Dark Money Investigations: Investigation

Tory MP broke ministerial code over paid consulting for COVID-19 tech firm

Former minister George Freeman failed to seek official approval before giving “commercial advice” to a company producing protective equipment used by the NHS.

Peter Geoghegan
Peter Geoghegan
26 January 2021, 5.38pm
George Freeman failed to consult the official watchdog before being hired by a company to provide “commercial advice”
Victoria Jones/PA Archive/PA Images. All rights reserved

Former Conservative minister George Freeman broke the ministerial code by failing to consult the official watchdog before taking up a paid consultancy job, openDemocracy has learned.

Freeman did not consult the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA) before being hired to provide “commercial advice” by a company that produces protective equipment used by the NHS during the pandemic.

In a strongly worded letter, ACOBA chairman Lord Pickles said the former transport minister’s “failure to seek and await advice in this case was a breach of the Government’s Rules and the requirement set out in the Ministerial Code.”

Under the ministerial code all former ministers must notify the appointments watchdog about any employment within two years of leaving office.

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Freeman apologised and said, in a letter to Pickles, that he had not realised that he needed to consult the watchdog before taking up the role.

Transparency campaigners have said there are insufficient sanctions for politicians who break parliamentary rules and have called for ACOBA to be “replaced by a body that has real teeth”.

Freeman was paid £5,000 by Aerosol Shield Limited, a Birmingham-based venture set up by technology consultant Matthew Campbell-Hill and his wife Lydia, a GP, with a trademarked design to provide protective tents for safely treating COVID patients as cheaply as possible.

Freeman, who had previous experience of corporate funding for medical tech before being elected in 2010, was tasked with raising research and development funds for Aerosol Shields. If successful, the former transport said he would join the company as chairman.

Prior to becoming a paid advisor to Aerosol Shield, Freeman provided free advice to the firm as it attempted to become a registered PPE provider through the emergency channel set up by the Cabinet Office.

Freeman joined calls between the Aerosol Shield and the NHS Procurement team to be briefed on why the firm’s products were deemed a medical ‘device’ rather than PPE, and so could not be fast-tracked for procurement.

The body tasked with advising on the post-public employment of politicians has no real powers with which to do its job, and no sanction available when its rules are ignored.

Matthew Campbell-Hill is also non-executive director at the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency – a role that overlapped with Freeman’s tenure as minister of transport – but he told openDemocracy that he had not met Freeman until they were introduced by a donor at an initial fundraiser for Aerosol Shield last year.

Freeman’s initial pro bono advice “did not result in any contracts or purchase as it was a new technology and they were unable to consider items outside of their scope”, Campbell-Hill said.

“Knowing that NHS clinicians were wanting to get hold of the Aerosol Shields, we then looked at commercial models to help support us in manufacture and distribution. With his background in financing medical technologies, we approached Mr Freeman again and asked for his advice and support in preparing for and landing investment,” he added.

Freeman’s work for the loss-making Aerosol Shield only came to light in October, when the Mid-Norfolk MP updated his declaration on the Register of Members’ Interests to include £5,000 paid in June.

In November, Pickles wrote to Freeman noting that he had not sought ACOBA’s advice before taking on the work.

“The Rules exist to protect the integrity of government and the Rules state retrospective applications will not normally be accepted,” Pickles wrote.

“You appear to be in breach of the Rules and the Committee require an explanation as to why you failed to seek their advice,” he added.

In a written submission, Freeman said that he was fully committed to transparency and had not consulted ACOBA about his paid work for Aerosol Shield as the work had been short-lived.

“Given the circumstances… it didn’t even occur to me that there might be a need to register with ACOBA.”

Freeman added that he had had no contact with the company since July and the failure to declare the income on the Register of Interests earlier was due to a clerical error in his office that was “immediately rectified”.

ACOBA does not have the power to issue any sanctions for breaches of the ministerial code, or other rule-breaking.

Transparency campaigners have called for rules to be toughened up.

Alex Runswick, senior advocacy manager at Transparency International, told openDemocracy that the ‘revolving door’ between government and the private sector was being “left uncontrolled.”

“The body tasked with advising on the post-public employment of politicians has no real powers with which to do its job, and no sanction available when its rules are ignored. We can expect this situation to continue until the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments is replaced with a body that has real teeth,” Runswick said.

Spotlight on Corruption’s Susan Hawley said that “the publication of an exchange of letters is hardly an effective sanction against clear rule-breaking.

“It's time ACOBA was given proper statutory footing, and real teeth to impose proper sanctions in cases like this. Without these it is hardly surprising that ministers and politicians pay little heed. As Lord Pickles himself says, this is about protecting the integrity of government. The erosion of that integrity is damaging trust in government.”

Aerosol Shield’s Matthew Campbell-Hill said “ours was a product that was urgently needed by clinicians, and remains so to this day, and yet it was exceptionally difficult for clinical staff to find ways to pay for it, as there was no clear route for them to purchase.

“With so many hospital staff at significant risk, time was of the essence when it came to fundraising and getting AerosolShields out to protect the NHS, so we are saddened to learn that Mr Freeman is receiving a negative impact from his time and efforts.”

Fleur Anderson MP, Shadow Cabinet Minister said: “It is clear from the Prime Minister down that Tory MPs seem to have little regard for the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments or even the Ministerial Code. 

“This Tory government has overseen a collapse in standards and transparency and Britain deserves better."

Freeman has yet to respond to requests for comments.

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