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13 March 2023

Steve Barclay brought a private healthcare lobbyist into government

Lionel Zetter continued to hold two roles in the private sector while working for Barclay in the Cabinet Office and Health Department.

By Rachel Wearmouth

The Health Secretary Steve Barclay hired a self-proclaimed “famous lobbyist” with links to insurance and private healthcare as an adviser last year, in yet another example of the closeness between ministers, lobbyists and political advisers. Lionel Zetter worked as Barclay’s policy fellow at the Cabinet Office and later as his political adviser in the Department for Health and Social Care, from January to November. Simultaneously, though not illegally, he held two roles in the private sector.

He was vice-president of Public Affairs Asia, an organisation he helped to found and which describes itself as a “network for senior government relations, corporate affairs and corporate communications”; and also as director of the Enterprise Forum, an organisation founded for businesses to discuss policy with the government.

Two members of the advisory board for Public Affairs Asia, Sukanti Ghosh and Mark Michelson, worked or work for APCO Worldwide. As the registrar of consultant lobbyists shows, this partner organisation has been lobbying the government since 2016 on behalf of the Healthcare Distribution Association (HDA) – a trade organisation that represents private health interests in medicine and pharmaceuticals.

The health minister Will Quince spoke at the HDA’s annual conference this year, thanking members for the “indispensable part” they played during the Covid pandemic, and Zetter even tweeted in support of APCO in November.

[See also: I’m a public health doctor – I know austerity is why people are struggling]

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During Zetter’s period in government, the Enterprise Forum hosted a series of events including a “hybrid business discussion” with Chloe Smith, the minister for disabled people, in “partnership with [the] Association of British Insurers” on 5 September 2022.

And on 5 December, shortly after Zetter left his role as Barclay’s special adviser in November, the Enterprise Forum held an event on “transforming public procurement and civil service efficiency”, featuring Lucy Neville-Rolfe, a Tory peer and Cabinet Office minister.

When approached for comment, Zetter said he did not carry out any lobbying work while working for Barclay, saying: “I attended a handful of meetings but did not chair any of them, nor did I speak at any of them. I did not conduct any lobbying whilst I worked for Steve.” He continued: “I received no payment from either the Enterprise Forum or Public Affairs Asia last year.”

It is understood Barclay brought in Zetter to help set up his ministerial office.

Susan Hawley, executive director of the campaign group Spotlight on Corruption, said: “No lobbyist should be given access to the heart of government in this way while still representing private interests… This suggests the lessons from Greensill [a lobbying scandal from 2021 that implicated David Cameron] have clearly not been learned properly.”

[See also: Wes Streeting interview: “NHS privatisation could not be further from my politics, values or aims”]

Zetter has worked in public affairs for three decades, and spoken publicly about his role as a lobbyist. In 2008 he wrote a book called Lobbying: The Art of Political Persuasion, which describes special advisers as “often the best route to a minister, as they have their trust and their ear” and are “less hidebound by convention than public servants”. He told the corporate trade magazine Communicate magazine in 2014 that “lobbying is doing, 365 days a year, what most politicians do three-and-a-half weeks, every five years”.

“It’s really intense, it’s always on, it’s always adapting, it never rests,” he added in the interview. “If you’re a lobbyist, every day is election day.”

In 2008, Zetter gave evidence to Public Administration Committee MPs that were investigating access and influence in Whitehall. He told them that “there is good lobbying and bad lobbying – just like there is good sex and bad sex, but I think most of us would prefer to have bad sex than no sex at all. Standards do slip.”

In response to Zetter’s holding public and private roles at the same time, a Labour source said: “13 years of Tory government has left Britain broken, and they lack the imagination to fix the mess that they made. [Steve] Barclay could turn to experts, doctors or nurses for advice – it is a disgrace that he is instead paying for murky lobbyists to advise him.”

“It’s outrageous,” added Matthew McGregor, spokesman for the campaign group 38 Degrees. “Having a lobbyist for private healthcare firms at the heart of government says it all… Instead of having things run by someone who seems to care about fighting for the interests of business, we need government to listen to patients and NHS staff: pay those caring for us what they deserve, tackle the backlog so the seven million of us stuck on waiting lists can be seen and rule out any upfront charges to access NHS services.”

Barclay’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

[See also: Focus on prevention to keep the NHS true to its soul]

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