Revealed: Freeport lobbyist met Government ministers 50+ times

Shanker Singham (centre) gives GBP600 cheque to school near Anglesey freeport earlier this year. Conservative MP Virginia Crosbie (right)

Early last year I was reading transparency releases of ministerial meetings - yes, I do that for fun - and something caught my eye. Ministers from a host of departments had met with a company called Competere dozens of times in the last five years.

Some ministers were meeting Competere more than once a month. Many of these meetings had vague subjects. "Introductory stakeholder engagement call." "Discuss regulatory reform". Competere is a small company.

Its accounts say it has only two staff. But the firm's "CEO and chair" is a familiar name: Shanker Singham, the Brexit trade lobbyist, Institute of Economic Affairs advisor and head of Liz Truss's 'Growth Commission'.[1][2] Singham is an evangelist for freeports: the flagship post-Brexit policy that has seen special 'economic zones' with little or no tax created across the country.[3]

The government says freeports will "boost investment" in places that "have historically missed out" - but critics say freeports have no economic benefit and present a money-laundering risk due to the secrecy they offer.[4][5][6] Singham has a long-standing interest in freeports. His company Competere has "a line of business advising on Special Economic Zones and Free Zones/Industrial Zones".

A Conservative MP named Singham as a "key advisor" to Anglesey freeport.[7][8] Why was a freeport lobbyist having so many meetings with ministers? I decided to submit some Freedom of Information requests.

Ok, lots of FOI requests. For months and months, nothing came back. Recalcitrant departments fobbed me off and obfuscated when I asked for details of ministers' meetings with Singham.

They cited dubious reasons for withholding information. Then, a few weeks after the general election began, I got an email from the Cabinet Office - with hundreds of pages of documents. Other departments also - eventually - responded to my requests.

Business and Trade. The Northern Ireland Office. The Wales Office.

It's hard to escape the feeling that, like 9/11 for that infamous civil servant, someone had decided that this election is a good time to bury potential bad news in reams of paperwork. So I'm putting some of these documents into the public domain today.[9] Transparency International's Steve Goodrich said that thanks to these documents, "we now know ministers afforded Shankar Singham an extraordinary level of privileged access and potential influence over government policy.

"At times these emails read as if Mr Singham was acting as ministers' special adviser, not an outside lobbyist representing clients set to benefit from freeport policy, as well as profiting personally. These revelations raise serious questions about the government's freeport policy and who it's designed to benefit." This isn't just about Shanker Singham, or freeports.

As Steve puts it, the "patchy paper trail behind these meetings and correspondence is indicative of the sliding of standards in Whitehall." "It's become far too common for notes of discussions with outside interests to be lost, withheld from public view, or not to exist in the first place. We need to end the black hole of accountability at the heart of government and ensure lobbying is conducted in public view."

(He's absolutely right, and this won't change just by electing a new government. With public trust in politics - and politicians - at an all time low, we urgently need to improve transparency about how government operates: how it uses our money, who it listens to - and what they get in return.) But for now, back to Singham and his prolific lobbying.

My investigations found, amongst other things, that:

  • Singham repeatedly lobbied ministers to loosen freeport policy. He advised then 'Brexit Opportunities' minister Jacob Rees-Mogg to "end restriction on number of freeports" and to "consider regulatory facilitations possible in freeports". Rees-Mogg subsequently told media that building regulations could be relaxed at freeports.

  • Singham's firm Competere was a subcontractor on Fujitsu's GBP355 million contract to manage the post-Brexit Irish Sea border, which was awarded in 2020.

    On Singham's advice, Rees-Mogg was given a presentation in May 2022 by the Future Borders Consortium, which includes Competere, Fujitsu and McKinsey. The presentation, marked "Fujitsu Confidential", identified freeports as an opportunity for "acceleration". [10]

  • The May 2022 meeting involved senior Fujitsu staff but 'Competere' was the only attendee listed in official transparency disclosures. Earlier this year, Fujitsu said it would pause bidding on new government contracts after its Horizon software was at the centre of the Post Office scandal.[11]

  • In all, Singham has had more than 50 meetings with Conservative ministers, including more than 30 since the 2019 general election.

    The true figure is likely to be much higher (In 2018, the Institute of Economic Affairs' Mark Littlewood boasted to an undercover Greenpeace Unearthed[13] reporter that ministers would officially record meetings as "Mark Littlewood and staff" to avoid identifying the extent of Singham's access to ministers.)[12][14]

  • None of the official descriptions of these ministerial meetings mention 'freeports' but minutes and email correspondence showed Singham giving detailed policy advice on freeports that could potentially benefit his business and its clients.

  • Trade minister Lord Johnson asked to meet Singham "every six weeks". On at least two occasions subsequently Singham emailed Johnson thanking him for "dinner last night" but on both occasions no meetings were declared in official records. Government did not respond to specific questions about these transparency failures.

"Corruption and crony capitalism"

The outgoing Conservative government has been a big supporter of freeports. The policy was trumpeted as a benefit of Brexit - including, in late 2016, by a young backbencher named Rishi Sunak, in a paper for the opaquely-funded Centre for Policy Studies.[15] But not everybody thinks freeports are a boon.

