Conservative MP apologises for breaking financial ethics rules on relationship with PPE company

  • EXCLUSIVE: Conservative MP George Freeman has apologised for breaking financial conflict-of-interest rules after he was paid by a company trying to sell PPE to the NHS.
  • Insider first revealed Freeman failed to properly declare the money in January.
  • Freeman said there was a “genuine misunderstanding on my part.”
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

A Conservative MP and former health minister has apologised for breaking ministerial rules when he took paid work from a company that was trying to sell personal protective equipment (PPE) to the National Health Service, following an investigation by Insider.

George Freeman MP broke the ministerial code by failing to seek the advice of the UK’s anti-political corruption watchdog before accepting a job with Aerosol Shield, a company founded by a former UK government appointee whom Freeman had worked alongside when he was a minister.

The rules — supervised by the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA) — are designed to highlight potential conflicts of interest when ministers take paid work in addition to their government jobs.

Insider first reported that Freeman had taken the money but failed to properly declare it in January. 

Freeman apologized for what he said was a “genuine misunderstanding on my part from reading the Ministerial Code and ACOBA guidance.” He also offered his thanks for the guidance of Lord Eric Pickles, chair of ACOBA, insisting that his own former officials would testify that he always took “compliance with the Ministerial code of the utmost importance.”

As detailed by Insider’s previous reporting, ACOBA found Freeman had failed to consult ACOBA before taking up to £5,000 of paid work with Aerosol Shield, creating a business development plan for the firm. Freeman previously carried out unpaid work for the company, attempting to get approval for the company’s product for use in the NHS.

Freeman previously insisted he had done nothing wrong

When initially confronted by ACOBA several weeks ago, Freeman demanded an apology, claimed there had been a “serious error,” and requested an appeal of the finding that he had breached the code, Insider reported on February 15.

Freeman told ACOBA: “I actively sought their advice. But the advice was not clear — which your officials later accepted and apologised to me for, saying they would be reviewing their guidance as a result.”

Freeman said that Pickles’s letter of December 24 had led to a “serious attack on my integrity in the media”, and that “it would have been courteous if someone had contacted me before it was published with such a serious inaccuracy.”

But Pickles said he could find no circumstances to justify issuing an apology, and revealed further investigations had been opened by ACOBA.

Apology neither offered nor justified

Pickles’s response on February 12, reported by Insider, was heavily critical of Freeman. Pickles stated bluntly that he was satisfied that “you were given clear and unambiguous advice that should your unpaid assistance to the Government result in being offered paid work, then advice would be required under the Government’s Business Appointment Rules (the Rules).”

Pickles went on to state his “disappointment” at Freeman’s claim to a local newspaper, the Eastern Daily Press, that ACOBA had issued an “apology” on the handling of his application, saying: “After close examination, I can find no evidence of an apology being made, nor with respect, can I find any circumstances to justify issuing an apology.”

Freeman had claimed that the rules only required ministers to seek advice if their appointment or employment related to the field of their most recent ministerial posting. But Pickles rejected this interpretation: “Nowhere in the Rules or other guidance does it state that advice should only be sought if it is related to your former ministerial role. Indeed such a concept would be both novel but entirely alien to the ethos of the rules.” 

Possible further investigations

Pickles went on to say that ACOBA was now examining other possible breaches of the rules by Freeman.

In his most recent letter, Freeman accepted Pickles’s explanation. He also said he has immediately frozen those projects, and that he is “working closely with your officials to go through each to establish the correct procedure and how best to proceed.”

He wrote: “I now understand that former Ministers need to seek your approval for ANY commercial employment or appointment — regardless of whether it may be linked to my previous Ministerial role — and that this included my work on various not-for-profit regeneration projects like The Norfolk Way, Norfolk Enterprise Festival, The Bridge of Hope, the mutual patient-owned blood cancer project and work on rural Regeneration through The Big Tent Foundation LTD.”

ACOBA’s decision to launch further investigations into Freeman points to a desire in the committee to take stronger action against MPs who break the rules.

In ACOBA’s annual report, Pickles writes of the “general unease about people moving between the public and private sectors, with the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) expressing concern about the lack of a statutory system with enforcement powers.

“I feel strongly that now is the time to build on and extend transparency to maximise the Committee’s impact within the current system.”

He adds: “Retrospective applications will be unambiguously treated as breaches of the Rules.”

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