Norfolk MP denies breaking ministerial code by working for PPE firm
- Credit: Archant
A Norfolk MP accused of breaching ministerial code by working for a PPE firm has slammed the anti-corruption watchdog for what he calls "misrepresentation".
George Freeman says he is "appalled" at the findings of the UK's Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA).
The MP for Mid Norfolk worked for Aerosol Shield last summer, earning him £5,000 for 27 hours of "technology consulting".
At the time, the company was developing PPE for frontline health workers amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Under rules designed to prevent corruption, former government ministers must seek guidance from ACOBA before taking on paid work within two years of leaving office.
Mr Freeman was a minister at the Department for Transport (DfT) until February 2020, and contacted ACOBA in April for advice.
The 53-year-old maintains he was told by the watchdog he did not need approval to assist Aerosol Shield, so long as it did not constitute "long-term commercial work".
But Mr Freeman has since been told he "failed" to seek guidance and accused of breaking ministerial code.
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The MP, who strenuously denies any wrongdoing, said: "I am appalled that my pro-bono work helping identify technologies to help the government's Covid crisis is being misrepresented as a breach of ACOBA rules.
"Last March and April, there was a national call from ministers for a national technology effort to source technology to help with the Covid emergency: from ventilators to PPE.
"With a background in medical technology, I did all I could to help - including securing a charitable gift of disposable PPE for frontline healthcare workers in Norfolk.
"Although this had nothing to do with my previous role in government at the DfT, but my professional background in life science technology before coming to parliament, I contacted ACOBA to seek advice and make sure there could be no confusion.
"They were clear I did not require ACOBA approval for this - only for any ongoing long-term commercial work which might transpire, falling within ACOBA's remit to ensure ministers do not exploit insights or influence gained through their previous ministerial experience."
While no longer in government, Mr Freeman previously served as a health minister from 2014 to 2016.
It was during this tenure that Aerosol Shield was founded by a former non-executive director of the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, then overseen by Mr Freeman.
Last year he made ministers aware of the firm's "innovative" face shield, but it was later turned down by NHS procurement.
In the ensuing months, however, Aerosol Shield asked Mr Freeman to assist with plans to raise money from commercial technology investors.
The member of parliament agreed and subsequently declared his earnings on the Register of Interests.
He added: "On the basis of ACOBA’s advice, because it had nothing to do with my previous role at DfT and was not an ongoing piece of work, I did not believe it needed clearing with ACOBA."
But in a letter to Mr Freeman, ACOBA chairman Lord Pickles said the correct process had not been adhered to.
"You were required to seek and await ACOBA’s advice in advance of accepting a role or taking on work," wrote Lord Pickles.
"Failure to seek and await advice in this case was a breach of the government’s rules and the requirement set out in the ministerial code."
Mr Freeman says ACOBA itself has offered an apology.
He added: "ACOBA have themselves admitted to me that the guidance wasn’t clear and apologised to me for that.
"They confirmed I have done everything asked in responding and the matter is closed from ACOBA’s perspective.
"Now no longer a minister, I am involved in a number of not-for-profit and charitable projects.
"None involve exploiting any ministerial benefits, but I am discussing them all with ACOBA to avoid any further confusion."