Norfolk MP claims ministerial rule breaches 'all a misunderstanding'
- Credit: Ian Burt
A Norfolk MP is facing fresh allegations of breaching the ministerial code by an anti-corruption watchdog, a claim he says is a "misunderstanding".
In November Conservative MP George Freeman was first accused of breaching the ministerial code due to his work with a PPE firm Aerosol Shield last summer.
The Mid Norfolk MP earned £5,000 for 27 hours of "technology consulting" with the company which was developing PPE for frontline health workers.
Under rules designed to prevent corruption, former government ministers must seek guidance from the UK’s Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA) before taking on paid work within two years of leaving office.
Mr Freeman, who served as a transport minister until February 2020, has previously said he was told by the watchdog he did not need approval for the work, so long as it was not "long-term commercial work" and was unrelated to his previous ministerial role.
The 53-year-old said in January he was appalled at the findings of ACOBA and they had “admitted to me that the guidance wasn’t clear and apologised to me for that”.
But an apology has been strenuously denied by Lord Eric Pickles, chair of ACOBA.
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Mr Pickles said: “I am disappointed to read in a quote attributed to you in the Eastern Daily Press that ACOBA had issued an ‘apology’ on how your application was dealt with.
“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.”
In a letter to Mr Pickles late last month, Mr Freeman also called for an apology from ACOBA, who he accused of setting off a “wave of media attacks on my probity and integrity”.
He said: “My advice to Aquashield (sic) had nothing to do with my role at DfT – or even my role as life science minister 2014-16 which ended over four years previously.
“Advising start-up medical companies was my professional career for 15 years before being elected.”
Mr Pickles said nowhere in the rules or other guidance does it state that advice should only be sought if it is related to a former ministerial role and they were now investigating further breaches of the code.
“The committee’s position is clear, failure to seek and await advice is a breach of the government’s rules and the requirement set out in the ministerial code,” he said.
“We are currently examining other possible breaches of the government’s business rules by you, and I will write to you again when our investigations are concluded.”
On Tuesday, in a letter to Mr Pickles seen by this paper, Mr Freeman said he there had been a “genuine misunderstanding” on his part, and in the future, he would seek approval for all commercial employment or appointments.
Mr Freeman said: “Following your previous letter I immediately froze those projects and I am working closely with your officials to go through each to establish the correct procedure and how best to proceed.
“As my former officials will testify, I have always taken compliance with the ministerial code of the utmost importance.
“Please accept my apology for a genuine misunderstanding, and my thanks for your and ACOBA officials’ guidance.”