine whether ministers had overruled or ignored concerns raised by civil servants about any appointments, she said.

She also called on the government to publish a full list of contracts that departments had signed with consultancies during the coronavirus crisis, including deals with companies that employ lobbyists hired as government advisers.

In the letter, Rayner accused the government of having “one rule for lobbyists and their paying clients and another rule for the rest of us”, which she called “deeply insulting” to the public who had “sacrificed so much in our national effort against Covid-19”.

Rayner said the reports were “just the latest in a long line of revelations” that had damaged public trust during the pandemic.

A spokesperson for DHSC said: “We have drawn on the expertise of a number of private sector partners who provided advice and expertise to assist in vital work.”

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