David Cameron has been asked to investigate whether a senior Conservative broke the ministerial code by accepting a £4,000 donation from a think tank chairman shortly before implementing one of the group’s key policy proposals.
Labour has demanded an inquiry into whether Matthew Hancock, the Cabinet Office Minister, faced a possible conflict of interest over the gift from Neil Record, who chairs the right-wing Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA). The Independent disclosed last month that the donation was made four months before Mr Hancock announced a controversial ban on charities using grants from public funds to lobby ministers, MPs, civil servants and political parties.
Anna Turley, the shadow Minister for Civil Society, has written to the Prime Minister pointing out that the Cabinet Office cited “extensive research” by the IEA to justify its clampdown on “so-called ‘sock puppets’.” She said: “It is very concerning that this policy change, lifted directly from a think tank report, came just four months after the chair of the think tank made a substantial donation to the minister.” She asked Mr Cameron to “investigate what appears to be a conflict of interest and potential breach of the ministerial code” and to publish all communications between the IEA and government officials, ministers and their advisers.
There is no suggestion the donation broke any rules or was not properly declared. In the Commons, Mr Hancock told Ms Turley: “I did not have any discussions with the IEA on this. It is about ensuring that taxpayers’ money is spent on good causes and the right things, not on lobbying government. It is right that taxpayers’ money should be spent on the things for which it was intended, not on ensuring that lobbyists can take politicians out for lunch.”
Sir Stephen Bubb, chief executive of the charity leaders’ network ACEVO, said Mr Hancock’s Commons statement raised serious questions. He asked: “Given that we know that the IEA had conversations with the regulator [the Charity Commission] prior to publication, and the regulator’s chair is appointed by the minister’s office, why would the minister not think it prudent to enjoin both the regulator and the IEA in those discussions?”
Mr Record, a City currency manager who has donated £245,000 to the Conservative Party and a total of £22,000 to Mr Hancock since 2010, has said he has never had “any commercial or any other lobbying-type relationship” with the minister and did not discuss the curbs on charities with him personally.