Image: International Trade Minister Greg Hands. Credit: Dominic Lipinski/PA Images, all rights reserved.
Department for International Trade minister Greg Hands MP arranged monthly meetings with Shanker Singham, then head of the Legatum Institute’s trade commission. The meetings were scheduled for months in advance, an investigation by openDemocracy has found.
The Brexit department refused to confirm if any notes were taken of these meetings but our investigation found that no minutes were taken at previous “coffee catch-ups” and other meetings between Legatum and cabinet ministers and officials.
A former Labour minister told openDemocracy that these “extraordinary” revelations suggest the existence of “a secret kitchen cabinet charting the course of a hard Brexit”.
Legatum emerged as one of the most influential voices in Westminster in the wake of the Brexit vote with senior Leave figures including Matthew Elliott joining the think tank. Legatum, which is a registered charity, raised eyebrows with its “unparalleled access” to Brexit minister David Davis and other senior government figures.
In just six weeks from the end of October, Legatum had more than half a dozen meetings with Brexit ministers and officials. Around the same time, Shanker Singham, Legatum’s chief trade advisor, was implicated in a letter sent by Michael Gove and Boris Johnson urging Theresa May to take a harder stance on Brexit. Singham has since left Legatum.
Legatum was set up by Christopher Chandler, a New Zealand-born tycoon who was once a major shareholder in the Russian state energy firm Gazprom. Earlier this week, a Conservative MP used parliamentary privilege to name Chandler as ‘on object of interest’ to French intelligence services in 2002. Isle of Wight MP Bob Seeley claimed Chandler was suspected of working for the Russian secret service.
The extent of Legatum’s access to the key Brexit trade department was revealed in a series of emails released under Freedom of Information legislation. The emails detail correspondence between Hands and Singham, with the British minister suggesting last October that the two “meet frequently and monthly is a good objective."
A meeting between Hands and Singham on October 31 was moved to the Commons “due to a three line whip” on a vote in the House. When Hands could not attend a meeting slated for November 21 his secretary suggested re-arranging for December 6. Singham wrote that this was “going to be difficult as we have to be in a meeting at 10DS [10 Downing Street] then”. The pair eventually met the following day, at Legatum’s upmarket Mayfair offices.
The emails also include discussions about re-arranging dates for the meetings in January and March of this year.
The emails suggest that Singham had a good relationship with trade secretary Liam Fox and even acted as an intermediary between the Turkish embassy in London and Department of International Trade. In one email, Singham suggested the Turkish ambassador meet with DIT trade advisor Crawford Falconer, who left Legatum last year to join Fox’s department.
The Brexit trade department was sent drafts of Legatum reports that called for UK to leave the customs union and single market. Permanent secretary Antonia Romeo was briefed specially by Legatum on their trade policy recommendations, according to the emails.
Legatum’s access to the Brexit trade department stands in contrast to some British businesses who have complained about lack of access to trade ministers. Last year, the North East Chamber of Commerce only got a meeting with ministers after publicly complaining to local MPs.
Responding to openDemocracy’s revelations, former cabinet office minister Liam Byrne said that the “extraordinary emails lay bare a secret kitchen cabinet charting the course for a hard Brexit, off the books, behind closed doors.”
He added, “It's frankly alarming given what's now emerged about the Russia links of the Legatum founders that their former staff are organising secretive meetings with profound consequences for Britain's future. We now need ministers to tell us immediately just what was discussed - and what was agreed,” the Labour MP said.
As openDemocracy reported in March, the Department for Exiting the European Union refused to reveal details of a series of meetings between DExEU officials and Legatum. But responses to a FOI request sent by openDemocracy show that no minutes or notes were taken at a lunch meeting between Hands and Legatum in March 2017.
We also learned that no notes, minutes or list of guests were recorded at a dinner that senior Brexit trade official John Alty had with Legatum Institute Commissioners at the Chesterfield Hotel in Mayfair. Similarly there are no records from a “coffee catch up” that special advisor Amy Tinley and two other DIT officials had with Singham in September 2017.
A spokesperson for the Department of International refused to confirm or deny whether any notes had been taken during Hands’ monthly meetings with Singham, or whether these regular meetings were still taking place.
A Department for International Trade spokesperson said:
“Trade ministers and officials meet a wide variety of stakeholders from across the UK, including businesses and civil society groups, to seek a broad range of views and support the government’s trade policy development The department also regularly engages think tanks and campaign bodies on all sides of the political spectrum.”
The spokesperson added that Crawford Falconer had not met the Turkish ambassador.
A spokesperson for Legatum Institute said that the charity was no longer conducting research into Brexit and was not aware of the monthly meeting between Singham and Hands. Singham, who is a cleared trade advisor to the US government, left Legatum in March. He now heads the International Trade and Competition Unit at the think tank the Institute for Economic Affairs.