Interest query for Caroline Spelman

The new Defra Secretary of State Caroline Spelman has played down questions over a conflict of interest with a family food consultancy.

Spelman made it clear she had already severed links with food and biotechnology consultant Spelman, Cormack and Associates, which she set up with her husband, Mark, in 1989. She said she had ended co-directorship of the firm last year.

A political transparency group which itself has links to the Conservative Party, the Sunlight Centre for Open Politics, wrote to Defra permanent secretary Helen Ghosh soon after Spelman's appointment was made. In a letter, it asked whether Spelman would step back from dealing with matters that impact on her former clients in the agri-business and bio-tech industry and asked if she had fully declared all the agri-business companies with which Spelman, Cormack and Associates have had dealings.

A Defra spokesperson said: "Caroline Spelman relinquished the unpaid directorship of Spelman, Cormack and Associates in June 2009. Defra's permanent secretary will be ensuring, in the usual way, that the Secretary of State's private interests are declared and handled in line with the Ministerial Code."

Code procedure dictates that new ministers must provide the permanent secretary with a full list of interests that might be thought to give rise to a conflict. The list must also include any spouses, partners and close family interests, which may also give rise to a conflict.

Reports have also highlighted the fact Spelman's husband is now a senior employee of global management consultant Accenture, which is overseeing the £350m Rural Payments Agency IT system.

The Defra spokesperson added: "It is normally the case, in circumstances where ministers have an interest in a firm, that the minister concerned plays no part in decisions on contracts relating to that company."

Spelman will head an all-Tory Defra team, with Jim Paice as the new farming minister, Richard Benyon overseeing rural affairs and Lord Henley with the nanotechnolgy and biofuels portfolio.

As part of new government policy, Defra and its agencies have agreed it will contribute £162m to the govern-ment's overall £6bn savings in 2010/11, amounting to 5.5% of its 2010/11 budget. These will include operational savings in IT, estates and procurement and a reduction in funding for Regional Development Agencies.

Paice has also confirmed that there will be a science-led cull of badgers in England to combat bTB in cattle, which has been welcomed by the National Farmers' Union. President Peter Kendall said: "This disease caused us to have to slaughter 40,000 cattle in the last full year. We are seeing people exiting the farming industry. We've got to make a start."

British Meat Processors' Association director Stephen Rossides said that, from a new administration, he is hoping for effective animal disease control, explicit support for the livestock sector and a strong support for research and development.

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