Commonwealth chief Baroness Scotland faces new cronyism claims

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Baroness Scotland of Asthal, the most senior Commonwealth official, has appointed an Italian foundation run by her friends to organise a prestigious programme tackling climate change.

The former Labour attorney-general announced a “memorandum of understanding” with the Cloudburst Foundation a year after she became head of the Commonwealth’s administration.

A source within the Commonwealth Secretariat said there were fears the selection of an organisation from outside of the Commonwealth — run by Lady Scotland’s friends — could now lead to renewed allegations of “cronyism”. The links have emerged after an internal report leaked in the summer recorded concerns about the secretariat’s governance structures which it said “lack clarity” and need to be “more transparent and accountable”.

Last month the Cloudburst Foundation organised the launch of the Commonwealth’s Common Earth consortium with a meeting of climate change experts, environmentalists, scientists and indigenous people at the secretariat’s headquarters in central London.

Lady Scotland’s friend Rola Khoury, 46, is the executive director of the Cloudburst Foundation while her husband, Antonio Bartesaghi, 48, is president. The peer met the couple at an environment conference in Milan in 2015 before she was appointed secretary-general. During her first week in office in April 2016 she invited Ms Khoury to a climate cha Baroness Scotland of Asthal, the most senior Commonwealth official, has appointed an Italian foundation run by her friends to organise a prestigious programme tackling climate change.

The former Labour attorney-general announced a “memorandum of understanding” with the Cloudburst Foundation a year after she became head of the Commonwealth’s administration.

A source within the Commonwealth Secretariat said there were fears the selection of an organisation from outside of the Commonwealth — run by Lady Scotland’s friends — could now lead to renewed allegations of “cronyism”. The links have emerged after an internal report leaked in the summer recorded concerns about the secretariat’s governance structures which it said “lack clarity” and need to be “more transparent and accountable”.

Two months later Lady Scotland, 64, was pictured introducing the Queen to Ms Khoury at what Buckingham Palace recorded as a meeting with high commissioners, secretariat staff and representatives of official Commonwealth organisations.

The following month the peer flew to Italy to attend the christening of Ms Khoury’s twin sons.

The Commonwealth Secretariat later signed a “memorandum of understanding” with the Cloudburst Foundation to use “regenerative development” to reverse climate change. They launched the Common Earth partnership last year.

The Cloudburst Foundation website shows Ms Khoury and her husband being introduced to Prince Charles. The prince is later pictured hosting a meeting flanked by Lady Scotland and Ms Khoury.

He is quoted on the foundation’s website praising Common Earth.

The Cloudburst Foundation headquarters are on the shores of Lake Como in Italy, where Mr Bartesaghi runs his family’s manufacturing company.

A secretariat source said: “These friends of Baroness Scotland are being provided with a platform to [benefit] from the Commonwealth Secretariat’s climate change work.”

The source said the secretariat’s procurement guidelines say that experts and consultancies should be selected from within member countries unless specialist skills are not available.

A spokesman for Common Earth said it has “organised, at its own expense, prior roundtables and convenings on climate change — an issue at the core of the Commonwealth’s charter and mission”.

A Commonwealth spokesman said: “The [Cloudburst] foundation was selected due to its focus on the sustainable development goals and its readiness to work pro-bono during a period of tight Commonwealth budgets.”

Behind the story

Baroness Scotland’s reign as secretary-general of the Commonwealth has been marred by controversies. Her former deputy Dr Josephine Ojiambo, a Kenyan diplomat, won compensation last year after accusing Lady Scotland of a campaign to undermine her. Ram Venuprasad, a former deputy head of Lady Scotland’s office, had already been awarded £300,000 after telling a tribunal he had felt forced to resign after raising concerns about her hiring of political associates.

She was accused of cronyism after awarding a lucrative contract to review her staff’s performance to Lord Patel of Bradford, a fellow Labour peer, within days of taking office. She was also criticised for spending £338,000 to refurbish her grace-and-favour apartment in Mayfair, central London, although much of the work was authorised by her predecessor.

The 53 high commissioners drew up new rules this year to improve the accountability of the secretariat, which could mean Lady Scotland will be challenged if she seeks to stay in post after her first term runs out next year. (The Times)

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