Ben Elliot, the founder of the luxury lifestyle services company Quintessentially, was appointed as the government’s Food Surplus and Waste Champion in 2018 without an official interview or open competition, despite civil servants warning ministers about a lack of transparency.
This is revealed in documents released by Defra under freedom of information. Bizarrely the department originally informed me that it did not hold any information at all about Elliot’s appointment.
After I complained to the Information Commissioner, Defra’s information rights team said that it had now located these records “after further extensive searches”.
Elliot has been co-chair of the Conservatives since 2019 and is the party’s chief fundraiser. The nephew of Camilla Parker Bowles, he has featured in controversy and been accused of blurring his political role, business interests and royal connections, which he denies.
In November 2018 Defra officials sent a proposal about the appointment of a new food waste champion to the then Environment Secretary Michael Gove and junior Defra minister Therese Coffey. From the newly disclosed material it is apparent that ministers had already made clear that they wanted to give the position to Elliot and they had no interest in alternative suggestions.
The submission stated: “The most transparent process to appoint the Champion would be to hold an open competition for the role. However, such a process would take time and we know you are keen to appoint quickly to influence delivery of the food redistribution fund. We have therefore considered a number of potential candidates for the Food Surplus and Waste Champion role. You have put forward Ben Elliot as your preferred candidate, and taking this into account as well as his suitability, we recommend Ben Elliott for this role.”
The officials however also identified a number of other suitably qualified possible candidates for the post. Ministers responded by saying the role should be given to Elliot and none of the potential alternatives should be approached to check if they might be interested.
At that stage officials said that Elliot would need to be “officially interviewed” by the Secretary of State before the appointment was announced. However that requirement was then abandoned.
The role of the champion (which is unpaid) is to encourage food businesses to devote greater effort to reducing waste. Defra sources say Elliot has been involved in assisting an emergency programme administered via the environmental charity WRAP during the pandemic. The Quintessentially Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Elliot’s company, had prior to his appointment supported the Felix Project, a charity in London which redistributes food that would otherwise go to waste.
A Defra spokesperson said: “Reasonable searches were conducted at the time the request was originally received.”