The government has been criticised after a meeting between a Cabinet Office minister and a lobbying firm with links to Huawei and the Conservative Party was removed from official transparency data.
Andrew Griffith, who is now Rishi Sunak’s city minister, met with Hawthorn Advisors on 7 June in what was initially registered as an “introductory meeting” and recorded in Cabinet Office’s transparency data, but was removed last week.
Hawthorn Advisors is a PR and lobbying firm, listed on the register of consultant lobbyists, which counted the Chinese tech firm Huawei among its lobbying clients when the meeting took place.
Transparency International UK said the decision to remove the meeting would “raise some eyebrows,” and that the public “has a right to know what their elected representatives are discussing in their capacity as ministers”.
Ben Elliot, a close ally of Boris Johnson who was a key fundraiser and co-chair of the Conservative Party until September, was reappointed as a director of Hawthorn Advisors on 1 November, according to accounts filings posted on Companies House.
Public has ‘a right to know’ about ministerial meetings
A meeting between a senior government minister and the consultant lobbying firm was removed from the official list of departmental meetings last week, on the basis that it was a “personal meeting”.
Andrew Griffith, current Economic Secretary to the Treasury, met with Hawthorn Advisors back in June, when he was serving as the Minister for Policy and head of Boris Johnson’s policy unit.
The firm was co-founded by Ben Elliot, a close associate of Boris Johnson who served as the co-chair of the Conservative Party until September this year.
Elliot, who is the nephew of the Queen Consort, stepped down from his role with the Conservative Party on 5 September 2022 - the same day Liz Truss took over as leader and Prime Minister.
He founded consultant lobbyist Hawthorn Advisors with John Evans in 2013, but resigned in 2020, the year after he was appointed as co-chair of the Conservative Party, putting his 22% stake in the company in trust.
Hawthorn Advisors is a consultant lobbying firm which lists Chinese telecoms firm Huawei among its clients. When representatives of the firm met with Griffith, in what was originally listed as an “introductory meeting,” the firm also listed fossil fuel firm IGas and cryptocurrency exchange Binance among its active clients.
Rose Whiffen, research officer at Transparency International UK said: “When a meeting between an MP in a ministerial role and representatives of a registered lobbyist firm is said to be personal in nature it’s bound to raise some eyebrows.
“It is incumbent on all ministers and their staff to properly record external meetings and declare them if any official business is discussed. The public has a right to know what their elected representatives are discussing in their capacity as ministers – and who they are discussing it with.”
Initially, when asked for comment on the meeting and the decision to remove it from the official transparency logs, a No 10 source denied that it had ever been listed.
However, Andrew Griffith’s office later acknowledged that the meeting did take place but was registered in the transparency data erroneously as it was a “personal meeting”. They did not offer any further comment, but directed NationalWorld to the ministerial code, which states:
“Ministers meet many people and organisations and consider a wide range of views as part of the formulation of Government policy. Meetings on official business should normally be arranged through Ministers’ departments.
“A private secretary or official should be present for all discussions relating to Government business. If a Minister meets an external organisation or individual and finds themselves discussing official business without an official present – for example at a social occasion or on holiday – any significant content should be passed back to the department as soon as possible after the event.”
Hawthorn declined to comment, but a source confirmed that the meeting had not been removed from the transparency logs at their request.
In April, a Cabinet Office minister attended a lunch reception hosted by Hawthorn Advisors and met with a number of senior executives from tech, media and creative industry firms.
Nigel Adams was a guest speaker at the 28 April lunch, where he had discussions with Facebook/Meta’s global director of public policy, Ed Bowles, senior executives at ITV and News UK, as well as unnamed representatives of Vodafone and Samsung.
Ben Elliot’s controversial business ties
Elliot has long been a controversial figure, and found himself at the centre of a number of scandals during his time as Tory co-chair.
The Financial Times previously reported that a number of PR clients of Hawthorn had donated significant sums to the Conservative Party, and that a former Conservative MP had raised concerns about Elliot’s role after he failed to declare his connections to a client during an internal party dispute.
Last July the Sunday Times reported that prior to taking on the role with the Conservatives Elliot had introduced a client of his luxury concierge service firm, Quintessentially, to Prince Charles and later asked the client to donate to Zac Goldsmith’s campaign for London Mayor.
Millionaire businessman Mohamed Amersi had been an ‘elite member’ of Quintessentially for several years, at a cost of £15,000 per year, before the firm organised a visit with Charles at Dumfries House in Scotland, including a private flight, a tour and dinner.
Labour called for Elliot to be sacked as Conservative chair on a number of occasions, after the party received donations from people with links to Vladimir Putin and his involvement with Quintessentially, which maintained a significant presence in Russia even after the invasion of Ukraine.
A spokesperson for Quintessentially previously said the group “completely condemns President Putin’s invasion of Ukraine”. Elliot has also been criticised by the lobbying regulator for not making a clear distinction between his different roles and companies.
Harry Rich, the head of the Office of the Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists, advised Elliot in September 2021, “to be cautious about the possibility of engaging in consultant lobbying activity (perhaps unintentionally) by not making a clear enough distinction between his role as a director of Quintessentially and his other activities connected to government”.