'Deep concern' over 'potential conflicts of interest' as questions emerge over careers of reshuffled ministers' partners

17 November 2023, 11:11 | Updated: 17 November 2023, 12:20

Atkins and Barclay have been singled out
Atkins and Barclay have been singled out. Picture: Alamy
Henry Riley

By Henry Riley

The Liberal Democrats have today written to the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA) over the recent appointment of two cabinet ministers in the reshuffle.

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The letter to the chairman of ACOBA, Lord Pickles, came from the Liberal Democrat MP Tim Farron.

Farron, who is the party’s spokesperson for Environmental, Food and Rural Affairs, has expressed his “deep concern about potential conflicts of interest” over the appointments “and their family ties to organisations they will be directly affecting”.

Steve Barclay, the new environment secretary, is one of the ministers in question with Farron saying that his wife Karen Barclay “is head of major infrastructure planning and stakeholder engagement at Anglian Water” which is currently under investigation by both Ofwat and the Environment Agency for the “illegal dumping of sewage into rivers, lakes and coastlines”.

Farron's full letter to Lord Pickles
Farron's full letter to Lord Pickles. Picture: Submitted

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Elsewhere, the Lib Dem MP expresses his concern over Paul Kenward, the husband of the new health secretary Victoria Atkins – due to his capacity as the managing director of British Sugar.

Atkins previously recused herself from cannabis drug policy when she was a Home Office minister due to British Sugar growing cannabis for medicinal use.

The Lib Dems raised questions about Atkins' role as health secretary
The Lib Dems raised questions about Atkins' role as health secretary. Picture: Alamy

The Liberal Democrats are calling for her, and Barclay, to “recuse themselves from areas of policy that directly relate to the role of their partners”.

Atkins has expressed her intention to recuse herself from obesity and cannabis-related policy, but there have been question marks as to how simple this could be.

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Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting told LBC’s Shelagh Fogarty “the challenge is how do you do that practically and how do you do the job practically – because obesity, and conditions linked to food and drink, is such a big part of the job”.

The Lib Dems want Barclay to recuse himself for certain topics
The Lib Dems want Barclay to recuse himself for certain topics. Picture: Alamy

Eddie Crouch, the chairman of the British Dental Association, told LBC “it is a huge conflict of interest” and that the “short turnaround” of health secretaries was “having a huge impact” on dentistry.

In the letter to Lord Pickles, a former Conservative cabinet minister, Tim Farron says “questions will be asked if they do not completely recuse themselves and that trust in the administration could be undermined”.

The Lib Dem MP added “please can you advise if you are also concerned about these possible conflicts of interest, and if you will be conducting an investigation”.

His Liberal Democrat colleague Wendy Chamberlain told LBC: “We do expect high standards of propriety from the government, and this is something that this Conservative government doesn’t have a good record of in recent times – a lack of transparency for ministers, and the inability to follow the rules for some of them.”

Chamberlain, the party's chief whip, added: “I think this is an opportunity for the government to be very clear that they are conscious of conflicts of interest and that they can be confident that their ministers can behave with propriety”.

She said “the reshuffle has been ill-thought through in terms of the jobs ministers do - we have no confidence that they have the skillset, knowledge or understanding to deliver what the country needs”.

A Defra spokesperson said: “All Defra ministers declare their interests in line with the Ministerial Code.

"There is an established regime in place for the declaration and management of interests held by ministers. This ensures that steps are taken to avoid or mitigate any potential or perceived conflicts of interest."