Revealed: Tory peer Michelle Mone secretly received £29m from ‘VIP lane’ PPE firm
Documents suggest husband passed on money from PPE Medpro, which secured £200m contracts after Mone lobbied minister
The Conservative peer Michelle Mone and her children secretly received £29m originating from the profits of a PPE business that was awarded large government contracts after she recommended it to ministers, documents seen by the Guardian indicate.
Lady Mone’s support helped the company, PPE Medpro, secure a place in a “VIP lane” the government used during the coronavirus pandemic to prioritise companies that had political connections. It then secured contracts worth more than £200m.
The yacht, the wedding and £29m: Michelle Mone’s life during the Covid crisis
Documents seen by the Guardian indicate tens of millions of pounds of PPE Medpro’s profits were later transferred to a secret offshore trust of which Mone and her adult children were the beneficiaries.
Asked by the Guardian last year why Mone did not include PPE Medpro in her House of Lords register of financial interests, her lawyer replied: “Baroness Mone did not declare any interest as she did not benefit financially and was not connected to PPE Medpro in any capacity.”
The leaked documents, which were produced by the bank HSBC, appear to contradict that statement. They state that Mone’s husband, the Isle of Man-based financier Douglas Barrowman, was paid at least £65m in profits from PPE Medpro, and then distributed the funds through a series of offshore accounts, trusts and companies.
The ultimate recipients of the funds, the documents indicate, include the Isle of Man trust that was set up to benefit Mone, who was Barrowman’s fiancee at the time, and her children. In October 2020, the documents add, Barrowman transferred to the trust £28.8m originating from PPE Medpro profits.
That was just five months after Mone helped PPE Medpro secure contracts to supply masks and sterile gowns for use in the NHS.
Contacted about the new disclosures, HSBC said it was unable to comment, even to confirm if the couple had been clients. A lawyer for Mone said: “There are a number of reasons why our client cannot comment on these issues and she is under no duty to do so.”
A lawyer who represents both Barrowman and PPE Medpro said that a continuing investigation limited what his clients were able to say on these matters. He added: “For the time being we are also instructed to say that there is much inaccuracy in the portrayal of the alleged ‘facts’ and a number of them are completely wrong.”
Mone, 51, and Barrowman, 57, have over the last two years repeatedly insisted they had no “involvement” in PPE Medpro, and “no role” in the process through which the company was awarded its government contracts. PPE Medpro has repeatedly refused to identify its mystery backers, but denied it was awarded contracts because of “company or personal connections” to the UK government or Conservative party.
The Guardian has previously reported how those claims seem to be at odds with documents appearing to show the couple were secretly involved in PPE Medpro’s business, and emails suggesting Mone repeatedly lobbied the government on its behalf during the nine-month period after she helped secure its place in the VIP lane.
However, the Guardian’s latest revelation – that the peer and her husband secretly amassed an offshore fortune on the back of PPE Medpro profits – could prove the most consequential for Mone, who has already been placed under investigation by the House of Lords commissioner for standards.
Separately, PPE Medpro has become the subject of a potential fraud investigation by the National Crime Agency. In April this year, NCA officers searched several addresses, including the mansion Mone and Barrowman occupy in the Isle of Man. At the time, lawyers for PPE Medpro declined to comment on the NCA investigation.
The controversy over Mone and PPE Medpro threatens to embroil the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, who has pledged to make “integrity and accountability” pillars of his leadership. David Cameron, who was himself embroiled in a lobbying scandal last year, was the Conservative leader who appointed Mone the baroness of Mayfair in 2015. The former owner of a lingerie business, she has proven to be one of the party’s most high-profile and controversial peers.
Michelle Mone founded the lingerie brand Ultimo. Photograph: SWNS.com
The leaked documents setting out HSBC’s understanding of the offshore distribution of PPE Medpro’s profits were produced by the bank, which held several accounts linked to the Tory peer, her husband and children.
The Guardian understands that HSBC launched its own investigation following media reports about Mone’s apparent links to PPE Medpro, which raised potential concerns for the bank. A report produced by HSBC on the couple and their links to PPE Medpro stated that it did “not manage to corroborate” those concerns.
In the process of investigating the couple, however, HSBC pieced together a money trail showing that Barrowman had transferred tens of millions in PPE Medpro profits through a network of offshore entities. About £29m ended up in the trust benefiting Mone and her children, the report indicates.
The bank’s investigation noted that “large value inter-account transfers” originating from PPE Medpro were being routed through Barrowman’s offshore accounts, often crediting and debiting within minutes of each other.
The internal bank report described the money flows as “unusual activity”, noting a concern that Barrowman “may be attempting to conceal the true origins of the funds through multiple layers of transactions creating a distance between the receipt of PPE funds and the final beneficiaries”.
Referring to Mone, it concluded that the transfers “suggest a UK peer in the House of Lords has benefited from a contract with the UK government”. Barrowman is understood to have told HSBC that his wife had “no involvement” in the business activities of PPE Medpro, and the onward transfer of its profits via his personal bank account had been made “in his personal capacity”.
HSBC was unable to corroborate any concerns of wrongdoing by the couple, but it did identify a number of “risks” related to retaining Barrowman and Mone as clients – including what it saw as potential reputational damage to the bank. Multiple sources have told the Guardian that HSBC then decided to drop the couple as clients.
