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Department of Health and Social Care: Unpaid Advisers

Volume 807: debated on Tuesday 17 November 2020

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what recruitment policy is used by the Department of Health and Social Care in the appointment of unpaid advisers to Ministers; and whether each such appointee is required to sign a confidentiality agreement.

My Lords, I welcome the challenge. Perhaps I may reassure the noble Baroness that all ministerial appointments were required to declare conflicts of interest and abide by well-established codes of practice, and that all procurement went through proper departmental governance. Perhaps I may also be clear that those who stepped forward to help this country at its time of need should be praised. We should all recognise the considerable contribution of those who brought skills, energy and networks when we needed them.

My Lords, I do not see this Question as a challenge at all. It would appear that George Pascoe-Watson, the chair of the lobbying company, Portland Communications, was until recently an adviser to the Minister and used the words,

“the decision makers have told me personally”,

with regard to the Government’s intended Covid restrictions, in an email to his clients before the proposed restrictions have been publicly announced. In some places, this kind of thing could be regarded as insider trading—profiting from private information for one’s own or a company’s gain. Does the Minister believe that the rules of confidentiality have been broken? Will he be pursuing the matter? It clearly should be investigated. What form will the investigation take? Will it be departmental, or is it a matter for the Cabinet Office or the head of the Civil Service?

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Baroness for giving me the opportunity to set the record straight. It is worth sharing with the House that the emails to which she referred were sent after George Pascoe-Watson left his role as an adviser to the department. With the greatest respect to Portland and its chairman, the emails contained nothing more than the kind of speculation that one might find in any national newspaper. Therefore, at this stage, I thank those who have served as advisers to me and the department.

My Lords, given the disclosures in the Sunday Times about the Minister’s three telephone calls with suppliers and lobbyists at the same time, I am surprised that he has not recused himself. Has he complained about the newspaper placing him—the Minister —at the centre of the web of the Covid chumocracy? Does he agree with the chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the noble Lord, Lord Evans, that too many in public life are disregarding the norms, ethics and propriety that have led to Portland Communications being secretly involved in government and then going off to make money?

I am grateful to the noble Lord for highlighting three calls to suppliers. I should like to reassure him that those were absolutely exceptional times, when our supply chains had broken down and we were competing with other Governments for extremely scarce resources. I personally did not make three supplier calls; rather, I made 300. I put out literally hundreds of calls on behalf of the Government to try to find the medicines, supplies, diagnostics, PPE and all manner of medical requirements needed for this country. I could have done that only with the help of the networks, energy, skills and support of those who stepped forward to help us at our time of need. I repeat, I am extremely grateful for that support. It does not warrant a place on the front page of the Sunday Times but the lack of follow-up from that newspaper article speaks for itself.

My Lords, we all wish to live in a time of transparent government. On 6 April, I understand that a Minister in the department had a phone call with a former Conservative Party chairman and an adviser who had not been publicly declared, as well with as a businessman who had donated a significant five-figure sum to the party and who was later awarded PPE contracts of more than £150 million. Does the Minister know if the contract was open to tender? Given the donation and the nature of future PPE contracts, why was that not considered to be an inappropriate call?

I take this opportunity to thank the very large number of Members of this House who contacted me during that period. My inbox was filled with thousands of emails every day, including emails from Lib Dem, Labour, Cross-Bench and Tory Peers, all of them seeking to help us during our time of need. I sought to reply to as many as I could, but I fear that I did not reply to enough and I did not mean any discourtesy. I spoke to a large number of those people, as my transparency register makes very clear. The telephone call on 6 April to which the noble Baroness has referred was not in any way inappropriate. I am extremely grateful to all those who stepped forward to help us when we needed it.

My Lords, this is a huge crisis in unprecedented times. My noble friend the Minister has already thanked those who are trying to help the country at a very difficult time. Does he find it regrettable, as I do, that some are sniping at those who, for good reasons of public service, are giving their time, energy and expertise pro bono in service to this country and everyone in this Chamber?

