Rowena Mason Fri 12 Nov 2021 12.19 GMT
Boris Johnson’s independent adviser on ministerial interests is under pressure over his own financial interests, with academics calling for him to step aside from his role as chair of a London university.
Christopher Geidt, who is chair of the council of King’s College London (KCL), is facing scrutiny from the University and College Union (UCU) over his job as chair of a board of the investment firm Schroders, and his advisory role at BAE Systems until April this year.
The UCU has also demanded clarification over a trip to Oman to the privy council of its former dictator Sultan Qaboos bin Said, as revealed by the diaries of the former Foreign Office minister Alan Duncan.
Lord Geidt, a former private secretary to the Queen, was appointed as Johnson’s independent adviser in April. He subsequently cleared the prime minister of breaking any rules over the funding of the Downing Street flat refurbishment via a loan from a Tory donor.
In a letter seen by the Guardian, the UCU, which represents about 1,500 academic and staff members, called on the university to ask Geidt to step aside pending an investigation into whether his interests were properly managed.
The UCU said it could be considered a potential conflict that Geidt was an adviser to BAE Systems from 2016 to April 2020 at the same time as the KCL endowment fund was invested in the defence company through an intermediary fund – with the university’s interest only revealed through a freedom of information request.
It highlighted Geidt’s role as a paid chair of a board of Schroders, an asset manager, at the same time as KCL’s endowment fund is invested in Schroders funds.
The UCU also demanded clarification over Geidt’s visit to the privy council of Qaboos, Oman’s dictator from 1970 to 2020, pointing out that “Oman state organs have multiple partnerships with the college”.
The union criticised the lack of information about the interests on the college’s official register of interests, which stated Geidt had held roles at BAE Systems and Schroders, but without listing the transactions involved or the start dates of those relationships. The register does not mention Oman.
Its letter said: “It is vital that a time of major crisis in higher education, with threats to funding cuts, a proposed 25% cut to the staff pension, the astronomical rise in student tuition fees, and an increasing divide between management and the people who make our university, that good governance is not only done in deed, but seen and sincere. We cannot see a prudent course of action except to suspend Geidt from his post pending a full, independent review.”
A KCL spokesperson defended Geidt, saying: “Lord Geidt has provided invaluable service to King’s over the past five years. We look forward to continuing to work under his stewardship with full confidence, as we prioritise the wellbeing of our students and staff and our commitment to provide world-leading education and research.
“We are aware of the open letter from the University and College Union and are following our standard procedures in response. Every year, all members of council, including the chairman, submit a record of their current interests which is publicly available online. In addition to the public declaration, it is our practice for members to declare specific interests at the beginning of college council meetings when relevant to that particular agenda.”
The UCU previously passed a motion of no confidence in Geidt by 46 votes to three at a meeting in April. In May, after his appointment as Johnson’s independent adviser on ministerial interests, Geidt was criticised by the former shadow chancellor John McDonnell at a parliamentary hearing because of his links to BAE Systems.
McDonnell cited how the the company had been convicted of defrauding the government in the US, paying $400m in a plea bargain.
In response, Geidt said: “I absolutely appreciate what you have said, Mr McDonnell, about the record of BAE Systems, but I placed my reliance in taking on this role on the attitude of the British government, which is active in licensing the activity of BAE Systems … I was proud to do this work for a couple of years because it aligned to my previous experience and interests.”
In the same parliamentary hearing, Geidt said the cabinet secretary had examined his interests for any potential conflicts and found none, but would keep that under review.