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At least 16 Tory allies given paid ‘independent’ roles in government

Exclusive: Non-executive directors like Gina Coladangelo are meant to ‘challenge’ ministers like Matt Hancock, but new investigations finds many have Conservative ties

profile2.jpg Peter Geoghegan
Martin Williams Peter Geoghegan
25 June 2021, 4.19pm
Photos have emerged of Matt Hancock embracing Gina Coladangelo, whom he hired as non-executive director at the Health Department
PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

At least 16 individuals with close ties to the Conservative Party, including Tory donors, peers and former MPs, have been given lucrative oversight jobs in key Whitehall departments, openDemocracy has found.

It comes after Matt Hancock was accused of a “blatant abuse of power and a clear conflict of interest” when photos emerged of the health secretary embracing Gina Coladangelo, whom he last year appointed as a non-executive director at the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC).

Coladangelo, who has a background in public relations, first met Hancock at a student radio station when they were at Oxford University in the 1990s. The pair reportedly remained close friends, and she was given a non-executive directorship at DHSC last September, which pays £15,000 for 15 days’ work a year.

Non-executive directors are not involved in day-to-day operations but are supposed to “challenge” the government and provide independent oversight.

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Analysis carried out by openDemocracy has found that Coladangelo is one of at least 16 individuals with close ties to the Conservative Party to have been appointed as a non-executive director in Whitehall.

Labour’s shadow cabinet minister Angela Rayner accused ministers of “using every opportunity they can to do favours for their chums”, while transparency campaigners warned that the current system of non-executive director appointments “risks allowing political capture of whole government departments”.

Angela Rayner accused ministers of ‘using every opportunity they can to do favours for their chums’

Current non-executives include the former Conservative vice-chairman Dominic Johnson, who was appointed by the Department of International Trade in December. He is also Jacob Rees-Mogg’s business partner, and has donated more than £172,000 to the Conservative Party.

He joined one-time Tory and Ukip MP Douglas Carswell, who is also a non-executive at the department.

A number of Carswell’s Vote Leave colleagues have also been given paid non-executive directorships. Henry de Zoete, who was the campaign’s digital director, and Gisela Stuart, who chaired the official Leave campaign, were both appointed as non-executive directors in Michael Gove’s Cabinet Office.

The department’s lead non-executive director is Lord Nash, a Conservative peer who has donated hundreds of thousands of pounds to the party.

Michael Gove also appointed prominent Vote Leave supporter Henry Dimbleby to the role of lead non-executive director at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) in 2018. Dimbleby, who is an ‘Old Etonian’, reportedly spent the night of the Brexit referendum at Gove’s house.

DEFRA’s non-executive directors also include Ben Goldsmith, the brother of Conservative peer and former cabinet minister Zac. Ben Goldsmith has also personally donated tens of thousands of pounds to the party.

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Questions have been raised about whether many non-executive directors have the skills and experience needed for the role. Gina Coladangelo, a major shareholder at lobbying firm Luther Pendragon, was appointed as an unpaid adviser to Hancock last March, before being made a non-executive director six months later.

A medical professional with extensive knowledge of the Department of Health told openDemocracy: “It’s a big gig and I’m not really aware of her expertise and background for the role, besides being mates with Matt (Hancock).”

Calls for regulation

Concerns have been raised recently about the appointment of non-executive directors by government ministers. Earlier this month, a report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life said that the appointment process “should be regulated”.

It criticised the “increasing trend amongst ministers to appoint supporters or political allies” to the positions, saying it was “concerning” as it undermines their ability to scrutinise the government.

Responding to openDemocracy’s findings, Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, said: “Non-executive directors of Whitehall departments are supposed to hold ministers to account, not serve as government nodding dogs.

She added: “The rules and regulations that are supposedly there to prevent conflicts of interest and close the revolving door between Whitehall and business are unfit for purpose and need a radical overhaul.”

Recent lobbying scandals have raised questions about the independence of some non-executives working in Westminster.

Baroness Finn resigned as a non-executive at the Cabinet Office earlier this year after facing accusations of possible conflicts of interests over her part-ownership of a company that has advised authoritarian foreign governments.

And Boris Johnson’s former top adviser, Eddie Lister, was a non-executive at the Foreign Office until 2019. He resigned as the prime minister’s aide this year following questions over his work for the private sector and possible conflicts of interests.

Other non-executive directors include Doug Gurr, Amazon’s former head of Chinese operations, who is said to have “deep” ties to figures within the Conservative Party and now has a role in the Department of Health.

Rachel Wolf, co-author of the 2019 Conservative manifesto, was appointed as a non-executive director at the Department of Work and Pensions in July 2020 and resigned in November. Earlier this month, a court ruled that the Cabinet Office had acted unlawfully in awarding Wolf’s public relations firm, Public First, a government contract for COVID work.

Appointments should be based solely on a candidate’s experience and suitability for the job, not which minister they know

Private equity scion Wol Kolade is a non-executive director of NHS Improvement, which is run by Tory peer Dido Harding. Kolade has given more than £700,000 to the Conservatives, including £10,000 to Matt Hancock.

Kolade is managing partner of global investment company Livingbridge. A company that Livingbridge owns a majority stake in has won almost £6m in government contracts during the pandemic, according to Byline Times. He was made a CBE in the Queen's 2021 honours list.

Nick Campsie, a non-executive for the Ministry of Justice, says on his LinkedIn page that he “campaigned on behalf of the Conservative Party during the EU referendum and has made donations in support of the party’s activities”. Records show that he also donated to Chuka Umunna when he was a Labour MP.

And Theresa May’s former joint chief of staff, Nick Timothy, is now a non-executive at the Department for Education.

“At a time when the government is already dogged by allegations of cronyism, it’s concerning to see how many individuals with political links are in these taxpayer-funded positions,” said Alex Runswick, senior advocacy manager at Transparency International UK.

She added: “Appointments to these roles should be based solely on a candidate’s experience and suitability for the job, not the depth of their pockets or which minister they happen to know.

“The process for installing non-executive directors in Whitehall should be regulated to ensure any conflicts of interest are properly managed and to provide public confidence in the probity of these appointments.”

A recent Byline Times investigation found that several major government departments do not provide an up-to-date public register of the interests held by their non-executive board members, despite transparency rules.

Sue Hawley, senior director at Spotlight on Corruption, said the appointing politically connected individuals to non-executive director roles “risks allowing political capture of whole government departments”.

“The role of non-executive directors is to scrutinise how well departments are being run and challenge ministers to do a good job. This should be an entirely independent role and it is deeply concerning that it appears to be being used to parachute politically connected people into the role,” Hawley said.

This piece was updated on June 25 to reflect that Rachel Wolf resigned as a non-executive director at the DWP in November 2020.

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