MESSAGE AND MONEY TRAILS
Mone and Barrowman have long denied any involvement in PPE Medpro, or any role in the process through which it was awarded government contracts. However, over the last two years the Guardian has ascertained multiple instances in which the couple appear to have been involved in the business.
The Tory peer first approached ministers in May 2020, before PPE Medpro had even been incorporated as a company. She contacted Michael Gove, who was then a Cabinet Office minister, and Theodore Agnew, then a minister for procurement, using their personal email addresses.
Mone told her fellow Conservative politicians that large quantities of PPE could be procured via “my team in Hong Kong”.
Cabinet Office officials then added PPE Medpro to the VIP lane, which was used by the government early in the pandemic to prioritise referrals from politically connected companies.
The government has consistently defended the VIP process; spokespeople have maintained that contracts were awarded “in line with procurement regulations and transparency guidelines, and there are robust rules and processes in place to prevent conflicts of interest”. However the VIP procurement process has been ruled unlawful by the high court.
Within weeks of Mone’s referral, which led to PPE Medpro being added to the high-priority channel, the company had received two government contracts worth a total of £203m to supply millions of face masks and sterile surgical gowns.
Around that time, Mone and her then fiance appear to have been secretly involved in PPE Medpro’s business, according to previously leaked documents. Barrowman appears to have been personally involved in setting up PPE Medpro’s deals with a supply chain partner, Loudwater Trade and Finance, in which PPE Medpro committed to using its “extensive network” to seek contracts with the UK government. Barrowman also participated in a meeting between the Cabinet Office, PPE Medpro and Loudwater.
Meanwhile, Mone appears to have sent a WhatsApp message from a private jet in which she discussed specific details relating to PPE Medpro’s contract for sterile gowns. The message was sent to a person in PPE Medpro’s supply chain who referred to her as “Lady Michelle”. The couple were also included in correspondence between PPE Medpro’s suppliers about the cost price of gowns.
Masks in the PPE Medpro product catalogue. Photograph: PPE Medpro
When the Guardian reported on their apparent secret involvement in the company, Mone’s lawyers said its reporting was “grounded entirely on supposition and speculation and not based on accuracy”, while lawyers for Barrowman said the Guardian’s reporting amounted to “clutching at straws” and was “largely incorrect”.
In September 2020, Barrowman was paid at least £65m in “profits” from the PPE deal, the HSBC report states. It states that money was transferred in two instalments to the Warren Trust, one of Barrowman’s Isle of Man trusts, using the reference “Distribution”.
From there, transfers totalling £45.8m were made to Barrowman’s personal HSBC Isle of Man bank account. That account, in turn, transferred £28.8m in October 2020 to the Keristal Trust, the beneficiaries of which, bank records indicated, were Mone and her children, the report states.
The Keristal Trust’s “settlors” – a reference to the individuals who created or funded it – were Barrowman and another individual linked to PPE Medpro, the document indicates. The document adds that the Keristal Trust’s bank account was opened in May 2020. That was the same month Mone recommended PPE Medpro to Gove and Agnew.
The HSBC report states that smaller sums – ranging from £5,000 to £200,000 – originating from PPE Medpro profits were passed to some employees of the Knox Group, Barrowman’s financial services firm, who were involved in the PPE business. According to the report, one of those employees told the bank the transfers were “gifts”.
Like his wife, Barrowman has repeatedly distanced himself from PPE Medpro, although neither of them have explicitly denied that he benefited financially from it. Previously, his lawyers have also insisted that Barrowman was never an “investor” in PPE Medpro.
However the leaked HSBC report suggests that another Barrowman trust in the Isle of Man made an investment of £3m in PPE Medpro in June 2020, using the reference “PPE Transfer”. The £3m capital injection was later repaid into Barrowman’s trust by PPE Medpro, along with interest, the report states.
Contacted this week, PPE Medpro declined to comment about whether Barrowman had invested in the company, citing a continuing investigation. Barrowman also declined to offer further comment citing live investigations, but his lawyer said he disputes the Guardian’s “claims and accusations”.
Barrowman will now be under pressure to explain why he received at least £65m in PPE Medpro profits, and apparently passed on around half of that to his wife and her children, all via offshore payments.
Barrowman and Mone’s huge windfall from PPE Medpro’s profits appears to have landed at an auspicious time for the couple: a few weeks before their wedding in the Isle of Man and honeymoon in the Maldives.
Their extraordinary enrichment from the profits of PPE Medpro may explain why Mone continued to lobby the government for further business for the company, months after it had been awarded £203m in PPE contracts.
Around the time Mone’s trust received tens of millions in profits originating from PPE Medpro, she appears to have lobbied another then Tory minister, James Bethell, this time promoting the company’s sale of Covid-19 tests, leaked emails suggest.
PPE Medpro ultimately failed to persuade the government to buy its antigen tests, despite Mone’s continued efforts to pull strings with her political contacts.
In February 2021, back from her honeymoon, Mone appears to have been lobbying again, according to an email sent by Jacqui Rock, the chief commercial officer for NHS test and trace.
The senior civil servant told colleagues that Mone was angry at the treatment of PPE Medpro, whose products were being subjected to tests. The Tory peer believed PPE Medpro had been “fobbed off”, Rock told colleagues. “Baroness Mone is going to Michael Gove and Matt Hancock today as she is incandescent with rage.”