The European Parliament has called for their abolition given their association with money-laundering and tax evasion. [16] In England, the Teesworks freeport was supposed to reinvigorate a region ravaged by deindustrialisation - but instead it has been mired in allegations of corruption and cronyism. (Which, as this newsletter recently revealed, Tory mayor Ben Houchen, pictured below, blames on 'absolutely atrocious' civil servants...)[17]

Labour peer Prem Sikka told this newsletter that: "Freeports are part of a never-ending transfer of wealth from people to large corporations, wealthy and political elites. The absence of transparency and public accountability is brewing a heady mix of corruption and crony capitalism that is bad for democracy and honest businesses."

What will happen to freeports after the general election is unclear. Labour has not taken a clear stance on freeports or investment zones. [18] "Shanker Singham: the person who knew what to do"

London-born Singham emerged on the British political scene after the Brexit vote in 2016. As a Eurosceptic Tory minister told me recently: "Shanker was the person who knew what to do" after the referendum. As I reported at the time with my colleague Jenna Corderoy, Singham was a moving spirit behind the hard Brexit-backing European Research Group and was an unofficial advisor to 'Brexit hardman' Steve Baker and numerous other ministers.

The British press dubbed Singham "the Brains of Brexit". Ministers put him on official trade bodies - even though Singham was also working as a lobbyist. [19][20][21][22] Before Brexit, Singham worked as a trade lobbyist in the US, advocating, amongst other things, for low-tax, low-regulation zones. (Here he is almost a decade ago extolling the virtues of "enterprise cities" to the Peter Thiel-funded radical libertarian Seasteading Institute.) [23]

After Boris Johnson's 'stonking' victory in 2019, many of Singham's former European Research Group allies entered government. Jacob Rees-Mogg was made 'Brexit Opportunities Minister' in February 2022, and over the coming months Singham and Rees-Mogg met half a dozen times and had numerous email exchanges. [24] In a March 2022 email, Singham listed a five point plan for freeports for the minister, including an "end on restriction on numbers of freeports", an "immediate push on freeports" and a call to "consider regulatory facilitations possible in freeports".

Email from Shanker Singham to Jacob Rees Mogg, 17 March 2022.

After receiving a presentation by the Fujitsu-led Future Borders Consortium in May 2022 on Singham's advice, Rees-Mogg emailed Singham saying that he is "working out the best way" of putting the consortium's "ideas into practice". The minister also asked the lobbyist to help him "make sure this gets the required attention".

Rees Mogg later gave an interview to GB News in which he floated the idea of relaxing building regulations at freeport - and even turning the whole of the UK into a freeport.[25] Singham also lobbied Rees Mogg to eliminate the energy cap and neonicotinoid ban, lower penalties on GDPR and "raised an idea that Ministers have the power to terminate [Civil Servants] contracts," the documents show.

During a December 2022 meeting with Lord Dominic Johnson - a former Tory donor and business partner of Rees Mogg - Singham "explained that UAE was the benchmark for Freeports." The two men agreed to "develop a product offering based around freeports" and to meet "every six weeks". Documents suggest some of these meetings were not recorded in official disclosures - the department of business and trade did not respond to this newsletter's questions about this.

Singham has been especially involved in one particular freeport: Anglesey, in north Wales. In April 2023 - less than a month after Anglesey's successful freeport bid - Singham was introduced as a 'key advisor' on the freeport in a live discussion with local Conservative MP Virginia Crosbie (who mistakenly calls him 'Shanker Singh' throughout). [26][27] The following month, representatives of Anglesey freeport met Wales secretary David TC Davies in London.

Singham was present but was not listed in transparency disclosures. Government refused to disclose minutes or agenda from the meeting. As Singham was not lobbying for any specific companies, Competere does not have to register clients on the lobbying.

Labour's Prem Sikka says the case shows that Britain's lobbying laws need to be changed, urgently. "Lobbying is just a code for privileged access to policymakers by those who fund parties to advance sectional interests. We need a register of lobbyists and a full release of all transcripts of meetings within 24 hours," Sikka said.

Shanker Singham has yet to respond to requests for comment. If you agree that we need far better transparency on who influences government and how, please consider supporting our crowdfunder.

Yes, I will support Democracy for Sale[28] Thank you.

07 Practical Accelerations Presentation To Minister For Brexit Opportunities 03

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01 Google Vault Re Meeting Request Minister Rees Mogg Redacted

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07 Fujitsu Borders International Trade Biographies 03

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  1. ^ Institute of Economic Affairs (
  2. ^ Growth Commission (
  3. ^ special 'economic zones' (
  4. ^ have historically missed out (
  5. ^ no economic benefit (
  6. ^ money-laundering risk (
  7. ^ a line of business (
  8. ^ "key advisor" (
  9. ^ infamous civil servant, (
  10. ^ Competere was a subcontractor on Fujitsu' (
  11. ^ pause bidding (
  12. ^ undercover Greenpeace (
  13. ^ Unearthed (
  14. ^ reporter (
  15. ^ Centre for Policy Studies (
  16. ^ money-laundering and tax evasion (
  17. ^ as this newsletter recently revealed (
  18. ^ not taken a clear stance (
  19. ^ European Research Group (
  20. ^ unofficial advisor to 'Brexit hardman' Steve Baker (
  21. ^ official trade bodies (
  22. ^ working as a lobbyist (
  23. ^ Here (
  24. ^ European Research Group (
  25. ^ interview to GB News (
  26. ^ successful (
  27. ^ a live discussion (
  28. ^ Yes, I will support Democracy for Sale (
  29. ^ Download (
  30. ^ Download (
  31. ^ Download (
  32. ^ Download (
  33. ^ Download (
  34. ^ Download (