11 Charles Place, the offices of the Legatum Foundation. Image, Google Street View.
There were big changes in the hard Brexit world recently with the announcement that Shanker Singham, a key advisor to senior Brexiteers in the British government, has left their favourite think tank, the Legatum Institute. But while Singham has departed the controversial organisation, the public is still being kept in the dark about his influence on the UK government.
As head of Legatum’s trade commission, Singham, an advocate of a hard Brexit, has had “unparalleled access” to Brexit minister David Davis, including at least five meetings with officials from Davis’s Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) in the year to August 2017.
But DExEU has refused openDemocracy’s repeated Freedom of Information requests for minutes, agendas and other information about these high-level meetings. Politicians from across the party spectrum have called for government to release all the details of dealings with think tanks and pro-Brexit lobbyists.
Singham’s access to Brexiteers in the UK government had raised eyebrows. In November, the Mail on Sunday named the former US trade advisor as being involved in a letter sent by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove urging Theresa May to take a tougher stance on Brexit.
The Legatum Foundation Limited is the charitable wing of the Legatum Group, a Dubai-based investment company run by Christopher Chandler, a New Zealand-born billionaire who made a fortune in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union and recently obtained EU citizenship via Malta, according to the FT. The think tank’s charitable status came under scrutiny in the wake of media reports of Singham’s access to government ministers.
In November 2017, Ben Bradshaw MP urged the Intelligence and Security Committee to “look at the Legatum Institute, its relationship with the government, and the background of its founder and main funder, Christopher Chandler.”
But despite the growing public interest in Legatum, DExEU has refused to release materials relating of Singham’s meetings with Brexit ministers and officials on the grounds of formulation and development of government policy.
Liberal Democrat Spokesperson for Exiting the EU Tom Brake MP said: “The public are entitled to know why one small institute has such privileged access to government and what they talk about in their surprisingly frequent meetings. The public have a right to know on what evidence the Government are basing their damaging Brexit decisions.”
He added: “I have no problem in letting the world know what I discuss with the Legatum Institute when I meet them!”
Singham has joined another pro-Brexit right wing think tank, the Institute for Economic Affairs, as part of a major exodus from Legatum. He has called for the UK to leave the customs union and the single market and recently suggested that the heavily controlled border between the US and Canada is a good model for the Irish border.
openDemocracy is not the only organisation asking for details of meetings between DExEU and the Legatum Institute. In response to a written parliamentary question from SNP MP Deidre Brock asking for minutes and papers of the meetings between the Permanent Secretary at DExEU and Shanker Singham, Brexit minister Steve Baker said “We do not publish the minutes of officials’ meetings.” openDemocracy has submitted requests for internal reviews over DExEU’s Freedom of Information responses, and is currently waiting for the outcome from the Department.
Ms Brock expressed concern about the “apparent easy access that one individual had to ministers and senior civil servants”, and said that “the public should have the right to know what is being discussed in these meetings that Mr Singham is having at the heart of the UK Government.”
“The government’s actions in negotiating Brexit have been secretive, to say the least, and each piece of information has had to be dragged out of them only to be seen to be not very well informed. The least we should be able to expect should be some indication of who is influencing policy, who they represent and what their interests are. We should know what is being done on our behalf,” she told openDemocracy.
It has been reported that Singham was the only think tank representative at a July 2017 event held at Chevening, the country house used by the foreign secretary, where DExEU officials and business leaders were in attendance. A further request made by openDemocracy has obtained the attendee lists for the July Chevening event, as well as a second Chevening event that took place in September 2017, where Singham was also in attendance alongside Davis and Steve Baker.
Another FOI response has also indicated that Davis had attended an external conference in September 2016, “where representatives of the Legatum Institute were invited,” and that Davis spoke at a conference organised by Legatum in January 2017. The event was invite only.
Since the Brexit vote, Legatum hired several Eurosceptics, including Matthew Elliott, a co-founder of Vote Leave. Elliott is still with Legatum but Singham will head up a new Trade Unit at the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA), where he will be joined by lawyer Victoria Hewson; economist Catherine McBride; and senior research analyst Dr Radomir Tylecote. The Institute for Economic Affairs, one of the secretive think tanks in Britain, does not publish details of its funders.
There have been at least five meetings between DExEU officials and Singham. In response to our FOI requests, DExEU disclosed that Lord Bridges, who served as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State until June 2017, met with Singham on 8th September 2016, for 45 minutes, at 9 Downing Street, London. Bridges then met with Singham on 6th February 2017 at the House of Lords, where the meeting lasted for 30 minutes. On 4th April 2017, Lord Bridges, along with Alex Ellis, Director General at DExEU, met Singham at 9 Downing Street, which is where DExEU is based.
On 17th July, DExEU Permanent Secretary Philip Rycroft met with Singham for an hour at 70 Whitehall. The following month, Rycroft met with Singham on 8th August 2017, for 45 minutes at 70 Whitehall, London, the address of the Cabinet Office. However DExEU refused to release any further information about what was discussed.
Since the EU referendum, Mr Singham has had multiple meetings and dinners with ministers and government officials across Whitehall, including a meeting with Boris Johnson in December 2016; a meeting with Michael Gove in June 2017, with the purpose of the meeting being “EU Exit advice”; and a “coffee catch up” with a Department for International Trade special adviser in September 2017.
In turning down openDemocracy’s FOI requests for materials associated with the meetings, DExEU said while “there is a strong interest in policy making associated with our exit from the EU being of the highest quality… it is important that policy officials can exchange views and openly discuss and understand potential implications, especially on live issues.” It added that “releasing the information may result in policy officials refraining from considering all available views and options.”
Responding to questions raised by this article, a DExEU spokesperson said: “DExEU is committed to transparency and accountability. The department publishes details of Ministers' and senior officials' meetings on a quarterly basis.”
A Legatum Institute spokesperson said: “Decisions over how to respond to FOI requests are for the government to decide. As an independent educational charity, all our work is published, as part of our efforts to inform the public about how we can create the pathways from poverty to prosperity. We are not aware of any record kept by Shanker of his meetings with officials in DExEU.”
openDemocracy has contacted Mr Singham via the IEA for comment and will add any response received.