Eric Pickles did not declare five-star business dinner
The local government secretary, Eric Pickles, attended a dinner with lobbyists
and business chiefs at a five-star hotel in London but did not feel obliged to
declare it due to a ‘gaping loophole’ in transparency rules.
An investigation by the Bureau with the Sunday Times has revealed how ministers
are able to sidestep rules on declaring hospitality by saying they attended events
in a ‘private’ capacity.
The dinner attended by Pickles at the Savoy in February was hosted by the lobbying
firm Bell Pottinger. It was also attended by Brandon O’Reilly, chief executive
of Farnborough airport, who at the time was awaiting a decision by Pickles’s Department
for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) and the Department for Transport (DfT)
on an application to almost double the capacity of the airport.
The ministerial code was updated last year to improve the openness of government.
It obliges ministers to declare all hospitality accepted in a ‘ministerial capacity’
and all meetings with external organisations. The information should be published
Related article: Concerns over questions asked by MPs with business interests
A spokesman for Pickles said he was not required to register the dinner because
he had attended in a ‘private’ and not a ‘ministerial’ capacity.
He was unable to say whether Pickles had travelled to the dinner in his ministerial
car. ‘We are not sure, we don’t hold the records.’
Bell Pottinger Public Affairs was appointed by TAG Farnborough Airport in 2008 to advise on its proposal to increase the number of flights at the airport to
50,000 a year. The plan was rejected by Rushmoor borough council in Hampshire
but was referred to central government after an appeal and planning inquiry.
Opponents included Michael Gove, the education secretary, whose Surrey Heath
constituency is under the Farnborough flight path.
The Savoy dinner was held on February 1 and the airport’s expansion plans were
jointly approved by the DCLG and DfT on February 10.
Guidance from Pickles’s own department states that planning ministers are ‘strongly advised’
to decline requests for meetings from interested parties during a planning appeal.
Pickles’s attendance at the dinner in the Savoy’s Gondoliers Room emerged in
a blog posted by Peter Bingle, chairman of Bell Pottinger Public Affairs.
‘The discussion must remain private but I can reveal that the guests were more
than just impressed,’ he wrote.
There were 22 people at the dinner, including Damian West, the director of strategy
and planning at Southern Cross Healthcare, the care home operator which collapsed
Daniel Levy, the chairman of Tottenham Hotspur, Roger Mountford, the chairman
of the port of Dover, and a senior executive from Berkeley Group, a housing developer,
were also present.
A spokesman for Pickles said the cabinet minister attended the dinner in a ‘private’
capacity and that it was ‘malicious to suggest any impropriety’. Pickles did not
speak to O’Reilly at the dinner or discuss the airport, he said.
The decision on Farnborough’s expansion was taken by Bob Neill, a planning minister,
and not Pickles, he added.
A spokesman for the DCLG said Pickles had ‘met the requirements of the ministerial
But Friends of the Earth’s planning and policy adviser, Naomi Luhde-Thompson,
said: ‘Meeting Farnborough airport’s chief executive and pro-expansion lobbyists
days before the appeal decision certainly raises questions about Mr Pickles’s
Sarah Clayton, of the campaigning group Airport Watch, said: ‘Had Mr Pickles
met privately with environmental campaigners a week before the application, and
had it been refused nine days later, all hell would have broken loose.’
According to the Cabinet Office, ministers decide for themselves whether a meeting
or hospitality is private or ministerial business, depending on what is talked
The spokesman for Pickles said there had been a ‘political chat about the political
landscape’ at the dinner.
Lord Bell, who heads Bell Pottinger, said ‘no specific commercial issue about
Farnborough or anything else was discussed’.
However, Sir Alistair Graham, former chairman of the committee on standards in
public life, said the dinner exposed a ‘gaping loophole’ in the code, and Tamasin
Cave, spokeswoman for the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency, said: ‘What Pickles
means by ‘private’ is in fact ‘secret’.’
Meanwhile, w4mp.org, a website that provides information and advice for MPs’ staff and receives
£39,000 a year from the House of Commons, recommends its readers use lobbyists
to help draft speeches and says they can help Commons researchers draft ministerial
questions or handle the administration of all-party parliamentary groups.
It adds: ‘The lack of room for career progression for MPs’ staff means that even
if you are happy now, there might come a time when you will want to move on and
lobbying could be the field where you next emerge.’