Matt Hancock has failed to declare that he appointed his closest friend from university, who is the director of a lobbying firm, as an adviser — and later gave her a £15,000-a-year role on the board of his department.
Gabriel Pogrund, Whitehall Correspondent www.thetimes.co.uk
Gina Coladangelo, 42, is a director and major shareholder at Luther Pendragon, a lobbying firm based in central London that offers clients a “deep understanding of the mechanics of government”. She is also communications director at Oliver Bonas, a fashion and lifestyle store founded by her husband.
Hancock, the health secretary, first met Coladangelo, a public relations consultant, while involved with radio at Oxford University and the pair remain close friends.
In March, he secretly appointed her as an unpaid adviser at the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) on a six-month contract.
She has since accompanied Hancock, 42, to confidential meetings with civil servants and visited No 10 Downing Street.
One source said: “Before Matt does anything big, he’ll speak to Gina. She knows everything.” Another added: “She has access to lots of confidential information.”
In September, Hancock appointed Coladangelo as a non-executive director at DHSC, meaning that she is a member of the board that scrutinises the department. There is no public record of the appointment, which will see her earn at least £15,000 of taxpayers’ money and could rise by a further £5,000.
March 23: Matt Hancock in Victoria Tower Gardens, Westminster, with Gina Colandangelo, days before the national lockdown
Since April, Coladangelo has had a parliamentary pass, giving her unregulated access to the Palace of Westminster. It bears her husband’s surname, which she does not use professionally, and is sponsored by Lord Bethell, the hereditary peer, health minister and former lobbyist.
However, Coladangelo is understood to play no role in Bethell’s team.
Yesterday, the DHSC could not explain why he had sponsored her pass and had to ask this newspaper for help in finding the documents showing that he had done so.
The disclosures come as the government faces allegations of “chumocracy” and a lack of transparency in appointing friends from the private sector to key roles.
Lord Evans, the ex-MI5 boss, has warned that a “perception is taking root” that “some in our political leadership, are choosing to disregard the norms of ethics and propriety that have explicitly governed public life for the last 25 years”.
Last week, The Sunday Times also revealed that George Pascoe-Watson, chairman of Portland Communications, another lobbying firm, had advised a minister in Hancock’s department for most of the pandemic.
Shortly after leaving his role, he passed sensitive information about lockdown policy to paying clients. They include McDonald’s, which says that it has ceased all work with the firm and placed their relationship under review. Pascoe-Watson has insisted he did not gain the information through his role.
Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, responded by calling for an inquiry into how lobbyists are able to serve as government advisers, saying: “The public need answers now.”
May 15: The pair arriving at No 10 for the daily press conference
She redoubled those calls last night as the government declined to dispute any aspect of the latest “chumocracy” story.
Instead, a government source said that Coladangelo — who studied economics at Oxford and is not known to have a health background — worked to “support DHSC in connection with its response to the current coronavirus global health emergency”.
Hancock and Coladangelo were pictured together as recently as last Monday. However, the source said that she had “previously” worked for Hancock, implying that her advisory role had come to an end. They added that she had signed a “volunteer’s agreement”, meaning that she is bound by the Official Secrets Act.
Left, June 7: Heading for The Andrew Marr Show at the BBC. Right, July 5: Arriving at BBC HQ again
The DHSC did not respond to questions about a number of possible conflicts of interest arising from her role.
Luther Pendragon, the lobbying firm in which she is a director, boasts clients who have secured lucrative contracts during the pandemic, including British Airways (£70m) and Accenture, which received £2.5m to help build the NHS Covid-19 app.
Trade publications have described Oliver Bonas, for whom she works as communications and marketing director, as something of a “poster boy” for the government of late.
In June, for example, a blog was published on the government website entitled: “Oliver Bonas: Fashion and homeware store reopens safely.”
Then there is Coladangelo’s appointment as a non-executive director of DHSC, which appears in just one place publicly: her LinkedIn page. The role makes her responsible for “overseeing and monitoring performance” — in effect, scrutinising matters of concern to Hancock, with whom she attends Christmas drinks, birthday parties and family dinners.
Left, September 20: Using a socially distanced greeting at the BBC. Right, September 24: Returning to parliament on the day Rishi Sunak presented his winter economy plan
Coladangelo’s role does not break any rules — because there are none. As Peter Riddell, the commissioner for public appointments, noted recently, such appointments are “not regulated at all” and increasingly take place “without competition and without any form of regulatory oversight”.
Ministers, in other words, are free to create a process or, as Hancock has apparently done, reward their closest friends with roles.
MPs also do not have to declare such advisers on the register of MPs’ staff and secretaries, which is designed to ensure transparency. On Hancock’s register, the West Suffolk MP lists three people. Coladangelo is not one of them.
Alex Thomas, who was right-hand man to Jeremy Heywood, the former cabinet secretary, and is a programme director at the Institute for Government, said: “It’s reasonable for ministers to take advice from a range of sources, but advisers should be transparent, accountable and appointed on merit.”
The former senior civil servant added: “Non-executive directors are appointed to bring in commercial and other expertise to departments, and to help ministers and civil servants deliver high priority projects. That’s where they add most value.”
During his time as a student journalist at Oxford, Hancock overslept on the day he was supposed to cover a rugby match at Twickenham. Instead of making it to the stadium, he got off the train early, found a nearby pub and watched the match on television, before writing the match report as planned.
In an interview on the BBC in April, in which she did not disclose her role, Coladangelo, a colleague of his at Oxygen FM, recalled: “He told a white lie, pretended he was at Twickenham watching the rugby, when in fact he was in a pub in Reading.” She added: “Successfully. Nobody ever found out.”
More than two decades later, Hancock is one of the most powerful officials in government and a member of the “quad” of cabinet ministers who determine Covid-19 policy. Some even credit him with persuading the PM to return to a second lockdown.
Coladangelo is now a successful businesswoman. And yet she finds herself facing questions, again, over what Hancock has and has not disclosed.