Sean O’Neill, Chief Reporter
February 7 2017, 12:01am, The Times
Special rules should not apply, MPs said yesterday, after reports that Whitehall officials had held informal discussions over problems with the former England football captain’s nomination for a knighthood.
Leaked emails, allegedly hacked from the computers of Beckham’s public relations advisers, revealed that he was on the verge of being knighted in the 2014 new year’s honours list until the taxman intervened.
HM Revenue & Customs, which carries out “probity checks” on hundreds of people nominated for honours every year raised concerns about Beckham’s tax affairs, thought to have included his investment in Ingenious Media, an alleged avoidance scheme.
The Times has been prevented until now from reporting the story because of a High Court injunction, which was changed last night.
The emails suggest that Beckham, 41, reacted furiously to the blocking of his knighthood. The alleged theft of the emails is under investigation by Portuguese police and it is said that the hackers tried to blackmail the PR company to keep them secret, demanding £1 million.
In one message Beckham is said to have called the honours committee “a bunch of c***s”.
In response to his PR chief’s email notifying him of the red flag raised by the taxman, Beckham allegedly wrote: “The flag has no truth behind . . . everything is and was above board . . . C***s.”
In a statement, Beckham’s representatives said that the allegations were based “on outdated material taken out of context from hacked and doctored private emails from a third-party server and gives a deliberately inaccurate picture”.
One email is alleged to have contained a discussion of whether Unicef should pay for a business-class flight to take Beckham to Cambodia in his role as a goodwill ambassador. His advisers said that Unicef was not billed and the charity issued a statement praising his work.
Beckham is also said to have questioned the OBE awarded to singer Katherine Jenkins, saying that the honour was “a f***ing joke”.
John Pugh, a Lib-Dem MP and member of the public accounts committee, said: “No one should be above the law and everyone should pay everything they owe, but we shouldn’t create a new ‘bend it for Beckham rule’ for certain people.”
John Mann, a Labour member of the Treasury select committee, told the Evening Standard: “These things should not be negotiable”.
Beckham was given an OBE for services to football in 2003 on the recommendation of Tony Blair. His wife Victoria got the same honour in the latest new year’s honours list.
Professional help with your nomination is available for as little as £4,000, thanks to an industry that has sprung up around the honours system.
Reforms implemented more than a decade ago to increase transparency and reduce the “tap on the shoulder” approach to the distribution of honours have opened the door to PR firms and reputation managers who actively seek awards for clients.
One business claims to have a greater than 60 percent success rate in obtaining awards in the Queen’s birthday and new year lists. “We will spend up to 150 hours on a typical application and significantly increase a person’s chances of getting a gong” said Mark Llewellyn-Slade, the chief executive of Awards Intelligence.
Nominations are made on an applications form that is submitted to the honours and appointments secretariat at the Cabinet Office, then considered by one of eight committees, including sport, business and politics. The committee process does not, however, apply to awards made in a prime minister’s resignation honours, such as David Cameron’s controversial rewarding of aides and colleagues when he left office last year.
Insiders said that such lists remained a relic of the old boy network approach, which has been much improved with the introduction of a more transparent system of nominations. They conceded, however, that the new system was much more open to lobbying and campaigning than before.
The entertainer Ken Dodd was knighted in the new year honours, in part because of a grassroots campaign of letter writing and petitions by his fans, who felt that he had been over looked for years. Celebrities such as David Beckham or very wealthy individuals who want OBEs or knighthoods often turn to their agents, reputation managers and PR men to try and drive through their applications.
The ability to pay a professional to prepare the nomination form and drum up the necessary letters of support vies a distinct advantage over someone proposing and honour of an ordinary member of the public.
Mr Llewellyn-Slade, a former PR man, set up his firm a decade ago after identifying “a need for an organisation which helps people to nominate their friends, family, business and community contacts for Queen’s honours”. Since then he said he had helped more than 600 people to prepare their applications with a success rate of more than 60 per cent, compared to a one in ten chance for an amateur application.
He offers a free assessment of the nominated person’s chances before taking on an application and maintains that he is not afraid to “politely dissuade” those who he thinks will not be successful. Fees at Awards Intelligence start at £3,900 plus VAT and rise to £19,000 plus VAT depending on the amount of work required to compile the application and provide letters of support. Mr Llewellyn-Slade said: “We don’t lobby anyone, there are no meetings or wining and dining. The committees, in my experience, take their work very seriously and conduct rigorous scrutiny.”
Whitehall sources insist that it is not enough simply to be a celebrity, the application “has to make a strong case” why someone should be decorated. A wealthy person whose application discloses that they make large but anonymous donations to charitable causes is likely to be looked upon more favourably than a high-profile donor who give less of their personal worth.
Once recommendations are made by a sub-committee they are considered by the main honours committee. Before being forwarded to Downing Street, “probity checks” are carried out by a number of state agencies depending on the individual and the reasons for their award.
The Cabinet Office said that these final checks “try to minimise the risk that prospective candidates have behaved in ways likely to bring the system into disrepute”. Revenue & Customs is regularly consulted over awards to wealthy individuals whose tax affairs are routinely scrutinised. “The superrich can be turned down: it shows the system is working,” said one source.