THE Foreign Office policy under the coalition of devoting British diplomacy almost entirely to commercial efforts might now look increasingly short-sighted, but it is serving one former minister involved very nicely.
Mark Simmonds, who was minister for Africa until he resigned in 2014 saying he couldn’t live on the money, is putting his two years on the international stage to his own commercial use.
One of his new jobs is as “senior strategic adviser” to International Hospitals Group, a British company that operates around the world, runs nine hospitals in Africa and had its big break with a deal for the Saudi Arabian National Guard under a contract signed with the UK government back in 1980. The deal involved payments of commissions to the same offshore companies that until recently were involved in bribes on a major communications contract with the national guard (Eyes passim ad nauseam).
Simmonds even had some involvement with the company when in office, the government’s advisory committee on business appointments (Acoba) noted. In fact, in a speech plugging investment in Africa in 2012, he gave the company a big push, recounting how he had “witnessed a new hospital project rising from the ground courtesy of International Hospitals Group”. But, Acoba decided, as Simmonds wasn’t “involved in policy development, the award of grants, or any regulatory work that could have affected the organisation”, his job was nodded through.
This same excuse – which is nonsense, as Simmonds clearly was involved in relevant policy development – was also used to rubber-stamp a job for him chairing the advisory board of Invest Africa, a business lobby group counting such luminaries as Barclays’ Bob Diamond on its board, and yet another strategic advisory position with international affairs body, FIRST.
Simmonds’ bulging portfolio of jobs now includes: a non-executive directorship with African Potash, a miner that also employs former Labour foreign office minister Lord (Peter) Hain; a managing directorship of intelligence company Kroll; deputy chairmanship of the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council; and the role of chief executive of family investment firm Mortlock Simmonds. Then, if he can spare a moment for one of the bigger issues facing the world, Simmonds, 51, will work as chief operating office of the Counter Extremism Project, a non-profit body that enjoys the support of governments around the world.
Although none of the salaries for these jobs is made public (and Simmonds left the Commons in May when he stood down as MP for Boston and Skegness), they show how an astute minister struggling on around £90,000 a year can rack up future earnings at a rate worth many, many times that – and how the government’s revolving door police can always be relied on to look the other way.
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Simon the pieman
EVEN the homeopathically weak advisory committee on business appointments (Acoba), which approves moves through the revolving door out of Whitehall, would have struggled to sign off a top civil servant going to work for a firm soon after he had given it millions of pounds worth of work and championed policies worth even more to it in the long run.
So when the director-general in charge of energy markets and infrastructure at the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) wanted to do exactly this, he employed a clever ruse to avoid having to seek the advisory committee’s approval.
In February this year Simon Virley, a former private secretary to Tony Blair who had risen through the ranks to run energy policy at DECC from 2009, became a partner at the government’s favourite nuclear advisory consultancy, KPMG.
“Simon had overall responsibility for advice to the UK Government on renewables, nuclear, oil and gas, shale, carbon capture and storage, and UK energy security issues,” boasted KPMG of its new catch. “During this period, he led the biggest reforms to the UK energy market since privatization.”
The major reform was to push through a new nuclear building programme that will see French company EDF build a reactor at Hinckley Point using Chinese money. The plans were pushed through on the back of financial advice from, er, KPMG, under a contract given to it by, ahem, Simon Virley.
The firm earned more than £2m for its handiwork, which ended in a government commitment to buy power from the plant at £92.50 per megawatt hour, double the market rate for electricity. This is fantastic news for EDF (also a KPMG audit and consultancy client) and of course KPMG’s new partner Virley who, says the firm, “will be responsible for advising KPMG’s clients on opportunities in the UK market and abroad”.
Clear conflict of interest
The appointment represents as clear a conflict of interest imaginable and the advisory committee would almost certainly have had to intervene if it wanted to appear to have any purpose at all. So rather than just leave the government, Virley has taken “a five-year unpaid career break from DECC”. Hey presto! Although he’s moved into a job paying hundreds of thousands of pounds a year (average KPMG partner salary c. £700,000) with a firm which has done very well out of his work, Virley has no need to ask the committee’s permission. That he is effectively on two organisations’ books and therefore even more conflicted matters not.
DECC tells the Eye it took formal advice from the Cabinet Office (which may well have dreamt up the wheeze). So that’s all right then.