New questions are being asked about the influence of the Conservative party’s co-chair, who has been mired in cash-for-access claims, after it emerged no record was kept of what was discussed in meetings with ministers in his role as “food waste champion”.
Ben Elliot has faced accusations he ran a secretive club for top donors that blurred the line between his business interests and political role. Controversy has been swirling around the 46-year-old – who has made a fortune from helping the super-rich “forge relationships” – since it was reported that he had created an “advisory board” for wealthy Conservative donors who have received regular access to the prime minister and Rishi Sunak, the chancellor.
Now, after a freedom of information request by the Guardian, it can be revealed that no minutes were kept in any of the five meetings between ministers and Elliot. It also emerged that the official meetings over the past two and a half years included discussions about broadening Elliot’s role to increase his engagement with ministers across government.
Minutes were kept in just six of the 22 meetings recorded to have taken place with civil servants since he was appointed in 2019 as “food surplus and waste champion” with a brief to help promote awareness of food waste across retail and other sectors.
On Thursday, Elliot was warned by the UK lobbying regulator to maintain a “clear distinction” between his public duties and his private business interests after it investigated reports that his luxury concierge firm, Quintessentially, arranged access to senior politicians.
It found Quintessentially “had not been engaging in consultant lobbying activity” but, in a warning shot, told him to be “cautious” and ensure his roles remain separate.
Labour, which has been raising further questions about Elliot’s business interests, described the absence of minutes for his meetings as “one rule for senior Conservatives and another rule for everyone else”.
Anneliese Dodds, the Labour party chair, said: “It’s unacceptable that the co-chair of the Conservative party appears to be using his non-political position to waltz into meetings with ministers and civil servants off the books.
“Ben Elliot has previous form when it comes to blurring the lines between his private activities and his public appointments. We urgently need to know what was discussed at these meetings, who was present, what actions arose from them, and whether any of Ben Elliot’s business interests were involved.”
Alex Thomas, a programme director at the Institute for Government thinktank, said it was unusual for no notes at all to be taken in a meeting with ministers, especially if it was a formal departmental discussion.
“You would expect notes to be taken, not least so that action points can be transmitted to people who need to know about it in the department,” added Thomas, who served as a principal private secretary in government.
Sources at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) suggested the meetings were not minuted because they were “informal”.
Some details do emerge from minutes that were kept in his meetings – entitled “Ben Elliot Monthly”. A senior civil servant at a meeting in May suggested linking Elliot’s work to broader government initiatives such as “build back better” and the “levelling up” agenda. The same civil servant also said he would like to “make more use of Ben with ministers across government”.
In the same meeting, Elliot suggested inviting ministers for discussions to outline how they could help, while civil servants agreed to set up dates in September and October. Other minutes also record that Elliot is to be involved in trying to get the BBC to become a partner with the government next year in Food Waste Action Week.
A Defra spokesperson said: “Food waste is one of our biggest environmental challenges, and the UK is leading the global effort with a commitment to reduce it by 20% by 2025. Ben Elliot’s role as our food surplus and waste champion is vital in this effort.
“This is an unpaid, voluntary role and party political activity isn’t an automatic bar to ministerial appointments. Ben Elliot is eminently qualified for this role having consistently campaigned on reducing food waste.”
Elliot was contacted for comment through the Conservative party.
Pressure has been growing on Elliot – the nephew of the Duchess of Cornwall – after Tory donor Mohamed Amersi claimed the party co-chair had benefited from introducing him to the Prince of Wales in 2013.
A Conservative party spokesperson has said in response to allegations: “Donations are properly and transparently declared to the Electoral Commission, published by them, and comply fully with the law.”