A second company that the Tory peer Michelle Mone lobbied ministers over in an attempt to secure government Covid contracts was a secret entity of her husband’s family office, the Guardian can reveal.
Lady Mone’s lobbying on behalf of the company, LFI Diagnostics, which she tried to help secure government contracts for Covid lateral flow tests, prompted a formal rebuke from a health minister who reminded her of “the need for propriety”.
A departmental source told the Guardian that Mone was “in a class of her own in terms of the sheer aggression of her advocacy” on behalf of LFI Diagnostics.
However, it is the revelation that the company was a secret entity of the office that manages the wealth of her husband, Douglas Barrowman, that will deepen the controversy over the Tory peer and her access to ministers.
On Tuesday, Mone’s spokesperson said that she was taking a leave of absence from the House of Lords with immediate effect, adding she was doing so “in order to clear her name of the allegations that have been unjustly levelled against her”.
Mone’s apparent lobbying during the pandemic of at least four Tory ministers – Matt Hancock, Michael Gove, Lord Agnew and Lord Bethell – is threatening to become a major scandal for the government.
In the House of Commons on Tuesday evening, MPs voted to force the government to release documents relating to £200m contracts that were given to PPE Medpro in June 2020, weeks after Mone referred it to Gove and Agnew, using their personal email addresses.
A crucial document seen by the Guardian suggests that both PPE Medpro and LFI Diagnostics were set up for the ultimate benefit of Barrowman and his family.
A source familiar with the Barrowman family office said its “entities” are owned, either directly or indirectly, for the ultimate benefit of Barrowman or his family. While Page runs the family office, it is ultimately controlled by Barrowman, the source added.
Both Mone and Barrowman have repeatedly sought to distance themselves from PPE Medpro. Through their lawyers, both have denied any “involvement” in PPE Medpro, or any “role” in the process through which the company was awarded its government contracts. Mone’s lawyers also denied she benefited financially from the company.
However, the Guardian revealed last month that bank documents stated that Barrowman was paid at least £65m in profits from PPE Medpro in September 2020, and then distributed the funds through a series of offshore accounts, trusts and companies.
One of the recipients, bank records indicate, was a trust of which Mone and her adult children were the beneficiaries. It received £29m in funds originating from PPE Medpro profits in October 2020, the documents state.
The revelation has sparked a major backlash in parliament, amid calls for an urgent inquiry into PPE Medpro and Mone’s lobbying of ministers.
Those demands are now likely to include requests for further disclosures about Mone’s attempts to win government purchases of Covid lateral flow tests – first on behalf of PPE Medpro, and then LFI Diagnostics.
‘Extraordinarily aggressive’ and ‘threatening’ email
Mone’s lawyers have long claimed that her initial referral of PPE Medpro to ministers – in relation to its offer of PPE in May 2020 – was a “simple, solitary and brief step”, after which she “did not do anything further in respect of PPE Medpro”.
However, the Guardian has previously reported that for months after PPE Medpro’s success winning contracts for masks and gowns, Mone continued to help the company try to sell the government Covid lateral flow tests.
She appears to have lobbied Lord Bethell, a junior minister in the health department who was involved in government procurement, in relation to PPE Medpro’s lateral flow tests as far back as October 2020.
By February 2021, Mone was still contacting civil servants on behalf of PPE Medpro, as it became apparent its efforts to secure lateral flow contracts was failing.
Jacqui Rock, the chief commercial officer for NHS test and trace, told colleagues in February 2021 that Mone was “incandescent with rage” at the treatment of PPE Medpro over lateral flow testing contracts, saying the firm had been “fobbed off”, and was planning to speak to Michael Gove and Matt Hancock about her concerns.
That same month, LFI Diagnostics Ltd was incorporated, according to Companies House documents. It too began trying to sell the government lateral flow tests with Mone’s help. It is not known whether the lateral flow tests LFI Diagnostics pitched to the government were the same as those PPE Medpro had tried to sell.
The former health secretary wrote that Mone then sent him an “extraordinarily aggressive” and “threatening” email about a lateral flow company that “has had a dreadful time” cutting through government red tape.
