Watchdog’s ‘concern’ at ex-minister putting pharma firm in contact with vaccine chief

A Whitehall watchdog has voiced concern over a Conservative MP’s ability to arrange direct contact for a private pharmaceutical company with the minister in charge of the UK’s vaccine rollout.

Eric Pickles, who chairs the committee monitoring the “revolving door” between government and business, said there was “reasonable concern” that Steve Brine was able to secure engagement for Sigma Pharmaceuticals to Nadhim Zahawi only because of his former position as a minister in the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC).

And he warned he was “growing increasingly concerned” at the number of ex-ministers who are “not sufficiently clear” about the rules, laws and standards of behaviour required of them when taking up business appointments after leaving office.

Lord Pickles, the chair of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (Acoba), said that Mr Brine, who was paid £19,992 a year by Sigma for 96 hours of work, failed to seek advice on an outside role until after he had taken up the job, in a breach of the rules.

And he said that the Winchester MP then asked Mr Zahawi, who was then vaccines minister, to take part in a webinar in February 2021 organised by the firm and hosted by Mr Brine.

In a letter to Cabinet Office minister Stephen Barclay, released today, Lord Pickles said he had no doubt that Mr Brine believed contacting the government on Sigma’s behalf was “appropriate”.

But he added: “I consider there is a reasonable concern that his direct engagement with the then minister for Covid vaccine deployment during the pandemic was only made available to Sigma as a direct result of Mr Brine’s time as a minister at the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC).

“I do not consider it was in keeping with the letter or the spirit of the Government’s rules for a former minister at DHSC to contact a minister with responsibility for health on behalf of a pharmaceutical company which pays him”.

In the documents, Mr Brine said Mr Zahawi had been aware the event was being hosted by him when the minister agreed to attend. He said it was a public event, broadcast live on YouTube, which gave the minister an opportunity to update community pharmacists on the vaccine drive.

Former health secretary Matt Hancock also took part in one of the webinars hosted by Mr Brine in June 2021.

Mr Brine admitted he had “made a mistake, by a few weeks” in not consulting the body before taking up the job and said he could “only apologise again for poor admin on my part”.

He said his interests were properly registered and that “no lobbying on behalf of Sigma took place” but Lord Pickles said these were different rules and that “it is a former minister’s personal responsibility to understand” which guidelines they must abide by.

Mr Brine, who was a health minister between 2017 and 2019, added that his role with Sigma ended in November 2021.

But in a letter to Cabinet Office minister Steve Barclay, Lord Pickles said he was “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.”

Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner, who wrote to Lord Pickles about the case, said: “From the revolving door to crony contracts, the scandals just keep mounting for a Conservative Party mired in sleaze from the prime minister down.

“Even the government’s in-house committee is ‘increasingly concerned’ about the behaviour of former Tory ministers and has called on them to act.

“Labour will ban ministers for at least five years after they leave office and create a genuinely independent watchdog to enforce the rules, ending the days that Tory politicians could profit from privileged access, information and taxpayers’ money. Enough is enough.”

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