UK minister faces questions over meeting with Israeli mining billionaire

Housing Secretary Jenrick admits he held talks with businessman Idan Ofer while at Treasury in 2018, but insists he recused himself from rival company’s bid for government aid

Britain's Secretary of State for Housing Robert Jenrick arrives for a Cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street in London, October 16, 2019.  (Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP)
Britain's Secretary of State for Housing Robert Jenrick arrives for a Cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street in London, October 16, 2019. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP)

UK Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick has admitted he met with an Israeli mining billionaire at a time when he was overseeing a rival company’s request for government aid, but said that Idan Ofer is a family friend and they talked about electric vehicles, The Guardian newspaper reported Saturday.

Jenrick is facing demands from opposition lawmakers that he explain what action he took, and when, to recuse himself from dealing with a request for financial support by UK firm Sirius Minerals during the period in 2018-2019 when he also met with Ofer.

Earlier last week The Guardian revealed Jenrick’s March 21, 2018, meeting at the Treasury with Ofer, who, together with his brother, has a majority stake in the Israel Corporation, which owns subsidiary company Cleveland Potash, a rival mining operation, also based in the UK.

At the time of the meeting Jenrick was an exchequer secretary to the Treasury and overseeing the request from Sirius Minerals, the report said.

Undated photo of businessman Idan Ofer, former chairman of the board of Israel Corporation. (Moshe Shai/FLASH90)

“Whilst exchequer secretary, Mr Jenrick met with a number of stakeholders to discuss electric vehicles and charge point technology,” a spokesperson for Jenrick said Friday, according to The Guardian. “This included a meeting with Mr Ofer, who has substantial experience in the industry.”

“Mr Jenrick recused himself from consideration of issues around Sirius Minerals,” the spokesperson said.

“He did so before ministerial decisions were taken on the project, which I understand were taken after he had left HM Treasury in any case,” the spokesperson said. “Mr Ofer is a family friend. Mr Jenrick raised this with [Treasury] officials and voluntarily recused himself on their advice.”

The spokesperson did not specify when Jenrick recused himself and The Guardian reported it was at least six months after he met with Ofer. Jenrick handed over dealing with the request to Secretary of State for International Trade Liz Truss early in 2019.

Opposition Labour MP Steve Reed, who is shadow communities secretary, said that “Mr Jenrick must now tell us whether he declared his friendship with Mr Ofer to officials prior to the meeting, why he did not immediately step back from making the decision and what further discussions he had with Mr Ofer.”

“It’s time for some honesty,” Reed said, according to the report. “Mr Jenrick must come to the House of Commons to explain exactly what he’s been up to because the public are now worried that a new era of Tory sleaze has begun in earnest.”

Last week Ofer told The Guardian he had met with Jenrick to talk about “the post-Brexit business climate.” Ofer said that he did not remember if they talked about the Sirius mining project but noted that even if they did they would have “touched only briefly” on it.

According to the report, in March 2019 one of Ofer’s firms, Quantum Pacific UK Corporation, for the first time made a one-off donation of £10,000 ($12,338) to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party, of which Jenrick is also a member. Ofer has explained that a request for a donation was made by the Conservative Friends of Israel but was not discussed with Jenrick, who belongs to the lobby group.

The Sirius Mining request was eventually turned down in September 2019. As a result of not receiving the funding, the company almost collapsed. It was later bought out by Anglo American in January 2020.

Jenrick is already under pressure over allegations he rushed through the approval of a contentious property development funded by a wealthy Conservative Party donor, with Johnson being called on to fire him.

The allegations relate to Jenrick’s decision in January to approve a development of 1,500 homes in London’s Docklands that had been rejected by planning inspectors.

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street to attend his weekly Prime Minister Questions at the House of Commons, in London, June 24, 2020. (Alastair Grant/AP)

Jenrick’s approval came weeks after he met wealthy developer Richard Desmond at a Conservative fundraising dinner.

The proposed development was in a London borough with high levels of poverty, run by the left-wing Labour Party.

A memo from an official in Jenrick’s department said the minister wanted quick approval of the development. Documents about the decision were released by the government after pressure from the opposition.

Jenrick approved the development, and two weeks later Desmond, a Jewish former porn publisher and ex-owner of the Daily Express newspaper, donated 12,000 pounds ($15,000) to the Conservative Party.

The local council challenged the approval of the development and it was later quashed.

On Wednesday, Jenrick said allegations he’d been improperly influenced were “outrageous” and insisted he had been unaware of Desmond’s donation to the party. But opposition politicians called for Jenrick to be fired.

Johnson has stood by Jenrick, but the controversy is heaping more pressure on a government still trying to rebuff criticisms that it was too slow and under-prepared to properly battle Britain’s coronavirus outbreak.

More than 43,000 people with COVID-19 have died in the UK, the highest toll in Europe and the third-highest in the world after the United States and Brazil.

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