The appointment of two businessmen who collectively donated more than £1m to the Conservative Party to key public health roles has stirred up fresh claims of cronyism in public appointments.
Oluwole Kolade was appointed as a non-executive director and deputy chair of NHS England for three years on 31 March, while Simon Blagden was made a member of the UK Health Security Agency advisory board on 28 April.
Kolade has made donations totalling around £730,000 to the Conservative Party, including one to former London mayor candidate Simon Bailey, in the last seven years.
He is a managing partner of Livingbridge, a private equity firm which says it “has made a private equity investment in the healthcare and education sector in almost every single year for the past two decades”.
Blagden and companies he is associated with – including Pietas, where he was director from 2000-2020, and Avre Partnership, which he has been director of since 2014 – have donated more than £370,000 to the Tories since 2015.
Blagden was already chair of the telecoms supply chain diversification advisory council at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. He is also chair of Fujitsu UK, which sued DHSC’s predecessor, the Department of Health, for £700m over a failed IT project terminated in 2008.
Shadow health minister Andrew Gwynne told the Guardian Kolade’s appointment looked like “naked Conservative cronyism” and called on health secretary Sajid Javid to “come clean about what guarantees he secured that this position won’t be used to benefit private interests over public health”.
Labour meanwhile said Bladgen's appointment to the post on UKHSA’s advisory board was evidence of Conservatives appointing “one of their own to a crucial public role”.
The comments follow accusations of cronyism in a number of roles in recent years, including the appointment of Conservative peer Dido Harding as head of NHS Test and Trace and then-health secretary Matt Hancock appointing his longtime aide and friend Gina Coladangelo as a DHSC NED.
In late 2020 then-appointments commissioner Peter Riddell said he was concerned about the impact of ministers attempting to pack interview panels for recruitment of public bodies’ board members with allies. He said he had blocked “attempts by ministers to appoint people with clear party affiliations” on several occasions.
At the same time as Kolade’s appointment was announced, DHSC also announced that Labour peer Lord Patrick Carter’s non-executive director role at NHS Improvement had been extended.
Carter donated £10,000 to Labour MPs between 2016 and 2018.
A DHSC spokesperson said: “Political activity is not a bar to holding a public appointment.
“In line with the requirements of the Code of Governance for Public Appointments, if someone has been politically active and has made donations, the government declares this when the appointment is announced.
“Wol Kolade was appointed by ministers in 2018 as a non-executive director on the board of NHS Improvement – he declared he had made donations to the Conservative Party and the department declared this when he was first appointed and again when he was re-appointed this year.”
A UKHSA spokesperson said: “All members of our advisory board have been appointed in line with government protocols and will provide vital impartial oversight and advice to help UKHSA deliver its strategic objectives.’’
Kolade has been approached for comment through his company Livingbridge. Blagden have also been approached for comment through Larkspur International, where he is a director.
The Conservative Party has also been approached for comment.