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Chair of UK Parliament’s lobbying watchdog faces probe over transparency

Eric Pickles is facing an official investigation into his financial declarations, following openDemocracy revelations

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Martin Williams
16 July 2021, 4.04pm
Eric Pickles is one of 42 peers openDemocracy reported on, over possible transparency breaches
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Mark Phillips/Alamy Live News

The chair of Westminster's lobbying watchdog, Eric Pickles, is facing an official investigation after openDemocracy revealed he may have breached transparency rules.

The Conservative peer is a director of Oakworth Services Ltd, a consultancy business he owns with his wife.

But although Pickles has declared his role in the company, his Register of Interests does not say what type of consultancy work it does.

Rules say that, if a lord is a company director, then they should “give a broad indication of the company’s business, where this is not self-evident from its name”.

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A spokesman for the House of Lords confirmed that a probe had been launched into Pickles today, in relation to his Register of Interests.

He has faced scrutiny over his role as chair of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA), which looks into the ‘revolving door’ between government and the private sector.

In April, he was accused of a potential conflict of interest for failing to publicly declare his role as president of Enterprise Forum, a Tory business-lobbying forum.

openDemocracy reported that it was not mentioned in Pickles’ CV or in his written submission to a parliamentary committee prior to becoming chair of ACOBA.

The same month, it was revealed that the watchdog had met only once since Boris Johnson’s election win in 2019.

Pickles is one of 42 peers openDemocracy reported on yesterday, over possible breaches to transparency rules. But the official probe is understood to cover only Pickles, and will not cover any of the other 41 members.

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Others named yesterday include Lord Carter of Coles, who runs an offshore company called Primary Group Limited, based in the tax haven of Bermuda.

Although he has declared his directorship, he has not said what the company does. Primary Group Limited was named in the Paradise Papers leak, relating to secretive offshore investments, although there is no suggestion of any wrongdoing.

Another peer, Lord Brennan, is chairman of a private business development firm which offers to “develop and maintain our clients’ relations with governments, both in the UK and overseas”, according to its website. But the register of interest gives no details about the nature of the firm’s work.

Responding to yesterday’s report, Tommy Sheppard, the SNP's Constitutional Affairs spokesperson, said it highlights how “undemocratic” and “utterly unaccountable” the House of Lords is.

“These latest findings on the shocking lack of transparency around financial interests adds to the growing list of reasons for why this outdated institution needs to be scrapped,” he said.

And Sue Hawley, senior director at Spotlight on Corruption, said: “The constant drip-feed of scandals about politicians breaching rules is seriously corroding trust in politics and government.”

“Meeting basic transparency rules in financial interest declarations is a fundamental aspect of a healthy democracy, and there need to be much stronger sanctions for those that consistently fail to do so."

Responding, Lord Pickles said that Oakworth Services Ltd has not received any income since he started chairing ACOBA, and that he has given up all paid outside interests. He also said that all of the company's previous clients were declared on his Register of Interests separately.

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