Business Outlook: The strange case of the offside minister

Thursday 09 October 1997 23:02

This is New Labour and we are living in the age of shareholder democracy so perhaps nobody should be too surprised that the odd minister or two has a few shares salted away. The Government has, after all, embraced private ownership with a gusto that would have been unthinkable even five years ago.

Few appear to have embraced it with more enthusiasm than Nigel Griffiths, who has a nice little collection of blue-chip stocks in his portfolio.

John Redwood has been chipping away and has so far discovered that Mr Griffiths has an interest in ICI and P&O shares. This would not matter, save for the fact that Mr Griffiths also happens to be Minister for Competition at the Department of Trade and Industry.

Even then it would not be an issue were it not for the fact that deals involving both ICI and P&O have been the subject of DTI investigations. The merger between P&O and Stena's ferry operations is the subject of an MMC report which is due to be published shortly.

Honourably and promptly, Mr Griffiths has declared himself offside in respect of both these inquiries because of a conflict of interest. For good measure he has also stood aside from the DTI's investigation into the travel trade industry. Apparently he has a long-standing interest in the subject which for some reason makes it inappropriate for him to have a say in any decisions.

Strange as it may seem, the DTI cannot say when a serving minister last had to declare quite so many conflicts of interest in such a short space of time after taking office.

No one, and especially Mr Redwood, is suggesting that Mr Griffiths has acted with anything other than absolute propriety. However, the question does arise as to what Mr Griffiths does with his time, having managed to exempt himself from three important pieces of departmental business which would otherwise fall squarely in his lap.

Perhaps when the Prime Minister undertakes his first ministerial reshuffle Mr Griffiths will find he has yet more time on his hands.

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