Former Welsh Labour communications director’s firm embroiled in ‘cronyism’ row
Plaid Cymru has called on the UK Parliament’s expenses regulator to halt all payments to public relations firms pending a review of procedures after it emerged that a company owned by a former Welsh Labour director of communications may have made more than £370k doing work for MPs.
Cathod Du is wholly owned by Luke Holland, who as well as having run Welsh Labour’s publicity machine was a cabinet member on Cardiff council.
He has also been a strategic adviser to Labour’s Shadow Cabinet at Westminster and claims to have drafted the framing narrative and acted as a strategic adviser on Welsh Labour’s successful 2021 Senedd election campaign at a time when his wife, Louise Magee, was Welsh Labour’s general secretary.
Among Cathod Du’s associate consultants are Matt Greenough, who was Carwyn Jones’ chief special adviser when he was First Minister, and Sara Robinson, a Labour councillor in Cardiff.
Cathod Du, it turns out, has made up to more than £371k by providing PR assistance to a number of Labour MPs, mostly from Wales, including Shadow Secretary of State for Wales Jo Stevens and Carolyn Harris, the MP for Swansea East and deputy leader of Welsh Labour.
Under the rules that apply, there is no obligation for such PR work to be put out to tender, leaving the door open to “cronyism”.
Mr Holland is close friends with a number of MPs. When his wife gave birth to a baby, Christina Rees even made a Parliamentary speech in which she congratulated the new parents, saying: “With your indulgence, Mr Speaker, may I congratulate Louise Magee, general secretary of Welsh Labour, and her partner Luke Holland, who have had a beautiful baby.”
There also appears to be a degree of looseness about the details of which firms have been commissioned to do the work. Some of the receipts on the public register name Cathod Du as the contracted consultant, but others don’t specify the identity of the relevant contractor.
From a value for money point of view, there is also the argument that much of the work done by Cathod Du could perhaps have been done instead by MPs’ staffers at no additional cost to the taxpayer.
Here is a schedule of payments made to Cathod Du by nine MPs:
Hywel Williams, the Plaid Cymru MP for Arfon, said: “The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) seem remarkably trusting of both Conservative and Labour MPs using public money to fund work by PR firms.
“They only require invoices which may provide no detail of work to be done. They do not check output.
“They take a ‘targeted and risk-based’ approach and follow up on complaints.
“This leaves the door wide open for potential misuse of public money for party political purposes and for political parties favouring particular contractors.
“IPSA should halt all payments until it has reviewed its procedures and has checked any cases which would allow for a suspicion of wrongdoing.”
We contacted all nine MPs and asked those with suspected payments made to Cathod Du whether they were actual payments or not.
We also asked them to explain how Cathod Du came to be awarded the work and whether there was any competitive tendering.
None of the MPs responded and neither did Cathod Du when we sought comment.
In February the media platform Open Democracy published an article raising concerns about a number of named PR companies.
At that time a spokesperson for Cathod Du said: “If IPSA rules or guidance were to change in any way, we would work to those with the same diligence that we work to current arrangements.
“No work provided to elected members via IPSA payment is ever outside the parameters set down by IPSA themselves. General election campaigning work would clearly fall outside of these parameters. There has never been any IPSA payment for such work.
“The support our team provides covers a wide range of areas and platforms, from subtitled clips of speeches and parliamentary questions through to news releases and articles; graphics and social media for advice surgeries and community events through to Christmas card competitions and campaigns on local issues and awareness days.”
IPSA was invited to comment but did not do so.
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