Hanbury's SPAD recruitment role prompts public affairs industry row over ethics

Lobbying firm Hanbury Strategy has come under fire from top public affairs specialists over its controversial role in recruiting a new generation of special advisers (SPADs) to work at the heart of government.

Hanbury Strategy, the firm co-founded by Paul Stephenson (inset), is working with the Government to select and appoint special advisers (Pic credit: Leo Wilkinson Photography; Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Hanbury Strategy, the firm co-founded by Paul Stephenson (inset), is working with the Government to select and appoint special advisers (Pic credit: Leo Wilkinson Photography; Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Details of the agency’s appointment by the Conservative Party to source potential SPADs emerged last week when details of those being sought were revealed on the spadjobs.uk website.

“The Conservative Party is launching a search for talented and experienced communications and digital professionals,” the website states.

“The successful applicants will work to deliver the Conservative Party's ambitious agenda to unleash Britain’s potential and level up the whole country.”

Close relationship

Hanbury Strategy, co-founded by Paul Stephenson, ex-comms director at the Vote Leave campaign, and Ameet Gill, David Cameron’s former director of strategic comms, is responsible for stage one of the application process.

The agency will assess applications and hold initial interviews with applicants before presenting potential candidates to the Government.

Applicants have until 15 March to apply, with final interviews being held at the end of this month.

The final decision over who gets hired will be made by Downing Street's director of comms Lee Cain, who worked for Stephenson during the EU Referendum campaign.


Controversy

The decision to bring in Hanbury to help with recruitment comes just weeks after Dominic Cummings, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s de facto chief of staff, personally appealed for “misfits and weirdos” to work in Downing Street. This backfired spectacularly when one such recruit, Andrew Sabisky, resigned last month amid accusations of racism, after his offensive views, including reportedly saying that black people had lower average IQs than white people, came to light.

Hanbury’s role in recruiting SPADs has been attacked by campaigners and public affairs practitioners.


Tamasin Cave, director of Spinwatch, told PRWeek: “For Hanbury Strategy – a firm that profits from influencing Government – to be asked to vet potential advisers presents an obvious conflict of interest.”

She added: “Will it select people based purely on their knowledge and expertise, or will it favour certain people whose advice may suit its clients’ interests? And what kind of relationship will Hanbury have with the successful candidates once in post? Will it seek favours in return? This has all the ingredients for ’secret corporate lobbying’ – as David Cameron put it – to flourish.”

Ethics

Her concerns are shared by other public affairs figures.

Responding to the development from her personal Twitter account, Christine Quigley, a director in the public affairs team at Newington Communications, said: "it really doesn't feel ethical."

And Laura Sainsbury, chair of Women in Public Affairs, remarked on Twitter: "Lobbyists Hanbury Strategy are going to appoint SPADs, who they will then lobby. That's not a great look for the industry."

Hanbury’s role in recruiting SPADs will give it a huge competitive advantage over every other public affairs firm in the country.

Emily Wallace, founder of Manor Street Consultants, commented that "recruiting advisers into Government that you then lobby for commercial gain does not pass the public scrutiny 'sniff test'".

She added: "This type of activity serves only to undermine efforts to build a strong ethical culture for commercial lobbyists in the UK."

One PRCA member, speaking under condition of anonymity, said: “It doesn’t put the industry in the best light and it’s everything we are trying to prevent against in terms of supporting the reputation of our industry.”

Under pressure

Koray Camgoz, head of comms and marketing at the PRCA, said: “We can confirm that no complaints have been received regarding Hanbury Strategy."

He added: "The process for complaints brought under the PRCA Professional Charter can be found on the PRCA website. Complaints relating to the PRCA Public Affairs Code are handled by the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution.”

While no complaint has yet been made about Hanbury taking on what is, in effect, a role in the recruitment of the advisers it would seek to influence in the future, concerns are being raised over what some perceive as the spirit of the PRCA’s Public Affairs Code, if not the Code itself being broken.

PRWeek understands that frustrations were expressed by members of the PRCA’s Public Affairs Board during a committee meeting yesterday.

As a result, the agency's potential conflict of interest is likely to become part of a review of the Code, which is currently underway.

Anger is being expressed in some quarters that the PRCA is not being as vocal over the potential for conflict of interest involving one of its members as it was when it censured Tulchan Communications, which is not a member, over its hiring of MSP Ruth Davidson last year.

One senior figure at a well-known agency, speaking anonymously, said: “This is exactly the kind of issue that the PRCA should be commenting on; it was very vocal with the Ruth Davidson matter, so I would expect that the same kind of line would be taken on this, but I haven’t seen anything yet.”

They warned: “We’d have to consider our involvement in the organisation… because we can't have a situation where we decide to call out some conflicts of interests but we are happy to be very quiet on some very obvious, bigger conflicts of interests."

And a former chair of the APPC commented: “While there isn’t a direct breach of the Code and no complaints have – yet – been lodged, this feels and smells very wrong. Surely the recruitment of Government SPADs via a public affairs agency raises lots of questions about privileged access to Government? I am pretty sure the APPC would have made a more robust statement defending the industry and condemning Hanbury.”

Official industry position

Responding to the criticisms, a Hanbury Strategy spokesman said: “All of our relevant clients are registered publicly, in accordance with regulatory requirements, and we have been completely transparent about our supporting role in this process.”

The agency chose not to disclose whether it was awarded the work after a pitch involving other agencies, or was approached by the Conservative Party directly.

In addition, it would not comment on whether Hanbury Strategy's staff and contractors would be eligible to apply for the jobs it is recruiting for.

Bigger picture

The appointment of Hanbury is part of a wider issue and “marks a significant shift in the relationship between government and the private sector,” according to Dr Stuart Thomson, head of public affairs at law firm BDB Pitmans.

“It comes at a time when the Government seems intent on bringing its disputes with the Civil Service to a head. The attitude of being ‘for us’ or ‘against us’ does not fit the independent Civil Service model. So instead, No 10 has decided to go outside to those it feels share a similar outlook,” he said.

“The Hanbury decision could be seen as the first step in taking outside advice and really challenging the power of the Civil Service. Expect to see similar moves rolled out across government departments.”



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