March 4, 2024

A former national security adviser Sir Stephen Lovegrove is to join the Rolls-Royce-led consortium developing small nuclear reactors as chairman of its board, raising concerns about the revolving door between the public and private sectors.

The role, which has been approved by the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (Acoba), will start in the new year. Lovegrove’s background as a permanent secretary, the most senior civil servant, in the energy department from 2013-2016 is likely to be valuable to the consortium.

Lovegrove will be paid for his part-time role at Rolls-Royce SMR, a consortium that includes the Qatar Investment Authority as a partner. Rolls-Royce SMR is developing small modular reactor technology partially funded by the UK government. The relationship is managed by Great British Nuclear (GBN), an arm’s length body of the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero (DESNZ).

GBN’s non-executive directors include Hugo Robson, a senior civil servant who is the chief commercial negotiator for DESNZ. Robson previously worked under Lovegrove in the Department of Energy and in 2017 they gave evidence together to a Commons select committee.

GBN is holding a competition with six companies vying for lucrative contracts to build the small modular reactors that the government hopes will expand nuclear power in the UK. Billions of pounds of public and private investment await the companies that successfully develop small modular reactors.

Lovegrove will start his work for Rolls-Royce SMR in 2024 when GBN hopes to announce contracts by the summer. His role as chairman will include managing stakeholder and shareholder relations.

Acoba gave Lovegrove, who served as permanent secretary in a predecessor division of DESNZ from 2013 to 2016, permission to “draw on his skills and experience gained in office to lead the Rolls-Royce SMR Board advise on his strategy and proposals. This includes those related to government funding […] provided he does not make use of any privileged information or contacts from his time in office”.

Together with the other members of the company’s board, Lovegrove will review, investigate and approve proposals by Rolls-Royce SMR’s executive officer on the “deployment of its small modular reactors with proposed customers – including GBN”.

However, The Guardian discovered that while Lovegrove and Rolls-Royce SMR told Acoba that he had “no prior contact or association with the individuals within GBN”, he had known and worked with DESNZ’s chief commercial negotiator for a number of years has.

Lovegrove signed a letter in 2015 formalizing Robson’s appointment to a senior role on the Hinkley Point C nuclear power projectand note Robson was a member of the department’s senior leadership team.

In 2017, Robson and Lovegrove, by then the permanent secretary at the MoD, gave evidence to the public accounts committee in the same hearing on Hinkley Point C. Sometimes, Lovegrove introduced Robson perhaps better placed to answer the committee’s questions.

Now Lovegrove is in a position to advise Rolls-Royce SMR as it prepares to negotiate with GBN, with years of experience as a senior manager to Robson, a non-executive director of GBN, giving him a vantage point have to his negotiating strategies, thinking and character, if Robson has a role in the negotiations.

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DESNZ declined to say what role, if any, Robson might play in negotiations on behalf of GBN. They said the GBN competition had “robust conflict of interest policies”.

Rolls-Royce SMR told Acoba that Lovegrove would not be involved in the development of bids or contribute to the negotiation process managed by GBN.

A spokesman for Rolls-Royce SMR said Lovegrove had no dealings with, contact or association with the individuals at GBN in relation to their roles there. Lovegrove did not comment.

A spokesman for Acoba said: “Acoba does not consider that dealings with individuals during his time at DECC seven years ago and who are now at GBN would be material to this application.”

Rose Whiffen, a senior research officer at Transparency International UK, said: “Unfortunately, there are worn-out rules in place to regulate the so-called revolving door, but at least former officials should be able to adhere to them, including full transparency about their time in government. “

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