MPs 'conned' over obesity charity that was front for diet firm

Trust that used public cash to influence the war on fat is to close after revealing links with weight-loss company

By Michael Gillard
Sunday 20 January 2008 01:00

An obesity charity that took tens of thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money in government grants and gained access to key politicians was actually a front for a highly profitable diet company, an Independent on Sunday investigation can reveal.

The Obesity Awareness and Solutions Trust (Toast) boasted about causing an influential parliamentary inquiry into obesity while failing to declare its financial links to the weight-loss industry. Toast also used a Westminster lobbying firm to "acquire" a large group of "parliamentary patrons".

The revelations come just days before the Government launches its response to the public health "time bomb". They will be raised this week when members of Parliament's Public Accounts Committee meet to consider the activities of political lobbying firms.

MPs and peers who once supported Toast are distancing themselves and say they were unaware of its substantial links with the Essex-based company LighterLife, whose website describes the firm as "the only weight-loss programme which includes counselling in small single-sex groups to tackle what goes on in your mind as well as your mouth".

The firm claims 60,000 success stories in the UK, and latest accounts show a gross profit of almost £12m. Its founders are Barbara Hewlett, a former science teacher, and Jacqueline Cox, a counsellor who gives her latest address as "An Ocean Retreat" in the Bahamas.

LighterLife was formed in 1996. Three years later the pair registered Toast as a charity and became its trustee-directors. It is almost entirely funded by substantial and tax-deductible charitable donations from their diet company. A significant slice has been spent on lobbying. Christopher Whitehouse, head of lobbyists the Whitehouse Consultancy, boasts that his company helped Toast "acquire [21] high-profile parliamentary patrons". Among them are MPs on influential select committees that shape health policy, as well as shadow ministers and whips.

Dr Ian Gibson, Labour MP for Norwich North, said: "I was absolutely not aware of this connection. I am very concerned about the origin of these large donations."

The Labour MP for Lewisham West, Jim Dowd, goes further, saying he never agreed to be a patron of Toast, who named him as such on publicity material.

Southend West Conservative MP David Amess, a key Toast supporter, lobbied colleagues on the Health Select Committee to hold an inquiry into obesity. Ms Cox gave evidence in December 2003 without declaring her LighterLife links. She called on the Government to support counselling services by the commercial sector for people failed by the NHS.

Mr Amess admits he had not carried out checks before acting for Toast and says he feels he was "conned".

LighterLife denies seeking any commercial advantage through its support for Toast. "There is no conflict of interest and to imply such is gross misrepresentation," a spokeswoman said. But the Government said last night that it would no longer fund Toast precisely because of "the conflict of interest". Toast received two government grants, worth £80,000, between 2001 and 2003.

The Department of Health said: "The conflict of interest came to light in early 2003. All subsequent applications for funding were declined. Initial funding was given in good faith."

Toast patron Chris Grayling MP, then shadow health minister, was unaware what drove the refusal when in June 2004 he demanded a statement from the health minister. He was told Toast's application failed because of "intense competition". Mr Grayling, now shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, said Toast should have declared to him the link with LighterLife.

Speaking from Australia, Ms Hewlett told the IoS that she and Ms Cox resigned from Toast in August 2004 because there might be a "perception" of a conflict of interest. However, they continued to fund the charity.

LighterLife has donated £444,000 with no restriction on how it is spent. Toast's website in turn promotes LighterLife's "diet packs". The company denies this is at its request, but its largesse makes a mockery of Toast's "independence and impartiality" statement in which it claims to "derive its income from individual donations and membership fees".

Last month the charity announced it was closing, saying it had achieved its aim of raising awareness. It conceded "the task of finding the solutions to the problem is too large for a charity of this size". Ms Hewlett denies Toast was a front for LighterLife. "[It] was a voice for the obese person and by golly didn't we do well?"

A government study published in October said that by 2050, 60 per cent of men and 50 per cent of women could be clinically obese. On Wednesday the Government gives its official response.

Professor David Miller of Strathclyde University, who investigates political lobbying and runs Spinwatch, says he will raise the case when he gives evidence to the Public Administration Select Committee into the lobbying industry on Thursday. He has written to Toast patrons in Parliament. "MPs... are not always aware of the interests behind seemingly independent lobbyists. Transparency is necessary to protect parliamentarians and the public from being hoodwinked by vested interests," he said.

Timeline: How Toast put on its pounds

Feb 1996: LighterLife UK Ltd formed

July 1999: Toast formed

2001: First government grant (£40,000)

2002: Second government grant (£40,000)

2003: Government refuses further funding

Dec 2003: Cox gives evidence to Health Select Committee on Obesity

May 2004: Health Select Committee reports

May-June 2004: Tory MPs Amess and Grayling lobby minister to fund Toast

Aug 2004: Cox and Hewlett resign as Toast trustee-directors

Mar 2007: Then health minister Caroline Flint speaks at Toast parliamentary reception

Oct 2007: Government report on obesity published

Dec 2007: Toast announces it will close

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