The latest cabinet reshuffle produced some surprising appointments, not least the new Foreign Secretary. Rishi Sunak cast his net wide – even outside government altogether in the case of David Cameron – to be able to fill vacant posts. But already, questions are being raised about potential conflicts of interest.
So as Sunak scraped around for competent contenders for other departments, does it mean that potential conflicts of interest in their backgrounds are being overlooked, or are going unnoticed?
Step forward Steve Barclay
Steve Barclay, MP for North East Cambridgeshire since 2010, was appointed the new Minister for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and replaced Thérèse Coffey, who resigned that post after one year.
His new department has responsibility for ‘improving and protecting the environment’, including our natural waterways. Sewage and its discharge on beaches and in rivers is an issue that people are disgusted by and want to end. Defra’s own ‘Plan for Water’ mentions sewage, and controlling its discharge in the environment, 14 times.
Anglian Water (AW) is one of the worst offending companies with regard sewage spills, and has been under investigation by the Environment Agency and OFWAT for illegal sewage dumping. EAB has frequently documented AW’s transgressions and the fines doled out.
We now learn that Steve Barclay’s wife, Karen, is Head of Major Infrastructure and Regional Engagement at Anglian Water.
Conflict of interest?
Clean water campaigners like Feargal Sharkey have expressed alarm at this, as Barclay’s new role includes the need to exert pressure on polluting private water companies to clean up their act and comply with the law. One hopes that he can hold AW to account for their performance towards external targets, despite his wife’s senior role there.
Presumably, having already been cabinet minister he will have had to declare his interests in line with the Ministerial Code. This is intended to prevent or mitigate any possible conflicts from ministers’ personal lives. It is hoped that this was taken into consideration prior to his appointment to Defra. If so, it is notable that it wasn’t considered a preventing factor. Either that, or it was overlooked in the rush to find someone for Defra; also a concern.
Is the Ministerial Code strong enough?
Extraordinarily, Barclay isn’t the only one with a serious potential conflict. Another appointment which looks concerning is that of Lincolnshire MP Victoria Atkins who has stepped into Barcay’s old job as Secretary of State for Health and Social Care.
In 2016, the government announced the introduction of a ‘sugar tax’ on soft drinks, aimed at encouraging a reduction in the proportion of sugar they contain. This was implemented in 2018, and it was announced this week that early signs are good: fewer children are having hospital tooth extractions.
This apparent success is prompting calls for the levy to now also be applied to breakfast cereals, sweets and biscuits, thereby reducing their total sugar content.
Did the Ministerial Code checks consider that Victoria Atkins’ husband Paul Kenward is Managing Director of British Sugar, which produces two thirds of all UK sugar, with three of its four plants in the region (Cantley, Bury St Edmunds and Wissington)? He is also a Director of at least six other food companies. After the announcement of her new role was made, she later had to declare that she would recuse herself from policy decisions relating to sugar on issues such as obesity.
The public want politicians to make policy decisions completely objectively, without fear or favour. The Ministerial Code ought to be robust enough to ensure this, but is it?