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Sunday, October 17, 2021

More Tory donor controversy

The lack of transparency around the awarding of government contracts and the failure to rein in political donations have collided once more to raise further questions about the influence of those who give cash to government parties.

The Mirror reports that a Tory donor whose father lends Boris Johnson his helicopter has won millions of pounds in government green cash. They say that Jo Bamford, son of JCB boss Lord Bamford, has set himself up in the hydrogen fuel industry – which will be big business at next month’s COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow. The self-styled “green entrepreneur” bought collapsed bus manufacturer Wrightbus out of administration in 2019 and set up his own Bamford Bus Company. The firm has since landed a share of £700million-worth of contracts from government bodies to supply hydrogen buses:

While there is no suggestion of improper conduct, Tom Brake, director of the Unlock Democracy campaign group, told the Sunday Mirror: “As long as donors are allowed to gift huge amounts of cash to MPs and political parties, and MPs can switch seamlessly between being the lucky recipient of a donation or a paid consultancy role and a ministerial position, questions will be asked.

“Until a cap on donations is introduced – Unlock Democracy is calling for £5,000 per year – there is always going to be doubt about whether grants or contracts were won fair and square or whether cash for access and influence came into play.”

Lord Bamford and his family have handed at least £10million in cash and gifts to the Conservatives since 2001 – with son Jo also giving £74,854 since 2019. His donations include gifts to constituencies of several MPs now in ministerial jobs, including George Freeman, the new Energy Secretary.

A year ago, Mr Freeman entered into a contract to offer “strategic advice” to another of Mr Bamford’s firms – Ryze Hydrogen, which invests in facilities that make the fuel cells to power buses.

The contract was scrapped and payments returned after Mr Freeman was reported for a breach of the ministerial code for failing to inform a Parliamentary watchdog.

Fellow Tory Julian Smith, the former Chief Whip, is a £60,000-a-year adviser for Ryze. And a new £45m hydrogen production facility is set to open up a stone’s throw from the COP26 conference – with Ryze as a major partner.

The Government’s Hydrogen Strategy predicts the industry will be worth £13billion to the economy by 2050. Last year Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said he was “very, very keen that we push hydrogen”.

According to industry magazine Passenger Transport, that came after “sustained lobbying” from Mr Bamford.

While the businessman has thrown his lot into green investments, his digger mogul father still has a fleet of aircraft. And the PM has come under fire for using helicopters and jets lent to him by Lord Bamford for campaign visits.

Before May’s local elections and the Hartlepool by-election, Mr Johnson is understood to have used a Gulfstream 650 business jet to fly from Farnborough, Hants, to Wales and the North East.

The same month the PM used a Bamford-registered chopper on a 50-minute flight from London to Wolverhampton – saving just over an hour compared to taking the train.

Meanwhile, Wales-on-line reports that a Welsh company whose directors include a former adviser to Boris Johnson donated £20,000 to the Conservative Party at the same time that it secured UK Government funding worth millions of pounds. Hydro Industries, a water technology firm based at Llangennech in Carmarthenshire, was awarded a “convertible loan” from the government’s Future Fund scheme last year:

Hydro has donated more than £70,000 to the Conservative Party since 2015, including last year’s £20,000 payment.

One of its non-executive directors, broadcaster and journalist Guto Harri, was an adviser and spokesman for Boris Johnson from 2008 to 2012, when he was Mayor of London.

Jolyon Maugham, the director of Good Law Project, which is taking legal action over alleged Tory cronyism, said: “The fact that large sums of public money are going to those with close links to the PM, and who give money to his party, adds to the miasma of sleaze around this government.”

In March 2020 Hydro agreed a deal worth £150m to treat sludge from oil and gas exploitation in Egypt and has another lucrative UK Government-backed contract in Saudi Arabia.

Welcoming the Egypt deal in March last year, the Prime Minister said: “This is exactly the type of contract in the post-Brexit era that showcases the best of UK industry.”

A spokesman for Mr Johnson said: “The Prime Minister had no involvement in the signing of this deal or any private meetings with members of Hydro Industries. Any suggestion of a conflict of interest or impropriety on the Prime Minister’s behalf is categorically untrue.”

In total Hydro donated £71,000 to the Conservative Party between 2015 and 2020.

All of these donations are legal and above board and there is no suggestion of impropriety. Nevertheless, the impression these donations give of how politics in this country operates must be tackled through reform.
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