'Underlying problem' with conflict of interest claims MP amid Hancock family firm row
- Credit: PA
Matt Hancock's involvement in a family firm awarded a key NHS contract is the latest in a string of ministers' outside interests that demonstrate an "underlying problem", it has been claimed.
The health secretary and West Suffolk MP is facing questions over reports he held a 15% share in his sister’s waste disposal company Topwood Ltd, which specialises in secure storage, shredding and scanning of documents.
He declared this information in the MPs’ register of interests in March - and on Friday the Health Service Journal (HSJ) reported that the firm won a place on a framework to provide services to the English NHS in 2019, alongside NHS Wales contracts.
A Government spokeswoman said Mr Hancock had acted “entirely properly in these circumstances” and that all declarations of interest have been made “in accordance with the ministerial code”.
But Sir Bernard Jenkin, Conservative MP for Harwich and north Essex, said he felt that in a number of recent cases, "the system seems to have become blind to perceived and actual conflicts of interest".
Earlier this week, he said he was baffled by reports financier Lex Greensill had been given access to Whitehall.
Sir Bernard, who sits on the public accounts committee, also criticised a lack of discussion between ministers and officials on how relationships between Government and business can be "better managed".
“All these new cases that are coming to light need to be looked into dispassionately and objectively – but there is clearly an underlying problem,” he said.
“I see this as an opportunity to start talking much more openly and deliberately about values, about principles, and about detailed procedures."
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The HSJ also reported that the health secretary did not declare his connection to Topwood in the relevant register of interests, a claim which has been rejected by the Government.
Mr Hancock has no responsibility for NHS Wales, which reportedly awarded the firm £300,000 worth of contracts, as health is a devolved matter and dealt with by the Welsh Government.
A Whitehall source said Mr Hancock has no involvement in the running of the company and neither he nor the Department of Health and Social Care had any part in awarding the contracts.
They added that Mr Hancock discussed with the permanent secretary that he would be gifted the shares before accepting them.
Fellow Suffolk MP Dr Dan Poulter, a former health minister, said there is nothing to suggest his colleague has done anything improper.
“However, it is somewhat unusual for a secretary of state to have personal business interests in an area for which they have direct ministerial responsibility,” he said.
“I am sure Matt will continue to take advice so as to avoid any future conflicts of interest."
The reports come amid deeper scrutiny over links between business and government, in the wake of the Greensill Capital row and public sector contracts signed during the pandemic.
In February, London’s High Court ruled Mr Hancock "breached his legal obligation" by failing to publish details of Covid contracts within 30 days.
It follows accusations of “cronyism” within Government by Labour, which is calling for a full inquiry into the Greensill Capital lobbying controversy.
Shadow health minister Justin Madders said: “It is now clear this Conservative Government has been infected with widespread cronyism and is unable to identify where the line is drawn between personal and departmental interests."
He added: “There are serious questions to answer from Matt Hancock and there needs to be a full inquiry and immediate publication of all documents relating to Topwood’s acceptance on to the framework contract in 2019.”
Shadow health secretary John Ashworth wrote to the cabinet secretary on Friday demanding to know whether Mr Hancock had breached the ministerial code.
The Whitehall source said the permanent secretary is satisfied that no conflict of interest arises, and that the declarations have been made in the proper way in accordance with the ministerial code.
They said the shareholdings are only known about because Mr Hancock "has followed the transparency rules in the full and correct way".
A Government spokeswoman added: “Mr Hancock has acted entirely properly in these circumstances. All declarations of interest have been made in accordance with the ministerial code.
"Ministers have no involvement in the awarding of these contracts, and no conflict of interest arises.”
The EADT has approached Mr Hancock for a statement or an interview.