openDemocracyUK: News

Secretive ‘spy’ firm met UK minister to discuss PPE supply

Exclusive: No records were kept of meeting with private company chaired by government’s own PPE tsar

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Russell Scott Martin Williams
12 August 2021, 1.39pm
A UK trade minister met with representatives from Hakluyt, which is chaired by the government’s PPE ‘tsar’, Lord Deighton
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Jeff Gilbert/Alamy Live News

A British trade minister met with a secretive intelligence firm last year, to discuss the government’s efforts to secure essential supplies such as PPE and medical equipment.

openDemocracy can reveal that the minister for investment, Lord Grimstone, met with Hakluyt & Company Ltd last November. No minutes were taken of the meeting between Grimstone and the firm, which is known as a “retirement home for ex-MI6 officers” and is chaired by the government’s PPE ‘tsar’, Lord Deighton.

The Department for International Trade has refused to confirm which Hakluyt representatives attended. But internal documents seen by openDemocracy show that a government operation called Project DEFEND was discussed at the meeting.

Project DEFEND was set up in the early months of the pandemic – reportedly in a bid to reduce the UK’s reliance on China for medical equipment, PPE and other essential supplies.

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Founded by a former MI6 officer, Hakluyt boasts the former head of GCHQ, Iain Lobban, as an adviser – along with former bosses of multinationals such as HSBC, Rolls-Royce and Unilever.

The company was accused of spying on environmental campaign groups in 2001, to collect information for oil companies including Shell and BP. Its list of clients is kept secret, but the company saw revenue grow to a record £67.2m last year.

In 2012, a murdered British businessman, who was believed to be an ‘MI6 informant’ in China, was also reported to have previous links to Hakluyt.

The government has previously refused to disclose details of its operation to secure PPE and medical equipment, citing “obvious security reasons”.

Increasingly there is little more than a gaping void where records should be

As the government’s PPE tsar, Deighton’s financial interests have been in the spotlight since it emerged that he held shares in several companies that had secured lucrative government contracts to provide PPE, COVID-testing and consultancy services.

They included Honeywell Safety Products, which won a £58m COVID contract from the UK government and is owned by an American firm that Deighton holds shares in.

Good Law Project recently revealed that Deighton used his private email account to conduct government business, along with health minister Lord Bethell and the former health secretary, Matt Hancock.

Deighton appointed a temporary team, which included “senior executives from the private sector”, to help with the PPE procurement efforts. But the names of the executives remain secret and the Department of Health has refused requests made under the Freedom of Information Act to reveal their identities.

The Oxford University professor of medicine, John Bell, was appointed to Hakluyt’s advisory board in December, while maintaining his role advising the UK government.

Bell is at the centre of a legal challenge by Good Law Project, which claims there was apparent bias in the awarding of government contracts to COVID testing firm, Abingdon Health.

A judge said that Bell was on “both sides of the contract”, given his role both as a key government adviser and also as a significant figure in the UK Rapid Testing Consortium, which acted as a subcontractor to Abingdon Health.

Meanwhile, one of Hakluyt’s non-executive directors, Jean Tomlin, has also benefited from government COVID contracts. She is the founder and CEO of Chanzo Ltd, an HR company that landed a £300,000 deal with the Department of Health following a ‘proposal’ from the company.

Documents show the contract includes the provision of a full-time chief-of-staff role to Deighton, in his role as PPE Tsar.

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“While there should be minutes of all ministerial meetings with outside organisations, increasingly there is little more than a gaping void where records should be,” Steve Goodrich, head of research and investigations at Transparency International UK, told openDemocracy.

“Whatever the reason for these slipping standards, departments should stop this decline to prevent government turning into a black hole for accountability.”

He added: “Currently, there is an overly casual approach to unpaid advisors within government, which provides weak checks on potential abuses of power. There should be much tighter rules over the appointment and conduct of unpaid roles within Whitehall to prevent unscrupulous individuals taking advantage for private benefit.”

Jolyon Maugham, director of the Good Law Project, which has successfully pursued legal challenges over a number of COVID contracts, said: “The story of pandemic procurement is the story of government ministers confusing the interest of the public with the financial interests of their donors and associates. A failure to record business dealings between ministers, some pursuing public and some private interests, raises obvious red flags.”

The Department for International Trade refused to comment, but openDemocracy understands that it maintains that all ministerial meetings are recorded. However, the department refused to provide any evidence of this, and a Freedom of Information release confirms: “No minutes were produced for this meeting.”

Lord Deighton and Jean Tomlin did not respond to a request for comment.

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