Nick Clegg faced accusations of a conflict of interest last night as it emerged his wife’s law firm has been paid £88,000 by his own department since the Election.
Figures published by the Cabinet Office in what was described as a ‘revolutionary’ transparency exercise revealed that the department had made two five-figure payments to DLA Piper since May.
The disclosure is an embarrassment for the Deputy Prime Minister, whose high-flying Spanish wife, Miriam Gonzalez Durantez, is a senior partner at the firm. The details came as ministers released information on every government contract worth more than £25,000.
The documents revealed the extraordinary levels of waste in government spending, including tens of thousands of pounds in bank charges, £170,000 on bottled water for tax inspectors and a £1,000 grant to a firm that makes diamante collars for dogs.
Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude said the publication was designed to allow the public to ‘hold our feet to the fire’. He conceded the process ‘will not always be easy’ for ministers.
Documents show the first payment to DLA Piper was in July, for £35,000 with a second payment of £52,875 in September.
Both were to monitor the compliance of government departments’ with civil service recruitment procedures.
Under the terms of the contract with the firm, payments are expected to continue for at least another two years.
Mr Clegg’s sprawling political empire is run from the Cabinet Office, which is at the heart of the Coalition Government.
Sources close to the Deputy Prime Minister last night said it was ridiculous to suggest there was a conflict of interest as the contract was signed in April 2008 by Labour.
DLA Piper said Miss Durantez was not involved in the contract. The firm said it had strict protocols in place to ensure there was no conflict of interest because the nature of Miss Durantez’s role was sensitive. However, Labour last night called for a review of the contract.
Tom Watson, a former Cabinet Office minister, said: ‘Apart from the potential conflict of interest between the husband and wife here, I think the contract should be reviewed, not least because they have not been doing a very good job, with the vanity staff appointments over the last six weeks.’
Shortly after Mr Clegg became Deputy Prime Minister, Miss Durantez – who has kept her maiden name – joined the board of a Spanish energy firm linked to bids for wind farm contracts.
She consulted the ethics and propriety section of the Cabinet Office before accepting the post and promised not to be part of any decisions to do with UK government contracts.
A source close to the Mr Clegg said of the DLA Piper revelations: ‘These are contracts which were signed in 2008 with the previous Labour Government.
‘It is absurd to suggest that it is anything to do with the Deputy Prime Minister or that he has had any influence on them.’
The source added that it would be more surprising if DLA did not have any government contracts, given it was one of the country’s biggest law firms.
DLA Piper is paid to ensure the Government complies with strict civil service procurement rules.
However, one of the Coalition’s main blunders so far has involved its recruitment procedures, after David Cameron controversially put staff from Tory HQ on to the public payroll.
Dubbed the Prime Minister’s ‘vanity’ staff, Mr Cameron hired a personal photographer and filmmaker at taxpayers’ expense. But after barely weeks in the job, the staff have been dispatched back to Tory HQ.
The Cabinet Office said last night: ‘The contract was subject to full competitive tendering. It started in April 2008 and runs for four years with two annual options to extend.’
Mr Maude last night hailed the disclosure of government spending above £25,000 as ‘revolutionary’.
Some departments, including Communities and Local Government (CLG), have gone further by listing all outlay above £500. ‘It is our ambition to make the UK the most transparent and accountable government in the world,’ Mr Maude said.
‘This will not always be easy but we expect the public to hold our feet to the fire and make sure that not a penny of their money is wasted.’
Among the revelations in an itemised list of expenditure was a £26,000 bill for training members of the intelligence services to have ‘difficult conversations’.
There have also been nearly £55,000 of ‘accommodation improvements’ in the Prime Minister’s Office, according to the data. Downing Street last night said the payments covered security work at Chequers.
Mr Maude acknowledged that much of the data was raw or incomplete, and some information could not be published for security or commercial reasons. But he insisted the format would be improved over time.
By Gerri Peev and Jason Groves
Last updated at 12:20 PM on 19th November 2010
Source: Daily Mail