• NHS Shared Business Services awarded place on framework contract in early 2019 — but on Friday said no business had been awarded to the company
  • Matt Hancock did not state in ministerial declarations since becoming health secretary that his sister and other family own firm
  • In the past month he has declared that he has recently been given shares in the firm himself
  • DHSC says Mr Hancock made declarations in line with ministerial code, and had no involvement in awarding the contracts 

Matt Hancock omitted to declare his connection to a company owned by his close family, despite it winning a place on a framework to provide services to the English NHS in 2019, as well as contracts with the NHS in Wales.

Topwood Ltd, which specialises in secure waste disposal, successfully won a tender competition to secure a place on an NHS Shared Business Services framework for “confidential waste destruction and disposal” at the beginning of 2019. Mr Hancock was appointed health and social care secretary in July 2018.

There is no suggestion Mr Hancock was involved in any contract awards, but the ministerial code says ministers have a “personal responsibility… to decide whether and what action is needed to avoid a conflict or the perception of a conflict” (see below).

The company, which is now based in Wrexham, Wales, was then owned by Mr Hancock’s sister, Emily Gilruth and his mother, Shirley Carter, and two men — thought to be their spouses.

Securing a place on the framework makes it easier for local NHS organisations to use the firm for their waste disposal services, by providing a “compliant route to market”, according to the published contract award notice. NHSSBS said on Friday afternoon that the firm had not been awarded any business via the framework (see full statement below). 

Mr Hancock has not declared this interest in any of the published ministerial interests declarations of recent years. In the December 2017 declaration (a time when he was culture secretary), he declared only that his brother was the chief executive officer of Crowd2Fund (an investment platform). In later declarations — in March 2019, December 2019 and July 2020 — he declared no interests.

In the last month, he has declared in the Commons members register of interests that he now owns shares in Topwood himself, under a “delegated management arrangement”, which was reported yesterday by the Guido Fawkes blog. It also reported on two contracts awarded to the firm by a Welsh NHS board last month, but the Welsh NHS is not the responsibility of the UK government. Papers lodged at Companies House show that Mr Hancock’s mother and Bob Carter transferred 10 shares each on 1 February this year and that Mr Hancock now owns 20 shares.

The Department of Health and Social Care said in a statement this evening that: “All declarations of interest have been made in accordance with the ministerial code.” It said neither Mr Hancock nor the department had any role in contract awards, and no active involvement in the company. It said he had discussed the recent gift to him of shares in the firm with the permanent secretary before accepting them, and had been told that any conflicts which may arise could be appropriately handled. It said the new shareholding in the firm was only known about because Mr Hancock has followed transparency rules — it came to light because it has recently been published in the MPs’ register of interests.

However, the DHSC has not commented on whether, in 2018 or 2019, Mr Hancock discussed his family’s involvement in the firm with the permanent secretary or independent adviser. HSJ has asked this question.

Many ministers have declared interests of their parents and siblings, even when they do not appear directly relevant to their departmental role.

The ministerial code says: “It is the personal responsibility of each minister to decide whether and what action is needed to avoid a conflict or the perception of a conflict, taking account of advice received from their permanent secretary and the independent adviser on ministers’ interests.

“On appointment to each new office, ministers must provide their permanent secretary with a full list in writing of all interests which might be thought to give rise to a conflict. The list should also cover interests of the minister’s spouse or partner and close family which might be thought to give rise to a conflict.

“Where appropriate, the minister will meet the permanent secretary and the independent adviser on ministers’ interests to agree action on the handling of interests. Ministers must record in writing what action has been taken, and provide the permanent secretary and the independent adviser on ministers’ interests with a copy of that record.”

Ministerial declarations include a section for “interests of their spouse, partner or close family members”. The declaration process has been overseen by an independent adviser, Sir Alex Allan, who resigned in November 2020. His most recent official reports indicate a key part of his work is discussing with ministers which family interests are relevant and should be disclosed. 

According to Companies House documents, the remaining 80 of the 100 shares in the company — those aside from the 20 held by Mr Hancock — are split between Emily Gilruth and Tom Gilruth, who is listed as managing director on the company’s website. Ms Gilruth is described by Companies House as an equine trainer, while Mr Gilruth is a logistics manager.

The company’s website also features the NHS logo among those of other clients in other sectors.

Since 2018, the company appears to have expanded. The latest financial statements lodged at Companies House showed it had 17 employees in 2020 compared with seven in 2018. It has also partially discharged charges over a property in Cheshire where Ms Gilruth is the owner, according to papers lodged with Companies House on 18 March 2021.

It won a further public sector framework contract in late 2019, for the public sector buying organisation EPSO. 

Mr Hancock spoke of the NHS care his sister received after she was injured while competing in the Badminton Horse Trials in 2017.

NHS Shared Business Services, a shared services and procurement agency for the NHS, is a joint venture between DHSC and the firm Sopra Steria. In a statement provided to HSJ on Friday afternoon, about 20 hours after it was approached, it said: ”Like all suppliers, Topwood were subject to an evaluation in the form of a fully-compliant OJEU (Official Journal of the European Union) tender process. This involved company and financial checks, and price and quality submissions. No business has been awarded to the supplier through this framework.”

HSJ also approached Topwood Ltd for comment.

The news comes amid increased scrutiny of links between government and business, in the wake of the Greensill scandal and concerns about how public sector contracts were awarded during the covid pandemic.

The DHSC spokesman’s full comment on the issue last night was: ”Mr Hancock has acted entirely properly in these circumstances. All declarations of interest have been made in accordance with the ministerial code. Ministers have no involvement in the awarding of these contracts, and no conflict of interest arises.”

Updated on Friday afternoon to include statement from NHSSBS.