Hancock did not name the firm as LFI Diagnostics in his diaries, but stated that Mone had been “representing” its commercial interests. A well-placed source confirmed to the Guardian the company referred to by Hancock was LFI Diagnostics.
The diaries state that Mone demanded his “urgent help” and warned that her concerns would come out in a media exposé, telling Hancock: “I am going to blow this all wide open.”
Hancock said Mone’s grievance centred on her allegation that another more successful company had secured what she described as a “monopoly” over government contracts for lateral flow tests, to the detriment of other suppliers, leading the Tory peer to make “wild accusations”.
According to Hancock, Mone’s message said: “I smell a rat here. It is more than the usual red tape, incompetence and bureaucracy. That’s expected! I believe there is corruption here at the highest levels and a cover-up is taking place … Don’t say I didn’t [warn]you when Panorama or Horizon run an exposé documentary on all this.”
It is not known whether Mone disclosed Barrowman’s family interest in LFI Diagnostics to Hancock, Bethell or other government officials she contacted with respect to LFI Diagnostics. The House of Lords code of conduct says peers should declare when “communicating with ministers or public servants, any interest which is a relevant interest in the context of the debate or the matter under discussion”.
However, the document seen by the Guardian, which was produced by the person who runs Barrowman’s family office and lists both PPE Medpro and LFI Diagnostics as “entities” of the family office, suggests that both companies were created for the ultimate benefit of Barrowman or his family.
The Tory peer has never declared Barrowman’s family interest in LFI Diagnostics in her entry in the register of Lords interests – and there may now be a question over whether she should have. The code of conduct says peers should register interests which “might be thought by a reasonable member of the public to influence the way in which a member of the House of Lords discharges his or her parliamentary duties”, including those of their spouse or partner “in certain cases”.
‘The need for propriety’
In July 2021, Mone’s lobbying efforts on behalf of LFI Diagnostics prompted a formal rebuke from a fellow Tory peer.
Following Mone’s email to Hancock, Bethell sent her a letter seen by the Guardian. Bethell referenced Mone’s “recent correspondence with officials both in DHSC and the [Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency] in respect of LFI Diagnostics” and addressed some of the issues the company was facing.
He offered Mone a meeting with Dr Jenny Harries, the head of NHS test and trace, to discuss her “concerns”, and provided the contact address for a supplier-escalation team that could investigate any issues LFI Diagnostics had in its dealings with DHSC.
But the final line of Bethell’s letter appears to admonish Mone. Noting the government’s gratitude “to all manufacturers and suppliers who have come forward to offer their assistance in producing lateral flow devices”, Bethell concluded: “I would however respectfully remind you of the need for propriety in all dealings with officials.”
Mone, who was appointed to the Lords by David Cameron in 2015, has already been placed under investigation by the House of Lords commissioner for standards over multiple “potential breaches” of the Lords’ code of conduct in relation to PPE Medpro.
That inquiry has been paused due to a separate investigation by the National Crime Agency into PPE Medpro. In April this year, NCA officers searched several addresses, including the mansion Mone and Barrowman occupy in the Isle of Man. At the time, lawyers for PPE Medpro declined to comment on the NCA investigation.
Mone and Barrowman did not respond to a detailed request for comment from the Guardian in relation to LFI Diagnostics, PPE Medpro and the companies’ relationship with the Knox family office.
Last month, in response to questions about her receipt of PPE Medpro profits, a lawyer for Mone said: “There are a number of reasons why our client cannot comment on these issues and she is under no duty to do so.”
A lawyer who represents both Barrowman and PPE Medpro said last month that a continuing investigation limited what his clients were able to say on these matters. He added: “For the time being we are also instructed to say that there is much inaccuracy in the portrayal of the alleged ‘facts’ and a number of them are completely wrong.”
Bethell did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for Hancock said that he had given the Covid public inquiry access to all his emails and messages, when requested by parliament. He claimed: “The Michelle Mone story proves the government was reasonable and shows that ministers refused to be pushed around.”
Source: The Guardian