Bureau vindicated in its use of undercover filming to expose the ‘dark arts’ of lobbying.
Cantankerous? Business Secretary Vince Cable
Senior executives at Bell Pottinger boasted of close links to the Liberal Democrats and claimed the best way to gain access to the Business Secretary Vince Cable was through his special adviser, Giles Wilkes.
Tim Collins, managing director of Bell Pottinger Public Affairs, told undercover Bureau reporters that the firm had arranged a meeting for clients with Mr Wilkes.
His colleague, David Wilson, added that as a result of their intervention Mr Cable had visited a factory owned by one of their clients which was looking for government assistance.
Mr Collins also said that one of their members of staff used to work for the Liberal Democrats and had close relationships with all Lib Dem special advisers working in government.
‘Stephen Lotinga, my colleague, knows Giles [Wilkes] very well. He headed up the Liberal Democrat home policy unit until the time of the general election, so all the people who went into government and became Liberal Democrat special advisers all worked for him up to and including the general election,’ he said.
‘So he knows all of them, still talks to them socially. We actually took a client in to see Giles last week, last Thursday, so it’s not something that is difficult for us to do.’
Tim Collins of Bell Pottinger
Asked why they did not recommend going to Mr Cable and if it was because he was cantankerous, Mr Collins replied: ‘Yes. And Vince’s starting point on a lot of these issues is he will think about politics and the presentation first and substance second.
‘One of the reasons Giles is his special adviser is, Giles spent a lot of time in the City, he’s quite a hard-headed business person. Although he’s a Liberal Democrat in terms of political orientation he’s quite a good balance with Vince because he will say “Let’s actually look at what’s in it for UK PLC first and foremost and worry about the politics slightly afterwards”. I would suggest we get Giles on side first and then we think about approaching Vince.’
Mr Wilson added: ‘We’ve just started work with Lotus cars, who have got a massive investment from Malaysia through Proton, their owner. And we helped orchestrate a visit from Vince Cable on Monday because of the investment that’s going in, because they are looking for grant aid to develop new factories which would create new jobs… [there is] a lovely picture of him in a hard hat being taken round the circuit.’
Last night a spokeswoman for Mr Cable categorically denied that Bell Pottinger had helped facilitate any meetings either with Mr Cable or Mr Wilkes.
‘Bell Pottinger has not arranged meetings or introductions with any of their clients,’ she said.
She admitted Mr Wilkes did know Mr Lotinga and ‘had bumped into each other’ on several occasions but said it was ‘not an especially close relationship’. The visit to the Lotus factory had not been facilitated by Bell Pottinger in any way, she added.
Mr Collins also told the undercover reporters that it would not be in their interests to give a political donation to the Conservatives because it could be ‘counter-productive’.
Related article: How the Bureau investigated Bell Pottinger
‘I wouldn’t advise that for several reasons,’ he said. ‘First of all, under [relatively recent] electoral law political parties are only allowed to accept donations from individuals or companies who are wholly or almost entirely based in the United Kingdom.
‘So it was the case in the 80s or 90s that there were quite a lot of people overseas who gave money to one party or another. Entirely coincidentally it tended to be the party that was in power or was about to come into power, but that’s no longer lawful.
‘The other side of it is – by contrast with the US, where clearly political donations are a hugely important way of getting access – in the UK it’s actually becoming now almost counter-productive.
‘It’s becoming in some cases more difficult for a company that has given money to the party in power to get in certain meetings and get what they want than it is for a party that hasn’t because the media is hugely focused on scruples, so I wouldn’t recommend that.’
Connections to ministers
Mr Collins also boasted of the company’s many other connections within Parliament. He said: ‘To run through some of the Members of Parliament – this is not intended to be an exhaustive list, just an illustrative list – these are all people that we know, that we know very well.’
Related article: Top lobbyists boast of how they influence the PM
‘James Arbuthnot, for example, is the Chair of the Defence Select Committee. When I was an opposition whip he was a chief whip, so he and I know each other very well.
‘Rory Stewart is a very high-profile member of Parliament because he’s got a very strong interest in Central Asian issues, he represents the constituency that is next to mine when I was a Member of Parliament so I know him, so I know him. Lots of others – Peter Lilley [MP], who’s a member of the all-party group.
‘Alastair Burt, who is the [Foreign Office] minister with direct responsibility for this part of the world, again someone I know very well, I served in Parliament alongside him.
‘Arminka Helic, who is the special advisor to the Foreign Secretary who deals with policy issues. The name, as you may gather, is a Serb name so she has had a lot of interest in human rights issues and spreading democracy.’
Last night Mr Stewart said he had met Mr Collins once, for 10 minutes. He added: ‘It’s a very worthwhile issue for you [The Independent] to be pursuing. I do believe we need to address the problem of lobbying in British political life.
‘Exactly what the connection is between lobbying forms, MPs and foreign governments needs to be clarified – we need very clear rules. MPs need to be very, very careful about any contact they have with these groups.’
A Foreign Office spokesman said: ‘While Alistair Burt knows Tim Collins from his time as an MP, he has not had any meetings with him since he became a Minister. Alistair Burt is not even the minister who covers Uzbekistan. Arminka Helic has never knowingly had any meetings or any other contact with Mr Collins.’
A Business Department spokesman said: ‘Mark Prisk has had no dealings with Tim Collins since being appointed as a minister. In line with the government’s transparency policy, all meetings that [Department of Business, Innovation and Skills] ministers have are published on a monthly basis on our website.’
Last night the Shadow Cabinet Office Minister Jon Trickett said there were serious concerns over whether the government was committed to ‘fully reforming’ the lobbying industry. He said the government had still refused to divulge meetings between lobbyists and the minister responsible for drawing up the new rules – despite being ordered by the Information Commissioner to do so.
The government has delayed the announcement of the new regulations until January, he added – having delayed it already from November. He also pointed out that despite rules that departments must publish lists of ministerial meetings every three months, the Cabinet Office, which is responsible for transparency, had not published details of any meetings since March.
Mr Trickett accused the government of being ‘too close to corporate interests’.
‘These are very serious allegations involving a former member of the Conservative front bench as well as some of David Cameron’s closest confidants inside Downing Street and his cheerleaders in the media,’ he said.
‘We have been calling on the government to implement a statutory register of lobbyists. We need reform to ensure that there is no question of the rich and powerful buying access to the Prime Minister and his advisers.’
Mr Cameron’s spokesman said: ‘I simply do not accept that there was undue access.’
‘If companies have issues, then they can come and talk to the government. We have a Department for Business which speaks to companies all the time. People in the Treasury speak to business and people in business speak to Downing Street.’
Neither Mr Lilley nor Mr Arbuthnot were available for comment.
Lord Bell, chairman of Bell Pottinger’s parent company Chime Communications, told the Press Association that he would be complaining to the Press Complaints Commission about the ‘sting’.
‘There is no public interest in this story,’ he said. ‘There is absolutely no suggestion of any impropriety either. If there was, I would sue them.
‘I am a great supporter of the freedom of the press and a great believer in self-regulation. This story does nothing to enhance either argument.’
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