Exclusive: Osborne's father-in-law in 'conflict of interest' row

Lord Howell is both a personal adviser to William Hague and a paid consultant to a train company

George Osborne's father-in-law was accused of a conflict of interest last night after it emerged he is being paid by a Japanese high-speed rail firm with commercial interests in the UK at the same time as having top-level access to the Foreign Office as William Hague's personal adviser.

Lord Howell of Guildford, who was Margaret Thatcher's transport secretary and one of David Cameron's ministers until September, is being paid as a "European consultant" to JR Central, a train company which could be a bidder for multimillion-pound contracts connected to the controversial HS2 rail line.

But the peer, in his role as personal adviser to Mr Hague on energy security, has access to the Foreign Office and confidential FCO documents, and is funded by the taxpayer to go on official visits on behalf of the Foreign Secretary, although the post itself is unsalaried. Last year, days after the Government gave the go-ahead to HS2, Mr Osborne, who is close to his father-in-law, used a visit to Tokyo to declare that the Japanese bullet-train technology – of which JR is a leading exponent – would play a part in the new high-speed line between London and the North.

Lord Howell has caused embarrassment to his son-in-law before. He is a keen enthusiast for shale gas and last year was secretly recorded telling an undercover Greenpeace activist that Mr Osborne was "putting pressure" on Mr Cameron to push for new gas technology.

Yesterday's revelation follows concerns about the business interests of a string of Conservative peers. Last week, Tory donor and academies sponsor John Nash was given a peerage and a job as education minister, while another donor, Lord Popat, was made a government whip. Lord Sassoon, who quit his job as a Treasury minister last month, is to start a job with the City firm Jardine Matheson this week, without undergoing the traditional three-month "gardening leave". This has been cleared by officials.

The cross-party committee that vets the appointments of former ministers approved Lord Howell's paid role with JR Central in October, on condition that he does not lobby anyone in government on behalf of the company for two years. Yet the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (Acoba) deals with MPs, peers and civil servants who have left government, and it is unclear whether they were aware of the nature of his FCO role, which the peer took up a month earlier and which grants him privileged access to the Foreign Office and official documents. Acoba is chaired by Lord Lang, a fellow former minister from the Thatcher era. Lord Howell started the job with JR Central in December. It is not known how much he is being paid.

Setting out details of the envoy role to Parliament in September, the Foreign Office minister David Lidington said that although Lord Howell would "not speak on behalf of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office" and would have no office in Whitehall, he "may have sight of relevant departmental paperwork under secure conditions" and "will have access to the FCO to advise the Foreign Secretary". Mr Lidington added: "Lord Howell may, on occasion, undertake trips in this capacity funded by the FCO and organised and co-ordinated by the FCO and our overseas posts."

In November, Lord Howell visited South Korea in his capacity as Mr Hague's adviser. He has also attended a House of Lords reception involving Azerbaijan's state oil company, Socar, at a Lancaster House event for countries and firms in the "Caspian corridor", and a seminar at the Royal Geographical Society with Crown Prince Haakon of Norway and Norwegian oil executives.

JR Central is Japan's leading train operator and developer of the Maglev – or magnetic levitation – rail system. It also builds, along with Hitachi, the bullet, or Shinkansen, train which would be a leading contender for the £32bn HS2 rail line. Lord Howell was an adviser to JR Central from 2003 but gave up the post on becoming a minister in May 2010. His son-in-law shares his enthusiasm for the Japanese rail industry. In 2006, Mr Osborne enthused about the Maglev system. Nine days after the Government gave the go-ahead to HS2 in January last year, Mr Osborne, on a visit to Tokyo, said Britain was interested in using Japanese bullet-train technology for the new line. He said: "I want Britain to set the standard for the next generation of high-speed rail – for the level of technology, quality of travel and value for money. Japan is the home of high-speed rail. So we will look at all the options, including using bullet-train technology in Britain."

Hitachi, which has helped to develop JR Central's new N700 Shinkansen train, has also supplied Javelin trains for express commuter services in London and Kent. A senior rail industry source said that although JR did not have a short-term interest in HS2 because the project was still in the planning stage, the company "could be interested in HS2 in the long term given the success that Hitachi have had".

The shadow Cabinet Office minister Jon Trickett said last night: "We have been waiting for a law on lobbying, and the Government has got to get on and publish it, which would ensure that these sort of activities could not take place. Lord Howell has serious questions to answer to reassure the public that there is nothing inappropriate about this, because it certainly looks inappropriate."

The Labour peer and former minister George Foulkes said: "This certainly looks like a conflict of interest. Many people will find it galling to see Tory ministers slipping into well-paid sinecures when they move out of government."

The Lib Dem peer Lord Oakeshott said: "It is acceptable for a backbencher outside government to have a role advising a Japanese train company, but clearly you cannot be half in and half out of government. I am sure when he thinks about it David Howell will realise it is quite inappropriate to carry on in this paid advisory job when he is hopping in and out of the Foreign Office."

Lord Howell said last night: "It has all been cleared with the committee. There is no objection to my taking this job."

Asked whether he had informed Acoba of the official nature of his personal adviser role, including access to the FCO and representing the Government abroad, Lord Howell said only: "It is as a personal adviser to the Foreign Secretary. It is what it is." He added there was "no question" that he would lobby the Government on behalf of JR Central, saying: "The rules are very strictly set down. Obviously I adhere to them very strictly."

An FCO spokesman said: "The lobbying ban imposed by Acoba is a two-year ban on Lord Howell lobbying government on behalf of JR Central. Lord Howell has confirmed that he will not be doing this."

Revolving doors

Lord Sassoon Stood down as Commercial Secretary to the Treasury at the end of last month. Takes up a job with City firm Jardine Matheson this week. The normal requirement to wait three months before taking a job in the same sector has been waived.

Lord Nash Venture capitalist and academies sponsor John Nash is to be given a peerage and job as education minister, despite him, his wife Caroline and his firm giving nearly £300,000 to the Tories since 2006. Has agreed he will not play any role in decisions that affect his academies charity, Future.

Lord Popat The care homes and hotels entrepreneur, who has donated more than £200,000 to the Tories, received a peerage in 2010. Last week he was given a job in government as a Lords Whip. In opposition he helped fund the offices of Andrew Mitchell, Baroness Warsi and Nick Herbert.

Lord Hill Promoted to Leader of the Lords following the resignation of Lord Strathclyde last week. He has been allowed to keep shares in the lobbying firm Huntsworth, which owns Quiller Consultants, which he founded. Quiller's clients include those with government contracts, including Tesco, A4e and PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Jane Merrick

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
2015 General Election

Poll of Polls

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Customer Account Manager

£27000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing cloud based I...

Ashdown Group: Product Marketing Manager - Software & Services

£35000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Product Marketing Manager...

Recruitment Genius: Exhibition Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An expanding B2B exhibition and...

Recruitment Genius: QA Technician

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading manufacturer of re...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat