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Bell Pottinger

Volume 783: debated on Thursday 7 September 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty's Government what action they intend to take, if any, following the expulsion of Bell Pottinger from the Public Relations and Communications Association.

My Lords, the behaviour of Bell Pottinger in South Africa has been completely unacceptable. We support the investigations conducted by the Public Relations and Communications Association and Herbert Smith Freehills and the stark conclusions of their report. I want to put it on record that at no stage were Her Majesty’s Government in any way involved in its work in South Africa.

I welcome that Answer but do the Government agree that, after running a pernicious and poisonously racist smear campaign in South Africa for the wealthy Gupta brothers, whom President Zuma has enabled to capture the state and bankroll his family and friends through corruption and cronyism, all Bell Pottinger’s work for British public bodies must be called in and reviewed? Since the respected former Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan has stated that the Guptas and Zumas have benefited from 6.8 billion rand of money laundering, can the Government investigate whether any British banks are involved and what action can be taken at a European level? Will the Minister agree to meet me about this?

I am grateful to the noble Lord for those questions. There are no contracts between the Government and Bell Pottinger. On the second point about money laundering, I have read the reports that I referred to in my original reply and there is no implication that there has been any money laundering or indeed any criminal activity. The company behaved unprofessionally and unethically. If the noble Lord has any evidence of money laundering, of course that should be investigated. We have some of the toughest money laundering regulations in the world, and earlier this year Deutsche Bank was fined £163 million for breaching those regulations. If there is any evidence of money laundering, of course we should look at it. I would not rule out at all a ministerial meeting with the noble Lord.

My Lords, what action are we taking against the individuals involved in this case? It is okay dealing with the organisation, but what about the individuals? Will they be allowed to continue their normal duties?

This is a private company operating in a foreign country. In this particular case, the chief executive has resigned and a number of officials have been dismissed. I am not sure there is a role for the Government in intervening on a private company in disciplinary matters of this nature.

My Lords, that is not quite the case. When the lobbying Bill was going through the House, we warned the Government that if they did not require a lobbying firm to be a member of a professional body and abide by its code, then their statutory register would be meaningless. We now see that Bell Pottinger, although thrown out of the PRCA because it broke the code, is still a member and remains on the statutory register, able to lobby Ministers and Permanent Secretaries. Could the Minister undertake to discuss with the Office for the Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists whether it is appropriate to give to give credence to this company and whether Ministers will still be willing to meet with it?

As I said, the Government have no contracts with Bell Pottinger. I understand that the registrar is in touch with Bell Pottinger to establish whether or not it is still signed up to the codes of either the PRCA or the other professional body. In the light of those inquiries, the register will then clarify whether it is still signed up to those principles. As the legislation stands, you can be removed from the register only if you stop doing public relations business. You cannot be removed from the register for the sort of activities that we have been talking about.

Does not a rather wider consideration arise out of these matters? While Bell Pottinger might have suffered reputationally and financially from its behaviour, the fact that it is a British company, albeit operating in a foreign country, may well have an effect on the extent to which, in the febrile atmosphere of South African politics, diplomatic representations may be disregarded.

I have been in touch with our high commissioner in Pretoria this morning. He has made it clear that this has had a very damaging impact on our country’s reputation in South Africa, which is why I have gone out of my way to make it absolutely clear that neither the Government nor indeed the staff of the high commission in South Africa were in any way involved in this contract. The reputation of Bell Pottinger has been seriously impaired. This is a company that seeks to boost the image of other companies but here it is, having a very severe reputational hit of its own. It could perhaps begin to put that right by donating any profits it has made from the contract to some charity in South Africa.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, made an observation in an earlier reply to the effect that it was not possible, as he understood it, for Bell Pottinger—or any other company—to be removed from the register of those people entitled to lobby Parliament. Might this not be an appropriate moment to review those rules and to consider whether there should be a mechanism for removing such people from the register?

The House, I know, was surprised when I stated the legislative position: you can be removed from the register only if you stop acting as a lobbyist. That is what the law says. There was an attempt last year with a Private Member’s Bill, which started in this House and progressed through it, to take this a step further and have a statutory code of conduct. Although it passed through this House, there was no parliamentary time in another place to take it forward. Discussions are taking place at an official level between those who would like to see the sort of reform that the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Hudnall, has outlined, but at this stage the Government have no plans to legislate.