Lord Howell of Guilford, the father-in-law of Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, has entered into an agreement with the Kuwaiti government’s investment office to promote the Persian Gulf state, raising questions of conflict-of-interest.
David Howell, who also works as a personal adviser to UK foreign minister William Hague on energy security issues, also served as Minister of State in the Foreign Office under Prime Minister David Cameron, as well as transport and energy minister under former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.
Howell’s daughter Frances is married to current Chancellor, George Osborne
The Daily Telegraph reported that Howell “will be paid handsomely to champion a foreign country [Kuwait].”
The Kuwait Investment Office manages funds on behalf of the oil-rich Kuwaiti government.
Howell is no stranger to Kuwait -- prior to joining the British Foreign Office in 2010 (to promote Britain to foreign investors), he worked as a consultant to the Arab nation.
The Telegraph reported that Howell’s business links with other foreign entities have previously raised questions of propriety.
It emerged late last year that Howell is a paid “European consultant” with a Japanese high-speed rail operator, JR Central, that is expected to tender a multimillion-pound bid to help build the HS2 rail line, the controversial high-speed railway network that the British government wants to construct, linking London to various corners of Britain.
Osborne – who is reportedly close to his father-in-law, is a keen admirer of Japan’s high-speed rail technology.
"I want Britain to set the standard for the next generation of high-speed rail – for the level of technology, quality of travel and value for money,” he said on a visit to Tokyo.
“Japan is the home of high-speed rail. So we will look at all the options, including using bullet-train technology in Britain."
As a close associate of Hague, Howell enjoys access to Foreign Office senior officials and to confidential documents produced by the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO), noted The Independent newspaper.
In addition, Howell has links to business interests in South Korea, Azerbaijan and Norway.
Some in the UK government are concerned about the many pies Howell has stuck his fingers in.
Referring to Howell’s ties with the Japanese rail company, the shadow Cabinet Office minister Jon Trickett told reporters: "We have been waiting for a law on lobbying, and the government has got to get on and publish it, which would ensure that these [sorts] of activities could not take place. Lord Howell has serious questions to answer to reassure the public that there is nothing inappropriate about this, because it certainly looks inappropriate."
Similarly, George Foulkes -- Baron Foulkes of Cumnock -- the Labour peer and a former minister said: "This certainly looks like a conflict of interest. Many people will find it galling to see Tory ministers slipping into well-paid sinecures when they move out of government."
Another critic of Howell, The Liberal Democrat peer Lord Oakeshott declared: "Clearly you cannot be half in and half out of government. I am sure when he thinks about it David Howell will realize it is quite inappropriate to carry on in this paid advisory job when he is hopping in and out of the Foreign Office."
Greenpeace UK has also raised alarms over how much influence Howell has at No. 10 Downing Street on energy issues.
Reportedly, Howell, an advocate of shale gas, told an undercover Greenpeace activist that his son-in-law, Osborne, is pressuring Cameron to develop new gas technology and abandon ‘green energy’ initiatives like wind farms.
“The Prime Minister is not familiar with these issues, does not understand them. Osborne is, of course, getting this message and is putting pressure on,” Howell inadvertently revealed to Greenpeace.
Osborne’s hostility to green energy is well known.
At a Conservative Party conference once, Osborne declared: “We are not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business.”
Two other senior government officials, Energy Minister John Hayes and Environment Secretary Owen Paterson, also reportedly oppose wind energy.
Citing Howell’s role as president of the British Institute of Energy Economics – which includes Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE: RDS.A), BP plc (NYSE: BP) and BG Group PLC (LON: BG) as corporate members, and the UK Energy Department as sponsor -- Greenpeace warned of potential conflicts of interest.
“We feel there could be conflict of interest because the institute has backing from oil and gas companies,” Greenpeace said in a statement.
“Has he [Howell] been bending the Chancellor’s ear on behalf of fossil fuel interests? What conversations have there been over the dinner table?”
Louise Hutchins, senior energy campaigner at Greenpeace UK, told the Independent last year: "We'd hate to think that the UK's … energy policy was being decided over claret and duck chez Osborne. But Lord Howell's links with big oil and gas special interests are well established. Questions must surely be asked about whether he has been bending the ear of his son-in-law to help his friends in the fossil fuel lobby."
British media reports suggest that Howell does not believe in climate change and is a keen supporter of increasing Britain’s reliance on gas, particularly shale gas.
In 2010, Howell told "the House of Lords: “There is the fascinating development of shale gas, which has changed the energy landscape in the U.S. If it is replicated elsewhere, it could be fundamental in altering the energy vista in every continent."
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.