Firm won £123m contract after David Cameron urged Matt Hancock to attend genomics conference

Former PM was appointed as an adviser to Illumina in 2018

Ashley Cowburn
Political Correspondent
Wednesday 11 August 2021 12:41 BST
Today's daily politics briefing

A firm employing David Cameron as an adviser won a multi-million pound contract after the former Conservative prime minister reportedly urged the ex-health secretary in a letter to attend a genomics conference.

It comes after Mr Cameron’s work since leaving office was put under the spotlight once again this week for his separate advisory role with the collapsed finance company Greensill Capital, as BBC Panorama reported he made $10m (£7.2m).

According to The Times, Mr Cameron, who was appointed as an adviser to Illumina in 2018, wrote to Matt Hancock in April 2019 “strongly” endorsing an invitation to a conference the US healthcare company had previously sent to his Whitehall office.

“I understand Jay [Flatley, former executive chairman of Illumina) has sent this direct to your office, but I wanted to i) ensure that you had seen it personally; and ii) strongly endorse their invitation to this significant conference,” Mr Cameron said in his correspondence.

The newspaper added that Mr Hancock agreed to attend the conference in September 2019 — which Mr Cameron also attended— after receiving the letter from the former Conservative leader.

Following the conference Illumina was awarded a £123 million genetic sequencing contract — a deal that was reported earlier this year amid separate questions over Mr Cameron’s work with Greensill Capital.

A spokesperson for Mr Cameron told The Independent, however: “David Cameron’s work for Illumina has never involved any discussion of commercial contracts.

“It has predominantly involved promoting the benefits of genomic sequencing and the world-leading example of Genomics England to other countries around the world. He has done this in Australia, the US, the Gulf, India and more recently in online calls with interested parties in Japan and Holland”.

They added: “As has been made clear on numerous occasions, David Cameron has never lobbied the government on behalf of Illumina or been involved in any contract or commercial discussions.”

Mr Cameron was appointed as an adviser with Illumina in 2018 and when he applied for clearance for the role, he told the Advisory Committee on Business Appointment that he would be paid for working two to three days a month for the company.

The former prime minister, who left office in 2016 following the Brexit vote, told the committee at the time he would not play any role in contract negotiations between the firm and Genomics England or the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC).

“He noted the role might involve some very limited contact with UK ministers from time to time, but he was clear with the committee that he would not lobby ministers or the UK government in any way on behalf of Illumina or its partners,” they added.

A government spokesperson also defended the awarding of the contract to Illumina, telling The Independent: “The contract, signed to help save lives through better diagnosis, was awarded in the correct way, through the proper process and any suggestion of undue ministerial involvement in the decision making is completely wrong.”

The spokesperson added: “Extensive due diligence was carried out and as set out in the transparency notice the contract was awarded because Illumina was the only company considered to have the technical capability to deliver this crucial work.

“The 2019 contract was a follow-on contract to the original sequencing contract with Illumina in 2014 and the company’s expertise is being used to help the government rollout the world’s first whole genome sequencing programme to better diagnose patients with rare disease and certain cancers.”

Illumina said it “always follows the correct and necessary process in its negotiations with customers” and had worked with Genomics England since 2014 — when the company won a competitive tender process for a £78m contract.

A spokesperson for Mr Hancock added: “The UK’s genomic sequencing capacity is one of the biggest in the world and has saved countless lives. Mr Hancock had no involvement in the awarding of these contracts and all normal processes were followed.”

Earlier this week, BBC Panorama reported Mr Cameron made $10m (£7.2m) from his separate part-time advisory role with Greensill Capital. Documents seen by the programme showed the former prime minister cashed in shares, was paid $1m annual salary, and also got a $700,000 bonus.

Mr Cameron hit the headlines in relation to the bank after it emerged he was using his closeness to current cabinet minister to try to persuade them to underwrite its loans with taxpayer cash.

He was cleared of breaking any lobbying rules over the affair and his spokesperson insisted he “acted in good faith at all times and there was no wrongdoing in any of the actions he took”. However, some MPs said he showed a “significant lack of judgment”.

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