Liam Fox. Image, Tech. Sgt. Michele A. Desrochers, public domain
Transparency campaigners have accused international trade minister Liam Fox of “having trouble again seeing the line between adviser and privately-backed lobbyist” after openDemocracy learned that one of Fox’s “committee of experts” has become an advisor to one of the UK’s biggest corporate lobbying firms.
Former Legatum trade chief Shanker Singham, described by a former Labour minister as a ‘hard Brexit Svengali’, is now advising PR and lobbying agency Grayling on Brexit and trade. Singham, who has been said to enjoy “unparalleled access” to government ministers, has told openDemocracy that there is “no conflict” between his role as an adviser to trade minister Fox and his new position.
Singham is a member of trade minister Liam Fox’s ‘committee of experts’, a five-person group advising him on trade deals. Singham, a one-time Washington lobbyist, is also a director of the International Trade and Competition Unit at the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA), a position he took after he left the controversial think tank Legatum earlier this year.
Singham told openDemocracy that he would be remaining on the Brexit minister’s advisory committee and at the IEA.
Grayling is one of the UK’s leading PR and lobbying firms. The client it lists most regularly in its entry in the official register of lobbyists is the National Casino Forum, and the company also represents a number of major sugar manufacturers, and has previously worked for the arms companies BAE Systems and Lockheed Martin. Speaking to openDemocracy, Singham said that he was advising Grayling itself, rather than any of its clients.
Shanker Singham, Matt Crossick/Empics Entertainment
Last week, openDemocracy revealed the extent of Singham’s access to government ministers since the Brexit vote, showing that he has held dozens of meetings with figures including foreign secretary Boris Johnson, Brexit minister David Davis, as well as Liam Fox. Singham also had undeclared meetings with another Brexit minister, Steve Baker.
“Glaring conflict of interest”, say campaigners
Singham told openDemocracy that he saw no reason that his access to government officials would diminish now that he’s paid by a corporate lobbying firm and that he sees “no conflict” between his various roles. But transparency campaigners warned of “a glaring conflict of interest”.
Tamasin Cave from Spinwatch, which monitors the lobbying industry, compared Singham’s role to the scandal that led to Liam Fox being forced to resign as Defence Secretary in 2011, when it transpired that one of Fox’s closest advisers – Adam Werritty – was being paid by private businesses for his time advising Fox.
Cave said: “Singham is simultaneously advising Liam Fox, and has unrivalled access to many other ministers, while at the same time working for a firm that is paid to influence the decisions of ministers. That’s a glaring conflict of interest.
“Grayling is employing Singham for his insider knowledge and the fact that he has a seat at the table steering the direction of Brexit. Of course their corporate clients are going to benefit from this hire. That's how the commercial lobbying business operates.
“That this doesn’t strike the Department of International Trade as a clear conflict of interest is worrying. It is reminiscent of another adviser to Liam Fox that was also funded by an opaque web of private money. The resulting scandal surrounding the then defence secretary's adviser, Adam Werritty, led to Fox’s resignation (in 2011). Is Fox having trouble again seeing the line between adviser and privately-backed lobbyist?”
Duncan Hames, director of policy at Transparency International UK said: “Whilst this does not appear to break any formal rules, there are ethical considerations a UK government adviser should take into account on how the privileged information and access they enjoy in a public role may unfairly benefit themselves and potential clients in their private role.”
Scottish National Party MP Neil Gray said that the revelation reflects flaws with the Brexit process more generally: “There has been an effective sub-contracting of the hard thinking normally undertaken by government to a series of 'thinktanks' who refuse to reveal where their funding comes from and whose proposals seem coincidentally to reflect the narrow interests of a small group of private companies. Singham’s appointment is simply the most obvious example of this government’s fox-in-the-henhouse approach.”
"There has been an effective sub-contracting of the hard thinking normally undertaken by government to a series of 'thinktanks' who refuse to reveal where their funding comes from and whose proposals seem coincidentally to reflect the narrow interests of a small group of private companies"
In a statement on the Singham signing last week, Grayling chairman Richard Jukes said: “Brexit and trade are knotty areas, and there is no one better placed than Shanker to help our clients cut through the noise and articulate a considered position that stands up to scrutiny. He is an outstanding addition to Grayling’s award-winning Brexit and trade offer that extends from London to Brussels and across Europe.”
Singham also leads the trade team at the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA). Hazel Cheeseman, director of policy at the campaign group Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), said: "The Institute for Economic Affairs has long acted as a paid lobbying agency for the tobacco industry. It's very worrying to see one of their staff playing such a key role in shaping Britain's trade deals as we leave the EU."
The IEA didn’t respond to a request for comment, and didn’t answer our question about who pays for Singham’s work on trade.
A spokesperson for the Department of International Trade said:
“It is only correct that the department engages a variety of stakeholders from across the UK, to discuss opportunities arising from Britain’s departure from the European Union. The department regularly engages think tanks and campaign bodies on all sides of the political spectrum as well as leading thinkers, businesses and civil society groups."
“The committee was set up to provide expert advice and challenge to department officials and is not led by ministers. Members are invited to only express their views as individuals and not on behalf of their affiliated organisations.”
Other than Singham, the trade ministry’s committee of experts comprises prominent Brexit supporting economist Ruth Lea, who is an adviser to the Institute for Economic Affairs; Sunday Telegraph columnist and Brexit supporter Liam Halligan, Xavier Rolet, former CEO of the London Stock Exchange, and the former Tory MP and Brexit supporter Peter Lilley.
In January, the Sunday Times reported that Lilley was “willing to approach key ministers” on behalf of a fake Chinese company offering him cash in exchange for access to government and information about Brexit. The paper reported that Lilley described how he attended two advisory groups with influence over the Brexit ministers” – one of which was the Department for International Trade advisory committee of experts.
Lilley said he had not been asked and nor did he agree to have private conversations with any ministers on behalf of the Chinese company. He said any suggestion that a private company would get access to privileged information was “wholly misplaced”, and he remains a member of the committee, according to a department spokesperson.
When the Sunday Times also reported that “sources within Whitehall and the Conservative Party... told this newspaper that Brexit had triggered a lobbying frenzy as businesses attempted to acquire intelligence about the negotiations.”
Earlier this month the Charity Commission ruled that Legatum, Singham’s previous employer, had “crossed the line” and failed to meet its charitable objectives in its pro-Brexit coverage.
Additional reporting by Jenna Corderoy.