A former Conservative health minister has been rebuked by the Westminster lobbying watchdog for setting up a meeting between a pharmaceutical company and the Covid-19 vaccines minister at the time.
Steve Brine, the MP for Winchester and former public health minister, who was paid £200 an hour as an “strategic adviser” to Sigma Pharmaceuticals arranged and sat in on a meeting between its executives and Nadhim Zahawi, who was in charge of the coronavirus vaccine rollout.
Two months after the meeting in February 2021 Sigma was awarded a £100,000 contract to deliver lateral flow tests to pharmacies.
Eric Pickles, who chairs the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (Acoba), said on Monday he was “growing increasingly concerned that not all former Ministers of the Crown are sufficiently clear on the various standards of behaviour, rules and legislation that are incumbent on them.”
Pickles said there was “reasonable concern that [Brine’s] direct involvement with the then minister for Covid vaccine deployment during the pandemic was only made available to Sigma as a direct result of Mr Brine’s time as a minister at the Department of Health and Social Care”.
He said it was not “in keeping with the letter or the spirit of the government’s rules for a former minister at DHSC [the Department of Health and Social Care] to contact a minister with responsibilities for health on behalf of a pharmaceutical company which pays him”.
He called on Steve Barclay, the Cabinet Office minister, to “decide what appropriate action to take”.
Pickles said Brine, who was paid £19,992 a year by Sigma for 96 hours’ work, had failed to seek Acoba’s advice on taking the role until after he had started in the job, in a breach of the rules. Former ministers have to consult the anti-corruption watchdog before taking outside job within two years of leaving government.
Brine, the MP for Winchester and Chandlers Ford, admitted to Acoba that he had “made a mistake, by a few weeks” in not consulting the body before taking up the job and said he could “only apologise again for poor admin on my part”.
He said his interests were properly registered and that “no lobbying on behalf of Sigma took place”, but Pickles said these were different rules and that it was “a former minister’s personal responsibility to understand” which guidelines they must abide by.
Brine quit the role at Sigma in November 2021 soon after Boris Johnson said he would ban MPs from “exploiting their positions” with consultancy jobs in the wake of the Owen Paterson lobbying scandal.
Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, who wrote to Pickles about the case, said: “From the revolving door to crony contracts, the scandals just keep mounting for a Conservative party mired in sleaze from the prime minister down. Even the government’s in-house committee is ‘increasingly concerned’ about the behaviour of former Tory ministers and has called on them to act.
“Labour will ban ministers for at least five years after they leave office and create a genuinely independent watchdog to enforce the rules, ending the days that Tory politicians could profit from privileged access, information and taxpayers’ money. Enough is enough.”
In a later statement, Brine said: “At the outset of the biggest vaccination programme in our history I wanted to give the vaccine minister a chance to thank a vital part of the workforce but I understand the event has caused concern and as such accept entirely Acoba’s decision.”