My Lords, scrutiny of appointments, a commitment to transparency and declaration of interests are absolute values that we should all subscribe to. However, sneering at those who step forward to help, denigrating the intentions of volunteers who try to play their role and smearing the good name of people who have done the right thing does not have any role in this House.

My Lords, many years ago, the then political editor of the Sun, Mr Chris Potter, told me that the main qualification for his role was the ability to translate the musings of Ministers at the Dispatch Box for the benefit of his readers without using any words longer than “wheelbarrow”. Now that one of his successors, Mr George Pascoe-Watson, attends confidential departmental meetings, can the Minister tell the House whether the criteria for such a role has been enhanced or dumbed down these days?

I thank the noble Lord for his description of the role. I do not endorse it but am entertained by it. Let me be clear: the people who stepped forward and took ministerial appointments brought a wide range of skills, some of them quite soft in terms of networking, energy, the ability to negotiate and understanding the important skills of communication. Those are the kinds of skills that we value. They were provided for free in the instance to which the noble Lord has referred, and were limited in their timescale, scope and interactions with the department.

My Lords, I deeply regret that some noble Lords are dragging this debate down to the issue of unpaid advisers. This is most inappropriate. No one could object to unpaid advisers; I have used them. I have even taken advice from people on the Benches opposite; that is how low I am prepared to sink. It is not about them being unpaid or giving advice; it is about the lack of transparency and accountability. Will the Minister agree that announcements should be made about unpaid advisers so we can know it is happening and guarantee there are no leaks—which there appear to have been so far.

The noble Baroness makes her points extremely well. She rightly points out that we take advice from a wide variety of people. The only reason that we are talking about this today is because a transparency register is made of my appointments, which is published on GOV.UK and I would be glad to share the website link with anyone who would like to look at it more closely. The appointments of unpaid advisers follow the guidance on direct appointments from the Cabinet Office. We are scrupulous in our adherence to that guidance, and we will continue to be so in any future appointments we make.

My Lords, in view of what has been said by the Minister, I am extremely sympathetic to him. Could he publish a full list of all those who have given of their time, talents and money at a time of great crisis? Could he place a copy of that in the Library of your Lordships’ House?

My Lords, I am not sure if I can make the commitment that my noble friend asks. It is a reasonable commitment and I take it in the spirit with which it is meant, but there have been literally hundreds of people—not all of them formal, not all of them documented—who have stepped forward in the spirit that the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, has spoken of to try and contribute to our thinking, our connections and our ability to respond to this pandemic. That is a long roll of honour, of which I am extremely proud. I will give some thought to the way in which we do it, but doing it in a formal fashion in the way my noble friend describes may not be feasible or approachable.

My Lords, yesterday former Conservative Attorney-General Dominic Grieve described the Johnson Government as presiding over

“the disappearance of any standards of conduct at the heart of government”,

and said that the cronyism of administrative decisions had communicated to young people in particular a sense of government as corrupt. Given that, can the Minister be surprised that there was concern over the conduct of Mr Pascoe-Watson after he had ceased to be an adviser?

I always take the words and advice of former Attorney-General Dominic Grieve extremely seriously, and I value his opinion greatly.

My Lords, I understand why the Government need as much help as possible in securing PPE in a time of emergency, but I struggle to understand why there still seems to be such a demand for public relations help. We recently learned that Kate Bingham, who is in charge of the vaccine programme, spent £690,000 on external PR help. Is it not the case that the Department of Health and Social Care has extensive PR expertise on its team? Is the problem that this Government is still too involved in fighting an election campaign rather than fighting Covid?

It is a reasonable question and let me be clear. This year, we are seeing a massive change in the behaviours of our entire population—from the big macro challenges such as the rule of six, social distancing and adherence to infection control procedures, through to different uses of NHS and medtech. This morning, I spent my time looking at the marketing for “111 First”—the important new way of using 111 that will give people guidance on using the service before they get to A&E. This has been possible only because of the change in the use of medtech and the changing attitude to telephones and the internet brought about by the pandemic. The noble Baroness is right that there is a big focus on communications right now, but that is because things are changing so quickly and we need to get the message across to the population in clear, persuasive terms, to provide the guidance they need to protect and save themselves.