Minister refuses to ditch pounds 2m oil shares

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The Independent Online
Lord Simon, the former BP chairman and now a government minister in the Lords, has refused to divest himself of a large shareholding worth over pounds 2m in the oil company.

Sir David Simon, as he then was, gave up the chairmanship of BP and a salary of pounds 874,000 to be the unpaid minister for competitiveness in Europe with the Department of Trade and Industry soon after the election. According to BP's latest records, he holds 247,091 shares worth a total of pounds 2.15m.

Lord Simon has promised not to trade in the shares, nor to be involved in any matters concerning BP, but the Tory opposition is not satisfied. John Redwood, the shadow President of the Board of Trade, told The Independent he had received Commons assurances last week that all was well. "We now learn that all is not well," he said yesterday.

The official Whitehall rules, "Questions of Procedure for Ministers", say: "A minister should, upon assuming office, review his or her investments and, if its seems likely that any of them might give rise to an actual or apparent conflict of interest, they should be disposed of."

In a weekend letter, Margaret Beckett, the President of the Board of Trade, told Mr Redwood of the detailed arrangements that had been made to avoid a potential conflict of interest. "He [Lord Simon] has placed the generality of his shares in blind trusts. He has not, however, disposed of his shareholding in BP but has undertaken not to trade these shares before January 1998, at which time the position will be reviewed," she said.

"He is not involved in any of the DTI business which covers BP, nor does he receive any papers which have a bearing on BP. I understand similar arrangements are in place at the Treasury to keep Lord Simon apart from decisions in areas relating to his previous employment and that Lord Simon did not contribute to the pre-Budget decision-making."

But Mr Redwood said that if Lord Simon had been blocked from any involvement in such matters, it was baffling that Mrs Beckett, his boss, had not known of that arrangement when questions had been asked in the Commons last Thursday.

It is also a matter of Opposition curiosity that Lord Simon should have put some shares in "blind trust" - under which he is not informed of investment changes or the state of the portfolio - while retaining his more significant BP shareholding.

Mr Redwood told The Independent: "It is most important that a Labour Party which campaigned so strongly on an anti-sleaze ticket should be seen to be observing every letter and every dot of Questions of Procedure for Ministers.

"He should have sold his shares at the beginning; it's the only conceivable thing, to be absolutely safe."

As for the idea that Lord Simon was going to be excluded from areas covered by his BP interest, Mr Redwood said: "I'm going to ask exactly what he is doing.

"Because BP is such a large part of the British economy, with so many interests in different fields, it could be quite difficult for him. I'm not at all satisfied by this answer."

Labour's secret cuts, page 6

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