Government spokesman: Bell Pottinger should consider giving Oakbay profits to South Africa charity

A UK Government spokesperson has condemned Bell Pottinger's controversial campaign in South Africa as "completely unacceptable", and repeated its South African critics' suggestion that the agency might consider donating profits from the account to charity.

Lord Young of Cookham (pictured), the Cabinet Office's spokesperson in the House of Lords, was speaking in a short debate trigged after Labour's Lord Hain tabled several questions about Bell Pottinger's activity.

The debate took place hours before it was revealed that the agency was on the brink of administration, as the fall-out continues following the company's work on a racially divisive campaign around the idea of "economic apartheid" for a controversial South African business family.

Lord Young told the house: "My lords, the behaviour of Bell Pottinger in South Africa has been completely unacceptable. We support the investigations conducted by the Public Relations and Communications Association and Herbert Smith Freehills and the stark conclusions of their reports. I want to put on record that at no stage was Her Majesty's Government in any way involved in their work in South Africa."

Asked by another peer whether the UK's diplomatic efforts in South Africa may have been disrupted by the agency's activity, he said: "I have been in touch our high commissioner in Pretoria this morning and he has made it absolutely clear that this has had a very damaging effect on this country’s reputation in South Africa, which is why I have gone out of my way to make it absolutey clear that the Government were in no way involved, nor were the staff of the High Commission in SA involved in any way in this particular contract."

"I think the reputation of Bell Pottinger has been seriously impaired. This is a company which seeks to boost the image of other companies, and here they are having a very serious reputational hit of their own. They could begin to put that right perhaps by donating any profit they have made from that contract to some charity in South Africa."

However, he ruled out the Government taking any direct action in the case, saying: "This is a private company operating in a foreign country and in this particular case the CEO has resigned, a number of officials have been dismissed. I'm not sure there is a role for the Government in intervening in a private company in disciplinary matters of this nature."

DA demand

The Democratic Alliance, the South African opposition party that brought the complaint against Bell Pottinger to the PRCA, has long suggested that Bell Pottinger's £100,000-a-month fees - not just its profits - be donated to charity.

The party's national spokeswoman Phumzile Van Damme, who represented the DA at the PRCA hearing of the complaint, told PRWeek today: "We will make the call about which charities should receive the money Bell Pottinger pays back, if they decide to do so."

She added that the party had envisaged these would be "charities and NGOs working in the reconciliation and protecting media freedom sectors".

She went on to say that the past few days had been "bittersweet", commenting: "We're glad that the PRCA took action, but sad that otherwise hard-working staff not involved in any of the dubious work Bell Pottinger does may lose their jobs, but it's great to see accountability in action. That isn't something we see often in South Africa."

Last month, South African president Jacob Zuma, who has close links to Oakbay's owning family, survived a vote of no confidence following a secret ballot, by 198 votes to 177.

Read next: Bell Pottinger likely to be placed in administration on Monday

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