Johnson rebuked over alleged attempts to oust Commonwealth secretary


Baroness Patricia Scotland (Photo: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images).
Baroness Patricia Scotland (Photo: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images).

THE president of Commonwealth member nation Kiribati has “strongly rebuked” British prime minister Boris Johnson over his alleged attempts to “oust” secretary-general Baroness Patricia Scotland.

Last month, Eastern Eye revealed how angry high commissioners turned on Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand for their “neocolonial” attempts to withhold voluntary funding for crucial Commonwealth projects.

Now it has seen a letter from president Taneti Maamau, the Pacific island’s head of state, to the UK prime minister describing the move as a “mistake”. Maamau blamed “officials” for the error and suggested that Johnson had taken his eye off the ball.

“I write, dear prime minister, with a heavy heart because I have to raise a matter of real concern with you,” Maamau wrote, adding, “I know that at such times, when the leader’s concentration has to be focused on pre- and post-election matters, it is sometimes impossible to give the acute attention to detail which one would normally like.

Taneti Maamau (Photo: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images).

“Thus one has to rely on the due diligence of officials entrusted with the responsibility of preparing papers and making calculations upon our behalf. Sometimes those calculations are not as accurate as we would like, and inadvertent mistakes can be made.

“I believe one such mistake has been made and it disheartens me to have to bring it to your attention, but I believe I must.”

A Commonwealth diplomat told Eastern Eye that although the letter was couched in diplomatic niceties and language, there was no mistaking that “it is a strong rebuke to the UK prime minister”.

The letter accused Johnson of not acting “in the spirit” of the Commonwealth and not treating smaller states with “due respect”.

Maamau was fulsome in his praise for the secretary-general and her team in helping member states, and he commended the way Scotland has reformed the secretariat. He also urged Johnson to “pause and think again”, follow Commonwealth tradition of acknowledging his previous correspondence, and “allow colleagues to consider how we can go forward in respectful harmony”.

The letter continued, “I am therefore, honourable prime minister, deeply saddened that my letter dated January 20, 2020 in reply to your letter of January 6, 2020, breaking the silence, asking for us to consider reappointing the secretary-general, who has worked hard and so diligently on our joint behalf from the first day of taking up office, now, as opposed to waiting until Kigali, has been ignored.”

Maamau’s letter has been circulated to all 54 member countries. The letter of January 20 made clear that Scotland should get an “automatic” second term in line with previous secretaries-general.

Sources have told Eastern Eye that even though Kiribati is one of the smaller member states, with a population of just more than 110,000, it has the same powers in Commonwealth matters as the UK, and the largest nation India, when it comes to decision making.

Meanwhile, friends of Lord Kamlesh Patel of Bradford have revealed to Eastern Eye the “hurt, disappointment and confusion” over the misreporting of his work for the Commonwealth in the press and the BBC.

Eastern Eye had reported that the high commissioners criticised the leak of a confidential report from global consultants KPMG, which claimed the secretary-general had “circumvented” rules in hiring the peer. Another confidential report found Scotland had done nothing wrong and this was accepted by the auditors and the chair of the board of governors.

A Westminster friend, close to Lord Patel said, “Kamlesh confided in me the real story. What hasn’t been reported, because Kamlesh is a man of honour, is that he specifically asked the secretariat to make sure no procurement rules were being broken.

“Otherwise, he told them, that he could not and would not work for them. Kamlesh was assured by a very senior member of the secretariat that Patricia (Scotland), could bring in her own transition team, and no rules were being circumvented.

“He’s also upset with the BBC for implying that he did not deliver a report or that his work was a sham. Kamlesh and his team wrote a 500-page report, and all the high commissioners and the UK government can read it.

“The misreporting, the innuendo, needs to stop because it is causing him, his family and his team unnecessary stress and angst when the attacks aren’t warranted. Because he is bound by confidentiality, he can’t defend himself, and these reports are tarnishing his hardearned reputation. Everyone one in the Lords, on all sides, genuinely likes him, and they can’t believe what’s happening to him.”

Scotland has been criticised for awarding Lord Patel a ‘lucrative’ contract. However, Eastern Eye has seen documents which show that the peer and his team earned £150,000 excluding VAT, and not the £250,000 figure quoted in some reports.

One Commonwealth insider in India told this newspaper, “What the media is missing is that Lord Patel’s company was value for public money. Think about it. They charged just £150,000. Three people worked 14, often 16, hour days over seven months. If this were the big three auditors, that would have cost at least £2 million. So, in the larger scheme of things, £150k wasn’t lavish or outlandish.”

The source also suggested the UK government allegedly had a more sinister motive.

“I can’t help but think that this is all smoke and mirrors. It’s a deliberate ploy by the UK to hurt and criticise India’s government because the previous administration was led by an Indian. Lord Patel’s team actually went above and beyond what they were asked to do.

“Not only that, the Palace, the Australian and Canadian high commissioners knew what they were doing, and so did the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). They could have questioned what was happening at any time. There was nothing secret about what Lord Patel and his team were doing. So why didn’t they question it if they thought the three should not be doing the work and it was a ‘job for mates’?”

Scotland told a conference last week that she was focused on doing her job and sometimes had to make unpopular decisions. The Press Association quoted her as saying that work was needed on a range of issues, including outdated financial management practices and operational procedures.

The first female secretary-general of the grouping, Scotland also told delegates that cost-cutting and changes at Marlborough House, the London headquarters of the Commonwealth secretariat, “were not always popular decisions but they allowed us to stretch every pound given by member countries”.

Two weeks ago, the UK government confirmed it had withheld its estimated £4.7m voluntary contribution to a key Commonwealth fund because of concerns over procurement. The FCO said certain conditions had to be met before the funding for the 2019-20 financial year could be made.

On its website, the secretariat said internal auditors had confirmed it had “implemented all six recommendations raised in the recent audit into historical waivers and declarations. KPMG has also confirmed the Commonwealth secretariat’s procurement policies and procedures meet established industry practice.”

Scotland said, “The secretariat complies fully with all our independent, internal and external audits. We have worked diligently to implement the recommendations of our internal auditors at the earliest opportunity.

“We now trust that Commonwealth fund for technical co-operation funding will be released as soon as possible so that we can continue delivering vital work on behalf of our member states.” Neither Downing Street nor the FCO responded to a request for comment from Eastern Eye.